Published in 1947, this is the third book of The Folio Society. Charles Ede regarded it as one of the most successful designs of the early Society. It was printed in Britain by the Chiswick Press. Caslon Old Face type, White grained cloth , blocked in blue with a fleur-de-lys pattern. There was an acetate dust jacket. This was the first book printed in England, as paper restrictions had been imposed after the war and only short books (this was 64 pages) were allowed to be printed. There were 44 drawings by Lettice Sandford, some of which, along with sections of the text, are shown here.
Aucassin and Nicolette is a medieval French chante – fable. Aucassin falls in love with Nicolette, a slave girl. His father, the Count of Beaucaire forbids the match. Her owner and godfather imprisons her to prevent Aucassin seeing her. The Count of Beaucaire is at war with the Count of Valence. Although Aucassin has no taste for war he agrees to help his father fight on the promise that he will be allowed to say a few words and share a kiss with Nicolette. Once the battle is won his father reneges on the promise and imprisons Aucassin. Nicolette escapes from her godfather’s palace and manages to speak to Aucassin through his prison’s wall. She then flees into the countryside. Assuming that Nicolette is either dead or long gone, the Count releases Aucassin. Aucassin then decides to try and find Nicolette, and finds her in the forest. He and Nicolette then escape by ship to Torelore. There they find the king in child – bed while his wife is with the army. The man in bed at the time of birthing is a custom called couvarde and Aucassin beats the king and extracts a promise that this practice will be forbidden in the future throughout his kingdom. There then follows an absurd episode where the king and Aucassin go to the battlefield to find that the fight involves various foodstuffs. Aucassin and Nicolette live happily at the castle until it is attacked by a band of Saracens and both are captured and put in separate ships. Aucassin’s ship is wrecked, and he finds himself ashore in Beaucaire, where he learns that his parents are dead and he is now the ruler of Beaucaire. Nicolette is brought to Carthage, where it is realised that she is the daughter of the king. She remains in love with Aucassin.
To escape an arranged marriage she disguises herself and takes passage to Beaucaire. Still in disguise she sings to Aucassin about Nicolette. Aucassin asks her to fetch her and she promises to do so. She goes to her godmother’s house and she has a makeover and then Aucassin is brought to her….and they live happily ever after.
The author of this work is unknown. There is a single copy of the manuscript in old French which is held in the Biblioteque Nationale de France
Here is a facsimile of the original with a modern French translation and introductory commentary (in French)
Chantefables are a literary form where songs and prose are alternated to tell a story. Aucassin & Nicolette is the only surviving example from medieval France. The form has been documented in other cultures, including the Chinese. In a sense, modern day musicals, such as West Side Story, continue the tradition.
Bourdillon was also a poet as well as a translator, and this may be why his translation is preferred by some. Bourdillon’s most famous poem is “The Night has a Thousand Eyes”
The night has a thousand eyes,
And the day but one;
Yet the light of the bright world dies
With the dying sun.
The mind has a thousand eyes,
And the heart but one:
Yet the light of a whole life dies
When love is done.
The illustrations were made by Lettice Sandford who also illustrated Arabian Love Tales in 1949 and Lancelot & Guinevre in 1953
Although it could be seen as a medieval Mills and Boon, the work has also been seen as a treatise on courtly love, a parody about courtly love, a comedy or a proto-feminist manifesto.
Best read it for yourself (the Bourdillon translation is on Gutenberg as well as the Lang) and make your own decision regarding its merits.