Courtly Love, Poetry, Satire/Comedy

Aucassin and Nicolette

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I recently finished reading the 12th-century work Aucassin et Nicolette, a parody of the courtly romance genre written in mixed form (in alternating prose and verse). At the start of the work, Aucassin’s father forbids his son from marrying Nicolette because Nicolette was born a pagan; she was kidnapped from Cartagena (a Sarassin kingdom) by her future godfather and baptized shortly thereafter into the Christian faith. Aucassin is so in love with Nicolette that he neglects his knightly duties. When his father chides Aucassin for failing to live up to the standards of a knight, Aucassin promises to fight his father’s enemies in return for Nicolette’s hand in marriage. The father initially agrees to Aucassin’s request, but later (after Aucassin keeps his side of the bargain), the duke goes back on his word and pretends that he had never made the promise. To prevent further temptation, the duke and the viscount imprison both Aucassin and Nicolette in towers. But Nicolette cannot be restrained. She finds a way out of prison and escapes into a nearby forest.

Despite this surface resemblance to a courtly romance, the anonymous author of Aucassin et Nicolette turns the genre on its head. The damsel Nicolette is described as brave and chivalrous, while Aucassin is sentimental and neglects his knightly duties. Nicolette is valorous despite her lack of experience in warfare. The poem, thus, interrogates traditional standards of courtliness. Furthermore, Aucassin is a Christian with an Arabic-sounding name, while Nicolette is a Sarasin with a Christian-sounding name. This discrepancy between name and identity calls attention to the work’s other subversive elements.

Having finished the book only an hour ago, I do not have any profound observations to share with you. It is, however, clear that a straightforward reading of Aucassin et Nicolette is impossible. Not even the narrative style is consistent. Chapters alternate between prose and verse. Repetition – a common literary device in medieval writing- is present, but with a twist. A prose scene in one chapter is immediately followed by a repetition of the same scene but in verse. Why the change in literary language? Why say the same thing in two different ways?

I keep having to stop myself from calling Aucassin et Nicolette a poem. It is true that some parts are in verse, but prose takes up at least 50% of the work. Maybe I want to call it a poem because I associate the courtly romance genre with poetry. Chrétien de Troyes wrote his Arthurian romances in octosyllabic rhyming couplets.

I love coming across medieval works that play with literary genre and narrative form. I wrote about the Roman de la Rose last year, which also defies a straightforward reading. Like the Rose, Aucassin et Nicolette can be interpreted in many (and even contradictory) ways. Rather than ask, “What is the message?”, it might be more appropriate to consider why the work inspires so many different readings.

Aucassin et Nicolette is a very short work with a relatively simple plot, but it is certainly not a simple work.

Chrétien de Troyes, Courtly Love

Review of Yvain ou Le Chevalier au Lion

What was it about?

Calogrenant, one of King Arthur’s knights, recounts the day he was defeated by a knight named Esclados at a magical spring. Hearing how his cousin was humiliated, Yvain vows to avenge the great insult. He follows the path Calogrenant described and reaches the aforementioned spring. Yvain fills the bucket with water and spills it on a nearby stone; as soon as the water splashes on the stone Yvain finds himself caught in a violent storm. When the storm dies down, he is confronted by Esclados – the protector of the spring. But Esclados is no match for Yvain and is defeated with a blow to the skull. At the defeated knight’s castle, Yvain receives protection and an invisibility ring from Lunette, the servant of Esclados’s widow Lady Laudine. Yvain falls in love with the grieving widow, and by some compelling argumentation, Lunette convinces Laudine to marry Yvain. Laudine is preparing to settle down with her new husband when Yvain is suddenly called away by King Arthur and Sir Gawain to participate in the king’s tournaments. Lady Laudine accepts his departure on one condition – that he return within a year. But Yvain’s plans are confounded by those of other men and women who need his assistance, and he fails to keep his promise to his wife. Yvain ou le Chevalier au Lion (Yvain, the Knight of the Lion) by Chrétien de Troyes follows Yvain on his many quests as a valiant and chivalrous knight-errant.

What did I think of it?

What comes to mind when you think of Arthurian legends? A powerful king who is well loved by his people? A court filled with handsome knights and graceful ladies? These images of King Arthur and his kingdom have inspired countless fantasy novels and movies. But in the 12th century, a French poet named Chrétien de Troyes put forth a different image of Arthur – an irresponsible king whose kingdom is held together by power-hungry, sex-crazed knights. Lancelot is actually quite an irritating character in Le Chevalier de la Charette (the Knight and the Cart). I started reading The Once and Future King by T.H. White (a modern retelling of older Arthurian legends) and I noticed in the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon that people were disappointed by the portrayal of their favorite characters, most notably King Arthur and Sir Lancelot. I suspect that White was more inspired by the French legends than the English ones, because the French legends often resemble Monty Python sketches. Magical objects appear without rhyme or reason, and the characters are as one-dimensional as Flat Stanley (only the setting seems to change). Yet, this is precisely the reason why I prefer the French legends to the English ones. They conform to my sense of humor.

