6. Navigating Gender in the Mediterranean: Exploring Hybrid Identities in Aucassin et Nicolete

Meriem Pagès

[print edition page number: 119]

Although much attention has been paid to the unique thirteenth-century Old French chantefable Aucassin et Nicolete, few have examined the narrative from the perspective of Mediterranean Studies. Yet looking at Aucassin et Nicolete in this light raises critical questions about gender, genre, ethnicity, and identity. In addition to the crucial fact that travel, and especially travel across the Mediterranean, plays an important role in narrative and character development, hybridity and cultural exchange are also essential to the tale. Both title characters evolve in ways that problematize the separation between Self and Other/Christian West and Muslim East and suggest a need to embrace rather than reject difference. At the heart of these concerns lies the issue of Nicolete’s Saracen parentage: toward the end of Aucassin et Nicolete, the heroine, who is traditionally understood throughout the tale to be Christian, discovers that she is in fact the daughter of the Saracen king of Cartagena. The revelation that Nicolete is a Saracen princess seems almost an afterthought on the author’s part, and the newly found princess hastens to leave her long-lost home and family to return to Latin Christendom. Perhaps because of the arbitrariness with which her origins are made known, Nicolete is usually not included in studies focusing on the medieval literary motif of the Saracen princess, the Muslim woman who falls in love with a Christian knight and betrays faith and kin to rescue him.[1] After all, the motif seems to owe its presence in Aucassin et Nicolete to the author’s need to render Nicolete worthy of marrying Aucassin, future count of Beaucaire and the text’s[120] hero. However, I would like to argue that Nicolete’s Saracen identity is essential to the development of the story and the success of the author’s didactic approach. Nicolete’s identification as a Saracen plays a crucial role in transforming the text from one ostensibly steeped in the medieval European literary tradition to a prime example of what Sharon Kinoshita has called “medieval Mediterranean literature.”[2] The heroine’s Mediterranean-Saracen identity permits her to act in a manner not befitting more conventional Christian heroines of high and late medieval texts, in turn allowing for a profound, though often comical, exploration of conventional gender roles.

The charming tale of two young lovers struggling to be with each other, Aucassin et Nicolete is unique, for it is the only surviving medieval chantefable, a genre in which the story is divided equally between passages in prose meant to be recited or read out loud and lyrical sections to be sung. Because Aucassin et Nicolete represents the only example of the genre and the text itself has survived in a single manuscript, it is difficult to draw larger conclusions about the chantefable‘s generic conventions. The fact that the narrative dates to the thirteenth century, however, allows us to make certain inferences about it. Aucassin et Nicolete was composed in a society that had become both well versed and a little wary of the art of courtly love. Unlike twelfth-century writers such as Chrétien de Troyes, the anonymous author of the chantefable feels no need to conceal his misgivings about courtly love. By the thirteenth century, the relationship between Europe and the Muslim world had also become more complicated. While enthusiasm for crusading remained high well into the fourteenth century and beyond, the loss of most of the Crusader holdings, including Jerusalem itself, by the end of the twelfth century led to an increased need for negotiation with Muslim rulers in order to retain a foothold in the Holy Land — at least until the fall of Acre in 1291. Finally, but perhaps most important, the thirteenth century saw the rise and growth of the merchant class. As such, Aucassin et Nicolete was produced during a period of great transition and flux, one marked precisely by the kind of cultural exchange and interaction so important to the work. Aucassin et Nicolete was written at a time when Europe’s relationship to the Mediterranean changed dramatically, again emphasizing the need for the text to be investigated through the lens of Mediterranean Studies.

Despite standing out in so many ways from other medieval European narratives, Aucassin et Nicolete at first seems to follow the rather predictable plotline of young love at odds with society. Aucassin, the son of Count Garin of Beaucaire, is desperately in love with Nicolete. She returns Aucassin’s feelings, but Aucassin’s parents will not allow their son to marry her. In an effort to secure a higher-born marriage partner for Aucassin, Garin and his wife have Nicolete imprisoned. The resourceful heroine escapes, finds Aucassin, who has by then[121] also been locked away by his father, then runs away to a nearby forest. As soon as his father releases him from prison, Aucassin makes his way to the forest and his Nicolete. Finally reunited, the two lovers hop onto a merchant ship that takes them to Torelore, a land where gender roles are reversed and where our two heroes remain for three years. The two are then captured by Saracens attacking Torelore and separated. Here Aucassin’s adventures come to an end, for his ship washes up on the shores of Beaucaire, where he learns he has become the new count. Nicolete, however, is taken to Cartagena, which she recognizes as her native city. Her father, the king, welcomes her home, but Nicolete leaves when she finds out that he intends to marry her to a fellow Saracen prince. She dyes her hair and face black and disguises herself as a black male minstrel before leaving for Beaucaire. Once there, Nicolete tests her lover one last time. When Aucassin makes it clear that he still loves her, Nicolete returns to the house of her foster-father, changes out of her disguise, and washes her face. Reunited for the last time, Aucassin and Nicolete marry and rule Beaucaire together.

