Aucassin et Nicolette Essay - Critical Essays

Aucassin et Nicolette


Aucassin et Nicolette

Thirteenth-century French poetry and prose.

Aucassin et Nicolette, composed by an unknown author, relates the adventures of two lovers—Aucassin, the son of a French count, and Nicolette, a Saracen captive. Although the work has traditionally been regarded as an idyllic romance, many modern critics have deemed the tale a parody of courtly love. The form of Aucassin et Nicolette combines verse and prose, with the original manuscript also including musical notation. The novelty of this literary style remains an area of critical debate.

Textual History

Nothing is known about the author of Aucassin et Nicolette, and the poem can only roughly be dated to the thirteenth century. There is but a single extant manuscript.

Plot and Major Characters

The title characters of the poem are unlikely lovers: Aucassin is the son of Count Garins of Beaucaire, and Nicolette is a beautiful Saracen captive. When the Count learns of his son's love for Nicolette, he forbids their marriage and imprisons the girl in a tower. As Aucassin still pines for his love, the Count imprisons his son as well. Nicolette escapes, finds her lover imprisoned, and flees in order to avoid capture. Upon his release from prison, Aucassin pursues Nicolette. Their adventures include an episode the the bizarre land of Torelore, in which the King is about to give birth, the Queen is commanding troops to a battle, and the war is being fought with cheese and fruit. Eventually, Aucassin and Nicolette are reunited.

Major Themes

Early critics of Aucassin et Nicolette, maintain that its primary emphasis is on ideal love and courtly values. Other, more recent critics, however, have found in the story elements that parody the same idyllic love and virtues. The literary conventions of the day, particularly the vapid heroes, heroines, and plots of traditional romance, are the object of the author's satire. Aucassin, as a courtly lover, is mocked in such a way that the role of the courtly lover in thirteenth-century French society is shown to be impractical and somewhat absurd.

Critical Reception

The form of Aucassin et Nicolette is described by its author as a chantefable, or “song-story,” because it combines verse, prose, and music. That it is the only work of French literature of its time to be so named has caused many critics to examine the apparent novelty of this form. While John R. Reinhard admits that it is the only known work in French literature of the Middle Ages composed in such a manner, he points out that when the element of music is disregarded the form ceases to be unique. Reinhard maintains that although some critics attempt to identify the origins of this form in Oriental, Celtic, or Old Norse literature, it is more likely that the author made use of the literary traditions of Greece and Rome, which were readily available to him. Reinhard cites examples of Greek and Roman works in which prose and verse are similarly combined. G. W. Goetinck, on the other hand, states that it is possible that Celtic literature did in fact influence the author of Aucassin et Nicolette. Goetinck discusses a number of features in the poem reminiscent of Celtic literature. Like Reinhard, Tony Hunt also finds works in Latin literature in which both prose and verse are used. Hunt maintains that while Aucassin et Nicolette is not original in terms of form, its regularity and consistency of structure are unique.

