NICOLETTE AND MARION
This little thirteenth-century gem is called a "chante-fable," a
story partly in prose, partly in verse, to be sung according to
musical notation accompanying the words in the single manuscript
known, and published in facsimile by Mr. F. W. Bourdillon at Oxford
in 1896. Indeed, few poems, old or new, have in the last few years
been more reprinted, translated, and discussed, than "Aucassins,"
yet the discussion lacks interest to the idle tourist, and tells him
little. Nothing is known of the author or his date. The second line
alone offers a hint, but nothing more. "Caitif" means in the first
place a captive, and secondly any unfortunate or wretched man.
Critics have liked to think that the word means here a captive to
the Saracens, and that the poet, like Cervantes three or four
hundred years later, may have been a prisoner to the infidels. What
the critics can do, we can do. If liberties can be taken with
impunity by scholars, we can take the liberty of supposing that the
poet was a prisoner in the crusade of Coeur-de-Lion and Philippe-
Auguste; that he had recovered his liberty, with his master, in
1194; and that he passed the rest of his life singing to the old
Queen Eleanor or to Richard, at Chinon, and to the lords of all the
chateaux in Guienne, Poitiers, Anjou, and Normandy, not to mention
England. The living was a pleasant one, as the sunny atmosphere of
the Southern poetry proves.
Dox est li cans; biax est li dis,
Et cortois et bien asis.
The poet-troubadour who composed and recited "Aucassins" could not
have been unhappy, but this is the affair of his private life, and
not of ours. What rather interests us is his poetic motive,
"courteous love," which gives the tale a place in the direct line
between Christian of Troyes, Thibaut-le-Grand, and William of
Lorris. Christian of Troyes died in 1175; at least he wrote nothing
of a later date, so far as is certainly known. Richard Coeur-de-Lion
died in 1199, very soon after the death of his half-sister Mary of
Champagne. Thibaut-le-Grand was born in 1201. William of Lorris, who
concluded the line of great "courteous" poets, died in 1260 or
thereabouts. For our purposes, "Aucassins" comes between Christian
of Troyes and William of Lorris; the trouvere or jogleor, who sang,
was a "viel caitif" when the Chartres glass was set up, and the
Charlemagne window designed, about 1210, or perhaps a little later.
When one is not a professor, one has not the right to make inept
guesses, and, when one is not a critic, one should not risk
confusing a difficult question by baseless assumptions; but even a
summer tourist may without offence visit his churches in the order
that suits him best; and, for our tour, "Aucassins" follows
Christian and goes hand in hand with Blondel and the chatelain de
Coucy, as the most exquisite expression of "courteous love." As one
of "Aucassins'" German editors says in his introduction: "Love is
the medium through which alone the hero surveys the world around
him, and for which he contemns everything that the age prized:
knightly honour; deeds of arms; father and mother; hell, and even
heaven; but the mere promise by his father of a kiss from Nicolette
inspires him to superhuman heroism; while the old poet sings and
smiles aside to his audience as though he wished them to understand
that Aucassins, a foolish boy, must not be judged quite seriously,
but that, old as he was himself, he was just as foolish about
Aucassins was the son of the Count of Beaucaire. Nicolette was a
young girl whom the Viscount of Beaucaire had redeemed as a captive
of the Saracens, and had brought up as a god-daughter in his family.
Aucassins fell in love with Nicolette, and wanted to marry her. The
action turned on marriage, for, to the Counts of Beaucaire, as to
other counts, not to speak of kings, high alliance was not a matter
of choice but of necessity, without which they could not defend
their lives, let alone their counties; and, to make Aucassins'
conduct absolutely treasonable, Beaucaire was at that time
surrounded and besieged, and the Count, Aucassins' father, stood in
dire need of his son's help. Aucassins refused to stir unless he
could have Nicolette. What were honours to him if Nicolette were not
to share them. "S'ele estait empereris de Colstentinoble u
d'Alemaigne u roine de France u d'Engletere, si aroit il asses peu
en li, tant est france et cortoise et de bon aire et entecie de
toutes bones teces." To be empress of "Colstentinoble" would be none
too good for her, so stamped is she with nobility and courtesy and
high-breeding and all good qualities.
So the Count, after a long struggle, sent for his Viscount and
threatened to have Nicolette burned alive, and the Viscount himself
treated no better, if he did not put a stop to the affair; and the
Viscount shut up Nicolette, and remonstrated with Aucassins: "Marry
a king's daughter, or a count's! leave Nicolette alone, or you will
never see Paradise!" This at once gave Aucassins the excuse for a
charming tirade against Paradise, for which, a century or two later,
he would properly have been burned together with Nicolette:--
C'est d'Aucassins et de Nicolete.
Qui vauroit bons vers oir
Del deport du viel caitiff
De deus biax enfans petis
Nicolete et Aucassins;
Des grans paines qu'il soufri
Et des proueces qu'il fist
For 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
Tant dolans ni entrepris
De grant mal amaladis
Se il l'oit ne soit garis
Et de joie resbaudis
Tant par est dou-ce.
This is of Aucassins and Nicolette.
Whom would a good ballad please|
By the captive from o'er-seas,
A sweet song in children's praise,
Nicolette and Aucassins;
What he bore for her caress,
What he proved of his prowess
For his friend with the bright face?
The song has charm, the tale has grace,
And courtesy and good address.
