The Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose) is
one of the most famous and influential courtly
love poems of the MIDDLE AGES. Written by two
French authors, GUILLAUME DE LORRIS and JEAN DE
MEUN, Romance of the Rose is an allegory in which
emotions and abstract ideas such as Reason and
Nature are personified by the story’s characters.
The story tells how a young man in courtly society
(represented in the literal story by a garden)
seeks to win a young woman’s love (represented
by a rose). The man’s attempt to seduce the woman
is aided by her friendliness (or Fair Welcome), and
by her passion (Venus), and repulsed at other moments
by her haughtiness (as represented by the
character of Dangier).
According to author C. S. Lewis, Romance of the
Rose is “a love story of considerable subtlety and
truth” in which the poets create the psychology of
their characters by constructing an imaginary
world in which the lovers’ passions move and impress
themselves vividly on the reader’s mind.
Guillaume de Lorris, about whom almost nothing
is known, composed the first 4,000 lines of the
poem. After his death, the work’s popularity led
more than one writer to try to complete it. A first,
very short anonymous conclusion was probably
written shortly after the original, but much more
famous is the long continuation and conclusion by
Jean de Meun.
Guillaume’s major inspiration was the ideology
and poetry of CHIVALRY and courtly love in which
the lady plays the dominant role, kindly granting
her favors or not, and the lover strives to please
her in all things and be worthy of her. This type of
love was an innovation and in direct contrast with
the current idea of marriage in which the husband
was expected to have complete control and domination
over his wife. Guillaume and Jean de Meun
also recognized that the love they were portraying
contradicted the medieval ascetic tradition that
condemned passion for its ability to destroy a person’s
reason; hence the appearance of Reason,
whose character argues in vain against love.
Jean de Meun’s sources included the works of
Alan of Lille, a 12th-century poet of the school of
Chartres, who wrote philosophical poetry about nature
and creation.His other sources included Greek
and Roman mythology (see MYTHOLOGY, GREEK AND
ROMAN) and the allegorical traditions found in the
BIBLE and in the works of ancient poets.
Romance of the Rose begins with the narrator
dreaming of entering the beautiful Garden of Delight
by permission of the gatekeeper Idleness.As he
explores the garden, he looks into a well, where he
sees two crystal stones and, reflected in them, a Rose
growing a little way off. The God of Love shoots him
with his arrows, and he falls in love and tries to
reach the Rose. But he must first surrender to the
God of Love, whom he takes as his lord, saying:
This heart is yours; it is no longer mine;
For good or ill it does as you command.
With the help of the lady’s initial friendliness
(Fair Welcome), the Lover tries to win the Rose’s
love. He grows too bold and is soon rebuffed by
her Dangier. At this point, Reason, a beautiful
woman, urges him to give up his quest.
Nothing but foolishness is this disease
called Love; ’twere better if it were folly
The Lover rebuffs Reason and perseveres. Another
character, Friend, who is already experienced
in the ways of love, advises him on how to placate
Dangier. The Lover again makes headway and soon
asks if he can kiss the Rose. Fair Welcome at first
. . . So help me God, dear friend,
If Chastity did not so frown on me,
I’d not deny you; but I am afraid
Of her and would not act against her will.
At Venus’s (desire’s) arrival, however, Fair Welcome
capitulates, and the lover kisses the Rose.
Malebouche (Evil Mouths or gossip) spreads the
news, and Jealousy builds a fortress around the Rose
and imprisons Fair Welcome in its tower. The lover
laments his defeat. It is at this point that Guillaume
de Lorris’s story ends and Jean de Meun’s begins.
Sarah Kay describes Jean’s conclusion, which is
more than four times longer than Guillaume’s beginning,
as “less an expansion than an explosion
of the original Rose.” Around the framework of
the simple story of the Lover and the Rose, Jean
weaves vast discourses on dozens of subjects, including
free will and predestination, the planets,
and hypocritical religions. He displays a more
critical and cynical attitude toward idealized
courtly love and includes a number of satirical
passages on women and relations between the
sexes. One of the most famous characters, Vekke,
the old woman who guards Fair Welcome, speaks
at length about how women should take many
lovers, cheat on them, and get expensive presents
Jean de Meun’s conclusion tells how the Lover
argues again with Reason, who explains that those
who engage in love for pleasure alone, without the
desire to procreate, are wrong. The God of Love
agrees to help the Lover, calling on his forces to
storm the castle where the Rose is kept prisoner.
