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Reading the Roman de la rose in text and image

Excerpts| Manuscripts & editions |Miniatures

Project description

 a critical anthology; edited by Christine McWebbThe excerpts from the Roman de la rose can either be read in conjunction with my critical anthology Debating the Roman de la rose: A Critical Anthology (New York: Routledge, 2007) or they can be consulted as a stand-alone project which provides useful insights into the interrelation between the manuscript text and its miniatures. The choice of excerpts is informed by the comments on the Roman de la rose contained in the anthology and described below.

I. The Roman de la rose

Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s conjoined Roman de la rose is without a doubt one of the foundational works of French medieval literature. We would be hardpressed to name a work that has enjoyed the same popularity and renown as the famous, or infamous, Roman de la rose with over 300 extant manuscripts. This work has provoked much controversy, debate and scholarship in the past as well as today.

A succinct overview of the Roman de la rose is in order here. It is comprised of two fundamentally different parts. In the first 4000 lines, written by Guillaume de Lorris in 1236, the narrator embarks on a dream voyage during which he falls in love with a rose, enclosed and protected by a walled garden. The protagonist’s narration plunges the reader into an ocean of courtly conventions as the frame of the allegorical dream vision sets up a fierce battle between seductive sexual forces. These are personified by allegories called Fair Welcoming, Venus, Openness and Pity on the one hand, and their moral counterparts evoked by virginal modesty and chastity on the other, among whom are to be counted Danger, Shame, Fear, Jealousy and Foul Mouth. The rosebud, which must not be plucked, is protected and defended as the most valued and precious object in the hierarchy of female virtues, because it represents female virginity. Furthermore, Guillaume de Lorris depicts the lover’s sufferings and longings, his enduring yet vain efforts (most clearly seen in the second part of the text) to conquer the heart and body of the young maid, epitomized in the Rose. All the courtly topoi designed to enchant the medieval reader with the magic of a springtime world are present. But Lorris’s text ends rather abruptly upon a scene in which Jealousy has locked the Rose in a tower in order to secure her from the Lover’s advances. The poem remained at this point for about 40 years, until, around 1275, the scholastically-trained Jean de Meun, deploying a markedly different literary rhetoric, added another 17,000 lines1.

With Jean de Meun the tone moves from the courtly to the philosophical, thus reflecting the interests of late thirteenth-century scholasticism. Although Meun continues the narration of the protagonist’s love quest, the reader now begins to find that it is all too easy to lose the narrative thread, interrupted as it is by a flood of digressions in the form of philosophical dissertations. The allegory of courtly love becomes a battle between various allegories, some of whom, such as the tellingly named Genius and Nature were added by Meun to Lorris’s story. In the course of these exchanges subjects such as love, friendship, and Fortune’s arbitrariness as well as several politicized issues are treated. We are reminded of the main plot only from time to time and are forced to wait until the very end of the text for it to return to the forefront of the narration, when the Rose nears her final destiny, that is defeat: after multiple attacks on the fortress built by Jealousy, the lover plucks the rosebud.

The Roman de la rose retained its popularity through the fourteenth century and still enjoyed influence in the early fifteenth century, as the Debate about the Roman de la rose attests2. Apparently, in response to a conversation in early 1401 about the merits of Jean de Meun’s Roman de la rose between the Provost of Lille, Jean de Montreuil, Christine de Pizan and an unnamed “notable clerc”, Jean de Montreuil composed the famous Opusculum gallicum, a laudatory treatise on Jean de Meun’s Roman which, unfortunately, is lost to us today. The resulting correspondence about the Roman in Christine de Pizan’s eyes a very questionable piece of work triggered the first known epistolary debate in the French literary world. In response to her opponent, Christine sent a counter-treatise in which she rebuked primarily the obscene language used by various allegories in the Roman, such as Reason, as well as the defamation of women expressed by the Duenna, the Jealous Husband and Genius. Jean de Montreuil, in turn, obtained the support of his colleague Gontier Col, who avidly attacked Christine in two epistles openly asking her to withdraw statements which, in his mind, constituted an insult to the greatest literary work of contemporary times. Christine did no such thing and, quite to the contrary of her adversaries’ demands, dared to place the Debate in the public sphere by publishing the correspondence exchanged up to that point (beginning of 1402).