No man is in such distress,
Such suffering or weariness,
Sick with ever such sickness,
But he shall, if he hear this,
Recover all his happiness,
So sweet it is!
Three times, in these short extracts, the word "courteous" has
already appeared. The story itself is promised as "courteous";
Nicolette is "courteous"; and the ladies who are not to go to heaven
are "courteous." Aucassins is in the full tide of courtesy, and
evidently a professional, or he never would have claimed a place for
harpers and jongleurs with kings and chevaliers in the next world.
The poets of "courteous love" showed as little interest in religion
as the poets of the eleventh century had shown for it in their poems
of war. Aucassins resembled Christian of Troyes in this, and both of
them resembled Thibaut, while William of Lorris went beyond them
all. The literature of the "siecle" was always unreligious, from the
"Chanson de Roland" to the "Tragedy of Hamlet"; to be "papelard" was
unworthy of a chevalier; the true knight of courtesy made nothing of
defying the torments of hell, as he defied the lance of a rival, the
frowns of society, the threats of parents or the terrors of magic;
the perfect, gentle, courteous lover thought of nothing but his
love. Whether the object of his love were Nicolette of Beaucaire or
Blanche of Castile, Mary of Champagne or Mary of Chartres, was a
detail which did not affect the devotion of his worship.
So Nicolette, shut up in a vaulted chamber, leaned out at the marble
window and sang, while Aucassins, when his father promised that he
should have a kiss from Nicolette, went out to make fabulous
slaughter of the enemy; and when his father broke the promise, shut
himself up in his chamber, and also sang; and the action went on by
scenes and interludes, until, one night, Nicolette let herself down
from the window, by the help of sheets and towels, into the garden,
and, with a natural dislike of wetting her skirts which has
delighted every hearer or reader from that day to this, "prist se
vesture a l'une main devant et a l'autre deriere si s'escorca por le
rousee qu'ele vit grande sor l'erbe si s'en ala aval le gardin"; she
raised her skirts with one hand in front and the other behind, for
the dew which she saw heavy on the grass, and went off down the
garden, to the tower where Aucassins was locked up, and sang to him
through a crack in the masonry, and gave him a lock of her hair, and
they talked till the friendly night-watch came by and warned her by
a sweetly-sung chant, that she had better escape. So she bade
farewell to Aucassins, and went on to a breach in the city wall, and
she looked through it down into the fosse which was very deep and
very steep. So she sang to herself--
En paradis qu'ai je a faire? Je n'i quier entrer mais que j'aie
Nicolete, ma tres douce amie, que j'aim tant. C'en paradis ne vont
fors tex gens con je vous dirai. Il i vont ci viel prestre et cil
vieil clop et cil manke, qui tote jour et tote nuit cropent devant
ces autex et en ces vies cruutes, et ci a ces vies capes ereses et a
ces vies tatereles vestues, qui sont nu et decauc et estrumele, qui
moeurent de faim et d'esci et de froid et de mesaises. Icil vont en
paradis; aveuc ciax n'ai jou que faire; mais en infer voil jou aler.
Car en infer vont li bel clerc et li bel cevalier qui sont mort as
tornois et as rices gueres, et li bien sergant et li franc home.
Aveuc ciax voil jou aler. Et si vont les beles dames cortoises que
eles ont ii amis ou iii avec leurs barons. Et si va li ors et li
agens et li vairs et li gris; et si i vont herpeor et jogleor et li
roi del siecle. Avec ciax voil jou aler mais que j'aie Nicolete, ma
tres douce amie, aveuc moi.
In Paradise what have I to do? I do not care to go there unless I
may have Nicolette, my very sweet friend, whom I love so much. For
to Paradise goes no one but such people as I will tell you of. There
go old priests and old cripples and the maimed, who all day and all
night crouch before altars and in old crypts, and are clothed with
old worn-out capes and old tattered rags; who are naked and footbare
and sore; who die of hunger and want and misery. These go to
Paradise; with them I have nothing to do; but to Hell I am willing
to go. For, to Hell go the fine scholars and the fair knights who
die in tournies and in glorious wars; and the good men-at-arms and
the well-born. With them I will gladly go. And there go the fair
courteous ladies whether they have two or three friends besides
their lords. And the gold and silver go there, and the ermines and
sables; and there go the harpers and jongleurs, and the kings of the
world. With these will I go, if only I may have Nicolette, my very
sweet friend, with me.
The lions were a touch of poetic licence, even for Beaucaire, but
the wolves and wild boars were real enough; yet Nicolette feared
even them less than she feared the Count, so she slid down what her
audience well knew to be a most dangerous and difficult descent, and
reached the bottom with many wounds in her hands and feet, "et san
en sali bien en xii lius"; so that blood was drawn in a dozen
places, and then she climbed up the other side, and went off bravely
into the depths of the forest; an uncanny thing to do by night, as
you can still see.