Yvain is a rare Chrétien de Troyes tale because it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Also, the title character is a pretty compelling knight. He defends the vulnerable and acknowledges the debt he owes others. What was most surprising to me, though, was how exciting Yvain’s adventures were to read. There wasn’t a dull moment in the whole book. The rich commentaries on love are the icing on the cake. If you have only ever read English Arthurian legends or have been disappointed in the past by the French legends you’ve read, you should give Yvain a go. It might prove to be a pleasant surprise.

Favorite Quote

[From the 1963 modern French verse translation by André Mary, published by The Laurel Language Library – now out of print]:

“Il en garde le souvenir cuisant en lui-même, mais l’amour qui l’a envahi et le maîtrise adoucit de son miel cette amertume. Son ennemie emporte son coeur: il aime la créature qui le hait. La dame, à son insu, est vengée de la mort de son mari et bien mieux qu’elle n’eût pu le faire, puisque l’Amour s’en est chargé, l’entremise des yeux. Cette atteinte est plus redoutable que coup de lance ou d’épée: un coup d’épée se guérit vite, quand le médecin y met ses soins et sa peine, mais la plaie d’Amour empire d’autant plus que le médecin est plus proche.”

[My translation]: [Yvain] keeps the painful memory [of Kay’s insults] deep inside of him, but Love who invaded him and masters him calms with its honey this bitterness. His enemy steals his heart: he loves the creature whom he hates. The lady, in time, is avenged of the death of her husband and better than she could have herself, since Love took care of it, the mediator of the eyes. This attack is more dangerous than the blow of a lance or of a sword: a sword’s blow heals quickly, when the doctor cares for it, but Love’s wound is aggravated more as the healer comes nearer.

Courtly Love, Medieval Literature, Poems, R-V, Thomas

Review of Le Roman de Tristan (The Romance of Tristan and Yseut)

Portrayal of Tristan and Yseut by Herbert Draper
Portrayal of Tristan and Yseut by Herbert Draper

Last month, I finished reading the Thomas version of the story of Tristan and Yseut. Le Roman de Tristan is a medieval courtly love poem written en octasyllabes (each line has eight syllables and the poem has an AABB rhyme scheme). Because I have great difficulty reading old French, I read a modern French version of it. There are quite a few Medieval versions of this story, but I read the Thomas version. For all you French speakers out there, there is also a popular condensed version of this story, called Tristan et Iseut by Joseph Bédier.

What was it about?

Tristan, an Arthurian knight, is in love with Yseut, the wife of King Marc. Tristan also happens to be Marc’s nephew. This is a classic courtly love poem because a noble (a knight) falls in love with one who is nobler than him (a queen). King Marc asks Tristan to bring Yseut to his kingdom so that he can marry her. But on the boat, Tristan and Yseut drink a love potion, and they instantly fall in love for each other. Of course, such a love is forbidden in the kingdom, so after tricking King Marc into sleeping with his wife’s maidservant so that Tristan can sleep with Yseut, Tristan leaves the kingdom and marries another woman named Yseut. He marries this Yseut aux Blanches Mains (Yseut of the white hands), because she has the same name as the queen and is beautiful. Tristan, assuming that the queen is enjoying her life with the king, marries this other Yseut because he wants to understand marital love. However after the marriage, he refuses to have sexual intercourse with his wife because he suddenly feels guilty for having cheated on his lover. Therefore, as a sacrifice for the queen, he sleeps next to Yseut aux Blanches Mains but doesn’t touch her. Dissatisfied with his present life, Tristan returns to Marc’s kingdom, in hopes of finding the queen.

What did I think about it?

I think we can all agree that Le Roman de Tristan has a pretty weird plot. The values of loyalty and sacrifice are turned on their heads. Tristan’s loyalty to a married woman prevents him from fulfilling his marital duties, and Thomas doesn’t seem to think that this is wrong.  In fact, Thomas intervenes frequently in defense of this illicit affair. Because passages have been lost in history, the story jumps around, and it is difficult to keep straight the two Yseuts and the two Tristans (yes, there are two Tristans as well). You really have to suspend all judgment when you read this poem because deus ex machina is the call of the day. While I think that there were better courtly love poems written in the Middle Ages such as Le Chevalier de la Charette by Chrétien de Troyes, I enjoyed reading this poem because of the characters of Yseut aux Blanches Mains and the maidservant Brangien. Both women, though neglected and/or used by their superiors, find ways to challenge the oppressive systems in which they find themselves.