Medieval Pulp Fiction: Aucassin et Nicolette

Vernacular literature was being written for well over two centuries before Dante and Petrarch showed up. It just wasn’t respectable. The “rise of the vernacular” came when men who were able to write about serious topics in Latin started writing about these topics in the vernacular instead. (Actually, in addition  — but no one reads Petrarch’s Latin writings today.)

From my point of view this has been a very mixed blessing, because the trashiness of medieval fiction is part of why I like it. Petrarch is no fun, like an opera singer singing Howlin’ Wolf with symphonic backing. Dante is also far too serious (though, as Nietzsche intimated, his sadism and love of stinking give his work a certain appeal.)

Old French literature often seems folkish because of its naïvite and frequent clumsiness –certainly Aucassin et Nicolette does. But it was an elite literature nonetheless.  Ca. 1200 A.D. the secular nobility was a rough crowd of mostly-illiterate soldiers and thugs, and their Christianity was restricted, at best, to tithing, symbolic gestures, cheesy devotions, and the avoidance of abstruse heresies about Christology and the Trinity. The life they actually led was profane, and the secular literature produced for them portrayed the realities that official Church doctrine, which at that time was really only taken seriously by monks and priests, wanted to avoid or repress.

Aucassin et Nicolette

Aucassin et Nicolette is apparently a date book like the one Paola and Francesca read before succumbing to temptation (or some say, a parody of one). The two lovers overcome all obstacles and get married in the end after their evil parents / guardians have conveniently died offstage. 

I am not well read in the field but I suspect that this probably the funniest romance of them all. There are many things in it that are so odd that you have to ask yourself what the hell is going on. About three-quarters of the way through, the fleeing lovers witness a war fought with eggs, cheeses, and roasted crab-apples,. The king is an apparent pacifist whose wife leads the troops while he lies moaning in childbed. As proto-Rabelaisan buffoonery it’s great fun, but what does it have to do with the rest of the story?

But the story itself is already odd, without the digression. Nicolette is the only one who ever does anything. She escapes from the tower where she’s being kept, sends a message to Aucassin to forces him to hunt for her (but does not tell him exactly where she is), travels with him to very strange lands after he bumblingly finds her, and then (when she is taken captive and separated from Aucassin), escapes again, returns to Aucassin, takes steps to establish that he still really loves her, and then finally reveals herself in her true nature.

The only thing Aucassin ever does is pine for Nicolette. His kingdom is attacked and his aged father is unable to fight, but Aucassin only wants to continue pining. When his father finally cons him into defending his birthright with a lying promise, Aucassin goes absent-mindedly into battle and is almost killed before he remembers where he is. Then he fights bravely and captures the enemy baron who has been attacking their kingdom continuously for decades. When Aucassin finally finds Nicolette after her first escape, he immediately falls absent-mindedly off his horse, throwing his shoulder out of joint, so that she has to set it for him. Then she has to explain to him that they need to flee, since his father intended to have Nicolette burned to death; otherwise he would have blissfully wandered around until she was captured and burned. It doesn’t take a lot of stretching to read this book as a feminist parable, or as a handbook for ladies who happen to be stuck with feckless guys.

Aucassin’s father, the Count of Beaucaire, is a cartoon villain. Nicolette is not a noblewoman, but a captive of Muslim origin who had been adopted by one of the Count’s vassals, so when he finds that his son is obsessed with Nicolette, he deals with the problem by threatening to have her burned at the stake, and her father too. Later he threatens Aucassin too, and explains that he’d rather lose his whole kingdom than see his son marry Nicolette. His motivations are somewhat mysterious, but he moves the plot along as long as he’s needed, and then disappears. 

After the cheese war incident the plot becomes even more confused. The lovers are captured, but Aucassin is able to return to the kingdom (which he has inherited in the meantime). There he continues to pine while doing nothing to find Nicolette. Nicolette, meanwhile, is returned to Carthage (Cartagena) where she is reunited with the noble Muslim family from which she had been kidnapped. About to be married off against her will, she disguises herself as a jongleur, hitches a boat to France, and makes her way to Beaucaire. In a cute bit of self reference, Nicolette-as-jongleur sings the song of Aucassin and Nicolette to Aucassin, and when he responds properly, she reveals that she is really his beloved, which he hadn’t noticed.

There’s lots of other odd stuff. In section VI Aucussin (sounding like Mark Twain) explains in considerable detail that he has no intention of going to Heaven, because all the fun people will be in Hell. In XII Nicolette cures a madman by lifting her skirt and showing him a bit of leg. In XVII and  XXII the shepherds unromantically drag their feet about helping out, until they’re offered bribes. In XXIV an ogre herding cattle turns out to have a smart mouth, and explains that if he were as rich as Aucassin you’d never see him cry. (He too succeeds in squeezing a tip out of Aucassin.)

It’s customary to treat stories of this “world turned upside down” type not as satires, but as back-handed affirmations of the forms which are being burlesqued – as an anti-type which only makes the true type stand out all the more clearly, etc., etc..  Maybe, but here it seems to me that the book might just be a last gasp of Northern (Picard) resistance to the still rather new romance forms which were coming up from the South (Beaucaire).  The book Aucassin et Nicolette did not achieve wide circulation, and perhaps it was just one jongleur’s performance for a lord who thought that pining for a lady was silly, and who handled his own love-life entirely differently.

All in all, this book was tremendous fun. Atypical as it is, it’s an unreliable place to begin reading romances, and probably someone totally unfamiliar with the genre wouldn’t enjoy it much anyway. But all connoisseurs of odd books should put this one on their list. (I can’t recommend Mason’s English translation, but there are lots of translations into modern French.)