Then followed a pastoral, which might be taken from the works of
another poet of the same period, whose acquaintance no one can
neglect to make--Adam de la Halle, a Picard, of Arras. Adam lived,
it is true, fifty years later than the date imagined for Aucassins,
but his shepherds and shepherdesses are not so much like, as
identical with, those of the Southern poet, and all have so singular
an air of life that the conventional courteous knight fades out
beside them. The poet, whether bourgeois, professional, noble, or
clerical, never much loved the peasant, and the peasant never much
loved him, or any one else. The peasant was a class by himself, and
his trait, as a class, was suspicion of everybody and all things,
whether material, social, or divine. Naturally he detested his lord,
whether temporal or spiritual, because the seigneur and the priest
took his earnings, but he was never servile, though a serf; he was
far from civil; he was commonly gross. He was cruel, but not more so
than his betters; and his morals were no worse. The object of
oppression on all sides,--the invariable victim, whoever else might
escape,--the French peasant, as a class, held his own--and more. In
fact, he succeeded in plundering Church, Crown, nobility, and
bourgeoisie, and was the only class in French history that rose
steadily in power and well-being, from the time of the crusades to
the present day, whatever his occasional suffering may have been;
and, in the thirteenth century, he was suffering. When Nicolette, on
the morning after her escape, came upon a group of peasants in the
forest, tending the Count's cattle, she had reason to be afraid of
them, but instead they were afraid of her. They thought at first
that she was a fairy. When they guessed the riddle, they kept the
secret, though they risked punishment and lost the chance of reward
by protecting her. Worse than this, they agreed, for a small
present, to give a message to Aucassins if he should ride that way.
Aucassins was not very bright, but when he got out of prison after
Nicolette's escape, he did ride out, at his friends' suggestion, and
tried to learn what had become of her. Passing through the woods he
came upon the same group of shepherds and shepherdesses:--
Esmeres et Martinet, Fruelins et Johannes, Robecons et
who might have been living in the Forest of Arden, so like were they
to the clowns of Shakespeare. They were singing of Nicolette and her
present, and the cakes and knives and flute they would buy with it.
Aucassins jumped to the bait they offered him; and they instantly
began to play him as though he were a trout:--
Peres rois de maeste
Or ne sai quel part aler.
Se je vois u gaut rame
Ja me mengeront li le
Li lions et li sengler
Dont il i a a plente.
Father, King of Majesty!
Now I know not where to flee.
If I seek the forest free,
Then the lions will eat me,
Wolves and wild boars terribly,
Of which plenty there there be.
"Bel enfant, dix vos i ait!"
"Dix vos benie!" fait cil qui fu plus enparles des autres.
"Bel enfant," fait il, "redites le cancon que vos disiez ore!"
"Nous n'i dirons," fait cil qui plus fu enparles des autres. "Dehait
ore qui por vos i cantera, biax sire!"
"Bel enfant!" fait Aucassins, "enne me connissies vos?"
"Oil! nos savions bien que vos estes Aucassins, nos damoisiax, mais
nos ne somes mie a vos, ains somes au conte."
"Bel enfant, si feres, je vos en pri!"
"Os, por le cuer be!" fait cil. "Por quoi canteroie je por vos, s'il
ne me seoit! Quant il n'a si rice home en cest pais sans le cors le
conte Garin s'il trovait mes bues ne mes vaces ne mes brebis en ses
pres n'en sen forment qu'il fust mie tant hardis por les es a crever
qu'il les en ossast cacier. Et por quoi canteroie je por vos s'il ne
"Se dix vos ait, bel enfant, si feres! et tenes x sous que j'ai ci
en une borse!"
"God bless you, fair child!" said Aucassins.
"God be with you!" replied the one who talked best.
"Fair child!" said he, "repeat the song you were just singing."
"We won't!" replied he who talked best among them. "Bad luck to him
who shall sing for you, good sir!"
"Fair child," said Aucassins, "do you know me?"
"Yes! we know very well that you are Aucassins, our young lord; but
we are none of yours; we belong to the Count."
"Fair child, indeed you'll do it, I pray you!"
"Listen, for love of God!" said he. "Why should I sing for you if it
does not suit me? when there is no man so powerful in this country,
except Count Garin, if he found my oxen or my cows or my sheep in
his pasture or his close, would not rather risk losing his eyes than
dare to turn them out! and why should I sing for you, if it does not
"So God help you, good child, indeed you will do it! and take these
ten sous that I have here in my purse."
Ten sous was no small gift! twenty sous was the value of a strong
ox. The poet put a high money-value on the force of love, but he set
a higher value on it in courtesy. These boors were openly insolent
to their young lord, trying to extort money from him, and
threatening him with telling his father; but they were in their
right, and Nicolette was in their power. At heart they meant
Aucassins well, but they were rude and grasping, and the poet used
them in order to show how love made the true lover courteous even to
clowns. Aucassins' gentle courtesy is brought out by the boors'
greed, as the colours in the window were brought out and given their
value by a bit of blue or green. The poet, having got his little
touch of colour rightly placed, let the peasants go. "Cil qui fu
plus enparles des autres," having been given his way and his money,
told Aucassins what he knew of Nicolette and her message; so
Aucassins put spurs to his horse and cantered into the forest,
"Sire les deniers prenderons nos, mais je ne vos canterai mie, car
j'en ai jure. Mais je le vos conterai se vos voles."
"De par diu!" faits Aucassins. "Encore aim je mix center que nient."
"Sire, the money we will take, but I'll not sing to you, for I've
sworn it. But I will tell it you, if you like."
"For God's sake!" said Aucassins; "better telling than nothing!"
