ASC Rewind: Le Roman de la Rose

Le Roman de la Rose, Paris: c.1505 [Hunterian Bw.3.6]

This series revisits our Book of the Month archive to highlight some of our favourite articles and explore the ASC collections they describe with fresh eyes.   

This article was originally published on February 2000 by Julie Coleman and the full article can still be found on our website in the Book of the Month archive.

Today we are featuring one of the most popular works of medieval French literature, Le Roman de la Rose. Widely read throughout Europe, the poem influenced much of the literary output of the Middle Ages (and can be said to be the most significant single literary influence on Chaucer’s writings). It survives in the form of some 300 manuscripts dating from the late 13th to the early 16th century, and in numerous printed editions from the 15th and 16th centuries. By the end of the 14th century, it had also been translated into Italian, Dutch and English, signifying the extent of its popularity across Europe and not just in the vernacular.

Title-page, with ownership annotations

Begun in c.1225-40 and completed by c.1270-7, the poem is an allegorical dream about love in which a young man endeavours to possess the rosebud with which he has become enamoured. The text is attributed to two authors: its first 4058 lines being the work of Guillaume de Lorris, and the remaining 18 000 lines composed by Jean de Meun. Written in Middle French octosyllabic rhyming couplets, the poem is important for being the first example of both a sustained first-person narrative and of narrative allegory in French.

Little is known about the writer of the first part of the poem, Guillaume de Lorris. His charming and lyrical section relates to the story of the narrator’s dream; it is a work of bourgeoisie love that has been praised for its perceptiveness in the expression of character through allegorical symbols. Set in the Garden of Delight – which represents courtly society – the dreamer meets the god of love and consequently falls in love with a rosebud that he sees whilst gazing into the fountain of Narcissus. The dreamer experiences a succession of hopes and despairs, and although he eventually manages to kiss the rose, his love is never truly consummated. His efforts are thwarted after Jealousy constructs a fortified tower around the rose.  

Opening page: folio A2r

Jean de Meun continues the dream allegory but completely transforms the poem, expanding it to become a satire of contemporary society. In a thinly disguised metaphor of sexual intercourse, his lover finally penetrates the inner sanctum of the rose and the poem ends with the narrator awakening at daybreak. Jean uses this plot as a means of conveying a mass of encyclopaedic information, discussing such diverse topics as language and signification and fortune and destiny, through a series of discourses by the main characters. Thus, the poem becomes a vast store of information about medieval life and thought.  

It has been estimated that more than forty other literary works are incorporated into this second part; in particular, the authors Ovid, Boethius, Alan of Lille and Guillaume de Sainte-Amour are drawn upon heavily. Although it was standard medieval practice to use material from a variety of other sources, this part of the poem has subsequently been criticised as an attempt to show off the author’s erudition. However, Jean’s digressions in fact brought fame and success to the poem: often outspoken and apparently fearless in attacking the abuses of his age, the contentious opinions expressed here were hotly contested by contemporaries and captured the imagination of the increasingly important bourgeois class.  

Woodcut of Pygmalion

Our edition of Le Roman de la Rose was published by Antoine Vérard (fl. 1485-1512); although undated, it was probably printed around 1505 in Paris. Vérard’s name does not appear on the title-page but the device bearing his motto (Pour provocquer, Jhesus, ta grant misericorde/ De tous pecheurs faire grace et pardon, / Anthoine Verad humblement te recorde / Ce qu’il a il tïent de toi par don) is found at the end of the poem before the second work in the volume, the Codicille et Testament de Maistre Jehan de Meun. Vérard published extensively in French and is especially noted for his Books of Hours of which he issued some two hundred editions, with special illuminated copies for royalty printed on vellum. Fine woodcuts adorn many of his productions, and the early development of the illustrated book in France owes much to his prolific publishing output. 

Vérard, however, has been criticised for his re-use of blocks in book after book, as well as his repetition of illustrations in the same book often in incongruous and highly inappropriate places. This edition of the Roman includes 88 cuts in a peculiar style: while a small number of the cuts are repeated, and some also appear in his other publications, they were evidently designed specifically for this text and seem to have been closely imitating cuts from an earlier edition of the poem, published by Du Pré in Paris in 1494. The decorative initials found in this volume are another typical feature of Vérard’s productions; he had several sets of initials at his disposal, including a set of grotesque heads as used in this book.  

Initial letter (folio A5v)

Much of the appeal of the Roman lies in the tantalising question of its allegorical meaning. Both poets promise to explain the meaning of the dream but do not – and the poem has consequently been subject to widely varying interpretations ever since it was written. These divergent readings are divided mainly between those who see the work as religious versus those who see it as secular. Christine de Pizan was so provoked by the subject matter of the poem that she famously initiated the ‘Querelle de la Rose’ in the fifteenth century, attacking the poem for defaming women, for justifying seduction and rape, and for bawdy language. Such debate established the cultural importance of the Roman as a focal point for many fundamental issues, and it remained popular throughout the sixteenth century. Although the poem fell into obscurity in the seventeenth century, it was rescued by the antiquarians of the eighteenth century and is now firmly established as a literary monument, still subject to constant revision and reinterpretation.  


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