The Romance of the Rose had two authors: Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Guillaume wrote only a small section of the work before most likely dying, which ends when Jealousy builds the castle and imprisons the rose. Jean de Meun apparently continued Guillaume’s work forty years later and his contribution constitutes the vast majority of the work. The poem is strange and reads like nothing else that I have ever encountered. At times, I found it bizarre, enthralling, ponderous, creative, thought-provoking, and boring. It is full of tedious digressions that are sometimes entertaining and sometimes prolix. It brims with allusions to Homer, Cicero, Ovid, Boethius, the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Islamic thinkers, Arthurian legends and romances, and many other sources. It is not always an easy work to approach, with much of the narrative consisting of long dialogues, but the work’s true appeal rests in its inventiveness with its allegorical figures
Guillaume de Lorris begins the poem by telling us that he will describe a dream he had. In his dream, Guillaume discovers a walled-off garden like none he has ever seen before. Painted on the walls surrounding the garden are allegorical pictures of sins and vices. A lady named Idleness helps him through the gate. While strolling through the garden and its variety of flowers, he discovers a beautiful rose that captures his attention over all the other pretty flowers, upon which he is accosted by cupid who shoots him with his arrows. Unable to recover from this attack and remove the arrows from his heart, he submits to Love and promises to be his servant. His only desire is to possess the rose.
Fair Welcoming, the son of Courtesy, arrives and opens the passage to the rosebud’s hedge for him. However, Resistance, resting nearby, with his friends, Foul Mouth, Shame, and Fear, stand watch on those who would steal the rose and prevent him from taking it. With Fair Welcoming’s help, Guillaume gets close enough to kiss the rose, which fills him with immense pleasure. Foul Mouth witnesses this act and brings false stories about Guillaume to Jealousy. Enraged, Jealousy builds a gigantic castle to protect the rose and imprisons Fair Welcoming, so nobody can assist Guillaume in his quest to capture the rose.
Reason comes down from her tower to aid Guillaume in his time of grief. She gives a long lecture about the nature of true happiness and natural love. Instead of spending his time focused on his emotions and worldly happiness, she recommends that Guillaume should love all things equally, universally, and spend his time using his mental faculties to understand the true nature of the world and not put hopes in ephemeral things like fortune and chance. Guillaume, at first does his best to challenge these arguments, but Reason rebuts all his counter arguments. He has no choice but to agree with all her conclusions. However, he ultimately still rejects Reason and her arguments, unable to resist the strength of his feelings and still hoping to acquire the rose.
Next Friend arrives to comfort him in his time of grief and offers his advice to Guillaume. Friend advises him to flatter and fawn upon his enemies in order to spy on them and pay back their treachery with more treachery. This eventually leads into a discussion about the evils of marriage in which the text depicts women as deceitful and corrupt and full of vice, giving various examples of men who regret marriage. Friend gives other assorted advice about how best to treat a woman you love.
Finally, Guillaume calls upon Love who promises to help him assault Jealousy’s castle. Love summons all his barons (various allegorical figures subservient to Love) and they hold a council on how best to attack the fortress. False Seeming arrives with Constrained Abstinence and after talking about the nature of false appearance and hypocrisy found in the world, pledges himself to Love and the cause of Guillaume.
False Seeming goes with Constrained Abstinence in the disguise of a priest. They approach Foul Mouth who is guarding one of the gates to the castle and kill him after tricking him, along with all his drunken Normand soldiers.
After they enter the gates, they come across the Old Woman who is guarding Fair Welcoming. She longs for the days of her youth and beauty. She is the perfect servant of jealousy because she resents the loss of her youth and the young men who once chased her, but have now abandoned her in her old age. She recounts all the great betrayals found in Greco-Roman Mythology: Aeneas leaving Dido, Phyllis committing suicide when Demophoon takes too long to return, Paris abandoning Oenone for Helen, and Jason’s betrayal of Medea. Her experience leads her to conclude that ladies should act more like philandering men and not love one person, but flirt with and love as many men as possible. While she encourages women to flirt with many sweethearts like men, especially during youth; at some point, before getting too old, a wise woman will find someone to settle down with permanently. Nevertheless, she advises women to act mercenary for as long as possible, getting as much wealth, gifts, and pleasure as you can from men before settling down.