But the peasant had singular attraction for the poet. Whether the
character gave him a chance for some clever mimicry, which was one
of his strong points as a story-teller: or whether he wanted to
treat his subjects, like the legendary windows, in pairs; or whether
he felt that the forest-scene specially amused his audience, he
immediately introduced a peasant of another class, much more
strongly coloured, or deeply shadowed. Every one in the audience
was--and, for that matter, still would be--familiar with the great
forests, the home of half the fairy and nursery tales of Europe,
still wild enough and extensive enough to hide in, although they
have now comparatively few lions, and not many wolves or wild boars
or serpents such as Nicolette feared. Every one saw, without an
effort, the young damoiseau riding out with his hound or hawk,
looking for game; the lanes under the trees, through the wood, or
the thick underbrush before lanes were made; the herdsmen watching
their herds, and keeping a sharp look-out for wolves; the peasant
seeking lost cattle; the black kiln-men burning charcoal; and in the
depths of the rocks or swamps or thickets--the outlaw. Even now,
forests like Rambouillet, or Fontainebleau or Compiegne are enormous
and wild; one can see Aucassins breaking his way through thorns and
branches in search of Nicolette, tearing his clothes and wounding
himself "en xl lius u en xxx," until evening approached, and he
began to weep for disappointment:--
Se diu plaist le pere fort
Je vos reverai encore
Suer, douce a-mie!
So please God, great and strong,
I will find you now ere long,
Sister, sweet friend!
Aucassins seemed to think this an equal bargain. All damoiseaux were
not as courteous as Aucassins, nor all "varlets" as rude as his
peasants; we shall see how the young gentlemen of Picardy treated
the peasantry for no offence at all; but Aucassins carried a softer,
Southern temper in a happier climate, and, with his invariable
gentle courtesy, took no offence at the familiarity with which the
ploughman treated him. Yet he dared not tell the truth, so he
invented, on the spur of the moment, an excuse;--he has lost, he
said, a beautiful white hound. The peasant hooted--
Il esgarda devant lui enmi la voie si vit un vallet tei que je vos
dirai. Grans estoit et mervellex et lais et hidex. Il avoit une
grande hure plus noire qu'une carbouclee, et avoit plus de planne
paume entre ii ex, et avoit unes grandes joes et un grandisme nez
plat, et une grans narines lees et unes grosses levres plus rouges
d'unes carbounees, et uns grans dens gaunes et lais et estoit
caucies d'uns housiax et d'uns sollers de buef fretes de tille
dusque deseure le genol et estoit afules d'une cape a ii envers si
estoit apoiies sor une grande macue. Aucassins s'enbati sor lui
s'eut grand paor quant il le sorvit...
"Baix frere, dix ti ait!"
"Dix vos benie!" fait cil. "Se dix t'ait, que fais tu ilec?"
"A vos que monte?" fait cil.
"Nient!" fait Aucassins; "je nel vos demant se por bien non."
"Mais pour quoi ploures vos?" fait cil, "et faites si fait doel?
Certes se j'estoie ausi rices hom que vos estes, tos li mons ne me
feroit mie plorer."
"Ba! me conissies vos!" fait Aucassins.
"Oie! je sai bien que vos estes Aucassins li fix le conte, et se vos
me dites por quoi vos plores je vos dirai que je fac ici."
As he looked before him along the way he saw a man such as I will
tell you. Tall he was, and menacing, and ugly, and hideous. He had
a great mane blacker than charcoal and had more than a full palm-
width between his two eyes, and had big cheeks, and a huge flat nose
and great broad nostrils, and thick lips redder than raw beef, and
large ugly yellow teeth, and was shod with hose and leggings of raw
hide laced with bark cord to above the knee, and was muffled in a
cloak without lining, and was leaning on a great club. Aucassins
came upon him suddenly and had great fear when he saw him.
"Fair brother, good day!" said he.
"God bless you!" said the other.
"As God help you, what do you here?"
"What is that to you?" said the other.
"Nothing!" said Aucassins; "I ask only from good-will."
"But why are you crying!" said the other, "and mounring so loud?
Sure, if I were as great a man as you are, nothing on earth would
make me cry."
"Bah! you know me?" said Aucassins.
"Yes, I know very well that you are Aucassins, the count's son; and
if you will tell me what you are crying for, I will tell you what I
am doing here."
The little episode was thrown in without rhyme or reason to the
rapid emotion of the love-story, as though the jongleur were showing
his own cleverness and humour, at the expense of his hero, as
jongleurs had a way of doing; but he took no such liberties with his
heroine. While Aucassins tore through the thickets on horseback,
crying aloud, Nicolette had built herself a little hut in the depths
of the forest:--
"Os!" fait cil; "por le cuer que cil sires eut en sen ventre! que
vos plorastes por un cien puant! Mal dehait ait qui ja mais vos
prisera quant il n'a si rice home en ceste tere se vos peres len
mandoit x u xv u xx qu'il ne les envoyast trop volontiers et s'en
esteroit trop lies. Mais je dois plorer et dol faire?"
"Et tu de quoi frere?"
"Sire je lo vos dirai. J'estoie liues a un rice vilain si cacoie se
carue. iiii bues i avoit. Or a iii jors qu il m'avint une grande
malaventure que je perdi le mellor de mes bues Roget le mellor de me
carue. Si le vois querant. Si ne mengai ne ne bue iii jors a passes.
Si n'os aler a le vile c'on me metroit en prison que je ne l'ai de
quoi saure. De tot l'avoir du monde n'ai je plus vaillant que vos
vees sor le cors de mi. Une lasse mere avoie, si n'avoit plus
vaillant que une keutisele, si h a on sacie de desous le dos si gist
a pur l'estrain, si m'en poise asses plus que denu. Car avoirs va et
viaent; se j'ai or perdu je gaaignerai une autre fois si sorrai mon
buef quant je porrai, ne ja por cien n'en plorerai. Et vos plorastes
por un cien de longaigne! Mal dehait ait qui mais vos prisera!"
