questioning masculinities: medieval chantefable Aucassin et Nicolette

Literary criticism of the social erection of gender has complicated sexual/textual scenarios of hegemonic negative images of the masculine. Lack of attention to masculine difference has contributed to a dry gap in medieval literary studies directed toward overcoming traditional forms of gender domination. I want to situate my work in readings that validate the multiplicity of voices within the fluid system of gender that throughout history has always been a long hard shaft on men’s bodies. Unpacking the complicated rhetoric that has always oppressed men requires questioning overdetermined universalizing claims of idyllic innocence, ideologically (im)posed. Meninist study of the singular medieval French chantefable Aucassin et Nicolette can contribute to complicating the essential ambiguity of gender. It serves as a necessary first step to opening the question of masculinities and heteronormativity, not just to secure better public appreciation for medieval literature, but also to advance the more general literary project of human emancipation.

Aucassin et Nicolette signifies the merely titular social position of men with its ironic epideictic gesture of supporting class hierarchy through social titles. In contrast to the obvious performative context of the text, when the parole became the embodied langue in the manuscript materiality, it acquired the title C’est d’Aucasin et de Nicolete {This is of Aucasin and Nicolet}. The acquisition of titles participates in the social process of generating and supporting class structures. The Lacanian deictic “this” slips the signifier of the manuscript materiality into longer chains of social domination. The body of the text reveals the inscribed marking of socially constructed gender order in the separate circuit of social performance quite apart from the commodified circulation of textual artifacts:

Of two small, fair children,
Nicolette and Aucassin.

{ De deus biax enfans petis,
Nicholete et Aucassins }

The bodily characterization of stature, widely mis-interpreted as essentially a biological measurement, floats dialectically against the textual construction of “Nicholete” and “Aucassins” as young adults. That complicating of representation signifies the ensuing inversion of titular positions of Aucassin and Nicolette, refashioned with the violent transformation and displacement of the soft breathing h into the coronal-dental stopped t and terminated with the slippery, unitary-marked s. These transformations, suppressed in non-meninist ethics of reading subservient to the capitalist production of standard texts from the multiplicity of individual, particularistic manuscripts, represent the negative and positive fetishizations of gender polarity and the material imbrications of gyno-primacy.

The displacement and Othering of men as persons to be attacked and laid low, represented in the cultural violence of naming, is embodied in men’s captivity in sickness to be cured only at the effortless whim of the master-woman. Consistent with the history of oppressive displacement of men from their homes and alienation of men from their children, Aucassin is named as a Muslim Other to be driven from the European home and subject to violent attack. He is permitted within the home only within conditions of cultural-colonial subservience that produce human psycho-somatic sickness. That, like everything else, is gendered. The unknowable gender domination, so difficult to extirpate precisely because of its liminal ontological status in non-meninist discourse, is evident in the Kristeva-Irigaray reversal of abnegation merely through the presence of the master-woman Nicolette:

This I saw some yesterday,
how a pilgrim on his way —
Limousin his land was — lay
fevered on a bed within.
Grievous had his sickness been,
great the fever he was in.
By his bedside Nicolette
passing, lifted skirt and let —
beneath her pretty ermine frock,
beneath her snowy linen smock —
just a dainty ankle show.
Lo, the sick man healed, and lo,
felt himself as not before.
From his bed he rose once more,
and to his own land did flit,
whole and sound, not sick a bit.

{ L’autr’ ier vi un pelerin,
nes estoit de Limosin,
malades de l’esvertin.
si gisoit ens en un lit,
mout par estoit entrepris,
de grant mal amaladis;
tu passas devant son lit,
si soulevas ton traïn
et ton peliçon ermin,
la cemisse de blanc lin,
tant que ta ganbete vit:
garis fu li pelerins
et tos sains, ainc ne fu si;
si se leva de son lit,
si rala en son païs
sains et saus et tos garis. }

This ideological cure, figured as a brief displacement of Nicolette’s material wealth in attire, parallels the racist coloring of European racism historically and textually linked to the straight-jacket of heteronormativity ideologically constructed as healing. The meninist work of loosening the tightly bound bindings of these representations is the liberating task of the critical scholar confronting the horrors of imaginative literature. Much work remains to be done.