They convince the Old Woman to join their side and they manage to temporarily free Fair Welcoming. Then a huge battle unfolds between the various allegorical figures, each side overcoming the other briefly, until a temporary truce is called. Love sends for reinforcements from his mother, Venus.
A distraught Nature goes to the priest, Genius, to confess all her frustrations with humanity who she gives everything and doesn’t honor her the way they should. After her confession, Genius appears on the battlefield to deliver a sermon on sin and G-d and the way people should behave. After he leaves, the speech emboldens Love’s forces. Venus fires a flaming arrow at the castle, which explodes and sets vast parts of the building on fire. All the enemies flee for their lives. Guillaume enters the tower where his rose is being kept and is reunited with it. Then he awakens from his dream.
A major theme of the work is the nature of love. Love is an overpowering force that supersedes our rational thought. It strikes out of the blue and once struck by its arrows (to use a metaphor from the work) we can never pull out its shafts.
“No man born, I believe, will ever dislodge it from there, for I tried, without any great joy, to pull the shaft from me, but the point remained within (55).”
Once we fall in love it is difficult to resist those feelings and simply move on. It is difficult to stop caring for someone once you start, and trying to change one’s feelings is easier said than done. This is not always a positive thing as such feelings can take the dangerous forms of infatuation and obsession. Indeed, Guillaume’s thoughts about the rose after being shot by Love’s arrows are obsessive. Nevertheless, I suspect most people in their lives have had the experience of struggling to get over feelings in a relationship that ended or toward a person who didn’t share their feelings.
With that said many of his emotional outbursts are excessive. After being struck by the arrows, Guillaume claims he would rather die than become a martyr to his love and have his feelings unrequited. The intensity of his feeling is palpable, even a bit overwrought. This intensity foreshadows the type of vehement love expressions found in Petrarch, Dante, and Shakespeare in later literature.
Love is not a straight-forward path and often meets with much resistance. This idea drives the plot of the work. The allegorical figures that conspire against Guillaume to keep him from the rose are the many factors in life that often prevent love from blossoming. Jealousy, shame, foul mouth (those who spread false rumors and gossip) all prevents one from achieving the passions of love.
These forces in the work literally do battle with each other. The battle scene during the siege of the castle symbolizes the constant struggle in love between our doubts and our desires.
“Shame carried a large sword, beautiful, well made, and well tempered, one that she had forged in fear from the concern over being found out. She had a strong targe, named Fear-of-a-Bad-Reputation, for she had made it of that sort of wood. On the borders there was many a tongue portrayed. She struck Pity and made her fall back; she almost finished her off. Immediately Delight came up, a handsome bachelor, exceptionally strong, and made an attack on Shame. He had a sword of pleasant life, a shield of ease—something I had none of whatever—that was bordered with solace and joy. He struck at Shame, but she covered herself so judiciously with her shield that the blow never troubled her. Shame in turn went out seeking him and struck him with such force that she broke her shield over his head and beat him down until he was stretched out on the ground. She would have smashed him right up to his teeth, but G-d brought up a bachelor called Skillful Concealment (263).”
It would seem the possibility of delight from love can overpower the shame it might bring, but in this scene we see that Shame manages to overcome Delight’s assault. Shame ends up winning the battle with delight. Shame also manages to beat out Pity. Only when Skillful Concealment arrives at the end is there someone who can match Shame since a skillful concealment of a love affair would make shame unnecessary. There is a real cleverness in the way these allegorical figures are presented here.
A good allegory should use the actions of its symbolic persona to capture the nature of the idea it embodies and comment upon it. In this regard, the origin story of Shame is especially amusing.
“If one tells . . . [Shame’s] parentage and ancestry correctly, she was the daughter of Reason the wise, and her father’s name was Misdeeds, a man so hideous and ugly that Reason never lay with him but conceived Shame just upon seeing him (70).”