"Certes tu es de bon confort, biax frere! que benois sois tu! Et que
valoit tes bues!"
"Sire xx sous m'en demande on, je n'en puis mie abatre une seule
"Or, tien" fait Aucassins, "xx que j'ai ci en me borse, si sol ten
"Listen!" said he, "By the heart God had in his body, that you
should cry for a stinking dog! Bad luck to him who ever prizes you!
When there is no man in this land so great, if your father sent to
him for ten or fifteen or twenty but would fetch them very gladly,
and be only too pleased. But I ought to cry and mourn."
"And--why you, brother?"
"Sir, I will tell you. I was hired out to a rich farmer to drive his
plough. There were four oxen. Now three days ago I had a great
misfortune, for I lost the best of my oxen, Roget, the best of my
team. I am looking to find him. I've not eaten or drunk these three
days past. I dare n't go to the town, for they would put me in
prison as I've nothing to pay with. In all the world I've not the
worth of anything but what you see on my body I've a poor old mother
who owned nothing but a feather mattress, and they've dragged it
from under her back so she lies on the bare straw, and she troubles
me more than myself. For riches come and go if I lose to day, I gain
to-morrow; I will pay for my ox when I can, and will not cry for
that. And you cry for a filthy dog! Bad luck to him who ever thinks
well of you!"
"Truly, you counsel well, good brother! God bless you! And what was
your ox worth?"
"Sir, they ask me twenty sous for it. I cannot beat them down a
"Here are twenty," said Aucassins, "that I have in my purse! Pay for
"Sire!" fait il, "grans mercies! et dix vos laist trover ce que vox
"Sir!" said he; "many thanks! and Go! grant you find what you seek!"
So night came on, and Nicolette went to sleep, a little distance
away from her hut. Aucassins at last came by, and dismounted,
spraining his shoulder in doing it. Then he crept into the little
hut, and lying on his back, looked up through the leaves to the
moon, and sang:--
Ele prist des flors de lis
Et de l'erbe du garris
Et de le foille autresi;
Une belle loge en fist,
Ainques tant gente ne vi.
Jure diu qui ne menti
Se par la vient Aucassins
Et il por l'amor de li
Ne si repose un petit
Ja ne sera ses amis
So she twined the lilies' flower,
Roofed with leafy branches o'er,
Made of it a lovely bower,
With the freshest grass for floor
Such as never mortal saw.
By God's Verity, she swore,
Should Aucassins pass her door,
And not stop for love of her,
To repose a moment there,
He should be her love no more,
Nor she his dear!
How Nicolette heard him sing, and came to him and rubbed his
shoulder and dressed his wounds as though he were a child; and how
in the morning they rode away together, like Tennyson's "Sleeping
O'er the hills and far away
Beyond their utmost purple rim,
Beyond the night, beyond the day,
singing as they rode, the story goes on to tell or to sing in verse-
Estoilete, je te voi,
Que la lune trait a soi.
Nicolete est aveuc toi,
M'amiete o le blond poil.
Je quid que dix le veut avoir
Por la lumiere de soir
Que par li plus clere soit.
Vien, amie, je te proie!
Ou monter vauroie droit,
Que que fust du recaoir.
Que fuisse lassus o toi
Ja te baiseroi estroit.
Se j'estoie fix a roi
S'afferies vos bien a moi
Suer douce amie!
I can see you, little star,
That the moon draws through the air.
Nicolette is where you are,
My own love with the blonde hair.
I think God must want her near
To shine down upon us here
That the evening be more clear.
Come down, dearest, to my prayer,
Or I climb up where you are!
Though I fell, I would not care.
If I once were with you there
I would kiss you closely, dear!
If a monarch's son I were
You should all my kingdom share,
Sweet friend, sister!
There we will leave them, for their further adventures have not much
to do with our matter. Like all the romans, or nearly all,
"Aucassins" is singularly pure and refined. Apparently the ladies of
courteous love frowned on coarseness and allowed no licence. Their
power must have been great, for the best romans are as free from
grossness as the "Chanson de Roland" itself, or the church glass, or
the illuminations in the manuscripts; and as long as the power of
the Church ruled good society, this decency continued. As far as
women were concerned, they seem always to have been more clean than
the men, except when men painted them in colours which men liked
Perhaps society was actually cleaner in the thirteenth century than
in the sixteenth, as Saint Louis was more decent than Francis I, and
as the bath was habitual in the twelfth century and exceptional at
the Renaissance. The rule held good for the bourgeoisie as well as
among the dames cortoises. Christian and Thibaut, "Aucassins" and
the "Roman de la Rose," may have expressed only the tastes of high-
born ladies, but other poems were avowedly bourgeois, and among the
bourgeois poets none was better than Adam de la Halle. Adam wrote
also for the court, or at least for Robert of Artois, Saint Louis's
nephew, whom he followed to Naples in 1284, but his poetry was as
little aristocratic as poetry could well be, and most of it was
cynically--almost defiantly--middle-class, as though the weavers of
Arras were his only audience, and recognized him and the objects of
his satire in every verse. The bitter personalities do not concern
us, but, at Naples, to amuse Robert of Artois and his court, Adam
composed the first of French comic operas, which had an immense
success, and, as a pastoral poem, has it still. The Idyll of Arras
was a singular contrast to the Idyll of Beaucaire, but the social
value was the same in both; Robin and Marion were a pendant to
Aucassins and Nicolette; Robin was almost a burlesque on Aucassins,
while Marion was a Northern, energetic, intelligent, pastoral
"Li Gieus de Robin et de Marion" had little or no plot. Adam strung
together, on a thread of dialogue and by a group of suitable
figures, a number of the favourite songs of his time, followed by
the favourite games, and ending with a favourite dance, the
"tresca." The songs, the games, and the dances do not concern us,
but the dialogue runs along prettily, with an air of Flemish
realism, like a picture of Teniers, as unlike that of "courtoisie"
as Teniers was to Guido Reni. Underneath it all a tone of satire
made itself felt, good-natured enough, but directed wholly against
The scene opens on Marion tending her sheep, and singing the pretty
air: "Robin m'aime, Robin ma'a," after which enters a chevalier or
esquire, on horseback, and sings: "Je me repairoie du tournoiement."