They are defeated and finally call on Venus.
While this is happening, Jean introduces Nature’s
character, whose beauty the narrator cannot
For God, whose beauty is quite measureless,
When He this loveliness to Nature gave
Within her fixed a fountain, full and free
From which all beauty flows.
As she is working in her forge to repair the ravages
of death by the birth of new human beings, Nature
hears of the Lover’s quest. She goes to her confessor
Genius (the god of reproduction) and
complains of the disobedience of humans who refuse
to procreate as God ordains. Genius goes to
Love’s forces, excommunicates those who refuse
Nature’s laws, and absolves those who are about to
fight. Above all, he exhorts them to live so as to be
worthy of the Park of the Lamb of God, for the
beauty of the Garden of Delight is only an illusory
image of the beauty of heaven. During the storming
of the castle, Venus throws her torch and destroys
the Rose’s prison; at last the Lover enjoys
and apparently impregnates his love.
Countless other authors have quoted Romance
of the Rose and imitated its symbolism and imagery.
It has been translated twice into Italian (Il
Fiore and Il Detto d’Amore), numerous times in
Middle English (a version often attributed to Geoffrey
Chaucer) and Modern English, and in many
other languages. Chaucer used the poem as one of
his sources when creating the different moods of
the heroine Criseyde in his long narrative poem
Troilus and Criseyde (early 1380s). John Gower also
used the poem as a source for his Confessio Amantis
(The Lover’s Confession, 1390s), in which he,
too, portrays Genius as a confessor, this time for
the lover. Later medieval authors, including Jean de
Montreuil and Christine de Pisan, debated the
morality of the poem and its treatment of women.
Modern critics disagree about Jean de Meun’s
ultimate intentions, questioning whether he approved
of Guillaume de Lorris’s original poem,
whether he intended his cynical views to overshadow
his religious views, and whether Nature or
Genius represent his true beliefs. Perhaps the answers
to such questions lie somewhere in between.
According to scholar Maxwell Luria, Jean de
Meun’s subject can be summed up as “Love itself,
man’s multifarious and conflicting and sometimes
treacherous attraction toward the whole spectrum of
created goods and their uncreated Maker.”Within
this subject there is room for both delight in and
cynical realism about human love, as well as yearning
for the divine. Scholar R. Allen Shoaf takes a
broader look at the poem, viewing it as a form of
criticism. In his essay “Rose Oser Sero Eros: Recent
Studies of the Romance of the Rose,”Shoaf writes that
Romance of the Rose succeeds as a criticism of love
“largely because Jean de Meun saw and expressed the
inescapable mutual contamination of the languages
of love, philosophy, and theology. . . .”Wherever future
debates and scholarly criticism of the poem
might lead, there seems to be no question that the
Romance of the Rose will continue to be regarded as
a masterpiece of medieval French literature.
English Versions of Romance of the Rose
The Romance of the Rose. Translated by Frances Horgan.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
The Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and
Jean de Meun. Translated by Charles Dahlberg.
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Works about Romance of the Rose
Brownlee, Kevin, and Sylvia Huot, eds. Rethinking the
Romance of the Rose: Text, Image, Reception.
Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,
Heller-Roazen, Daniel. Fortune’s Faces: The Roman
de la Rose and the Poetics of Contingency. Edited
by Stephen G. Nichols and Gerald Prince. Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.
Huot, Sylvia Jean. Romance of the Rose and Its Medieval
Readers: Interpretation, Reception, Manuscript
Transmission. Cambridge,Mass.: Cambridge
University Press, 1993.
Kelly, Douglas. Internal Difference and Meanings in
the Roman de la Rose.Madison: University ofWisconsin