Courtly Love, Poetry, Satire/Comedy

Aucassin and Nicolette

Today is the first day of my “Post Everyday in November” challenge. Click here for more information about the challenge.

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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.

Poetry, Religious Texts

“Sabbath, My Love” by Yehudah Halevi (1075-1141)

ריהל ראלי.jpg

“Sholom Loch Yom ha-Shevi-i” (Sabbath, My Love) is a celebration of the Sabbath Day by the 12th-century Spanish Jew Yehudah (Judah) Halevi.

Halevi was a philosopher, a poet, and a physician. The Kuzari, Halevi’s dialogue in defense of Judaism, is considered to be one the greatest philosophical works of the Middle Ages. Halevi’s meditations on Jewish religious and national identity are set against the backdrops of Reconquista Spain and a Jerusalem recently captured by Crusaders.

Sabbath, My Love (Trans. Solomon Solis-Cohen)

I greet my love with wine and gladsome lay;
Welcome, thrice welcome, joyous Seventh Day!

Six slaves the weekdays are; I share
With them a round of toil and care,
Yet light the burdens seem, I bear
For your sweet sake, Sabbath, my love!

On the First-day to the accustomed task
I go content, nor reward ask,
Save in your smile, at length, to bask —
Day blessed of God, Sabbath, my love!

Is the Second-day dull, the Third-day unbright?
Hide sun and stars from the Fourth-day’s sight?
What need I care, who have your light,
Orb of my life, Sabbath, my love!

The Fifth-day, joyful tidings ring:
“The morrow shall your freedom bring!”
At dawn a slave, at eve a king —
God’s table waits, Sabbath, my love!

On the Sixth-day does my cup overflow,
What blissful rest the night shall know,
When, in your arms, my toil and woe
Are all forgotten, Sabbath, my love!

Now it’s dusk. With sudden light distilled
From one sweet face, the world is filled;
The tumult of my heart is stilled —
For you have arrived, Sabbath, my love!

Bring fruits and wine, and sing a cheerful lay,
Chant: “Come in peace, O blissful Seventh Day!”

Mystery, Peters, Ellis

Review of A Morbid Taste for Bones (Cadfael #1)

Image result for a morbid taste for bonesI finally read a Cadfael mystery.

A Morbid Taste for Bones is the first book in Ellis Peters’ Chronicles of Brother Cadfael series. The eponymous Benedictine monk has had quite a life. Before entering the abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury, Cadfael was Godfrey de Bouillon’s companion during the First Crusade. At the start of the novel, Cadfael is working in the abbey garden alongside two other brothers: Brother Columbanus (a raging mystic) and Brother John (who is tempted by the pleasures of the outside world).

But the peace of the monastery is suddenly broken when Prior Robert Pennant asks the brothers to find relics to bolster the abbey’s reputation. Each of the surrounding Benedictine monasteries house the relics of a miracle-working saint, but Saint Peter and Saint Paul has nothing to boast of. Ever ambitious, Prior Robert seeks far and wide for a saint to unearth and carry back to the English abbey. Finally, Brother Jerome receives visions confirming the intercession of a Saint Winifred. These alleged visions inspire the prior to lead a procession of monks to the saint’s burial site. Unfortunately, Brother Robert has underestimated the amount of effort it will take to convince the Welshmen of Gwytherin to relinquish the bones of their village saint to a group of English monks.

Upon his arrival, Brother Cadfael runs into a young woman named Sioned. For a Welsh woman, she is surprisingly competent in English. Soon, Cadfael learns about her secret love for an English ex-outlaw and the advances of a suitor to whom she is indifferent. Sioned’s father Rhisiart respects and even houses the ex-outlaw Engelard, but he objects to Engelard’s interest in his daughter. Further, he opposes Prior Robert’s quest.

Rhisiart may be the only obstacle between the Shrewsbury monks and the miracle-working saint on the one hand and Sioned and Engelard on the other, but who would want him dead?