Then follows a dialogue between the chevalier and Marion, with no
other object than to show off the charm of Marion against the
masculine defects of the knight. Being, like most squires, somewhat
slow of ideas in conversation with young women, the gentleman began
by asking for sport for his falcon. Has she seen any duck down by
Mais veis tu par chi devant
Vers ceste riviere nul ane?
"Ane," it seems, was the usual word for wild duck, the falcon's
prey, and Marion knew it as well as he, but she chose to
C'est une bete qui recane;
J'en vis ier iii sur che quemin,
Tous quarchies aler au moulin.
Est che chou que vous demandes?
"It is a beast that brays; I saw three yesterday on the road, all
with loads going to the mill. Is that what you ask?" That is not
what the squire has asked, and he is conscious that Marion knows it,
but he tries again. If she has not seen a duck, perhaps she has seen
Hairons, sire? par me foi, non!
Je n'en vi nesun puis quareme
Que j'en vi mengier chies dame Eme
Me taiien qui sorit ches brebis.
"Heron, sir! by my faith, no! I've not seen one since Lent when I
saw some eaten at my grandmother's--Dame Emma who owns these sheep."
"Hairons," it seems, meant also herring, and this wilful
misunderstanding struck the chevalier as carrying jest too far:--
Par foi! or suis j'ou esbaubis!
N'ainc mais je ne fui si gabes!
"On my word, I am silenced! never in my life was I so chaffed!"
Marion herself seems to think her joke a little too evident, for she
takes up the conversation in her turn, only to conclude that she
likes Robin better than she does the knight; he is gayer, and when
he plays his musette he starts the whole village dancing. At this,
the squire makes a declaration of love with such energy as to spur
his horse almost over her:--
Aimi, sirel ostez vo cheval!
A poi que il ne m'a blechie.
Li Robin ne regiete mie
Quand je voie apres se karue.
"Aimi!" is an exclamation of alarm, real or affected: "Dear me, sir!
take your horse away! he almost hurt me! Robin's horse never rears
when I go behind his plough!" Still the knight persists, and though
Marion still tells him to go away, she asks his name, which he says
is Aubert, and so gives her the catchword for another song:--"Vos
perdes vo paine, sire Aubert!"--which ends the scene with a duo. The
second scene begins with a duo of Marion and Robin, followed by her
giving a softened account of the chevalier's behaviour, and then
they lunch on bread and cheese and apples, and more songs follow,
till she sends him to get Baldwin and Walter and Peronette and the
pipers, for a dance. In his absence the chevalier returns and
becomes very pressing in his attentions, which gives her occasion to
J'oi Robin flagoler
Au flagol d'argent.
When Robin enters, the knight picks a quarrel with him for not
handling properly the falcon which he has caught in the hedge; and
Robin gets a severe beating. The scene ends by the horseman carrying
off Marion by force; but he soon gets tired of carrying her against
her will, and drops her, and disappears once for all.
Certes voirement sui je beste
Quant a ceste beste m'areste.
Bete the knight certainly was, and was meant to be, in order to give
the necessary colour to Marion's charms. Chevaliers were seldom
intellectually brilliant in the mediaeval romans, and even the
"Chansons de Geste" liked better to talk of their prowess than of
their wit; but Adam de la Halle, who felt no great love for
chevaliers, was not satisfied with ridiculing them in order to exalt
Marion; his second act was devoted to exalting Marion at the expense
of her own boors.
The first act was given up to song; the second, to games and dances.
The games prove not to be wholly a success; Marion is bored by them,
and wants to dance. The dialogue shows Marion trying constantly to
control her clowns and make them decent, as Blanche of Castile had
been all her life trying to control her princes, and Mary of
Chartres her kings. Robin is a rustic counterpart to Thibaut. He is
tamed by his love of Marion, but he has just enough intelligence to
think well of himself, and to get himself into trouble without
knowing how to get out of it. Marion loves him much as she would her
child; she makes only a little fun of him; defends him from the
others; laughs at his jealousy; scolds him on occasion; flatters his
dancing; sends him on errands, to bring the pipers or drive away the
wolf; and what is most to our purpose, uses him to make the other
peasants decent. Walter and Baldwin and Hugh are coarse, and their
idea of wit is to shock the women or make Robin jealous. Love makes
gentlemen even of boors, whether noble or villain, is the constant
moral of mediaeval story, and love turns Robin into a champion of
decency. When, at last, Walter, playing the jongleur, begins to
repeat a particularly coarse fabliau, or story in verse, Robin stops
Ho, Gautier, je n'en voeil plus! fi!
