Roman de la Rose: A Study in Allegory and Iconography

Roman de la Rose: A Study in Allegory and Iconography

by John V. Fleming

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Since the Roman de la Rose had tremendous influence on the poetry of the fourteenth century, particularly on the works of Deschamps, Machaut, Froissart, and Chaucer, Professor Fleming maintains that it is important for the modern reader to understand what this influential moral satire meant to readers of the medieval period. Basing his interpretation in part


Since the Roman de la Rose had tremendous influence on the poetry of the fourteenth century, particularly on the works of Deschamps, Machaut, Froissart, and Chaucer, Professor Fleming maintains that it is important for the modern reader to understand what this influential moral satire meant to readers of the medieval period. Basing his interpretation in part on iconographic analysis of the illuminations found in more than one hundred manuscript copies of the poem, he advances a "medieval" reading of the poem. Other tools used by Mr. Fleming to get at the meaning of the poem include a study of the mythographic tradition, a logical and rhetorical analysis of the text, and an examination of formal exegetical documents of the late Middle Ages, especially the Old French commentary on the Echecs Amoureux.

Originally published in 1969.

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The Roman de la Rose

A Study in Allegory and Iconography

By John V. Fleming


Copyright © 1969 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06158-0


Text and Glose


The great Roman de la Rose of Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun is now chiefly celebrated, it would seem, for its celebrity — known by name and reputation to even the most casual student of late medieval culture but read in toto by only the most indefatigable. We hear of its enormous vogue as evidenced by the remarkable number of manuscripts surviving from the two centuries following its completion, its widespread influence on its own and other vernacular literatures, its prose redactions, foreign translations, imitations, moralizations. Its place in literary history is entirely secure: that of a catalyst for a dozen other poems; the dunghill of Ennius from which Chaucer and perhaps Dante gathered gold; a happy hunting ground in which to stalk sources. To literary historians it is a famous poem and, by common consent, a naughty one. A recent English translation renders what Jean was pleased to call his jolis Romanz as "the rollicking Romance of the Rose."

The Roman was famous in the Middle Ages, too, especially in the fourteenth century, though there is no historical evidence to suggest that its great reputation then rested on any "rollicking" qualities. It rested, rather, upon what a knowledgeable French rhetorician and literary historian at the beginning of the fifteenth century called Jean de Meun's "moult noble doctrine," a doctrine rooted also in his translation of Boethius and in his beautiful Testament. The present book is an attempt to discover what that doctrine was and, by focusing attention upon the poem as illuminated by a wealth of neglected manuscript materials, to advance a "medieval reading" of it which can perhaps explain its medieval as opposed to its modern reputation. My book attempts, in short, to outline that interpretation of the Roman de la Rose enjoyed by its urbane readers at the apex of its popularity in the fourteenth century.

Such an undertaking is not without obstacles, since the very possibility of the "historical" criticism of literature is doubted by many literary theoreticians. "The total meaning of a work of art cannot be defined merely in the terms of its meaning for the author and his contemporaries," says one book widely read and respected by literary students. "It is rather the result of a process of accretion, i.e., the history of its criticism by its many readers in many ages." With the first half of this pronouncement even the would-be "historical" critic must be sympathetic, for he knows that he can never, however hard he may try, recapture the significantly mutable cultural milieux of Homer or Chapman's Homer or Keats' "Chapman's Homer." He can only make what he hopes are intelligent attempts to do so. He can only, in Boccaccio's words, "read, persevere, sit up nights, inquire, and exert the utmost power of his mind." The accretion theory, on the other hand, is rather more difficult to accept, for it is painful to think of works of genius as so many of Rorschach's ink blots, accreting "meaning" with each new patient who views them. With specific reference to the Roman such a suggestion is particularly depressing. The "total meaning" of some works presumably mellows nicely, like a Stilton cheese at Christmas, with age and nibbling; but the "meaning" of the Roman in this sense has curdled, soured. Indeed, the Roman can hardly survive its modern interpretation.

One of the great canards of Western aesthetics maintains that "Ars longa, vita brevis est." The life of a work of art is seldom much longer than that of its maker. It merely has a much more durable corpse. In truth, a work of art is captured forever within its capsule of stylistic history, and when the style of the times changes it faces three possible fates. It may disappear from view, unsympathetic and unadaptable to a new stylistic moment, as did the once "great" pilgrimage poems of Guillaume de Deguilleville. Or, by overt adaptation or "renovation" it may be made acceptable to the prevailing style: witness Molinet's recension of the Roman, or Dryden's All for Love. Finally — and this is by far the most common case — it can, by critical accommodation, survive, indeed thrive, in a stylistic moment far different from its own. Milton becomes a Satanist, Langland a Marxist, and both sell in paperback editions.

