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The Lady and the Unicorn

I first became aware of the series of medieval tapestries known as "The Lady and the Unicorn" during college. My roommate had what can only be called eclectic taste in music, and I had an open mind. So while the songs of The Doobie Brothers and Elton John resounded through the hallways of the dorm, our little haven was filled with the strains of avant-garde jazz ensembles and the soothing medieval and renaissance sounds of a virtuoso guitarist, John Renbourn, whom I had previously known only as the front man for the British folk band Pentangle.

The Lady and the Unicorn at Amazon.com

Soon after my first listening, I bought my own copy of John Renbourn's The Lady and the Unicorn. Several years later when cassettes became available, I purchased a copy for my wake-to-music alarm clock and in 1992, this, along with the companion CD, Sir John Alot of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng & ye Grene Knyghte, was one of the first CDs I added to a growing collection of medieval and Celtic music. The gentle melodies of The Lady and the Unicorn have awakened me every morning for almost thirty years; they sound just as good today as they did in 1974.

The playlist includes several early music standards – the English dance tune Trotto, and the Italian Saltarello, 14th century Italian pieces Lamento Di Tristan, and Veri Floris. The set ends nicely with a smoothly rendered medley of the traditional folk songs My Johnny Was a Shoemaker, Westron Wynde and Scarborough Fair. An entirely instrumental collection, played on guitar, glockenspiel, viola, flute and violin, this is medieval-flavored folk at its finest.

Research into the tapestry pictured on the album cover revealed that it was one of a series of six hanging in the Musée National du Moyen Age (aka Cluny Museum) in Paris. The tapestries represent the five senses, each usually referred to by the sense it depicts (Sight, Touch, Smell, Sound, Taste), and the sixth tapestry, known as À Mon Seul Dèsir (To My One Desire).

(Click thumbnail to view larger image at Art.com)

Very little is known about the tapestries, but what historical documentation fails to supply, Tracy Chevalier has aptly provided in her 2003 novel, The Lady and the Unicorn.

The Lady and The Unicorn at Amazon.com

Meet Nicolas des Innocents, but don't be fooled by the name. Nicolas is anything but innocent; he's quite the ladies man. And in Chevalier's novel, he's also the artist who designed the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries.

Nicolas is commissioned to create a series of tapestries for Jean Le Viste, a French nobleman who seems to be obsessed with displaying his family's coat of arms. The story begins with Nicolas's first meeting with Le Viste, and subsequent meetings with Le Viste's wife, Geneviève, and daughter, Claude, with whom Nicolas becomes instantly enamored. Nicolas's passion is not for the ladies alone; the creation of the unicorn tapestries enchants him as much as they do everyone who becomes involved in the project.

Chapters are presented in several different characters' point of view: Nicolas, Geneviève, Claude, the weaver, the weaver's wife, the cartoonist and the weaver's daughter. When I first realized I was going to be listening to so many voices tell this tale, I thought it might get confusing, or the characters might seem shallow. Neither was the case; the characters are rich and complex; the subplots are as finely woven as the tapestries themselves.

This story is as much about the social hierarchy of the era and the accepted roles of men and women in medieval society as it is about the creation of art. The historical detail is impressive, but not overwhelming, particularly the chapters told from the point of view of the weaver and his family. Unlike many historical novels, the dialogue is not bogged down with dialect. The Lady and the Unicorn is top notch historical fiction.

The first chapter is available for reading online, along with historical background about the tapestries, and information about the author at:
Tracy Chevalier - The Lady and the Unicorn.