Though I egotistically consider myself reasonably well read, I must admit that up until a few months ago, I had never heard of Aucassin and Nicolete. In browsing through the extensive Limited Editions Club (LEC) section at Phoenix’s Book Gallery, I stumbled upon an edition of Aucassin and Nicolete from April 1931, read the LEC monthly letter than came with it, and immediately snapped it up.
Aucassin and Nicolete is one of the oldest love stories in all of world literature. It is a timeless story, a tale of a young man and young lady who love each other against the wishes of their parents. Likely written in the late twelfth century, it’s authorship is lost to history. It is known only because of a single manuscript found in 1752 in France. It is our only known chantefable, a sung story with alternating prose and verse.
The verse that opens the story provides a wonderful introduction to the story and a good example of the smoothness and vivacity of the verse.
Who would list to the good lay
Gladness of the captive grey?
Aucassin and Nicolete,
Of the pains the lover bore
And the sorrows he outwore,
For the goodness and the grace,
Of his love, so fair of face.
Sweet the song, the story sweet,
There is no man hearkens it,
No man living ‘neath the sun’
So outwearied, so foredone,
Sick and woeful, worn and sad,
But is healed, but is glad
‘Tis so sweet
Aucassin, son of Count Garin, loves Nicolete, a Saracen maiden, owned by the Viscount of Beaucaire. Aucassin is so smitten with her that when his father and the Viscount contrive to keep the lovers apart, Aucassin forsakes the honor of knighthood and abrogates his duty of defending his father’s territories from enemies in order to lash back at them.
Father…never may God give me aught of my desire if I be made a knight, or mount my horse, or face stour and battle wherein knights smite and are smitten again, unless you give me Nicolete, my true love, that I love so well.
His father arranges with the Viscount to send Nicolete far away, though the Viscount really only imprisons her within a chamber at his estate. Aucassin is also imprisoned, by his father, to prevent him from going after Nicolete. Nicolete schemes to escape, as told in this verse:
Nicolete as ye heard tell
Prisoned is within a cell
That is painted wondrously
With colors of a far country,
And the window of marble wrought.
Where the maiden stood in thought,
With straight brows and yellow hair;
Never saw ye fairer fair!
On the wood she gazed below,
And she saw the roses blow,
Heard the birds sing loud and low,
Therefore spoke she woefully;
“Ah me, wherefore do I lie
Here in prison wrongfully;
Aucassin my love, my knight,
Am I not they heart’s delight,
Thou that loves me aright!
‘Tis for thee that I must dwell
In the vaunted chamber cell,
Hard beset and all alone!
By our Lady Mary’s Son
Here no longer will I wonn,
If I may flee”!
Nicolete does escape and is able to let Aucassin know she is free. She tells him that, if caught, she will be sent far away. Aucassin laments:
…thou shall not go, for then wouldst though be my death. And the first man that saw thee and had the might withal, would take thee straightway into his bed…I would not tarry till I had found a knife to pierce my heart and slay myself…would I dash my head so mightily, that the eyes would start, and my brain burst. Rather would I die even such a death, than know though hadst lain in a man’s bed and that bed not mine…
Aucassin also explains to Nicolete how their love for each other differs.
…it may not be that though shouldst love me even as I love thee. Woman may not love man as man loves woman, for a woman’s love lies in the glance of here eye, and the bud of her breast, and her foot’s tip-toe, but the love of a man is in his heart planted , whence it can never issue forth and pass away.
Nicolete waits for Aucassin’s release by hiding in a nearby forest. They find a way to re-unite, and flea the country by boat, ending up in a fictional country called Torelore. After a few years, they are captured by Saracen pirates and separated. Aucassin ends up back in Beaucaire, now in charge of his estate, while Nicolete ends up in a place called Cartage. Aucassin is determined to find her.
Lo ye, Aucassin hath gone
to Biaucaire that is his own,
Dwelleth there in joy and ease
And the kingdom is at peace.
Swears he by the Majesty
Of our Lord that is most high,
Rather would he they should die
All his kin and par entry,
So that Nicolete were nigh.
“Ah sweet love, and fair of brow,
I know not where to seek you now,
God made never that country,
Not by land, and not by sea,
Where I would not search for thee,
If that might be”!
While at Cartage, Nicolete realizes that she is the daughter of its king. An arranged wedding is planned, but she escapes, ends up back in Beaucaire, and is finally joined with Aucassin.
When Aucassin heareth now
That his lady bright of brow
Dwelleth in his own country,
Never man was glad as he.
To her castle doth he hie
With the lady speedily,
Passeth to the chamber high,
Findeth Nicolete thereby.
Of her true love found again
Never maid was half so fain.
Straight she leaped upon her feet:
When his love he saw at last,
Arms about her did he cast,
Kissed her often, kissed her sweet,
Kissed her lips and brows and eyes.
Thus all night do they devise,
Even till the morning white.
Then Aucassin wedded her,
Made her Lady of Biaucaire.
Many years abode they there,
Many years in shade or sun,
In great gladness and delight.
Ne’er hath Aucassin regret
Nor his lady Nicolete.
Now my story is all done,
Said and sung!
Besides the love story at its core, the work has elements of parody to it, such as wars being fought with food, not over food, and there being a pregnant king whose wife leads an army. Our unknown author even risks the church’s ire when he has Aucassin say that he would prefer hell to heaven because hell’s inmates are likely to be more entertaining. These different elements fuse to present an easy read that is enjoyable and charming. It adds meaning to think that it was nearly 900 years ago when this story first came into being and was likely spread for hundreds of years by wandering jongleurs, to whom we owe our ability to now enjoy this work.
About this Edition
I have to say that while the hand made paper and type is very nice, as is usually the case with LEC books, I am not so much a fan of the illustrations or of the cover design. The modernist design and illustrations just do not seem to match the story either in content or in setting. This is especially true of the illustrator’s decision to dress the protagonists in modern clothing. The writer of the LEC Monthly Letter that comes with this edition admits to not liking the illustrations either, when he first saw them. While he ended up changing his mind and loving them, I have not. Having said that, I very much appreciate the end product, and differentiate from a style that I do not care for versus a beautifully crafted book done with the highest possible quality.
Andrew Lang (1844-1912) was a renowned Scottish poet, novelist and literary critic, best known for his collections of folk and fairy tales. His colored Fairy Books (Blue, Yellow, Red, etc) remain extremely popular and influential today. Folio Society has a beautiful and excellent selection of these Fairy Books. His translation of Aucassin and Nicolete was done in 1887.
Vojtech Preissig (1873–1944) was a graphic designer and book designer who also created a number of typefaces. Born in Czechoslovakia, he lived in the U.S. from 1910 to 1930. He supported the Czech resistance during both World Wars. He was arrested by the Germans in 1940 and died in Dachau in 1944.
- English translation by Andrew Lang
- Format designed by Vojtech Preissig
- Type is Preissigova Antiqua, drawn by Preissig
- Each page decorated with Preissig type ornaments in black, lavender and green
- Illustrations by Preissig in buff, black, lavender and green
- Uncut hand made paper from the mills of J.W. Zanders, toned a deep ivory, with nicely done watermarks
- Printed at Statni Tiskarna in Prague (the State Printing Office)
- The binding by A. Tvrdy, is the first known to be bound by five tapes all the way across the inside of the binding cover until they meet the binding material, and covers it with an endpaper with a design in which the tapes are an integral part
- Soft cloth cover
- Limited to 1500 copies, mine is #1220, signed by Vojtech Preissig
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