In his preface to Edward Francis Moyer and Carey DeWitt Eldridge’s translation of the work, Urban T. Holmes proposed that Aucassin et Nicolete should be read as a parody.[3] Since then, much scholarly attention has been directed at this particular aspect of the text, with much contention over what constitutes the anonymous author’s primary target.[4] Only recently have scholars begun to turn from an examination of the larger question of parody — and the implications for Aucassin — to that of Nicolete’s function within the text.[5] Those critics primarily concerned with Nicolete explore not only the manner in which she crosses and transgresses gender boundaries but also her identity as a Saracen woman converted to Christianity. For example, SunHee Kim Gertz and Paul S. Ropp mention Nicolete’s Saracen identity to support their theory that Nicolete uses her imagination to transform her reality — exhibiting both male and female traits as[122] she does so — while Jane Gilbert claims that Nicolete displays a different kind of femininity precisely because she is a Saracen woman.[6]

Likewise captivated by Nicolete’s Saracen background, Marla Segol has linked Aucassin et Nicolete with Floire et Blancheflor, proposing that both texts rejoice in the existence of hybrid Christian-Muslim identity in medieval Europe. Segol connects the need for Nicolete to be a Saracen with the probable Occitanian background of the text’s anonymous author. Looking at Aucassin et Nicolete in juxtaposition with the late twelfth-century romance Floire et Blancheflor, Segol argues that both texts embrace and celebrate the presence of a hybrid Christian-Saracen identity, using what she calls the “hybrid self” to differentiate themselves from communities in northern and western France less directly influenced by the Muslim world. According to Segol, this hybridity is found both in the Christian-Saracen alliances formed in each of these texts as well as in subtle references to Muslim culture.[7]

In contrast to Segol, Lynn Ramey argues that Latin Christians progressively lose interest in the Muslim world and that this change is reflected in the diminishing importance of Saracen characters in popular medieval French literature. To Ramey, Aucassin et Nicolete constitutes a transitional step in this process. Juxtaposing the chantefable with Floire et Blancheflor as does Segol, Ramey claims that

whereas in Floire et Blancheflor the entire community of Niebla and Hungary is converted to Christianity because of the exemplary love of the two young lovers, in Aucassin et Nicolette, the focus is on rejection of Islam and the Arab culture rather than on the conversion and continued positive interaction of two different peoples.[8]

Ramey suggests that Aucassin et Nicolete marks the beginning of an attitude of growing indifference to the Muslim world, a development that will end in the fifteenth century with the Saracen world merely serving as a place where the Christian protagonists resolve their problems. To a certain extent, this even seems the case for Nicolete in the chantefable: the Saracen world provides a background against which the work’s heroine finds an answer to the question of her birth, gaining in value as a result of her encounter with the East.

If most recent critical studies of Aucassin et Nicolete have made Nicolete their focal point, few investigate the tools the author employs in order to craft his piece. In fact, those elements which make Aucassin et Nicolete a parody belong mostly, if not exclusively, to the tradition of western European texts dealing with[123] the Muslim Other — and especially with those narratives set against the background, real or imaginary, of the Mediterranean.[9]

That Aucassin et Nicolete is a Mediterranean text essentially concerned with Mediterranean paradigms is concealed by the work’s unique genre, one that both emphasizes its relationship to its Mediterranean context and complicates it. Indeed, the chantefable’s author presents us with a tale about love that leads his audience to entertain certain expectations about the piece. We assume, for example, that the narrative will belong to the genre of romance and that the main characters will act according to prescribed roles. Aucassin will strive to prove his prowess while Nicolete will display her virtue and nobility of heart. Our introduction to these characters confirms these expectations. Yet it quickly becomes obvious that Aucassin, though handsome and accomplished, is anything but heroic and that it is Nicolete who will function as the work’s true hero. While the Mediterranean context of the text’s landscape naturalizes much cross-cultural interaction, it simultaneously highlights the alterity of its gender politics.

How does the anonymous author set about rectifying our mistaken assumptions about the narrative and its characters? Aucassin et Nicolete’s unusual genre serves as the first important marker of the text’s difference. Rather than a verse romance or a chanson de geste with romance elements, the chantefable’s constant shift from verse to prose signals its inability to settle on any one particular form. Perhaps this also intimates that Aucassin et Nicolete inhabits two distinct worlds, those of the Latin Christian Mediterranean and the Muslim Mediterranean, equally well.

Yet another important hint of the text’s alterity lies in Aucassin’s unconventional masculinity, a factor intricately linked to the chantefable’s exceptional genre. As mentioned above, the author initially portrays Aucassin in a manner that evokes the typical romance hero of high and late medieval works. However, Aucassin does not act the part of the hero. In fact, he acts very little, preferring to lament his fate for most of the narrative. Aucassin’s atypical behavior indicates that the genre of Aucassin et Nicolete resists easy classification at the same time that its unique status makes it possible for the story’s putative hero to be described in such unflattering terms. If Aucassin’s deviant masculinity recalls the problematic behavior of such romance heroes as Erec in Chrétien de Troyes’s Erec et Enide, it is explored in far more depth than in the earlier text. The ambiguity of the chantefable, itself a hybrid marrying prose with verse, is reflected in the treatment of its male protagonist: where Erec and Enide ends with a re-masculinized Erec, Aucassin remains passive throughout the tale. Like the form of the narrative to[124] which he belongs, Aucassin is two things at once: he is introduced as a paragon of male excellence but acts like a romance heroine.[10] This duality is reminiscent of the Mediterranean itself, which encompasses both Christian Self and Muslim Other. Aucassin’s alternate masculinity, then, provides us with a good starting point for a discussion of Aucassin et Nicolete as a “Mediterranean” text.

