Picture in the Bodleian.
Sunday, June 22, 2008


The Romance of the Rose

The Romance is the product of the work of two authors Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Guillaume broke of composition sometime in the 1230s, and Jean continued it some 40 years later. I can’t read medieval French, but a look at a French version that I found online shows what appear to be short lines, so I assume it was written in something like a trimeter. The translation that I’m using is the Oxford World Classics edition.

The Romance takes place in a garden, and probably anticipates the Bower of Bliss in Book II (Temperance) and the Garden of Adonis in Book III (Chastity) of the Faerie Queen.

It opens with the narrator recounting a dream that he has had. He invokes the authority of Macrobius and his account of the dream of “King Scipio.” (Note that he uses the term “King” with regard to Scipio. He wasn’t being overly precise in his use of Roman terminology.) He sees the Garden of Pleasure, but before he enters the garden proper he sees a wall with many inscriptions and pictures. The pictures are representations of the various vices and other allegorical figures. One that is particularly striking for personal reasons, because I have indirect acquaintance of a person who is very like the vice, is avarice. Avarice is described as living on bread kneaded with lye, and as poorly dressed, she has a purse that is so tightly tied up that she would take a long time getting anything out of it. (195ff. Line numbers at the start of the relevant paragraph will be given for references.)

At line 1145 we begin the section devoted to the spring of Narcissus. Guillaume, who is the author of this section, gives the story of Narcissus, but it does not seem to serve a major function in the story. The young man eventually penetrates into the garden, and there becomes enamored of a particular rose. Now all of the characters are allegorical. We have Fair Welcome, Fair Seeming, Rebuff, and others. So the rose is allegorical too. It could represent a number of things, but what it seems to represent is a woman who is loved within the courtly love tradition. So there are a number of difficulties to be overcome before true love can be attained. One of the difficulties to be overcome is usually a husband, but that’s not the case here.

At about 2009 the lover enters the service of the God of Love, and to obey his commandments: Avoid baseness; do not slander; be courteous; be humble; be clean; be blithe; be athletic and graceful. As a penance the young man is to fix his thoughts on love.

At 2749 is the third chapter. Here the young man encounters difficulties, and Rebuff separates him from Fair Welcome. Guillaume de Lorris breaks off at line 4028, and Jean de Meun’s continuation begins at the following line.

June 26, 2008

The section devoted to the advice of Reason begins at 4029. It has to be understood that faith was not considered to be in opposition to Reason, but to complement, in a sense reason. Also here we have not an opposition of faith and reason, but an opposition of love and Reason. At 4263 Reason begins a description of Love. It is “hostile peace and loving hatred,” and a number of other oxymorons. This continues on for 60 lines. At 4329 the lover objects that he does not know how to detach himself from love. Reason replies by defining love as a “mental illness afflicting two persons of opposite sex in close proximity who are both free agents.” No gay love or threesomes here. The lover does not care for procreation, but only for pleasure. We then have a statement that aligns Reason with the traditional teaching that the primary purpose of sex is procreation. Note that it is the primary, not the sole purpose of sex.

At 4633 Reason begins to discourse on other types of love. Friendship is one form of love (4655). Another type is “the feigned desire to love found in hearts that are sick and diseased with a covetous desire for gain (4739). This desire is that which causes attachments to rich men and to misers. Reason has spoken of Fortune, and this gives her an opportunity to hold forth on Fortune and Love (4807). The dominant image her is that of Fortune’s wheel. This image appears throughout much of medieval literature. Frequently in association with the Fall of Princes type of tragedy. It’s not necessarily associated with a prince, but with someone who has achieved a high position, and then is thrust down and destroyed. My recollection is that Jane Shore, mistress of Edward IV, is one example of that kind of fall. Lydgate’s Fall of Princes contains examples of this. Both Jane Shore and Lydgate are about two centuries later than the Romance of the Rose.

