Le Roman de la Rose (Trans. The Romance of the Rose) is a nearly 22000 line poem written in the 13th century by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. While Guillaume is the author of only the first 4000 lines, he introduces the dream narrative that Jean develops for the final 18000 lines. The Romance of the Rose was second only to the Bible in popularity in the late Middle Ages. References to the poem are found in Dante, Boccacio, and Chaucer.
The plot is quite simple. A lover recounts a dream he had as a young man. In the dream, the lover enters a garden, falls in love with a forbidden rose bud, is banished for his infraction, but finally reunites with the rose bud through the help of Venus and her army. Along the way, the lover-protagonist (Amant), encounters dozens of speech characters (Reason, Shame, Friend, Jealousy, etc) who either help or hinder Amant’s mission. Some characters such as Reason, Friend, False-Seeming, and Nature give long speeches addressing love, marriage, and the use of language.
Should Amant pursue his rose? Does reason play a role in courtly love? What language is appropriate for a lover to use?
While Jean resumes Guillaume’s story, he seems to have a very different vision of love than Guillaume. While Guillaume’s Amant is concerned with courtliness, Jean’s lover is difficult to pin down. The speech characters in Jean’s section problematize Guillaume’s narrative because they seem to promote uncourtly behavior. Often, they parrot misogynistic tropes found in the Fabliaux tradition. Friend, False-Seeming, and Genius spend hundreds of lines insulting women and warning men about female deception, but they don’t seem to have a problem with husbandly infidelity. Indeed, Friend insists that men should hide their mistresses from their emotional and needy wives.
And then there’s the question of authorship. Who’s speaking? Guillaume? Jean? Amant? If the latter, is the lover-protagonist necessarily in agreement with the views of the author? Sometimes the lover-protagonist and the author are one and the same, but at other times (especially in the Jean section), the author is clearly different from the narrator.
Needless to say, The Romance of the Rose was a highly controversial poem in the late Middle Ages. While the poem seems to emulate the structure of 13th century scholastic dialectics (“for” and “against” arguments presented side-by-side and in debate with one another), 15th century humanists assumed a straightforward reading of the text. Christine de Pisan at the beginning of the century wrote a series of letters and treatises condemning the apparent misogyny and obscenity in the poem. She was responding to the humanist fans of the Rose, many of whom considered Jean to be a great and holy theologian (!). Christine’s critics were appalled that a woman would even dare disagree with a group of theologians. But Christine had no tolerance for the misogyny celebrated by defenders of the Rose. Christine’s greatest supporter was Jean Gerson, the Chancellor of the University of Paris and a famous reformer-theologian.
I have just begun reading Christine’s letters in opposition to certain readings of the Rose. So far, I am quite impressed. I will have more to say about her argument once I have finished reading the entire collection of letters surrounding the Rose debate.