Translation: Ja Nus Hons Pris

[This is a copy of my documentation submitted to Ice Dragon in 2006.]

Ja Nus Hons Pris by Richard I

About the Piece

In the late 12th to early 13th century, there were a number of poet-composers in the north of present-day France known as trouvères. One of the most widely known individuals of that time who was considered a trouvère was Richard I, Richard the Lionhearted. While returning from crusade in 1192, Richard was captured by Duke Leopold V of Austria and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI to be held for ransom. He was held captive for several years throughout Germany, during which time it is believed that he wrote the mournful ballad, Ja Nus Hons Pris, a song lamenting his imprisonment and the time it was taking the English nobles to raise his ransom. Whether he also wrote the melody is a little more in question, however. Some sources claim he did, while other attribute it to a minstrel known as Blondel de Nesle. Blondel was indeed a contemporary trouvère of Richard, perhaps better known for his chanson L’amours dont sui espris. It is possible that Blondel and Richard knew each other well and wrote multiple songs together, but it is also possible that the two never met.


Whenever a performance is given in a language not native to the audience, several issues come up. The largest matter is whether to translate the piece or not, and if so, how to give that translation to the audience. Leaving the piece in the original language ensures the integrity of the composer’s poetry, but leaves the audience mystified as to the meaning. A literal translation provided can help alleviate this, but can lose some of the song’s essence in trying to pair meaning with words, either temporally if the literal translation is given orally before or after the piece, or cognitively in trying to follow along an English written version while the foreign language is being sung or recited. My preferred performance technique for foreign language songs is to sing a lyrical translation if one is available, where the rhyme scheme and scansion match the original piece, while preserving a verse or two and a chorus in the original language.

I found a number of translations from various sources of Ja Nus Hons Pris, but few felt performable. There were none that remained loyal to the AAAAAAB rhyme scheme, though many tried to maintain some sort of internally consistent rhyme. I decided for this piece I would try to do my own lyrical translation of the first two verses. Based on the translations I found and my own rudimentary knowledge of French, I came up with an attempt. After having it reviewed by both a poetry Laurel and an expert in French translation, I made a few revisions and settled on the following:

No man in prison can tell his tale true
Lest he himself has known what I’ve been through
In writing song he may comfort renew
I’ve many friends but their gifts are few
They’ll bring dishonor for my ransom’s due
These two long winters past

My noble barons and men surely knew
England and Normandy, Gascon and Poitou
Ne’re would I forsake or be untrue
To any friend; noble, commoner too.
I do not mean to reproach what they do,
Yet I remain held fast

APPENDIX A: Original Old French (langue d’oil)

Ja nus hons pris ne dira sa raison
Adroitement, se dolantement non;
Mais par effort puet il faire chançon.
Mout ai amis, mais povre sont li don;
Honte i avront se por ma reançon
Sui ça deus yvers pris.

Ce sevent bien mi home et mi baron–
Ynglois, Normant, Poitevin et Gascon–
Que je n’ai nul si povre compaignon
Que je lessaisse por avoir en prison;
Je nou di mie por nule retraçon,
Mais encor sui [je] pris.

Or sai je bien de voir certeinnement
Que morz ne pris n’a ami ne parent,
Quant on me faut por or ne por argent.
Mout m’est de moi, mes plus m’est de ma gent,
Qu’aprés ma mort avront reprochement
Se longuement sui pris.

N’est pas mervoille se j’ai le cuer dolant,
Quant mes sires met ma terre en torment.
S’il li membrast de nostre soirement
Quo nos feïsmes andui communement,
Je sai de voir que ja trop longuement
Ne seroie ça pris.


Ce sevent bien Angevin et Torain–
Cil bacheler qui or sont riche et sain–
Qu’encombrez sui loing d’aus en autre main.
Forment m’amoient, mais or ne m’ainment grain.
De beles armes sont ore vuit li plain,
Por ce que je sui pris

Mes compaignons que j’amoie et que j’ain–
Ces de Cahen et ces de Percherain–
Di lor, chançon, qu’il ne sunt pas certain,
C’onques vers aus ne oi faus cuer ne vain;
S’il me guerroient, il feront que vilain
Tant con je serai pris.


Contesse suer, vostre pris soverain
Vos saut et gart cil a cui je m’en clain
Et por cui je sui pris.

Je ne di mie a cele de Chartain,
La mere Loës.

APPENDIX B: Translation by Henry Adams

No prisoner can tell his honest thought
Unless he speaks as one who suffers wrong;
But for his comfort as he may make a song.
My friends are many, but their gifts are naught.
Shame will be theirs, if, for my ransom, here
I lie another year.


They know this well, my barons and my men,
Normandy, England, Gascony, Poitou,
That I had never follower so low
Whom I would leave in prison to my gain.
I say it not for a reproach to them,
But prisoner I am!


The ancient proverb now I know for sure;
Death and a prison know nor kind nor tie,
Since for mere lack of gold they let me lie.
Much for myself I grieve; for them still more.
After my death they will have grievous wrong
If I am a prisoner long.


What marvel that my heart is sad and sore
When my own lord torments my helpless lands!
Well do I know that, if he held his hands,
Remembering the common oath we swore,
I should not here imprisoned with my song,
Remain a prisoner long.


They know this well who now are rich and strong
Young gentlemen of Anjou and Touraine,
That far from them, on hostile bonds I strain.
They loved me much, but have not loved me long.
Their plans will see no more fair lists arrayed
While I lie here betrayed.

Companions whom I love, and still do love,
Geoffroi du Perche and Ansel de Caieux,
Tell them, my song, that they are friends untrue.
Never to them did I false-hearted prove;
But they do villainy if they war on me,
While I lie here, unfree.


Countess sister! Your sovereign fame
May he preserve whose help I claim,
Victim for whom am I!


I say not this of Chartres’ dame,
Mother of Louis!


Musical CD: Ja Nus Hons Pris from “Music of the Crusades”, performed by the London Music Consort with director David Munrow. Decca. 1991. Track 18.

Aubry, Pierre. “Trouvères and Troubadours: A Popular Treatise.” trans. by Claude Aveling. New York:Cooper Square Publishers, Inc. 1969. pp 162-164

Bogen, Nancy. Website: “Coeur de Lion, Mon Coeur background”
Last accessed: 14 June 2014

Boyle, David. “The Troubadour’s Song: The Capture and Ransom of Richard the Lionheart.” New York: Walker & Company. 2005. pp 155, 199, 300-301.

Bridge, Antony. “Richard the Lionheart.” New York: M. Evans & Company, Inc. 1989. p 200

Duffin, Ross W. ed. “A Performer’s Guide to Medieval Music.” Bloomington, IN:Indiana University Press. 2000. pp 136-142,330-335

McGee, Timothy James. “Medieval and Renaissance Music : A Performer’s Guide.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1985. pp 20-25, 64, 68, 88

Phillips, Elizabeth V. and Jackson, John-Paul Christopher. “Performing Medieval and Renaissance Music: an introductory guide.” New York:Schirmer Books. 1986.  pp 21, 40, 251

van der Werf, Hendrick. “The Chansons of the Trouvadours and Trouvères: A study of the melodies and their relation to the poems.” Epe, the Netherlands: Hooiberg NV. 1972  pp 100-103