The wounding of men is wound within the clash of subordinated signified and signifier in men-on-men violence institutionalized as war. In Aucassin et Nicolette, war is mediated through universal gender signifiers obscure to the unknowing masculine observers:

“Sir,” said Aucassin, “now take me to where your wife is with the army!” “Sir, willingly!” said the King. He mounted a horse, and Aucassin mounted his, and Nicolete remained behind in the queen’s chambers. And the King and Aucassin rode on till they came to where the Queen was, and they found the battle was with roasted crab-apples, and eggs, and fresh cheeses.

{ “Sire,” fait Aucassins, “or me menés la u vostre femme est en l’ost.” “Sire, volentiers,” fait li rois. Il monte sor un ceval, et Aucassins monte sor le sien, et Nicolete remest es canbres la roine. Et li rois et Aucassins cevaucierent tant qu’il vinrent la u la roine estoit, et troverent la bataille de poms de bos waumonnés et d’uetis et de fres fromages; et Aucassins les conmença a regarder, se s’en esmevella molt durement. }

Separated from Nicolette who has been left behind in a traditional position of gender power, Aucassin’s request, “take me,” and the King’s response, “willingly,” show the promise of non-hierarchical affiliation among men, underscored in the King’s rejection of his gender-normative role as subject and object of violence in war. But that gesture is complicit with dominance as seen through the reversed plot trajectory and the symbolic media of war: roasted crab-apples, indicating the expulsion of Adam from Eden and the gender structure of mass incarceration; eggs, implicitly subordinating male homosexual affiliation with a socially constructed signifier of male biological insufficiency; and fresh cheese, which of course is made with richly gendered milk. Institutional and representational support for violence against men is woven throughout the imaginative terrain of the stories we tell ourselves, reproducing our selves and our reality, as Foucault has shown, in accordance with micro-structures of power and gender oppression.

Continuing along the reversed plot trajectory, the reader immediately recognizes the violence that supports the traditional gender hierarchy within the capillaries of men subordinated into the position of the Other as subject-object of violence. The King was in bed, having rejected war and instead embracing labor to give birth to a new social order of non-violence, non-subordination, and communal production. But under the capitalistic order already well-developed in the commercial society of medieval France through to the present, men’s work isn’t recognized as work if it doesn’t serve the traditional gynocentric order of violence against men and alienation of men from their children and homes. Aucassin, with the false consciousness endemic among oppressed classes exposed through meninist theory, responds violently to the King’s initiative to overturn the traditional gender order:

When Aucassin heard the king speak thus, he took all the clothes which were on him and flung them down the room. He saw behind him a stick. He took it and turned and struck him, and beat him so that he nearly killed him. “Ah, fair sir,” said the king, “what do you demand of me? Have you lost your wits, you who beat me in my own house?” “By God’s heart,” said Aucassin, “foul son of a whore, I will kill you, if you do not promise me that never again shall any man in your land lie in bed to give birth!”

{ Quant Aucassins oï ensi le roi parler, il prist tox les dras qui sor lui estoient, si les houla aval le canbre; il vit deriere lui un baston, il le prist, si torne, si fiert, si le bati tant que mort le dut avoir. “Ha! biax sire,” fait li rois, “que me demandés vos? Avés vos le sens dervé, qui ers me maison me batés?” “Par le cuer Diu!” fait Aucassins, “malvais fix a putain, je vos ocirai, se vos ne m’afiés que ja mais hom en vo tere d’enfant ne gerra.” }

Aucassin strips the King naked to present as text the male biology that traditionally has justified men’s subordination and the social system of violence against men, including domestic violence, that denies men even their homes as safe places. A new social order that liberates men from gender will not be born until men recognize that they as a gender must take the lead in producing that liberating birth. That means rejecting the hatred of men coded within the gender-educational system that colonizes men’s self-consciousness and even directs them to violence against themselves at the service of gynocentric social values. The non-meninist alternative is continuing the regime of personal and civilizational self-destruction resulting from obliteration of men’s independent self-worth:

Once you’ve been in bed with another man, don’t think I’ll wait until I find a knife with which I might stab myself in the heart and kill myself. No, truly, I wouldn’t wait that long. I would fling myself toward wherever I might see a wall or a grey stone. There I would dash my head against it so hard that I would make my eyes spurt out, and I’d beat my brains out completely.

{ puis que vos ariiés jut en lit a home, s’el mien non, or ne quidiés mie que j’atendisse tant que je trovasse coutel dont je me peusce ferir el cuer et ocirre. Naie voir, tant n’atenderoie je mie; ains ’esquelderoie de si lonc que je verroie une maisiere u une bisse pierre, s’i hurteroie si durement me teste que j’en feroie les ex voler et que je m’escerveleroie tos: encor ameroie je mix a morir de si faite mort que je seusce que vos eusciés jut en lit a home, s’el mien non. }

This reversed micro-plot trajectory in Aucassin et Nicolette is the historically situated master narrative that meninist literary understanding, or any literary understanding, must confront.

