Le Roman de la rose, thirteenth century (The Romance of the Rose, partial translation c. 1370, complete translation 1900)
In the first half of the thirteenth century, a French court poet, Guillaume de Lorris (gee-yohm duh law-rees)–also written as Loury, Lory, and Lorrys–completed some four thousand lines of The Romance of the Rose, an allegory on the psychology of love, but left the work unfinished at his death. Very little is known about this poet, who takes his name from a small village on the Loire River above Orléans in the north of France. A few details can be gleaned from the work itself. Guillaume was well read in the Latin classics, especially Ovid, and was literate in style and courtly in manner. This early thirteenth century troubadour was full of courtly ideals, and his poetic contribution is charming and frequently subtle. The Lover visits a park to which he is admitted by Idleness. Sharing the woods and lawns with him are Cupid, Pleasure, and Delight. Finally he comes upon the Rose and is given permission to kiss her. Their mutual pleasure irritates Jealousy, her guard, who forthwith drives the Lover from the park.
Because of the unfinished state of the work at Guillaume’s death, an anonymous contributor provided a seventy-eight-line conclusion found in several manuscripts. It provides only a bare and obvious dramatization of the Lover’s attaining the Rose, but at least it rounds out the fragment on an aesthetic level.
About forty years later, The Romance of the Rose was completed by another poet of the court, named Jehan Clopinel (or Chopinel), known also as Jean de Meung (zhahn duh muhng); variant spellings are Meun and Mehun. He greatly amplified the poem by adding about eighteen thousand lines. Despite their geographical proximity, there is a vast difference in the two authors and in their contributions to this allegory, a difference partly due to changes in civilization and partly due to the different philosophical background of Jean de Meung. While Guillaume was a traditional singer of courtly love, Jean was a representative of anticourtliness and was rooted in scholasticism. Jean was a graduate of the University of Paris and thus had access to much of the classical and antifeminist literature of the time. Jean de Meung, who had previously translated Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (c. 523) and the early twelfth century Letters of Abelard and Heloise, was not proficient in delicate satire. His contribution is marked by brutal satire of the clergy and the nobility, the same spirit that fills his satirical Testament and Codicil, written against the mendicant friars between 1291 and 1296. The Romance of the Rose also shows his bitterness toward women and their wiles. In Jean’s sequel there is more digression than story. Abuse of power is satirized, and, though eventually there is a happy ending with the Lover winning the Rose after an extended courtship, the reader must first wade through much speech-making by Nature, Reason, Genius, and A Friend.
With more than two hundred manuscripts, The Romance of the Rose was one of the most widely distributed works of literature in the Middle Ages. An English translation of half of the first part is attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer. Not all the attention was positive, however. Christine de Pisan mounted an attack against Jean’s satire in her Epistle to the God of Love (1399), a spirited defense of womankind, and effectively started the Querelle de la Rose, a cultural and literary debate of antifeminism.
In addition to writing The Romance of the Rose, Jean was a scholar and popularizer. He translated the Military Art of Vegetius (written in the fourth century), Spiritual Friendship, written in the twelfth century by Ailred, abbott of Rievaulx, and Gerald of Wales’s The Topography of Ireland, another twelfth century work. His Testament renounces the follies of his youth.