A French friend tells me that she read Aucassin et Nicolette in school, possibly in high school, but that she can’t remember much. This just goes to show that you can ruin anything by putting it on the curriculum.

Appendix: The Language of Aucassin et Nicolette

Aucassin et Nicolette was fun for me partly just because it’s written in Old French (Picard dialect). Old French  was unstandardized, with at least four dialects, a number of subdialects, and plenty of ad hoc exceptions. ( “Old French doesn’t have rules, but tendencies” says Kibler.) Since my primary scientific paradigm is skillful guesswork, I love Old French despite the fact that I don’t read it at all well. (One of my pet ideas is that Middle English and Old French are closer together than the modern languages are. Not only is the French vocabulary in Middle English more prominent and more unmistakeable, but the Frankish Germanic element of Old French is more prominent too. Furthermore, standardization, phonetic changes, and spelling reform since then have tended to increase the differences, as when the OF forké became the French fourché. Aucassin et Nicolette tells its story with expressions of charming but crude directness and naïvety. Aucassin is first described thus:

“Handsome he was, and courtly and tall and well made in his legs and his feet and his body and his arms”.[1]

This clumsiness might just be a vestige of orality, however, meant by the jongleur to be put to a certain musical effect.[2] Likewise, Nicolette is most often referred to with some variant of these stock phrases:
 

“Nicolette his sweet friend whom he loves so much”
or “Nicolette of the bright face”. [3]

Elsewhere we see oddly literal ways of saying things; the author seems not to have learned to dress things up in a sophisticated way, unles you regard some passages as comic understatement:

Nicolette: “If your father has this forest searched tomorrow and I am found, whatever happens to you, I will be killed”. Aucassin: “Certainly, my lovely sweet friend, that would cause me great distress.”[4]

When the rumor spread that Nicolette had disappeared, and may have already been killed by Aucassin’s evil father: 

Though others may have been joyful, Aucassin was not happy with this.[5]

The description of Nicolette’s budding womanhood, as Bourdillon points out, is not erotic, but  pretty matter-of-fact. Nicolette had

“firm little breasts pushing up her shirt like two walnuts”.[6]

The passage in which Nicolette decides, quite sensibly, that she would rather break her neck or be eaten by wild beasts than burned alive is likewise quite to the point:

 “Furthermore , I’d rather die here now, than tomorrow with all the people looking at me like a freak”.[7]

Vocabulary

Estor “the fury of battle” — from the Frankish  sturm.

Franc “French / Frankish” also signifies nobility and excellence.

Saisne, “Saxon” here means “pagan” – a memory of Charlemagne’s war against the pagan Saxons more than three centuries earlier.

Paiien “pagan” means “Muslim”. Muslims called Christians pagans too; subtle theology was not the thing that drove the religious wars.

Dix… doux creature: “God,  sweet creature”, XVI, p. 91. A hitherto unknown heresy – The Created God.

Sains et saus,  “safe and sound”, p. 175 n. 7.

Enfant, caitif, mescine, literally“child, slave, wretch” have much broader meanings than the modern words, and in context can refer to almost anyone in a weak or inferior position.

Bibliography

Auerbach, Erich, Mimesis, Princeton, 1968.

Bourdillon, F.W., Aucassin et Nicolette,  Longmans, Green, 1919.

Dauzat, Albert, Dictionnaire Etymologique, Larousse, 1938.
 Dufournet, ed. Aucassin et Nicolette, Flammarion, 1984.

Godefroy, Lexique de l’Ancien Français, Honore’ Champion, 1968.

Hardin, Robert, “Aucassin et Nicolette as Parody”, (Studies in Philology, 63:1, 1966, Jan).

Kibler, William, An Introduction to Old French, MLA, 1984.

Urwin, Kenneth, A Short Old French Dictionary for Students, Blackwell, 1946.

Footnotes


[1]Biax estoit et gens et grans at bien tailliés de ganbes et de piés et de cors et de bras.” Dufournet, II, p. 44. References below are to Dufournet.

Mason flattens out the strangeness, producing generic XIXc prose without the et…et…et…et.:  “Fair he was and pleasant to look upon, tall and shapely of body in every whit of him” (pp. 1-2). It is for this reason that I cannot recommend his translation.

[2] Auerbach, pp. 239-240, talks about the clumsy language of some of the old chronicles, which lacked ways of subordinating elements to make graceful sentences and paragraphs. In A&N elements are roughly linked together with et, que, si,or car, sometimes with no apparent regard for the strict meaning of the linking word.

[3]Nicolette me douce amie que je tante aime” or “Nicolette o cler vis”, passim. (“Cler vis” = “Pimple-free complexion”?)

[4] Nicolette: “Se vos peres fait demain cerquier ceste forest et on me trouve, que que de vous aviegne, on m’ocira”.  Aucassin: “Certes bel douce amie, j’en estoroie molt dolans.”  XXVI, p. 124

[5]Qui que demenast joie, Aucussins n’en ot talent.” XX, p. 102.

[6]Mameletes durs qui li souslevoient sa vesture ausi con ce fuissent deus nois gauges” XI, p. 80.

The present French word for the walnut is simply “noix”, as in Latin. “Walnut” in the Germanic languages means “foreign nut” (i.e., Gaulish or Roman nut – the contrast is said to be with hazelnuts). “Nois gauges” in A&N also means “foreign or Gaulish nut” (Bourdillon p. 97). This is presumably an example of a Frankish survival in a French Romance dialect.

[7] “Encore je mix que je muire ci que tos li pules me regardast demain a merveilles”. XVI,  p 90. Later she lists the wild beasts, being eaten by which would be preferable to being burned at the stake: “Mais, par diu de maïsté  / encor aim jou mix assés / que me mengucent li lé / li lïon et li sengler / que je voisse en la cité.” XVII 94