Two particular scenes best illustrate Aucassin’s unorthodox gender positioning. One such moment occurs when Aucassin, searching for Nicolete after her escape into the woods and his release from prison, encounters a hideously ugly herdsman, himself in hiding. The two decide to exchange stories, and Aucassin, who has just heard Nicolete’s message referring to her as a marvelous and priceless beast, tells the man that he is looking for a valuable white greyhound he has lost. To this the peasant responds:

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 terre, se vos peres l’en mandoit dis u quinse u vint, qu’il ne les eust trop volentiers et s’en esteroit trop liés. Mais je doi plorer et dol faire.[11]

[“What!” said he, “By the heart that Christ had in His stomach! You are crying for a stinking dog? Damn whoever praises you, when there is no man in this land so powerful, if your father asked him for ten or fifteen or twenty, that he would not give them very willingly, and he would be all too happy to do so. But I must cry and lament.”][12]

The man then goes on to explain his own troubles: he cannot find the prize ox of the rich peasant for whom he works and has no money to make up for the loss. In the end, Aucassin solves the herdsman’s problem by giving him the twenty sous he needs to pay for the lost animal, and the two part ways.

What purpose does this episode serve in the narrative? First and foremost, Aucassin’s encounter with the peasant adds an element of surprise to the story. As many have noted, the figure of the hideous herdsman is hardly unique to Aucassin et Nicolete. As such, the chantefable’s medieval audience may have expected the encounter to develop in a specific fashion: the hideous herdsman is supposed to inquire about Aucassin’s problem, then help him pursue his quest. Indeed, the episode seems at first to unfold along these lines. Only when the villain responds that Aucassin can expect no sympathy or respect if losing a white greyhound is his only trouble does the emphasis shift. By the end of the episode, the author has once again turned convention upside down, for it is Aucassin who ultimately[125] provides assistance to the hapless herdsman, rather than the other way around. Moreover, the character’s description itself serves as a source of comic reversal — albeit one based on class rather than gender — for his ugliness suggests that he will prove to be dangerous, perhaps even evil.[13] But the peasant develops into a profoundly human character, one who is given a voice and depth usually absent in commoners.

The unusual depiction of the hideous herdsman is connected with the development of Aucassin as a character, for the nameless peasant provides a positive foil to our hero.[14] This is done in several ways. On the one hand, the herdsman renders any quest for love trivial by referring to the very basic and tangible need for food, shelter, and money. On the other, the peasant also makes Aucassin’s particular quest for love look ridiculous by reminding us of how inferior Aucassin is to Nicolete. What provokes the man’s tirade against Aucassin is the latter’s allusion to his lost greyhound. The herdsman cannot understand why someone as rich as Aucassin would cry over a lost dog. Here it is important to note that Aucassin’s invention of a lost white greyhound constitutes one of the very few moments in the piece when he acts according to his own impulse.

As SunHee Kim Gertz and Paul S. Ropp have suggested, Aucassin tries to show that he too can create an image capable of communicating to others the depth of his love for Nicolete, this in response to his beloved’s own imaginative transformation of herself into a wondrous beast.[15] Aucassin fails miserably in this endeavor — the best he can come up with when trying to think of a marvelous creature is a white greyhound — and it is the herdsman who emphasizes the inadequacy of his substitution of a dog for a unique, mythical beast. On this rare occasion when Aucassin is alone and able to demonstrate his abilities as a lover and a courtly hero, the peasant he encounters reminds us of Nicolete’s infinite superiority in both domains. The episode featuring the hideous herdsman thus stresses that the young man’s masculinity is impaired. Although Aucassin possesses attributes that typically epitomize normative Christian noble masculinity, the text denounces him as a failed hero. Simply put, the parts that usually point to an idealized whole do not come together in any meaningful way in Aucassin et Nicolete, setting Aucassin further apart from other medieval heroes and masculinities.

The chantefable’s author again forces us to question his hero when he describes Aucassin’s behavior in the imaginary land of Torelore. In the kingdom of Torelore — to which Aucassin and Nicolete are taken after their flight from Beaucaire — gender roles as well as the most fundamental rules of warfare are turned upside down. Thus the king of Torelore lies in bed after the birth of his[126] son while the queen leads the army in battle. War is further perverted in this episode, for the Torelorians fight not with real weapons but with mushrooms, fresh cheeses, and rotten apples. Aucassin attempts to teach the kingdom’s ruler and people to adhere to a more conventional understanding of gender and warfare, first by beating the king until the latter has promised never to lie in childbed again, then by throwing himself on the enemy with his sword.

The majority of scholars who have looked at this episode in the chantefable — and there have been many — have seen Torelore as an inversion of the “normal” world, one where Aucassin finally learns to act as a man and a knight.[16] According to this analysis of the episode, Torelore and its people serve to emphasize the danger of Aucassin’s earlier passive behavior and lack of interest in knightly pursuits. The encounter with the king and queen of Torelore highlights the abnormality of Aucassin and Nicolete’s conduct up to this point by revealing the ridiculous extremes to which male passivity and female activity lead: a king lying in bed after the delivery of a child and a queen leading the army.[17] Here Aucassin learns by negation how to behave, a lesson that will prove useful when he succeeds his father as count of Beaucaire.

However, there are at least two problems with this received reading of the episode. First of all, Aucassin does not seem to develop as a character as a result of his stay in Torelore.[18] It is true that he becomes count of Beaucaire immediately upon his return from this strange land. One might therefore argue that his experiences in this realm of fantasy provide him with the skills necessary to act as a good and just ruler to his people. But we are never given the chance to judge what kind of a count Aucassin makes; in fact, the emphasis shifts even more noticeably towards Nicolete after the Torelore episode.[19] The only time we do see Aucassin in action after his return to Beaucaire — when Nicolete comes to him disguised as a black minstrel — he once again relegates all decision-making to her, leaving her to ensure that their marriage finally take place. Thus, although[127] one might expect Aucassin to have learned the importance of behaving in an active and knightly fashion in Torelore, the opposite seems to be the case: at the end of the chantefable, the main male character is no more dynamic than he was at the beginning. This conclusion compels us to take another look at the Torelore episode and reconsider its interpretation as a didactic moment when hero and audience alike realize the need for Aucassin to play the part of the aggressive warrior.