When our reasoning looks upon misdeeds, it produces in us a feeling of shame. Reason refusing to sleep with Misdeed, implies that anyone using their reason will not commit a misdeed because reason finds bad actions to be hideous. Shame is described as a “simple, honest girl.” The implication being that it is not a bad thing for a person to feel shame upon a committing a misdeed. Reason lends shame to Chastity to help guard the rosebushes since one of the best tools for maintaining chastity is the shame produced by losing it.
In the end, the flaming arrow of Venus (representing Guillaume’s burning passion) proves too much for the castle and these allegorical forces. The message here seems to be true passion will win out in the end against all the various reasons that prevent love from being consummated. After all, it requires true love to wait out all of these forces over such long periods of time and the false lover will not be so patient. For a person to carry off a rose one must defeat shame, jealousy, fear, and resistance, the servants of Chastity. The image of the rosebud itself is full of sexual connotations, while also being a general image of beauty.
Besides the nature of love in general being explored, it is also being examined in the context of medieval courtly love. After striking him with his arrow, Love informs Guillaume of the rules he must follow in order to be his servant. The ideal lover should not perform any villainy or crimes, not gossip about others, be easy to know and friendly towards men of any rank, never speak bad language or tell bawdy tales, honor all women, guard against pride, be generous, and be well-groomed, clean, and nicely dressed, while still avoiding vanity. They must also constantly dwell on thoughts about their lover.
These prescriptions for Guillaume could easily describe the character of Lancelot and various other knights from the earlier Arthurian Romances by Chrétien de Troyes. Indeed, while detailing these rules for serving Love, the work alludes to the Arthurian Romance by explicitly mentioning Sir Gawain as the ideal practitioner of these rules and Kay the Seneschal, a repulsive character from the Arthurian Romances, as embodying the type of behavior to avoid. Courtly love is not just a matter of feelings and expression, but it is a description of an entire lifestyle and ethical code of conduct.
As already noted, love is not presented as a product of reason, but a force of emotion that works against our better judgment. In the book, Reason comes down from her high tower to comfort Guillaume in his distress; similar to the way Lady Philosophy comes to comfort the dejected Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy. She describes love as a product of idleness.
“It was an evil hour when you went to shelter in the cool shade of the garden where Idleness carries the key with which she opened the gate for you. He who acquaints himself with Idleness is a fool; acquaintance with her is very dangerous, for she had betrayed and deceived you. Love would never have seen you if Idleness had not led you into the fair garden of Diversion. If you behaved stupidly, now do what you can to recover, and take good care not to believe any advice that would make you act stupidly (73).”
It is idle minds in search of diversion that fall in love. The remedy from falling in love in the first place then would be to keep your mind busy with the deeper thoughts of philosophy. Reason tries to convince the protagonist to stop serving Love, give up what she views as a folly, and turn to the consolation of his own rational thoughts instead.
Not only does Reason occupy a similar role as Lady Philosophy in The Consolation of Philosophy in her attempt to comfort Guillaume, but Reason rehashes many of the same arguments against relying on the whims of fortune, seeking worldly happiness (such as wealth, fame, and high office), and G-d’s providential role in our lives. Boethius’s influence is everywhere in this section and he is even mentioned explicitly by name. In her attempt to convince the protagonist, Reason also mentions ideas from works of Cicero, Homer, recounts historical references (such as the reign of Nero) from Livy and Suetonius, and makes quite a few allusions to other works from the Greco-Roman world.
In the end, the protagonist admits that the arguments are good, but he will continue loving the rose anyway. This is a powerful statement that speaks to the heart of the work. Often our reason would dictate we should act a certain way, but our feelings and emotional needs reject them. Even when someone admits an opponent is giving a good argument, they might still reject it anyway because it interferes with what they emotionally want to believe or think. In general this is an interesting observation, but concerning love, this section is saying that love defies reason and cares little about rational arguments for or against it. Boethius’s arguments are rejected, not on grounds of soundness or validity, but on grounds of practicality and satisfaction.
