Aucassin and Nicolette

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 599

Aucassin and Nicolette is a unique text from roughly the first half of the thirteenth century. It is a textbook example of the generic transformation and experimentation that characterize thirteenth century French literature. Classified as a chante-fable or song-story, the work, whose author remains anonymous, advances the plot by alternating prose and assonanced, seven-syllabic verse passages. The prose sections of Aucassin and Nicolette primarily move the plot, while the verse passages deliver material of more emotionally charged interest. In addition to the combination of prose and verse passages, the work embodies features from a wide variety of literary genres. It exhibits mainly the characteristics of the courtly romance and the chivalric epic, but it also includes elements borrowed from the pastourelle, the saint’s life, the Byzantine adventure romance, troubadour lyric poetry, and the fabliau. Because of its compound nature, Aucassin and Nicolette is also referred to as a hybrid text. This composition was probably intended for public recital, possibly accompanied by musical instruments. While it is unique because it is the only existing example of this type of composition in French medieval literature, it was probably modeled after the Latin prosimetrum (prose-verse) tradition.

Besides its unique format, the text is curious in its treatment of subject matter and themes. While it is easily accessible and seemingly transparent, the intent of the author regarding his treatment of subject matter and themes remains rather elusive. The large number of differing interpretations brought forth by various scholars as to the underlying meaning of the work in general, and specific episodes such as the sojourn in Torelore in particular, attest to this. It can safely be stated, however, that one of the most striking characteristics of Aucassin and Nicolette is the theme of reversal. The author takes great delight in the reversal of the traditional chivalric romance elements, starting with the names of the protagonists: Aucassin, a French noble, carries a name that conjures up a Saracen theme, whereas his Carthaginian-born lover, Nicolette, has a French one. After both lovers have separately been incarcerated, it is not Aucassin but Nicolette who succeeds in escaping in order to seek out her beloved, and it is her shrewdness and cunning that bring about their reunion in the woods. The reversal of roles and themes continues throughout the work, culminating with Nicolette’s disguise as a male minstrel in order to effect her final reunion with Aucassin.

Aucassin and Nicolette parallels many other thirteenth century works in its experimentation with both form and content. The parodic treatment and literary subversion of traditional subjects such as war, duty, and love are found in many other contemporary romances. Nicolette’s resourcefulness and proactive ways cast familiar echoes of other such heroines who surmount social constraints and who emerge as brave and adroit in obtaining their heart’s desire. Lïenor, the female protagonist of the early thirteenth century Le Roman de la rose: ou, de Guillaume de Dole comes to mind. In this story, the young woman devises a trick in order to disprove a cowardly attack on her reputation. Through courage and a clever mind, she ensures that her marriage with the emperor Conrad will be allowed to proceed.

Above all, Aucassin and Nicolette seems to indicate that the twelfth century literary models, whose generic codification and chivalric value system it subverts through the introduction of incongruous and farcical elements, do not correspond any longer to the reality or to the needs of the thirteenth century. It is this questioning and reworking of traditional subjects and structures that lie at the heart of Aucassin and Nicolette.

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Aucassin et Nicolette