half a century

My darling Jack is turning fifty in a few weeks time. Now, a milestone such as that calls for an extra special hand-made present, but with the end of semester looming, and mountains of marking about to flood in, it'll be cutting it fine to get the project I have in mind completed in time. I'll give it a good try though!

What I'm planning to make is a medieval pop-up book using Jack's beautiful translation of a poem by Marie de France called 'The Nightingale'. It's a tragic narrative poem about the doomed love between a knight and the beautiful wife of his neighbour, a jealous knight who exacts a cruel revenge on the pair.

I've copied Jack's English translation of the poem below. If you're a sentimental sort like me, make sure you have a tissue on hand before you read it:

The Nightingale

Translated from Marie de France’s Laüstic (c.1180)

by Jack Ross

The story that I’ll tell today
the Bretons made into a lay:
Laüstic they called the tale
French rossignol – or nightingale.
By Saint Malo there was a town
famed far and wide, of great renown.
Two knights lived there in luxury:
fine houses, servants, horses, money.
One had married a lady fair
wise, discreet and debonair
(she kept her temper wonderfully
considering her company).
The other was a bachelor
well known among the townsfolk there
for his courage and his courtesy
and for treating people honourably.

He went to all the tournaments,
(neglecting solider investments)
and loved the wife of his neighbour.
He begged so many boons from her
she felt he had to be deserving
and loved him more than anything –
as much for the good he’d done before
as for the fact he lived next door.
Wisely and well they loved each other
avoiding undue fuss and bother
by keeping everything discreet.
This was the way they managed it:
because their houses stood side by side
there wasn’t much they couldn’t hide
behind those solid walls of stone.
The lady, when she was alone,
would go to the window of her room

and lean across to talk to him.
They swapped small tokens of their love:
he from below, she from above.
Nothing interfered with them.
No-one noticed, or poked blame.
However, they could not aspire
to reach the peak of their desire
because there was so strict a guard
on all her movements. It was hard,
but still they had the consolation
of leaning out in any season
to exchange sighs across the gap.
No-one could stop that access up.
They loved each other for so long
that summer came – green buds, birdsong:
the orchards waxed into full bloom
bringing amorous airs with them,

and little birds carolled their joy
from the tip of every spray.
The knight and lady of whom I speak
felt their resistance growing weak –
when love wafts out from every flower
it’s no surprise you feel it more!
At night, when the moon shone outside,
she’d leave her husband sleeping, glide
wrapped only in a mantle, till
she fetched up at the window sill.
Her lover did the selfsame thing,
sat by his window pondering,
and there he’d watch her half the night.
This simple act gave them delight.
So often did she do it that
her husband started to smell a rat.

He asked her where she went at night
and why she rose before first light.
“Sir,” the lady said to him,
“It’s more than just a passing whim.
I hear the nightingale sing
and have to sit here listening.
So sweet his voice is in the night
to hear it is supreme delight,
the joy it gives me is so deep
I can’t just close my eyes and sleep.”
Her husband heard this glib reply
and laughed once: coarsely, angrily.
He thought at once of thwarting her
by catching the bird in a snare.
His serving men were rounded up
and put to work on net and trap
to hang on every single tree
in his entire property.
They wove so many strings and glue
the bird was caught without ado.

When the nightingale was caught
they brought it living to the knight.
This exploit pleased him mightily;
he went at once to see his lady.
“Lady,” said he, “where are you?
Come here; this concerns you too.
I’ve snared that little bird, whose song
has been keeping you awake so long.
Now you can sleep the whole night through,
Rest easy: he won’t bother you.”
When the lady heard him speak,
she felt crestfallen and heart-sick.
She asked a favour of her lord,
if she could have the little bird.
At that he did something macabre,
snapped its neck in front of her,
and threw the body at her dress
to bloody it above the breast.
Then he stalked out of her door.

The lady picked it from the floor,
and sobbing, called a living curse
on those who’d made her prison worse
by hanging nets in every tree
to snare the bird who set her free.
“Alas,” said she, “I am undone!
I can no longer rise alone
and sit by the window every night
to watch my lover, my sweet knight.
There is one thing I’m certain of:
He will believe he’s lost my love
unless I tell him what’s occurred.
By sending him the little bird
I’ll warn him what’s befallen me.”
She wrapped it in embroidery
and cloth of gold, and asked a page
to deliver this last little package
to her friend who lived next door.

The page walked over to their neighbour,
saluted him on her behalf,
and gave what he’d been asked to give:
the bird’s body, the lady’s message.
When he understood the damage
his love had done to this lady
the young man did not take it lightly.
He had a cup made out of gold,
studded with precious stones, and sealed
against the corrosive outer air.
He put the nightingale in there,
then shut it in its little tomb
and took it everywhere with him.
The tale could not be hidden long
so it was made into a song.
Breton poets tell the tale;
they call it “The Nightingale.”


You can dry your eyes now and I'll tell you about my ideas for the pop-up book.

The book will be a combination of illuminated, hand-written text panels (my first attempt above) with a central pop-up form on each page, including one pop-up spread with the knight and the damsel gazing at each other from the windows of their neighbouring castles; one featuring a close-up view of the tree-tops with nets to catch the mightingale; one close-up of the woman holding the dead nightingale with its blood staining her dress, and the final spread of the book will show the jewel-encrusted tomb for the bird.

The design process I employ for pop-up books always begins with a couple of rough sketches to work out how the text and pop-up element will fit together on the page:

Then I make a mock-up:

I plan to make the castle taller, and possibly add a centralised tree to the composition. I also need to add the figures of the damsel and the knight at the open windows. I found a couple of books at home with gorgeous reproductions of medieval illustrations that I'm using as sources for my medieval pop-up book. Here are a few images from them:

I love the simple decorated borders in the images and I especially love the naive quality of the figures, perfect for someone like me who has the drawing ability of  an eight year old! The images below have provided the main inspiration for the pop-up book:

I'll keep you posted on developments with this special book project over the next few weeks. I really hope that 'The Nightingale' pop-up book looks as cool in real life as it does in my imagination! Things seldom do!


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