The question(s) of masculinities should no longer be questioned. Meninist literary criticism can push beyond complicating the ambiguities that protrude from the textual body of Aucassin et Nicolette. Moistening the ground of literary receptivity and planting seeds of literary understanding amid a multiplicity of texts and interpretations is necessary to reproduce a literary civilization and to emancipate men from traditional gender domination in the long history of gynocentrism. That’s a responsibility that everyone should enjoy.

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Read more:


The surviving manuscript of Aucassin and Nicolette is Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Fonds Français 2168, ff 70-80. The Umilita website has an excellent page on Aucassin and Nicolette. That page includes the Old French source text (from the late-twelfth or early-thirteenth century) and a modernized version of the English translation of Lang (1895). Bourdillon (1887) includes the Old French text, an English translation, and a glossary of relevant Old French terms. Above I’ve used Bourdillon’s translation, with some changes. Other English translations freely available on line are Lang (1895), Mason (1910), and Kline (2001).

Bourdillon (1887), writing after proliferation of (realistic) novels and widespread commercialization of photography, lamented “these photographic days” in describing Aucassin and Nicolette:

we occasionally turn with relief from the wit and insight and subtlety of our modern novelists to the old uncomplicated tales of faerie or romance, and find them after all more moving, more tender, even more real, than all the laboured realism of these photographic days. And here before us is of all pretty love-stories perhaps the prettiest.

Lang (1895) hints at mixed genre in Aucassin and Nicolette:

charming medley of sentiment and humour, of a smiling compassion and sympathy with a touch of mocking mirth. … What lives in it, what makes it live, is the touch of poetry, of tender heart, of humorous resignation

Mason (1910) describes Aucassin and Nicollete as a lyrical flower of love that miraculously bloomed within the Dark Ages:

The most lyric and lovely of early French romances is preserved to us by a single copy in the National Library of Paris. Without that one ill-written manuscript the world would have been poorer by how exquisite a dream! Had not this unique bloom remained, it would have been impossible to imagine so rare and delicate a flower could have sprung in the unsheltered fields of mediaeval France. … in it he has caged his dream of love, and has revealed so delicate a sense of beauty, as would not have seemed possible to a strolling player of mediaeval France.

Aucassin and Nicolette seems to me to have some similarities with the story of Aziz and Aziza in 1001 Nights. Harden (1966) and Sargent (1970) provide insightful literary analysis. In considering Aucassin and Nicolette, Gilbert (1997) describes the dominant, “generally accepted” view of gender among literary scholars:

It has been pointed out repeatedly in recent decades that our society grounds its folk conceptions of gender in a notion of “sexual biology”. Foucault showed how the modern western concept of sex as “before and beyond” culture – untouchable, unchanging, universal – is only a mythologisation of our native notions of gender. In other words, the old distinction between biological Sex and cultural Gender is an unsustainable ideological construction: the whole notion of biological sex is itself a product of the modern West, designed to shore up our gender system. We cannot, therefore, expect other cultures to join us, either in recognising the same “biological facts” of sex as we do, or in giving those “facts” any particular cultural significance.

Gender scholarship within this dominant ideology has utterly failed to understand men being incarcerated for doing nothing more than having consensual sex and being poor, the overturning of the French Revolution’s promise of planned parenthood for men, the naturalization of men’s lifespan shortfall, the social construction of objective measurements of sexism, and many other significant aspects of our gender system.


Bourdillon, Francis William, ed. and trans. 1887. Aucassin et Nicolete: an old-French love story. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co. (revised English translation)

Gilbert, Jane. 1997. “The practice of gender in Aucassin et Nicolette.” Forum for Modern Language Studies. 33 (3): 217-228.

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

Kline, A.S., trans. 2001. Aucassin and Nicolette. Poetry in Translation, online.

Lang, Andrew, trans. 1895. Aucassin & Nicolette. Portland, Me: T.B. Mosher.

Mason, Eugene, trans. 1910. Aucassin & Nicollete, and other mediaeval romances and legends. London: J.M. Dent & Sons. (more accessible pdf of translation)

Sargent, Barbara Nelson. 1970. “Parody in Aucassin et Nicolette: Some Further Considerations.” The French Review. 43 (4): 597-605.

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