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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.