In addition to discussion of Aucassin et Nicolette's form, another area of critical debate is the issue of the work as parody. Generally, nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics interpreted the poem as a straightforward romance. Andrew Lang describes the poem as a “sympathetically told love story,” and Henry Adams finds in the work an emphasis on courtesy and courtly love. While many modern critics refute these claims, there are also recent scholars who deny that the work is parodic in nature. Eugene Vance argues that while the author utilizes the techniques of satire, satire is not the chief aim of the work. Rather, Vance describes Aucassin et Nicolette as a “sensitive attempt” to examine the role of literary language “in terms of the language itself.” S. L. Clark and Julian Wasserman view the poem not as parody or satire, but as an allegory designed to demonstrate the absurd nature of human error. The progression of Aucassin, they argue, through adventures focused on the development of his decision-making skills is the means by which the allegory is presented.Yet a considerable number of critics find what they believe to be striking and obvious clues that suggest that the author intended Aucassin et Nicolette as parody. Robert Harden notes that the language, form, and particularly the author's use of character inversions, mock the insipid plots and characters of the typical medieval romance. Focusing his analysis on the Torelore episode, Darnell H. Clevenger maintains that these adventures may be viewed as a burlesque of chivalric valor and courtly love. Clevenger further states that the episode underscores the relative unimportance of the plot and emphasizes that the world (both real and fictional) is the main antagonist in Aucassin et Nicolette. Just as Harden stresses the importance of character inversion, June Hall Martin contends that the parody of one character in particular, Aucassin, unifies the episodes of the tale and highlights the author's criticism of courtly love. Anne Elizabeth Cobby identifies another layer of parody in Aucassin et Nicolette. Cobby's analysis reveals that the author manipulates the readers' expectations through the parodic references to contemporary literary genres, including the romance and the chanson de geste, and through the characterization of Aucassin and Nicolette. Aucassin, explains Cobby, is portrayed to an overstated level as the stereotypical courtly lover. While he conforms completely to the external values of this type of hero, he demonstrates a complete lack of the inner ideals usually associated with the courtly lover. Cobby further shows that while Nicolette is painted as a quintessential courtly heroine, her actions reveal her to be thoroughly unconventional. Cobby states that such contrasts stress the futility of labels. Solidifying her argument that the essentially parodic nature of Aucassin et Nicolette is revealed through the author's redirecting of his reader, Cobby points out that by the time Aucassin and Nicolette are reunited in the forest, we fully anticipate the thwarting of our expectations, yet now some of them are in fact fulfilled.

Principal Works

Aucassin and Nicolette. A Love Story (edited and translated by Francis William Bordillon) 1887

Aucassin and Nicolette (translated by Andrew Lang) 1887

Aucassin and Nicolette (translated by Eugene Mason) 1910


Henry Adams (essay date 1904)

SOURCE: “Nicolette and Marion” in Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994, pp. 230-50.

[In the excerpt below, Adams offers a brief overview of Aucassin et Nicolette, discussing the form and plot of the work. In particular, Adams notes that the chantefable emphasizes the virtues of courtesy and courtly love.]

C’est d’Aucassins et de Nicolete.
Qui vauroit bons vers oir
Del deport du viel caitif
De deus biax enfans petis
Nicolete et Aucassins;
Des grans paines qu’il soufri
Et des proueces qu’il fist
Por s’amie o le cler vis.
Dox est li cans biax est li dis
Et cortois et bien asis.
Nus hom n’est si esbahis...

(The entire section is 5518 words.)

John R. Reinhard (essay date 1926)

SOURCE: “The Literary Background of the Chantefable,” in Speculum, Vol. 1, No. 2, April, 1926, pp. 157-69.

[In the essay below, Reinhard asserts that the form of Aucassin et Nicolette did not originate with the work, but is indebted to the traditions readily available to the author—that is, to the literary traditions of Greece and Rome.]

The new edition of Aucassin et Nicolette by Mario Roques1 once more offers occasion for the discussion of its peculiar literary form, that of alternate prose and verse. In his Introduction, Roques briefly discusses “cette forme originale et unique dans la littérature du moyen...

(The entire section is 4530 words.)

Robert Harden (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “Aucassin et Nicolette as Parody,” in Studies in Philology, Vol. 63, No. 1, January, 1966, pp. 1-9.

[In the following essay, Harden contends that the use of inversion, particularly in terms of character, in Aucassin et Nicolette undermines the traditional plots and characters of the idyllic novel.]

It has long been traditional to consider Aucassin et Nicolette as a piece of literature which, although offering some problems as to its actual literary genre, provided, as far as its protagonists were concerned, the purest example imaginable of characters motivated by idyllic love. Nevertheless, in spite of this generally acknowledged view,...

(The entire section is 3258 words.)

Barbara Nelson Sargent (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: “Parody in Aucassin et Nicolette: Some Further Considerations,” in The French Review, Vol. XLIII, No. 4, March, 1970, pp. 597-605.

[In the essay below, Sargent examines two passages in Aucassin et Nicolette in which the author deliberately rejects medieval literary conventions. These examples, maintains Sargent, emphasize the author's humorous intentions.]