There exists a second difficulty with this traditional reading of the Torelore episode, namely that it does not end with a celebration of feudal life as represented by Aucassin. One might expect the episode to conclude in a resounding affirmation of the way of life embodied by our hero, with the king joyfully swearing to break with the land’s abnormal traditions. Yet such is not the case. Although the king does promise never to lie in childbed again when Aucassin beats him for doing so, the emphasis is on the hero’s violent behavior. As for the king, it remains unclear whether he is truly convinced of the need to get up from his couvade, especially when he asks, “Ha! biax sire, fait li rois, que me demandés vos? Avés vos le sens dervé, qui en me maison me batés?” [“Ah! Dear lord,” said the king, “What do you want from me? Have you lost your mind, you who beat me in my house?”].[20] With these words, the ruler of Torelore himself calls attention to the lack of judgment and moderation displayed by the young man.[21]

If affirmation of Aucassin and the way of life he stands for seems to be missing upon his first encounter with the king of Torelore, it is even more so when he attempts to rectify what he sees as the Torelorians’ inappropriate understanding of war. Once again, one might expect the inhabitants of this outlandish kingdom to show admiration for Aucassin’s aggressive martial behavior, for he kills several of the enemy before they run away. Instead, the king forces him to stop and tells him, “trop en avés vos fait: il n’est mie costume que nos entrocions li uns l’autre” [you have done too much: it is not our custom to kill one another].[22] In this the king is supported by his people, who demand that Nicolete stay in the land and marry the heir to the throne but that Aucassin be banished.

Should the king’s exhortation not to kill be taken seriously or as yet another comic moment? I would argue that we should heed the king’s words; it is he who plays the part of the wise man, tolerantly and patiently explaining the laws of the land to Aucassin in spite of the young man’s wild and destructive behavior.[23] Moreover, despite — or perhaps because of — Aucassin’s conservative approach to warfare, the episode provides yet another opportunity for our hero to appear foolish. Indeed, when Aucassin faces imminent expulsion from Torelore, it is Nicolete who must come to her lover’s rescue. She refuses the king’s son and reasserts her loyalty to Aucassin. The Torelore episode, one that initially focuses on Aucassin, presenting him as the embodiment of a normative feudal lifestyle, concludes once again with Nicolete taking charge and saving her lover. What is most interesting about this passage is that it presents the text’s audience with an alternative masculinity far more flexible than the conventional western idea about manliness with which Aucassin struggles so much. Yet when confronted with a performance of gender that is both more comfortable and more successful than his own, Aucassin rejects it.

The gender reversal in practice in Torelore not only replicates the dynamic between Aucassin and Nicolete prior to and following their adventures in this strange land but also points to a broader focus on the concept of reversal in the chantefable, one inherently tied to its nature as a Mediterranean narrative. There exists no one cultural, political, class, or gender convention sacred enough to escape the text’s irony and humor. For example, when Aucassin encounters the herdsman, his complaint about his missing Nicolete — and, one might argue, the nobility’s obsession with courtly love — is ridiculed by the peasant. Likewise, when Aucassin arrives in Torelore, he reacts to the unfamiliar culture he confronts by asserting his own understanding of gender and warfare. The resulting tension between the king of Torelore and his guest poses unsettling questions about normative medieval constructions of chivalry and gender. After all, what makes killing people more honorable than throwing cheese and mushrooms at them? What makes Aucassin’s idea of masculinity, at least as he describes it to the king, the correct one? Far from affirming the violence endemic in thirteenth-century Europe, the Torelore episode strips the aggressive chivalric behavior displayed by Aucassin of its customary value. At the end of Aucassin’s Torelorian adventures, we — and perhaps even the titular character himself — can no longer act as if Beaucaire holds the truth about how to conduct oneself in the world.

If Aucassin et Nicolete serves to instruct about Mediterranean fluidity and Latin Christian rigidity, it places special emphasis on differing gender systems. I have argued against reading the Torelore episode as a didactic moment for Aucassin, but Aucassin does learn several important lessons in Torelore: for example, he realizes that there exist other cultures with diverse approaches to life, gender, and identity. The exchange with the king of Torelore also teaches Aucassin that masculinity — and especially Mediterranean masculinity — depends upon femininity and that the two must complement each other. When the king’s behavior first suggests this to Aucassin, our protagonist reacts with the aggression expected of a product of noble chivalric society. This initial response is met first with shock, then with condemnation as the outraged people of Torelore prepare to banish their ungracious guest. Only Nicolete’s intercession saves Aucassin,[129] and when we next come across him, he asks her to make the final decision that will allow them to marry and rule Beaucaire together. In the end, Aucassin leaves Torelore a little bit wiser: while he has followed Nicolete’s lead since the beginning of the work, only then does he accept and appreciate the ability to rely on his female partner. His encounter with the Other in Torelore has finally made it possible for him to embrace his ambiguous Mediterranean masculinity.