Dites, seres vous tous jours teus!
Vous estes un ors menestreus!
"Ho, Walter! I want no more of that: Shame! Say! are you going to be
always like that? You're a dirty beggar!" A fight seems inevitable,
but Marion turns it into a dance, and the whole party, led by the
pipers, with Robin and Marion at the head of the band, leave the
stage in the dance which is said to be still known in Italy as the
"tresca." Marion is in her way as charming as Nicolette, but we are
less interested in her charm than in her power. Always the woman
appears as the practical guide; the one who keeps her head, even in
Elle l'a mis a raison:
"Aucassins, biax amis dox,
En quele tere en irons nous?"
"Douce amie, que sai jou?
Moi ne caut ou nous aillons."
The man never cared; he was always getting himself into crusades, or
feuds, or love, or debt, and depended on the woman to get him out.
The story was always of Charles VII and Jeanne d'Arc, or Agnes
Sorel. The woman might be the good or the evil spirit, but she was
always the stronger force. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were
a period when men were at their strongest; never before or since
have they shown equal energy in such varied directions, or such
intelligence in the direction of their energy; yet these marvels of
history,--these Plantagenets; these scholastic philosophers; these
architects of Rheims and Amiens; these Innocents, and Robin Hoods
and Marco Polos; these crusaders, who planted their enormous
fortresses all over the Levant; these monks who made the wastes and
barrens yield harvests;--all, without apparent exception, bowed down
before the woman.
Explain it who will! We are not particularly interested in the
explanation; it is the art we have chased through this French
forest, like Aucassins hunting for Nicolette; and the art leads
always to the woman. Poetry, like the architecture and the
decoration, harks back to the same standard of taste. The specimens
of Christian of Troyes, Thibaut, Tristan, Aucassins, and Adam de la
Halle were mild admissions of feminine superiority compared with
some that were more in vogue, If Thibaut painted his love-verses on
the walls of his castle, he put there only what a more famous poet,
who may have been his friend, set on the walls of his Chateau of
Courteous Love, which, not being made with hands or with stone, but
merely with verse, has not wholly perished. The "Roman de la Rose"
is the end of true mediaeval poetry and goes with the Sainte-
Chapelle in architecture, and three hundred years of more or less
graceful imitation or variation on the same themes which followed.
Our age calls it false taste, and no doubt our age is right;--every
age is right by its own standards as long as its standards amuse
it;--but after all, the "Roman de la Rose" charmed Chaucer,--it may
well charm you. The charm may not be that of Mont-Saint-Michel or of
Roland; it has not the grand manner of the eleventh century, or the
jewelled brilliancy of the Chartres lancets, or the splendid self-
assertion of the roses: but even to this day it gives out a faint
odour of Champagne and Touraine, of Provence and Cyprus. One hears
Thibaut and sees Queen Blanche.
Of course, this odour of true sanctity belongs only to the "Roman"
of William of Lorris, which dates from the death of Queen Blanche
and of all good things, about 1250; a short allegory of courteous
love in forty-six hundred and seventy lines. To modern taste, an
allegory of forty-six hundred and seventy lines seems to be not so
short as it might be; but the fourteenth century found five thousand
verses totally inadequate to the subject, and, about 1300, Jean de
Meung added eighteen thousand lines, the favourite reading of
society for one or two hundred years, but beyond our horizon. The
"Roman" of William of Lorris was complete in itself; it had shape;
beginning, middle, and end; even a certain realism, action,--almost
The Rose is any feminine ideal of beauty, intelligence, purity, or
grace,--always culminating in the Virgin,--but the scene is the
Court of Love, and the action is avowedly in a dream, without time
or place. The poet's tone is very pure; a little subdued; at times
sad; and the poem ends sadly; but all the figures that were
positively hideous were shut out of the court, and painted on the
outside walls:--Hatred; Felony; Covetousness; Envy; Poverty;
Melancholy, and Old Age. Death did not appear. The passion for
representing death in its horrors did not belong to the sunny
atmosphere of the thirteenth century, and indeed jarred on French
taste always, though the Church came to insist on it; but Old Age
gave the poet a motive more artistic, foreshadowing Death, and quite
sad enough to supply the necessary contrast. The poet who approached
the walls of the chateau and saw, outside, all the unpleasant facts
of life conspicuously posted up, as though to shut them out of
doors, hastened to ask for entrance, and, when once admitted, found
a court of ideals. Their names matter little. In the mind of William
of Lorris, every one would people his ideal world with whatever
ideal figures pleased him, and the only personal value of William's
figures is that they represent what he thought the thirteenth-
century ideals of a perfect society. Here is Courtesy, with a
translation long thought to be by Chaucer:-
Aucassins, li biax, li blons,
Li gentix, It amorous,
Est issous del gaut parfont,
Entre ses bras ses amors
Devant lui sor son arcon.
Les ex li baise et le front,
Et le bouce et le menton.
Elle l'a mis a raison.
"Aucassins, biax amis dox,
"En quel tere en irons nous?"
"Douce amie, que sai jou?
"Moi ne caut u nous aillons,
"En forest u en destor
"Mais que je soie aveuc vous."
Passent les vaus et les mons,
Et les viles et les bors
A la mer vinrent au jor,
Si descendent u sablon
Les le rivage.