While A Morbid Taste for Bones is a murder mystery, it is also written as a work of historical fiction. Ellis Peters describes the Welsh village of Gwytherin with an eye to historical accuracy. The mystery is only one plot line in the novel. We are also introduced to English monasticism and the English-Welsh conflict. In many mysteries, the setting and characters are secondary to the intrigue. But not in A Morbid Taste for Bones. The mystery element seems almost accidental to Prior Robert’s quest. Benedictine abbeys in the 11th century were concerned about their reputations; holy relics helped them compete with surrounding monasteries. Brother Cadfael may be religious but he is also practical. He draws from a lifetime’s worth of experiences to fulfill his monastic and social duties. He knows how to play the game.

I look forward to learning more about Brother Cadfael and his fellow monks in the rest of the series. Peters has managed to write a book that appeals to mystery buffs and medievalists alike.

Favorite Quote

“Meet every man as you find him, for we’re all made the same under habit, robe or rags. Some better made than others, and some better cared for, but on the same pattern, all.”

Reflections

Reading Obscure Books

We readers know all too well the gnawing desire to talk about a favorite work with others. That’s one of the reasons we create and follow blogs. But I have a huge interest in medieval epics, and these works are often only available in research libraries.

In the past few months, I’ve been reading Gerbert, a 13th century epic in the Lorrains Epic Cycle. The work has been translated into modern French by Bernard Guidot. It is quite the page-turner! The plot is outrageously funny, and King Pepin’s wife is kick-ass. A couple days ago I found the first book in the cycle: Garin le Lorrain. My last institution’s research library didn’t have a copy of the first book, so I was excited to find a copy. Gerbert will certainly be one of my favorite reads of 2017.

Guidot’s translation of Gerbert was a labor of love. Only medieval scholars will read his translation. I can’t recommend this book to anyone I know because even if my friends know French they most likely won’t be able to purchase a reasonably-priced copy of this work. There are hundreds of medieval stories in vernacular French and English at the research library, but only the Arthurian ones are known by the general public.

Don’t get me wrong. I know why these works aren’t mass produced. For one thing, they are quite problematic. The representation of women and non-Christian religions in these stories is terrible. Still, I find it a bit upsetting that there are thousands of stories published every year that most book reviewers will never get to read and review. They don’t even know these books exist. Guidot has translated a handful of epics into modern French, but none of them are available for the general French public. It’s a truism that scholars publish books that no one reads, but it must be frustrating for a translator to publish a translation of an interesting story that only a few scholars (and the occasional medieval nerd) will ever read. It is not enough for an ancient text to be discovered. It must be translated into a modern language and then publicized. Gerbert has been translated, but it has not been publicized.

In the next few months, I hope to read as many stories in the 13th century William of Orange Cycle as I can find. Because I am interested in the chanson de geste tradition, I will post a brief summary of each of the works I read. I will also write brief reflections about the experience of reading medieval epics. It warms the cockles of my heart that so many book bloggers have read and enjoyed the Arthurian poems of Chrétien de Troyes. Even if medieval stories tend to have problematic representation, outrageous plots, and flat characters, they allow the modern reader to encounter the medieval imagination and a culture very different from their own. And above all, they’re fun!

Ishiguro, Kazuo

Review of The Buried Giant

Image result for the buried giantWhat was it about?

Axl and his wife Beatrice live in a medieval village in the aftermath of the Saxon wars. For some mysterious reason, they are not allowed to own a candle. They are also unable to remember past events. Rumor has it that a mist is responsible for this forgetfulness. One day, Axl and Beatrice decide to leave their village to visit their son, whom they haven’t seen in ages. They stop at a monastery because Beatrice has a pain in her side, and she thinks a monk living there can help her identify the source of her pain. A young boy named Edwin and his warrior friend Wistan join the couple because Edwin has been attacked by an ogre. The people living in his village think he’s cursed. The Buried Giant is set in an Arthurian universe in the style of the early Arthurian legends, but it is not an Arthurian retelling. While it is marketed as a fantasy, it is somewhat of a cross between T.H. White’s Once and Future King, and Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel is at once a fantastical adventure and a meditation on guilt, memory, and the collective stories we tell.