This compilation was sent to Queen Isabeau de Baviére accompanied by a letter asking for her support (Christine also sent a copy of her manuscript to the Provost of Paris, Guillaume de Tignonville). This notable event in the Debate was met with further exchanges of arguments, threats, and refutations, yet the participants during the three years of the Debate never reached a productive conclusion, unwilling as they were to shift their respective points of view. Pierre-Yves Badel’s description of the Debate as “un dialogue de sourds” (a dialogue of the deaf)3 summarizes fittingly the participants’ frustration surrounding this exchange. Jean de Montreuil had already described the correspondence in terms of frustration and Christine herself echoed this resignation in her last letter to Pierre Col towards the end of the Quarrel when she announced her withdrawal from it: “Non mie tairé pour doubte de mesprendre quant a oppinion, combien que faulte d’engin et de savoir me toult biau stile, mais mieulx me plaist excerciter en autre matiere a ma plaisance” (Nor do I silence myself for fear of being slandered because of my opinions, though I lack intelligence and a beautiful style. I simply wish to turn my attention to a topic which is more to my liking.)4 Clearly, Christine felt the Debate had become a waste of time for someone who had more important things to do5. Yet, in her subsequent works she would return to it repeatedly and obsessively.

II. Debating the Roman de la rose: A critical anthology (New York: Routledge, 2007)

Christine’s insistence does not stem entirely from the strength of her convictions. It is my stance that she and the other participants in the Debate, or the Quarrel as it has commonly been termed since Arthur Piaget’s chronology,6 viewed their exchange as an on-going intellectual debate which existed before them and continued to exist after 1403 albeit in different forms of literary expression. When we reinsert the Debate into a broader intellectual framework that extends beyond the limited scope of events between 1401 and 1403, it seems only reasonable for Christine to continue to defend her views: Her refusal to continue to engage in the epistolary exchange created a potential for expressing her views by different literary means as did many writers who were interested in the Roman before her. My book Debating the Roman de la rose: A Critical Anthology, to which the passages cited here refer, recontextualizes theRoman by focusing on its reception from 1340 to 1410 thus broadening the framework of the querelle. More precisely, in this work I provide the reader with a global and comprehensive picture of the kinds of reactions evoked by this work, in particular by Jean de Meun’s late thirteenth century continuation of theRoman begun by Guillaume de Lorris. In addition to making the texts in question accessible to an English-speaking public, it is my aim here to lift the debate proper out of this overly narrow contextually misleading and constricting domain. I demonstrate that the epistolary exchange was but one element, albeit a crucial or perhaps the central one, in a much longer and more wide-ranging polemic surrounding this seminal text of the High Middle Ages. Pierre-Yves Badel has already done this with his reception history of the Roman de la rose in the fourteenth century, since he included a broad spectrum of excerpts in his work intended for a francophone readership. I broaden the scope of the Roman-discussion by resituating what modern criticism has defined as a single, canonical literary moment, placing the ’Quarrel’ in its more ’natural’ environment, one that includes all the other important, known comments on the Roman by contemporaries or near-contemporaries of Christine and her interlocutors.

The anthology begins with Petrarch’s crucial statement in his two epistles (1340 and repeated in 1366) criticizing the Roman de la rose and ends with Laurent de Premierfait’s comments on the Roman in his De casibus virorum illustrium dated 1409 and Christine de Pizan’s remarks in the Livre de fais d’armes et de chevalerie (1410), a span of about seventy years. This chronologically arranged critical anthology tracing the diachronic and synchronic commentary Jean de Meun’s work provoked argues for reconsideration of this important medieval critical event and demonstrates why such rethinking is of considerable importance. The significance of the epistolary exchange, however, should not, in a leap of reforming zeal, be underestimated, and it receives its just due, both in Earl Jeffrey Richards’s introduction and in the amount of space devoted to its original documents and their translations into English.


  1. It is commonly accepted today that Jean de Meun continued the Roman de la rose and finished it between 1269 and 1278. On this topic see Le roman de la rose, ed. Félix Lecoy (Paris: Champion, 1965), vi-viii.
  2. I use the phrase “debate about the Roman de la rose” in its widest sense, comprising the ongoing discussion of Jean de Meun’s work from Petrarch (1340) to Laurent de Premierfait’s De casibus virorum illustrium in 1409 and Christine de Pizan’s remarks in the Livre de fais d’armes et de chevalerie in 1410. To distinguish between the larger debate and the actual debate epistles I will refer to the latter as either “Debate Epistles”, “Quarrel”, or “Debate”.
  3. Le roman de la rose au XIVe siècle. Etude de la réception de l’oeuvre(Geneva: Droz, 1980), 414. My translation.
  4. Ch. 3.7, 188 for the original and 189 for the English translation.
  5. At an unknown date, but undoubtedly before October 2, 1402, Pierre Col refutes one by one Christine’s and Jean Gerson’s arguments in a letter addressed to Christine (Ch. 4.6). Her response to Pierre’s letter dates from October 2, 1402, which he will only receive, however, on October 30. Pierre Col, in turn sends his reaction to this letter to Christine, of which, unfortunately only a fragment has survived and which consequently cannot be dated.
  6. “Chronologie es Epistres sur le Roman de la rose,” in Etudes romanes dédiées à Gaston Paris (Paris: Bouillon, 1891), 114-122.