Among those who have commented on Aucassin et Nicolette in the last few years there is general agreement that the chantefable was written, at least partially, with humorous intent. When it comes to the exact nature and scope of the humor, the agreement is much less marked. Some...

(The entire section is 4287 words.)

Darnell H. Clevenger (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: “Torelore in Aucassin et Nicolette,” in Romance Notes, Vol. 11, No. 3, Spring, 1970, pp. 656-65.

[In the essay that follows, Clevenger avers that the episode of Aucassin et Nicolette which takes place in the land of Torelore reveals the parodic nature of the work and emphasizes the writer's implicit assertion that the world and its laws and habits is the story's true antagonist.]

The plot of the thirteenth-century chantefable, Aucassin et Nicolette, is quite simple. Aucassin, son and heir to Count Garin of Beaucaire, loves Nicolette, a Saracen slave purchased and then “adopted” by the Viscount of that same Beaucaire. The...

(The entire section is 4005 words.)

Eugene Vance (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: “The Word at Heart: Aucassin et Nicolette as a Medieval Comedy of Language,” in Yale French Studies, No. 45, 1970, pp. 33-51.

[In the following essay, Vance studies the form and language of Aucassin et Nicolette and suggests that the poem is an examination of the function of literary language.]

Throughout the Latin middle ages there was speculation about the function of language and the potency of the word. Classical antiquity had provided a system of rhetoric and a mature theory of signs, but these were at once challenged and transformed in Christian culture by the doctrine that in the beginning God “spoke” the world of things, and after...

(The entire section is 6174 words.)

G. W. Goetinck (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: “Aucassin et Nicolette and Celtic Literature,” in Zeitschrift fur Celtische Philologie, Vol. 31, 1970, pp. 224-29.

[In the following essay, Goetinck investigates the possibility of Celtic influence on the composition of Aucassin et Nicolette.]

The sources of inspiration of the author of the thirteenth-century chantefable, the form and content of his creation, have provided material for much discussion. The possible influence of Arab literature was proposed, assailed, and eventually discounted1. There is another possibility which has not been so fully explored, the influence of Celtic literature through French works based on...

(The entire section is 2182 words.)

Edelgard DuBruck (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “‘Omnia vincit amor:’ The Audience of Aucassin et Nicolette—Confidant, Accomplice, and Judge of Its Author,” in Michigan Academician, Vol. 5, Fall, 1972, pp. 193-200.

[In the following essay, DuBruck maintains that the author of Aucassin et Nicolette sought to appeal to the common people of the middle to lower classes of society in the late twelfth or early thirteenth centuries.]

Since its first mention in modern times, in 1752, we know very little more about this charming piece of early thirteenth-century French literature than did the contemporaries of Lacurne de Sainte-Palaye, its first translator.1 We do not know...

(The entire section is 4570 words.)

June Hall Martin (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Aucassin,” in Love's Fools: Aucassin, Troilus, Calisto, and the Parody of the Courtly Lover, Tamesis Books Limited, 1972, pp. 23-36.

[In the following essay, Martin argues that the parody of Aucassin as a courtly lover in Aucassin et Nicoletteis the element that unifies the various episodes in the tale.]

While almost all medieval literature is the object of far too little study, the thirteenth-century chantefable, Aucassin et Nicolette, is even more critically impoverished than most. Until fairly recently, scholars who had given attention to the text had concentrated primarily on certain linguistic difficulties, disputed readings of...

(The entire section is 6159 words.)

Joan B. Williamson (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Naming as a Source of Irony in Aucassin et Nicolette,” in Studi Francesi, No. 51, Sept.-Dec., 1973, pp. 401-09.

[In the essay below, Williamson assesses the comic effect of the author's use of reversal in the naming of the lovers in Aucassin et Nicolette. Williamson also demonstrates that the “misnaming” of the characters makes the tale an “anti-idyll.”]

It was not the custom for medieval authors to ascribe titles to their works. But it was inevitable that, when the thirteenth century French chantefable acquired a title, it should be based on the names of the two principle protagonists. Thus the caption in the only extant...