This is a work that wants both the divine transcendence of G-d, but without fully rejecting the material world of pleasure that Boethius renounces. It is almost as if the poets are acknowledging that Boethius is right in theory that reason suggests we should reject material happiness, but it is unrealistic that most people can live their lives around such lofty thoughts and concepts, and therefore he is wrong because the arguments amount only to a hypothetical ideal and not behavior that can be applied in the real world. So what the work suggests in between the lines to reconcile Boethius’s arguments with the practical needs of real people is that love is part of the natural order, it is part of the deeper transcendental truth of an orderly universe created by a providential G-d. If feelings of love and unions between men and women are a natural part of the universe, why so much resistance to it as depicted in the allegorical plot?
It is an understatement to say that the poem often depicts women in an unflattering light; it is downright misogynistic in its many statements and depictions of women. Women are presented as untrustworthy, flirtatious gossips. Many of the speakers blatantly state that no wise man should really trust a woman. In fact, the poet attempts to defend his project by stating that he is not trying to slander women, but that the ancients all agree on this point.
Each speaker offers a different perspective of women. Friend in his advice to Guillaume warns against bad marriages. Nature during her confession to Genius harps on the untrustworthiness of women who are incapable of keeping their husband’s secrets and will use those secrets against him when it fits her needs. On the other hand, Old Woman flips these perspectives around and blames men for the misfortunes of women. She turns back to those ancient sources that supposedly all agree and notes the many examples of men who betray women from ancient literature. She justifies the deceitfulness and control of women that the other perspectives complain about by claiming women need to do this to protect themselves from men and these actions are just women imitating the way men treat women. Women are not untrustworthy naturally, but rather must act deceitful in order to protect themselves from men who would deceive them. With this in mind, it becomes clear that the portrait the poem paints of women is more complicated than first meets the eyes.
One of the most interesting perspectives on this issue is offered during Friend’s speech when he tells a story about a jealous husband. At the end of the story, he claims that none of this would happen if their relationship had been based in equality.
“My friend, consider this mad jealous boor—may his flesh be fed to the wolves—so filled with his jealousy, as I have described him for you here in this story. He makes himself lord over his wife, who, in turn, should not be his lady but his equal and his companion, as the law joins them together; and, for his part, he should be her companion without making himself her lord or master. Do you think that, when he arranges such torments for her and does not consider her his equal but rather makes her live in such distress, he will not be displeasing to her and that the love between them will not fail? Yes indeed, without fail, whatever she says, he will not be loved by his wife if he wants to be called ‘lord,’ for love must die when lovers want lordship. Love cannot endure or live if it is not free and active in the heart (170).”
Friend is claiming that men and women should be equal companions in a relationship if love is to thrive. But why is there an imbalance in the first place? I think the work hints that the Fall of Man after the Garden of Eden is to blame. Love is part of the natural order, but it has become corrupted after the Fall so that now we feel shame and jealousy, husband and wife fight for power within their relationships when they should be equals, which only produces resentment between partners, and deceit exists where there should only be honesty. Evoking this Christian worldview certainly ties up all the loose ends nicely and is a potential solution of meaning for all these various perspectives.
However, maybe this is a little too tidy. Maybe the poem’s presentation of a complicated mess of perspectives is not a way of inserting a Christian theological worldview as the ultimate source of the battle of the sexes and the distortion of love from its natural form, but rather as a way of revealing the true nature of love as a force immune to all other forms of reasoning, logical or emotional. Maybe the true aesthetic strength of the poem is to show the power of love in the face of all potential objections. So the poem presents these many different perspectives about the relationships of men and women, depicting women at their worst and most untrustworthy, capturing the constant battle of the sexes, showing all the ways a relationship can go sour and lead to misery for both parties, raising the objection that even our own reason dictates we should avoid the pleasures of this world and rejects our desires as ephemeral wastes of time, and the many other forces like jealousy and shame that stop love in its track, only to point out that despite all of these reasons and dangers to human happiness that our feelings for another can potentially bring, human beings will seek the pleasure of love and companionship anyway. Despite all the speeches and warnings and arguments against love and women and the many risks of a bad relationship that the other characters present to him, Guillaume still covets the rose in the end.