In a passage beginning at 5457 Reason explains why Justice without Love is not enough. Here Reason uses the image of Saturn’s castration by Jupiter, who cut off his, Saturn’s, testicles “as though they were sausages.” Not a pleasant image at all, but one which the young man objects to about 1200 lines later on the grounds that Reason should have used an euphemism. Now to my mind the use of euphemism is problematic. You encode an obscenity in the euphemism, (“Frak” in BSG encodes the Anglo-Saxon term for intercourse), which is immediately decoded into the very obscenity that it was supposed to avoid. This is playing a game in which you say “Well, I actually said BLAH, not BRAK, so you can’t accuse me of violating the taboo.” You know, and the prosecutor knows that you actually meant BRAK, but since you said BLAH, you can get away with it. The euphemism actually relies on a double entendre, which can misfire if one party does not get then second meaning.

PROSECUTOR: Did you sleep with the defendant? FEMALE WITNESS: No, I was awake the whole time.

Reason defends herself by asserting (6913) that she may speak about things by their proper names, and that she is not ashamed of anything that is not sinful.

[Updated comment July 9, 2008] Last Saturday, the 5th, the Washington Post had a letter to the editor in which the writer complained that the use of the word “handicapped” was hurtful, and that “disabled” should be used instead. But what happens if “disabled” is hurtful, do we then face an infinite stream of euphemisms, all of which decode to “handicapped?” Surely the hurtful thing is the state of being handicapped, not the word. The same thing goes with “retarded.” That word has been replaced with “mentally challenged.” I like to think that when I taught English that phrase applied to all of my students as they faced my exams, though not one of them was retarded. [End update]

Nero appears about line 6200. Here he functions, probably as he had functioned for most of the preceding centuries, as the symbol of ultimate evil personified. In other words he fulfilled for the Rose poets the same function that Hitler does for the present age. Nero appears within the context of Seneca’s rise and fall.

Croesus, whose life was given in Herodotus, appears at 6459. The story given follows Herodotus but deviates from Herodotus by having Croesus meet his ultimate fate on the gallows.

The young man refuses to become a disciple of Reason. At 7201 we begin the advice of Friend.

July 9, 2008

Friend’s advice essentially boils down to advice to use the arts of flattery and manipulation to gain the rose.

Subsequent to the advice of Friend the army of love is formed. False Seeming is welcomed into the army, and gives an extended speech on the hypocrisy of the religious orders. He takes primary aim at the mendicant orders. The mendicants, primarily Franciscan and Dominican, along with some others, had in many cases acquired great wealth as orders or as religious houses while at the same time the individual friars begged their living rather than working in the fields or teaching as the Benedictines and others did.

At line 12351 we begin an encounter with the Old Woman who guards Fair Welcome.

July 15, 2008

At 13143 the Old Woman begins a catalog of man’s mistreatment of women. We have Aeneas and Dido, Demophoon and Phyllis, Paris and Oenone, and Jason and Medea.

At 13253 we have advice to women. Treatment of the hair (13253). Neck and throat (13283). Hands (13293). Feminine hygiene, i.e., “the chamber of Venus” (13305). Feet and breath. Weeping (13337). Table manners, which include removing grease (from meat) from the lips before drinking wine so as not to leave globules of fat in the cup (13355).

The old woman appears to believe that the nature of man, and woman, is essentially promiscuous, “she [nature] has made all women for all men and all men for all women, every woman common to every man and every man to every woman” (13845). However, she identifies the lust for women as the cause of battles even before the time of Helen (13893).

At 14517 we have the beginning of the assault on the castle. Anyone expecting exciting descriptions of combat will be disappointed here. There is some mild activity, but the chapter is largely rhetorical.

At 15861 we have a brief section about Nature and Genius. The Romance was written almost 600 years before Darwin, and about 300 years before anyone came up with a theory that even attempted to explain the presence of sea shells in mountainous regions. There was no sense of the idea of extinction of vast numbers of species as during the Permian or at the end of the Cretaceous. The poet explains that species do not become extinct, but that Nature constantly replenishes them.

At about 16700 we have the beginning of Nature’s confession. Here we have a long miscellany that covers optics, astrology, and everything under the medieval sun.

Nature ultimately yields to Genius, at 19409, and he gives a sermon that attacks the idea of chastity. He encourages the troops to use their syluses.

At 20653 we enter upon the final chapter, the conquest of the Rose. At about 21553 we find the young man finally taking possession of the rose. The description that follows, though veiled, is obviously erotic, and the description, when read as a description of love making, is frankly obscene.

Next up is a brief comment on Magic, a play by G. K. Chesterton that is being put on by the Washington Theatre Guild, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

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