What did I think of it?

For some reason, this book is marketed as a new Game of Thrones. No wonder so many readers have been disappointed by the story! Thankfully, I knew what to expect. After reading a few negative reviews of the book, it occurred to me that Ishiguro was trying to write in the style of the early Arthurian romances. As in those romances, all of the characters in The Buried Giant are one-dimensional, the dialogue is awkward, and the plot is outrageous.

So what’s the point?

It seems to me that Ishiguro was trying to write an Arthurian tale through a postcolonial lens. Despite the medieval feel to the story, there is also something very modern in its approach. Unfortunately, I can’t go into more detail without spoiling the book. I’m a bit worried I’ve already said too much, but too many readers have been mislead by the blurb at the back of the book. I need to set the record straight.

The Buried Giant was so atmospheric despite its outrageous plot and flat characters. I particularly loved the chapters that explored Sir Gawain’s thoughts. I was genuinely interested in each of the characters even though I knew that Ishiguro was giving us an allegory. The most off-putting aspect of the book was Axl’s relationship to Beatrice. He calls her “princess” all the time and often downplays his wife’s concerns. Was this meant to be a parody on the Arthurian romances of the 12th century?

If you like books that explore memory and collective identity, I definitely recommend The Buried Giant. But be warned that this is no Game of Thrones.

Favorite Quote

“But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”

Eco, Umberto, Mystery

Review of Name of the Rose

What was it about?

The Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his sidekick, a Benedictine novice named Adso of Melk, arrive at a Benedictine abbey in Italy run by Abbot Abbo to help defend Franciscan poverty in a theological dispute between the Minorites and the Avignonese pope John XXII. Upon his arrival, William learns that a monk named Adelmo committed suicide. After the translator Venantius is found headfirst in a jar of pig’s blood, the abbot commissions William to determine the cause of the deaths. The murder seems to revolve around a book found in the labyrinthine library at the monastery, but unless William finds the book the safety of the monks and the integrity of the Franciscan ideal will be compromised. Set in the 14th century, Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose is at once a murder mystery and an exploration of the theological, philosophical, and political debates of the Late Middle Ages. Eco, a semiotician by trade, explores the use and meaning of signs through a story set in a world obsessed with signs. William of Baskerville is a disciple of William of Ockham whose philosophy guides the friar-detective in his investigation. Name of the Rose is the quintessential postmodern novel.

What did I think of it?

What Eco is able to accomplish in this work is astounding! The murder mystery is set in a time period so very different than our own; therefore, the detective and his sidekick use the knowledge of their time period to try to unravel the mystery. Adso (who is also the narrator) not only describes the views of the people but demonstrates their views in the way that he tells the story. A knowledge of Franciscan history is recommended but not necessary (I recommend C.H. Lawrence’s The Friars). Eco explains it well. What is perhaps more important is a basic knowledge of the views of William of Ockham (also known as nominalism). It is the medieval philosophy that has most influenced the modern world. It also underpins aspects of postmodernism. Eco demonstrates well in this work William of Baskerville’s dictum that ” [t]he idea is a sign of things, and the image is sign of the idea, sign of a sign. But from the image I reconstruct, if not the body, the idea that others had of it.”

The story itself is brutal in parts, but you would expect that in a book set in the 14th century. Heretics and inquisitors abound. Cruel and unusual punishment is the law of the land. The Franciscans are convinced that the apocalyptic prophesies of Joachim of Fiore are being realized in their day. Discovering the murderer turns out to be as hard as determining the layout of the labyrinthine library. If you like Dan Brown’s works, love books about books, and/or are looking for deftly constructed murder mystery told from a unique perspective I highly recommend Name of the Rose. It is just as gripping as Angels and Demons but much better written. Honestly, it doesn’t hold a candle to Brown’s book. I can’t believe I waited so long to read Name of the Rose. It felt like it was written for me.

Favorite Quote

“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”

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.