Any attempt to discuss Aucassin’s alternate masculinity invariably leads us back to Nicolete. Nicolete goes beyond transgressing traditional gender roles; and if she does not simply celebrate the encounter between Muslims and Christians, she also presents the Mediterranean world as intrinsically valuable. Nicolete’s character epitomizes the duality of the Mediterranean itself: she is both the Self, the familiar lady of courtly love literature, and the Other, the active, crafty Saracen princess of later medieval romance. She reveals her many talents not only in her ability to compensate for Aucassin’s lack of heroic behavior but also in her capacity to adopt different, at times contradictory, roles. Thus she is at the same time beautiful heroine and active hero, white and black, Christian slave and Saracen princess, loyal sweetheart and trickster testing her lover. Even more unsettling perhaps, Nicolete shows an equal aptitude for each of these guises, displaying as much skill at playing music as she does at assessing her lover’s worth.[24]

In addition to this chameleon-like potential to change and adapt to new surroundings — one that echoes the text’s own shifting between prose and verse and between a court in France and its Mediterranean outremer — Nicolete is a character in perpetual motion.[25] From the moment we are introduced to her, Nicolete is on the move. At the very beginning of the chantefable, we are told that Nicolete has already traveled extensively: she comes from a mysterious foreign land and converted to Christianity only after arriving in Beaucaire. This initial suggestion is reinforced when Nicolete runs away from Count Garin and her foster-father. Later on, she will continue the journey begun in her infancy, first with a trip to Torelore, then one to Cartagena, before finally coming back to Beaucaire. One might argue that she does not choose to travel to Torelore and Cartagena — just as she did not choose to be enslaved and brought to Beaucaire as a child — since these journeys result from chance encounters with pirates. However, a comparison with Aucassin highlights Nicolete’s relative predilection for travel. Even accidentally, Aucassin leaves his ancestral domain only once. At stake here is Nicolete’s Mediterranean identity: Nicolete’s ability to cross the sea again and again, moving back and forth from Christendom to Muslim lands,[130] hints at her strong connection with the world of the Mediterranean. She — and not Aucassin — serves as the text’s primary representative of the Mediterranean. Yet both characters possess a bond with the Mediterranean, and both are ultimately enriched by this relationship. Nicolete must fully explore her Mediterranean identity so as to become the advisor Aucassin will need by his side once he inherits Beaucaire.[26] Both Aucassin and Nicolete have to shed their Christian French identity and become Other — doing so through the journeys they undertake — to increase their value in Latin Christian society. If the perspective through which the story is told remains Christian and French, the Mediterranean — and particularly the Saracen Mediterranean — invokes nothing but respect and admiration.

At this point, it may no longer seem so surprising to discover that Nicolete is the daughter of the Muslim king of Cartagena. By giving Nicolete a Saracen lineage, the anonymous author of Aucassin et Nicolete taps into the long-established tradition of the Saracen princess motif, one according to which a Saracen woman, usually beautiful and of high birth, is shown to betray her faith, culture, and family in order to join the Christian world through conversion and marriage to the hero. That Nicolete presents us with a character in which gender and ethnicity collide recalls the treatment of Saracen princesses in late medieval romances — for example, the fifteenth-century Middle English Sowdone of Babylon. Like other Saracen princesses, Nicolete can perform gender and ethnicity equally well. She can choose to pass as white or black just as she can act the part of the traditional heroine or adopt the role of the hero.[27] If anything, Nicolete seems to surpass her Saracen sisters in her ability to shape-shift, differing from her literary counterparts only in the reach of her talent.

That Nicolete possesses such a gift for performance could lead us to question her value as a character — as well as that of the Muslim world in general. When Nicolete disguises herself as a black male minstrel at the end of the story, her disguise allows her to pretend that she is the exact opposite of who she really is — black rather than white, male instead of female, and a commoner rather than a princess.[28] This ability to pass as the opposite of oneself initially seems to highlight the author’s anxiety at the possibility of penetration by the Saracen Other.[29] Nicolete’s disguise echoes that of William when he first enters the Saracen city[131] of Orange in La prise d’Orange, having taken the precaution of smearing his face with black dye so as to blend in with the dark-skinned Saracens. In Aucassin et Nicolete, however, it is not the Christian hero who possesses the power to assume a different identity and move fluidly across boundaries but the Saracen-born heroine, and the text conveys a very different message from La prise d’Orange. Here the emphasis lies on the fluidity and ambiguity of difference between the two halves of the medieval Mediterranean — especially when viewed from the class perspective of the nobility. The text shows the porousness of these boundaries, suggesting that class superseded religious difference in the Latin Christian Mediterranean.

The other Saracen characters in the work can also appear menacing. In addition to Nicolete herself, the Saracens are represented by three distinct groups: (1) the nameless Saracen merchants who sell Nicolete to her Christian foster-father; (2) the men who capture the castle of Torelore, thereby causing the lovers’ second and final separation; and (3) Nicolete’s Saracen family personified in the king of Cartagena. To begin with the Saracen merchants, those who kidnap and sell Nicolete to the vassal of Garin of Beaucaire are the direct cause of her predicament.[30] It is they who are responsible not only for Nicolete’s loss of freedom but also for her loss, perhaps more important, of her own knowledge and understanding of her place in society. Unlike the merchants who are likewise accountable for the capture and enslavement of Rennewart in Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Willehalm, the Saracen merchants in Aucassin et Nicolete compound their crime by failing to transmit the secret of her royal birth, thereby making it impossible for Garin to accept her as his future daughter-in-law. The men who assault and take the castle in Torelore, then capture the lovers and separate them, seem equally threatening.

Yet both sets of Saracens ultimately serve a positive function in the story. If the Saracen merchants who capture and sell Nicolete are responsible for her loss of freedom and status, they are also to be lauded for bringing her to Europe, enriching Garin’s lands with a unique and highly valued commodity. The second group of Saracens likewise plays an important and constructive role in the narrative. These men return Nicolete to the Saracen world, enabling her to gain[132] crucial information about her birth and status.[31] Virginia M. Green has argued that commerce and financial exchanges are essential to the plot and meaning of the chantefable, and, throughout the text, it is the Saracens who are portrayed as the principal agents of such transactions.[32] Saracens — whether they be merchants or invaders — function as the link between East and West, Christians and Saracens, and, in doing so, they also act as agents of change, transmitting precious Saracen commodities and knowledge to the Christian world. That Latin Christendom and those who inhabit it continue to grow and develop depends in large part on the goods made accessible to them by the Saracens.