What seemed at first with Wellek and Warren the modest beginnings of another attack on Geistesgeschichte thus reveals an audacious yet valid claim: that of the literary critic as creator, a modern resurrection man, who deals in old bones but rather miraculously makes all things new. Quite rightly did Alan Gunn subtitle his ambitious and exacting modernist reconstruction of the Roman a "Reinterpretation of the Romance of the Rose." A "reinterpretation" can give the poem "value for our age."

The present work does not aspire to the creation of meaning nor to the discovery of any but medieval meanings in the poem. Yet even such a narrowly historical, indeed archeological, undertaking as my own can make some claims to creativity if not to art, for it involves new formulations of historical materials. Such creativity, however, will not involve any ingenious explications of the allegory of the Roman, though it must begin with the claim that the poem is indeed an allegory. So far as I know this premise has never been denied. The poem is either a tedious account of a young man with horticultural interests or it is alieniloquium, "saying something else," as Isidore's standard definition of allegoria puts it. Furthermore, everybody knows just what else it is that the story is all about.

The allegory of the Roman (unlike that, say, of The Pearl) is hardly recherché; its few tricky aspects are carefully glossed within the text of the poem itself. Jean de Meun's thousands of lines of verse add very little to the allegorical story. Gunn shows nicely the extent to which Jean prefers amplificatio to narratio, how he sustains his poem not with a narrative flow of his hero's experiences — as did his imitator Deguilleville — but with the wealth of illustrative, exemplary materials which have threatened to categorize him misleadingly as an encyclopedist. While it is true that many of the exempla require mythographic, and therefore allegorical, understanding, there is no indication that Jean de Meun was interested in constructing ingenious allegories, dark conceits.

The account of the Roman which follows, therefore, does not for the most part depend upon controversial methods of interpreting the allegorical plot; the problem of interpreting the Roman begins rather than ends with the unveiling of the surface allegory. The rose quest is a sexual metaphor, slightly less blatant with Guillaume de Lorris than with Jean de Meun but always obvious. The few emblems within the poem of any allegorical difficulty — e.g., the carbuncle in the Heavenly Garden — are explained by Jean de Meun himself. So far as I know, no medieval reader ever had any trouble in "getting" the historical sense of the seduction, but the absurdities of the interpretations in bono, like those offered by Jean Molinet and Clement Marot, which were enough to shock even such an enthusiastic and naïve allegorist as Winckelmann, testify that by the end of the fifteenth century the poem was no longer clearly understood. Indeed Marot's pious fumbling with the fourfold method of interpretation, like much of the writing about traditional sacred art after the Council of Trent, is a poignant reminder of the changes in intellectual style which hid the great figurative arts of the Middle Ages from the eyes of the Enlightenment.

Merely to explain the central metaphor of the poem and call the Roman an "Art of Love" is not much more instructive than to describe Paradise Lost as an "Art of Eating Apples." The interpretive problem remains: to gloss the poem, to explain its meaning rather than to rehearse its plot. To apprehend the greatness of Jean's poem is to share with his medieval audience an appreciation of its ironic structure.

To use the term "gloss" in reference to the Roman is no abuse. Paré has shown that the dominant thirteenth-century pedagogical concern of the glossatio or "search for the moral or philosophic as opposed to the literal sense of texts," including secular poetry, has imposed a scholastic vocabulary on Jean de Meun's poem. The chief glossator or exegete in the Roman is Lady Reason, who explains at some length the principles of poetic fiction and moral allegory (ll. 7153ff.).

The Lover, to whom her explanation is addressed, denies any knowledge

    ... des poetes Ies sentences,
    Les fables e les metaphores,
    Ne be je pas a gloser ores. (ll. 7190-92.)

Later, in the apology for his book in which he attempts to anticipate criticism, Jean himself promises to gloss (gloser) his text. Paré goes on to mention the remarkable vogue of glosses to pagan poetry — glosses to Ovid, to Virgil, the dull and easy glosses to Horace — inspired, directly or obliquely, by the old text which also inspired Guillaume de Lorris: Macrobius' commentary on the Somnium Scipionis. We know that the vernacular poems of the later Middle Ages had their glosses, their moral interpretations, too. The Divine Comedy, with its extraordinary burgeoning of exegetical satellites, is the most conspicuous example. Another is the Echecs Amoureux whose exegete says that men value for their moral sense "the stories of Ysopet and Renart and many other love stories." And the Echecs gloss, largely unexplored, is a convincing moral reading of an allegory of love, a daughter poem to Jean's Roman. Finally, there are numerous medieval references to the gloss of the Roman itself.