(The entire section is 4527 words.)

Eugene Dorfman (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “The Lamp of the Commandment in Aucassin et Nicolette,” in Hebrew University Studies in Literature, Vol. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 30-72.

[In the following essay, Dorfman traces the way in which Aucassin is presented, with his temptations outlined in the Ten Commandments, and argues that Aucassin's adventures in the fantastic land of Torelore constitute his education as a hero—an education necessary for Aucassin to become the “ruler in Israel,” who restores his people to their homeland.]

Aucassin, one of the unlikeliest of heroes in the annals of medieval romance, whose stated objection to having his head cut off by his enemies is that he would...

(The entire section is 14539 words.)

S. L. Clark and Julian Wasserman (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Wisdom Buildeth a Hut: Aucassin et Nicolette as Christian Comedy,” in Allegorica, Vol. 1, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 250-68.

[In the following essay, Clark and Wasserman contend that Aucassin et Nicolette is better described as an instructional allegory than a parody, in that it uses inversion to highlight the absurdity of human sin.]

As a result of the growing critical awareness that irony was not an art mislaid by medieval writers until it was “rediscovered” by the Renaissance,1 many romances, such as those of Chrétien de Troyes, are now recognized as parodies of a form which they were at first thought to trace out so...

(The entire section is 7028 words.)

Tony Hunt (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “Precursors and Progenitors of Aucassin et Nicolette,” in Studies in Philology, Vol. 74, No. 1, January, 1977, pp. 1-19.

[In the essay that follows, Hunt studies the form of Aucassin et Nicolette and maintains that its author drew on literary precedents in which prose and verse are combined. The originality of Aucassin et Nicolette, argues Hunt, arises from the regularity and consistency of the work's structure.]

Critics of the celebrated chantefable have long puzzled over its originality of form. Hermann Suchier wrote “La forme de la nouvelle—l’auteur l’appelle cantefable—est unique en son genre en France: des...

(The entire section is 6673 words.)

Eugene Dorfman (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “The Sacred and the Profane in Aucassin et Nicolette,” in Homenaje a Robert A. Hall, Jr., edited by David Feldman, Playor, S. A., 1977, pp. 117-31.

[In the following essay, Dorfman asserts that the contradictions, inversions, and absurdities in Aucassin et Nicolette, including examples of profanity, all serve to disguise an even greater inversion: the transformation of the passive Aucassin into the “active deliverer of his people.” Elements in the poem, explains Dorfman, parallel the Hebrew Bible, and such allusions point to Aucassin as the coming Messiah.]

The Lord is a gracefully hovering Presence in Aucassin et...

(The entire section is 9494 words.)

Anne Elizabeth Cobby (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Aucassin et Nicolette,” in Ambivalent Conventions: Formula and Parody in Old French, Rodopi, 1995, pp. 55-81.

[In the following essay, Cobby argues that analyzing the manner in which the author manipulates his readers' expectations reveals the essentially parodic nature of Aucassin et Nicolette.]

Much has been written on Aucassin et Nicolette in the last hundred years, but alone among our texts it is at present not a very active field.1 Work on parody in the text was surveyed thoroughly and critically by Tony Hunt in 1979, in an article which argues against its being a parodic work and calls attention most usefully to the dangers...

(The entire section is 10181 words.)

Roger Pensom (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Lost and Found,” in “Aucassin et Nicolette”: The Poetry of Gender and Growing up in the French Middle Ages, Peter Lang, 1999, pp. 129-33.

[In the following essay, Pensom maintains that the poem emphasizes the concept of “recognition” as a unifying theme in the adventures of the perpetually-separated Aucassin and Nicolette.]

Aucassin has now returned
To his city of Biaucaire,
Holding the lands of his domain
As uncontested sovereign.
He swears by God's almighty power
That Nicolete is more to him
Than all his kith and all his kin,
If he were suddenly to die.
‘My dear sweetheart of the bright face,
I don’t know where to look for you.
Never was...

(The entire section is 1921 words.)