As for Nicolete’s father, he is portrayed in even more unambiguously positive terms than the Saracen merchants and raiders. In addition to identifying Nicolete as a princess, the king of Cartagena serves as a positive foil to Aucassin’s Christian father, Garin of Beaucaire. Here it is important to note what the king of Cartagena does and does not do upon recovering his long-lost daughter. Nicolete’s royal father does try to arrange an alliance between Nicolete and a Saracen king. But when Nicolete runs away, he is not portrayed as stubbornly attempting to force her into this loveless match — something Garin might happily have done to Aucassin had an alliance with a princess or a count’s daughter been possible. Nor is the king of Cartagena shown to use violence in trying to rein in his rebellious daughter, providing a positive contrast to Garin in this respect as well. Finally, the Saracen king’s actions can be justified and explained in a way that Garin’s cannot. Finding that his daughter is alive and now a marriageable young woman of about eighteen, it is his duty and obligation as her father to present her with a suitable match. Having been separated from Nicolete for most of her life, Nicolete’s biological father cannot be expected to know of the depth of her feelings for Aucassin, and this ignorance exculpates him. In contrast, Garin of Beaucaire’s knowledge of the lovers’ feelings for each other makes him bear the full responsibility for dividing the two young people. The Saracen father thus appears much more understanding than his Christian counterpart.[33]

A Saracen princess, pirates, multiple examples of international trade and commerce: Aucassin et Nicolete is filled with Mediterranean elements that, while initially perceived as a mere illustrative backdrop, are in fact crucial to the development of the story as a whole. Moreover, the text’s Mediterranean features carry highly positive value, this even when they appear threatening at the outset. I have argued above that trade with the Muslim world ultimately serves a positive function for Latin Christendom. As for Nicolete herself, she continuously exerts a constructive influence on Aucassin, teaching him by example to become more active, leading him on adventures that he could never have undertaken on his own, and eventually returning to Beaucaire to rule his lands by his side.

That Nicolete can accomplish so much hinges almost entirely on her identification as a Mediterranean princess, the Saracen daughter of the king of Cartagena. The figure of the Saracen princess stands for a literary convention that has become both well established and highly popular by the beginning of the thirteenth century. Revealing that Nicolete is really a Saracen princess places our anonymous chantefable in company with such great and diverse medieval texts as, amongst others, La chanson de Roland, Le cycle de Guillaume d’Orange, and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival and Willehalm. The author of Aucassin et Nicolete knows of his audience’s exposure to the Saracen princess motif, and it is this familiarity that he intends to use not only to increase the appeal of his narrative but also to render Nicolete’s active and independent behavior acceptable. As a Saracen princess — and especially one connected with the Mediterranean — she is allowed and even expected to go off on adventures alone, escape from prison, lure her lover back to her in the middle of the forest and so on and so forth. While the fact that Nicolete was born a Saracen makes it fully permissible for her to act in this fashion, her Mediterranean background grants her the ability to blend and pass between Christian and Muslim worlds.

Not only does Nicolete’s Saracen birth make her the feisty heroine we know and love but it further allows the anonymous author of Aucassin et Nicolete to raise important questions about genre and gender, particularly by exploring Aucassin’s alternative and unconventional masculinity. Although Aucassin is introduced as the embodiment of Latin Christian masculinity, the chantefable’s author makes it clear early on that his character is in fact the very opposite of the ideal medieval hero. From his lack of activity to his relegation of all major decision-making to Nicolete, Aucassin displays none of the features found in conventional heroes of high and late medieval narratives. Such a treatment of the text’s hero could be read as simple parody, and, indeed, the work’s reversal of its audience’s expectations adds greatly to its comic effect. However, the inclusion of the Torelore episode illustrates that more is at stake than simple fun at Aucassin’s expense. While Aucassin reveals his inability to embrace his unusual masculinity in Torelore, his exchange with Nicolete at the end of the work suggests that he has come to value rather than reject or deny it. Throughout this process, Nicolete’s status as a Saracen woman plays a vital role, for it enables her to serve as Aucassin’s positive[134] foil and adopt the role of the hero prior to taking her rightful place as co-ruler of Beaucaire.

By investigating what it means to be a hero, the narrative thus poses deeper questions about popular genres such as romance, whose protagonists must display a certain number of required attributes and provide specific models for noble audiences. More important perhaps, the text presents its audience with the possibility that there exist multiple masculinities that need not always conform to the ideal found in romances and other contemporary narratives. Aucassin et Nicolete advocates for gender flexibility, stressing that it does not matter whether husband or wife assume the more active role as long as the two complement each other and work toward a common goal.

Through Nicolete and her capacity to take on multiple roles and guises, the chantefable further addresses issues of ethnicity and identity. In the end, how can we classify Nicolete? Is she a Christian countess or a Saracen princess? At what point does she become more Christian than Saracen? And where does the troubling episode about her disguise as a black minstrel fit in our attempts to understand who and what she really is? Perhaps these questions are not answered quite as satisfactorily as those about Aucassin, and Nicolete remains, to some extent, a mystery to the chantefable’s audience. What we do know at the end of Aucassin et Nicolete is that the tale’s heroine, however we might want to label her, will remain by Aucassin’s side and that Beaucaire will be the better off for her Mediterranean connections.


Aucassin et Nicolete. Translated by Philippe Walter. Paris: Folio, 1999.