The technical term "gloss," of course, by no means always refers to the allegorical unveiling of cryptic meaning. One of its common medieval meanings is simply explication de texte, amplification or paraphrase on the literal level. Few mysteries are revealed, for example, by Chaucer's imitative glosses to his translation of Boethius or by E. K.'s old-fashioned glosses to the Shepherd's Calendar. It is clear that many of the early references to the gloss of the Roman de la Rose are little more than catch-phrases exploiting the convenient rhymes of rose and glose. When a scribal explicit tells us

    Cy gist le Romant de la Rose,
    Ou tout l'Art d'Amours se repose,
    La fleur des beaulx bien dire l'ose,
    Qui bien y entend texte et glose ...

we can probably be sure only that the anonymous rhymer is taxed by the demands of four endings in -ose. Such allusions to the gloss of the Roman are very numerous, though it would be risky to conjecture too much from them; at most in such references the word glose carries the generalized definition of "meaning" or "sense."

Some references to the gloss of the Roman go beyond this, however. A fourteenth-century French poem of the popular débat type provides the following example. A married and an unmarried man debate the satisfactions of their respective states. The unmarried man, refusing to credit the glowing reports of matrimony offered by his married antagonist, congratulates himself on his celibacy. He claims thus to avoid the notorious infidelity of women, an infidelity widely celebrated by the Roman de la Rose. The married man counters in a surprising way:

    Quant est du livre de la Rose,
    Iln'en parle que bien a point,
    Et, qui bien entend la glose,
    Des femmes il ne mesdit point.

In other words, he says, if we understand the gloss of the Roman, one of the most notoriously misogynous poems of a misogynous age does not say anything against women. The married man is debating, of course, and one must be wary of verbal tricks. Still, what he says makes it clear that for him at least the sense of the Roman does not always lie on the surface and that the sense can be understood through a gloss.

The gloss in question can hardly be an actual written document like the scores of glosses to the Bible, Boethius, classical poetry, and other texts, which were the chief product of medieval scholarship. It is not a gloss to pick up and read, but an instructive metaphor. Elsewhere, however, the term seems to be used in another sense. The narrator of the Book of the Duchess tells us of a garden with unusual walls:

    And alle the walles with colours fyne,
    Were peynted, bothe text and glose,
    Of al the Romaunce of the Rose.

Here is a copy of the Roman painted not on vellum but on stone, a copy not of the poem only but also of its gloss. What is this gloss of "colours fyne"? Chaucerian scholars seem agreed that it probably is just what we should expect to find in an aristocratic copy of the poem dating from the late fourteenth century, namely a sequence of finely executed painted illustrations of the text.

Chaucer's reference to painted textual illustrations as a gloss, if that is indeed his meaning of the term, would not have been unusual. Such a meaning follows directly from the principles of medieval book painting. There is almost no medieval discussion of the theoretical bases of illumination, if by that we mean aesthetic theory divorced from the practical concerns of the artist. Medieval documents concerning the painter's art are by no means lacking, but they are unapologetically practical in content, giving instruction for drawing a Wheel of Fortune or whipping glair. For discussions of the Beautiful we must turn to the Order of Preachers rather than the scriveners' guilds. At the same time even a casual reader must note the commonplace theological assumptions about the nature of the visual arts which lie behind the treatises of the Anonymous of Berne and Cennino Cennini. What might be called the pedagogical implications of textual illustrations are suggested by the double entendre "illumination."

According to the extremely influential analysis of beauty by Dionysius, which became a set text for aesthetic discussion in the later Middle Ages, beauty is associated with the good: beauty is like the light of God. St. Thomas, in his commentary on Dionysius, makes it clear that this beauty, this illumination, is intellectual and, in Augustinian terms, utilitarian. It is something to be understood and something to be used. It is the "light which lightens our footsteps" and its use, of course, is to illuminate the path to God, its source. For medieval theoreticians, color was an aspect of light; and panchromatic tendencies in various media reveal a preoccupation with "illumination." The principal manifestation of concern with "illumination" in the painting of the Gothic period is the lavish use of gold, a precious metal, rich as well in allegorical properties, and a substance which actually does reflect a kind of yellow brilliance. Surface light produced by gold and vivid colors was much admired, and it characterized medieval sculpture and architecture to an extent now often forgotten. Much statuary, and many church interiors which are now prized chiefly for their contours and linear form were, in the Middle Ages, decorated with gold and bright colors in a way which must have altered the apprehension of form. The painted light of this kind was not preserved in parchment, and most of it has long since faded or been scraped away; but where something like it remains or has been restored, as in the panchromatic interior of Albi cathedral or even in the chaster northern style of the Sainte Chapelle, the effect is at first startling to the modern eye. The fact is that much of medieval decoration, including the most carefully produced, is to our eyes garish, characterized by a tinsel glitter, a flashing of exterior light.


Excerpted from The Roman de la Rose by John V. Fleming. Copyright © 1969 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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