Aucassins, the brave, the fair,
Courteous knight and gentle lover,
From the forest dense came forth;
In his arms his love he bore
On his saddle-bow before;
Her eyes he kisses and her mouth,
And her forehead and her chin.
She brings him back to earth again:
"Aucassins, my love, my own,
"To what country shall we turn?"
"Dearest angel, what say you?
"I care nothing where we go,
"In the forest or outside,
"While you on my saddle ride."
So they pass by hill and dale,
And the city, and the town,
Till they reach the morning pale,
And on sea-sands set them down,
Hard by the shore.
You can read for yourselves the characters, and can follow the
simple action which owes its slight interest only to the constant
effort of the dreamer to attain his ideal,--the Rose,--and owes its
charm chiefly to the constant disappointment and final defeat. An
undertone of sadness runs through it, felt already in the picture of
Time which foreshadows the end of Love--the Rose--and her court, and
with it the end of hope:--
Apres se tenoit Cortoisie
Qui moult estoit de tous prisie.
Si n'ere orgueilleuse ne fole.
C'est cele qui a la karole,
La soe merci, m'apela,
Ains que nule, quand je vins la.
Et ne fut ne nice n'umbrage,
Mais sages auques, sans outrage,
De biaus respons et de biaus dis,
Onc nus ne fu par li laidis,
Ne ne porta nului rancune,
Et fu clere comme la lune
Est avers les autres estoiles
Qui ne resemblent que chandoiles.
Faitisse estoit et avenant;
Je ne sai fame plus plaisant.
Ele ert en toutes cors bien digne
D'estre empereris ou roine.
And next that daunced Courtesye,
That preised was of lowe and hye,
For neither proude ne foole was she;
She for to daunce called me,
I pray God yeve hir right good grace,
When I come first into the place.
She was not nyce ne outrageous,
But wys and ware and vertuous;
Of faire speche and of faire answere;
Was never wight mysseid of her,
Ne she bar rancour to no wight.
Clere browne she was, and thereto bright
Of face, of body avenaunt.
I wot no lady so pleasaunt.
She were worthy forto bene
An empresse or crowned quene.
The note of sadness has begun, which the poets were to find so much
more to their taste than the note of gladness. From the "Roman de la
Rose" to the "Ballade des Dames du Temps jadis" was a short step for
the Middle-Age giant Time,--a poor two hundred years. Then Villon
woke up to ask what had become of the Roses:--Ou est la tres sage
Li tens qui s'en va nuit et jor,
Sans repos prendre et sans sejor,
Et qui de nous se part et emble
Si celeement qu'il nous semble
Qu'il s'arreste ades en un point,
Et il ne s'i arreste point,
Ains ne fine de trespasser,
Que nus ne puet neis penser
Quex tens ce est qui est presens;
S'el demandes as clers lisans,
Aincois que l'en l'eust pense
Seroit il ja trois tens passe;
Li tens qui ne puet sejourner,
Ains vait tous jors sans retorner,
Com l'iaue qui s'avale toute,
N'il n'en retourne arriere goute;
Li tens vers qui noient ne dure,
Ne fer ne chose tant soit dure,
Car il gaste tout et menjue;
Li tens qui tote chose mue,
Qui tout fait croistre et tout norist,
Et qui tout use et tout porrist.
The tyme that passeth nyght and daye.
And restelesse travayleth aye,
And steleth from us so prively,
That to us semeth so sykerly
That it in one poynt dwelleth never,
But gothe so fast, and passeth aye
That there nys man that thynke may
What tyme that now present is;
Asketh at these clerkes this,
For or men thynke it readily
Thre tymes ben ypassed by.
The tyme that may not sojourne
But goth, and may never returne,
As water that down renneth ay,
But never drope retourne may.
There may no thing as time endure,
Metall nor earthly creature:
For alle thing it frette and shall.
The tyme eke that chaungith all,
And all doth waxe and fostered be,
And alle thing distroieth he.
Between the death of William of Lorris and the advent of John of
Meung, a short half-century (1250-1300), the Woman and the Rose
became bankrupt. Satire took the place of worship. Man, with his
usual monkey-like malice, took pleasure in pulling down what he had
built up. The Frenchman had made what he called "fausse route."
William of Lorris was first to see it, and say it, with more sadness
and less bitterness than Villon showed; he won immortality by
telling how he, and the thirteenth century in him, had lost himself
in pursuing his Rose, and how he had lost the Rose, too, waking up
at last to the dull memory of pain and sorrow and death, that "tout
porrist." The world had still a long march to make from the Rose of
Queen Blanche to the guillotine of Madame du Barry; but the "Roman
de la Rose" made epoch. For the first time since Constantine
proclaimed the reign of Christ, a thousand years, or so, before
Philip the Fair dethroned Him, the deepest expression of social
feeling ended with the word: Despair.
Pour qui fut chastie puis moyne,
Pierre Esbaillart a Saint Denis?
Pour son amour ot cest essoyne.
Et Jehanne la bonne Lorraine
Qu' Englois brulerent a Rouan;
Ou sont elles, Vierge Souvraine?
Mais ou sont les neiges dantan?
Where is the virtuous Heloise,
For whom suffered, then turned monk,
Pierre Abelard at Saint-Denis?
For his love he bore that pain.
And Jeanne d'Arc, the good Lorraine,
Whom the English burned at Rouen!
Where are they, Virgin Queen?
But where are the snows of spring?