Bloch, R. Howard. Etymologies and Genealogies: A Literary Anthropology of the French Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Brownlee, Kevin. “Discourse as Proueces in Aucassin et Nicolette.” Yale French Studies 70 (1986): 167–82.

Brundage, James A. Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Clark, S. L., and Julian Wasserman. “Wisdom Buildeth a Hut: Aucassin et Nicolette as Christian Comedy.” Allegorica 1 (1976): 250–68.

Clevenger, Darnell H. “Torelore in Aucassin et Nicolette.” Romance Notes 11 (1970): 656–65.

De Weever, Jacqueline. “Nicolette’s Blackness — Lost in Translation.” Romance Notes 34 (1994): 317–25.

———. Sheba’s Daughters: Whitening and Demonizing the Saracen Woman in Medieval French Epic. New York: Garland, 1998.

DuBruck, Edelgard E. “The Audience of Aucassin et Nicolete: Confidant, Accomplice and Judge of Its Author.” Michigan Academician: Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 5 (1972): 193–201.

Duby, Georges. Medieval Marriage: Two Models from Twelfth-Century France. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

———. The Knight, the Lady and the Priest: The Making of Modern Marriage in Medieval France. Translated by Barbara Bray. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

———. Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages. Translated by Jane Dunnett. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Gertz, SunHee Kim, and Paul S. Ropp. “Literary Women, Fiction and Marginalization: Nicolette and Shuangqing.” Comparative Literature Studies 35 (1998): 219–54.

Gilbert, Jane. “The Practice of Gender in Aucassin et Nicolette.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 33 (1997): 217–28.

Green, Virginia M. “Aucassin et Nicolette: The Economics of Desire.” Neophilologus 79 (1995): 197–206.

Harden, Robert. “Aucassin et Nicolette as Parody.” Studies in Philology 63 (1966): 1–9.

Holmes, Urban T. “Preface.” In Aucassin et Nicolete, trans. Moyer and Eldridge, v–viii. Chapel Hill, NC: Robert Linker, 1937.

Hunt, Tony. “La parodie médiévale: le cas d’Aucassin et Nicolette.” Romania 100 (1979): 341–81.

Jodogne, Omer. “La parodie et le pastiche dans Aucassin et Nicolette.” Cahiers de l’Association Internationale des Études Françaises 12 (1960): 53–65.

Kinoshita, Sharon. “Medieval Mediterranean Literature.” PMLA 124 (2009): 600–608.

McKean, Sister M. Faith. “Torelore and Courtoisie.” Romance Notes 3 (1962): 64–68.

Menocal, Maria Rosa. “Signs of the Times: Self, Other and History in Aucassin et Nicolette.” Romanic Review 80 (1989): 497–511.

Metlitzki, Dorothee. The Matter of Araby in Medieval England. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Pauphilet, Albert. Le Legs du Moyen Age. Melun: Librairie d’Argences, 1950.

Payen, Jean-Charles. Le Moyen Age I: Des origines à 1300. Paris: Arthaud, 1970.

Ramey, Lynn Tarte. Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Sargent, Barbara Nelson. “Parody in Aucassin et Nicolette: Some Further Considerations.” French Review 43 (1970): 597–605.

Segol, Marla. “Medieval Cosmopolitanism and the Saracen-Christian Ethos.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 6 (2004): no pages.

Smith, Nathaniel B. “The Uncourtliness of Nicolette.” In Voices of Conscience: Essays on Medieval and Modern French Literature in Memory of James D. Powell and Rosemary Hodgins, ed. Raymond J. Cormier, 169–82. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977.

Spraycar, Rudy S. “Genre and Convention in Aucassin et Nicolette.” Romanic Review 76 (1985): 94–115.

Szabics, Imre. “Amour et prouesse dans Aucassin et Nicolette.” In Et c’est la fin pour quoy sommes ensemble: Hommage à Jean Dufournet: Littérature, histoire et langue du Moyen Age, ed. Jean-Claude Aubailly et al. 3 vols., 3: 1341–49. Paris: Champion, 1993.

  1. The first to identify and explore the literary motif of the Saracen princess was Metlitzki in her 1977 monograph The Matter of Araby in Medieval England. However, the motif did not garner much critical attention until the 1990s. Several important studies, such as de Weever’s Sheba’s Daughters and Ramey’s Christian, Saracen and Genre in Medieval French Literature, have since examined the topic. 
  2. Kinoshita, “Medieval Mediterranean Literature,” 601. 
  3. Holmes, “Preface,” v–viii. 
  4. A brief summary of a few of the theories concerned with this question will suffice to show the variety of opinion on the subject: in “Aucassin et Nicolette as Parody,” Harden suggests that the chantefable parodies the idyllic novel. Expanding Harden’s argument, Sargent (“Parody in Aucassin et Nicolette,” 605) has argued that “the creator of Aucassin was indulging in a light-handed and good-natured mockery of the whole art of fiction as practiced at the time, packing into a few dozen pages an astonishing number of ‘mistakes,’ i.e. deliberate infractions of the rules of composition both as expounded by the theorists and as put into practice by writers of fiction.” Going even further than Sargent, Spraycar (“Genre and Convention in Aucassin et Nicolette”) proposes that it is conventionality itself that the anonymous author of the chantefable wishes to render humorous. For a comprehensive survey of the work done on the use of parody in Aucassin et Nicolete, see Spraycar, “Genre and Convention”; see also Jodogne, “La parodie et le pastiche dans Aucassin et Nicolette,” for the multiple ways in which the author uses parody. 
  5. Smith was the first to raise the issue of Nicolete’s role in the chantefable in 1977 in his “The Uncourtliness of Nicolette.” 
  6. Gertz and Ropp, “Literary Women, Fiction and Marginalization”; Gilbert, “The Practice of Gender in Aucassin et Nicolette.” 
  7. Segol, “Medieval Cosmopolitanism and the Saracen-Christian Ethos.” 
  8. Ramey, Christian, Saracen and Genre, 80. 
  9. Medieval texts focusing on Latin Christian interaction with the Muslim world include La chanson de Roland, Le cycle de Guillaume d’Orange, Floire et Blancheflor, and the thirteenth-century Middle High German Willehalm. Other less well-known works such as the late Middle English romances The King of Tars, Sir Bevis of Hampton, and The Sultan of Babylon also belong to this widespread and highly popular medieval tradition. 
  10. Such examples of deviant masculinity as Aucassin and Erec are far less likely to occur in chansons de geste than in romances. 
  11. Aucassin et Nicolete, trans. Walter, 112–14. Throughout this essay I use Walter’s edition of the work. 
  12. All translations are mine. 
  13. Payen, Le Moyen Age I, 173. 
  14. For two articles belonging to this school of thought, see DuBruck, “The Audience of Aucassin et Nicolete”; and Clark and Wasserman, “Wisdom Buildeth A Hut,” 251. 
  15. Gertz and Ropp, “Literary Women,” 243. 
  16. Amongst others who have subscribed to this interpretation of the Torelore episode, McKean (“Torelore and Courtoisie,” 64), has argued that “in the much-maligned Torelore episode . . . the reversal of roles [is] so obvious that even the courtly lover had to realize its foolishness.” Here is a small sample of the theories that have sprung from this reading of the Torelore episode: Harden (“Aucassin et Nicolette as Parody,” 6–7) and Spraycar (“Genre and Convention,” 110) see Torelore as emphasizing the danger of Aucassin’s earlier behavior while Brownlee (“Discourse as Proueces in Aucassin et Nicolette,” 171) contends that Torelore underscores Aucassin’s inadequacy as the text’s locus of proueces and Szabics (“Amour et prouesse dans Aucassin et Nicolette,” 1348) proposes that the episode constitutes the author’s response to Garin of Beaucaire’s earlier exhortation to his son to fight. 
  17. Clevenger, “Torelore in Aucassin et Nicolette,” 661; Gilbert, “The Practice of Gender,” 218. 
  18. Hunt, “La parodie médiévale,” 370; Gertz and Ropp, “Literary Women,” 229. 
  19. Brownlee, “Discourse as Proueces.” 
  20. Aucassin et Nicolete, 132. 
  21. Clark and Wasserman (“Wisdom Buildeth a Hut,” 261) claim that Aucassin reveals his lack of moderation and judgment when he kills several of the mock combatants attacking Torelore with cheese, mushrooms, and rotten apples. I would argue that the same can be said for his earlier assault on the king of Torelore. 
  22. Aucassin et Nicolete, 136. 
  23. [128] I disagree with Jodogne’s depiction (“La parodie et le pastiche,” 61) of Aucassin as a wise man among fools in Torelore.
  24. This kind of duality is not restricted to Mediterranean heroines. In the early fourteenth-century Middle English romance Sir Bevis of Hampton, the Saracen princess Josian presents many of the same potentially duplicitous characteristics as Nicolete. Like Nicolete, for example, Josian disguises herself as a minstrel. 
  25. In this respect as well, she stands in stark contrast to Aucassin, a character who prefers to weep and lament rather than take action. 
  26. That the work ends with Nicolete serving the dual function of Beaucarian ambassador to the Mediterranean and permanent Mediterranean presence in Beaucaire bears witness to the power of the Mediterranean as a political force as well as one that shapes individual performances of gender. 
  27. For more on Nicolete’s blackface performance at the end of the chantefable, see Menocal, “Signs of the Times”; and de Weever, “Nicolette’s Blackness — Lost in Translation.” 
  28. Ramey, Christian, Saracen and Genre, 86. 
  29. Ramey, Christian, Saracen and Genre, 86. 
  30. Merchants are mentioned twice in the chantefable. The first reference to trade occurs when Nicolete is described as having been purchased from merchants, designated twice as Sarasins. On another occasion, the man who sold Nicolete is labeled a Saisne, a term originally used for Saxons but later applied to non-Christians in general: Aucassin et Nicolete, 189. The second group of merchants encountered by Aucassin and Nicolete bring our hero and heroine to Torelore. Unlike the men who sold Nicolete to her foster-father, these are designated by the generic term marceans. This reinforces the impression that Saracens are presented as frightening and evil in the work, for only the least appealing of the merchants — those who engage in slavery — are clearly indicated to be Saracens. 
  31. This particular group epitomizes the ambiguous nature of the relationship with the Saracen world in Aucassin et Nicolete; while their purpose seems to be to cause pain and violence, their interference in fact leads to the permanent reunion of the two lovers: Pauphilet, Le Legs du Moyen Age, 244. 
  32. Green (“Aucassin et Nicolette, 197) also emphasizes that Nicolete is treated as a valuable commodity, but Segol (“Medieval Cosmopolitanism”) points out that, when Nicolete disguises herself as a jongleur at the end of the text, she becomes both merchant and merchandise, assuming control of her own exchange to Aucassin and Latin Christendom. 
  33. [133] Of course, in reality, few, if any, fathers cared about the feelings of their noble daughters. Rather, noble parents sought to forge political alliances that would further their bloodlines. See Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe; Duby, Medieval Marriage; Duby, The Knight, the Lady and the Priest; Duby, Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages; and Bloch, Etymologies and Genealogies

About the author


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Gender in the Premodern Mediterranean Copyright © 2023 by Meriem Pagès is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Share This Book