Roman de la Rose: How Economics and Morality Wilt Love

 

de Lorris

Guillaume de Lorris

Guillaume de Lorris presents an allegory of courtly love in his poem Roman de la Rose.  The title works, but a more suitable title might be: The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Allegory, since all the allegorical characters are given the names of the things they personify.  That means that the character Reason represents….. REASON!  And Jealousy?  Yeah, Jealousy represents jealousy.  And you’ll NEVER guess what Wealth represents.  Lorris, as a side note, was actually considering writing the work under the pen name Captain Obvious before his publishers encouraged him to change his mind.  The work was eventually supplemented by the poetry of Jean de Meun, whose contributions amounts to the medieval version of fan fiction, only in medieval times, people didn’t care who the ‘author’ was, so most just treated Meun’s contribution as part of the original work.  Lorris’s portion of the poem details what can be called a failure in courtly love as the protagonist, an unnamed courtier, not only fails to secure his beloved, but also sees his only friend imprisoned for offering assistance to the protagonist.  Meun’s ‘Advice of Reason’, when read along with Lorris’s poem, seems to demonstrate that what Reason defines as ‘Natural love’ is corrupted by constructs of love formed around economics and morals that are only superficially observed.  From a contemporary perspective, the work reads as an attack on capitalist ideals (though suggesting this was the intent of the work would be anachronistic), as well as an ecocritical work as it promotes the natural realm over the realm of human constructs.

 

Jean de Meun: author of medieval fan fiction and President of the 'Roman do la Rose' fan club from 1365 until his death.

Jean de Meun: author of medieval fan fiction and President of the ‘Roman do la Rose’ fan club from 1365 until his death.

It is clear in both poems that nature is presented as the ideal.  The most prominent example of this is the fact that in Lorris’s allegory, the beloved is represented by a rose, which can be seen as an element of nature.  In replacing the beloved with a rose, Lorris uplifts the natural realm above the human realm, making the natural world something which humanity must aspire to.  This is reinforced when Lorris recounts “the sound of the nightingales, thrushes and other birds”, as his protagonist notes that one could “never find a finer spot” (Lorris, 11), noting that the birds “sang as though they were heavenly angels” (12).  Even Pleasure’s ornate dress imitates the natural realm as it features engravings of birds.  Lorris presents the natural realm as being on a par with a heavily one, and therefore one that sits above the human realm.  This is reinforced by Meun, whose Reason suggests to the courtier that he look to nature to find authentic love as environment exudes “another, natural, kind of love, which Nature created in the animals… is a natural and properly motivated inclination to wish to preserve one’s fellow creatures” (Meun, 88).  Meun situations this love above even the most noble human constructs when he notes that “If Justice were always asleep, Love would be sufficient for the leading of a good and virtuous life” (85).  Here, as with Lorris, Meun places natural love above human constructs such as justice and encourages the courtier to turn to nature to define love.  Both poets clearly position the natural world as the ideal and human constructs as a corrupting influence that impedes love.

 

 

Romance of the Rose was famous for the illustrations in its manuscripts.

Romance of the Rose was famous for the illustrations in its manuscripts.

Economics is primary human constructs that impedes natural love.  Early in Lorris’s poem, the courtier sees a depiction of Poverty and notes that a poor man is cursed because “he will never be… loved nor favoured” (Lorris, 9).  In order to obtain love, one needs wealth, as in indicated throughout the poem as love and wealth are linked together throughout.  Pleasure and Joy, who are presented as ideal lovers, are both lavishly dressed.  The courtier observes that Pleasure is “richly dressed in samite embroidered with birds and decorated with beaten gold.  His coat was very ornately styled, elegantly slashed and cut in various places” (14).  Joy, Pleasure’s lover, wore “a chaplet… beautifully worked in silk… [and] was clothed… in the same samite decorated with gold that her lover wore” (15).  Even Beauty is juxtaposed with Wealth when the courtier meets her (17).  When Love instructs the courtier, he tells him that “nothing good was ever obtained without payment; thus the more we pay for something, the better we appreciate the purchase” (40).  This places love and women in strictly possessive terms and frames them as a commodity.  This creeps up in the courtier’s language later when he asks Fair Welcome to give him a kiss from the beloved as a gift.  Framing the kiss as a gift contextualizes it as a possession: a commodity to be had.  This creates and economic rhetoric for love which situates it in economic terms.  This approach stands in stark contrast Dr. Dre’s views on love as exemplified in the track ‘Ed-uncation’.

 

Tyler Durden and Jean de Meun are of the same mind when it come to capitalism.

Tyler Durden and Jean de Meun are of the same mind when it come to capitalism.

When viewing the courtier’s experience, it is clear that wealth is linked with love, but according to Meun’s Reason, “no merchant lives in comfort, for such a war rages in his heart that he burns alive to acquire more goods and will never have enough” (Meun, 77).  Ironically, the construct of wealth, though it is needed to procure love, inherently serves is an impediment to love as one who has it will have a ‘war in his heart’.  Meun’s work reads as if it were the rough draft of the scene in Fight Club where Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden tells Edward Norton’s Tyler Durden about the evils of capitalism.  He claims that people “are so bound by Avarice that they have submitted their natural freedom to vile servitude” (79), going onto suggest that all are slaves to “the money that [they] keep… locked up in their storehouses”.  He rhetorically asks the courtier: “Do they keep it?” and give him not time to consider as he answers his own question: “Indeed, it is rather they who are kept, having fallen into such misfortune” (79).  Or as Tyler Durden would say: “The things you own end up owning you.”  This avarice is all consuming and will destroy a lover’s heart, but should the avarice birthed by wealth not usurp a lover’s heart, pride begot in the same manner might, as Lorris’s courtier notes that Joy was filled with pride because of her elaborate dress (Lorris, 17).  Meun also notes that “Fortune… makes her home with men, she confuses their understanding and nurtures their ignorance” (Meun, 75), so aside from morality, wealth also impact one’s intellectual capacity as well.  Wealth is needed to secure love in this medieval society (as it is in many instances today), but paradoxically corrupts virtue, negating the quest for virtuous love.  Meun suggests through Reason that the courtier should understand that possessions are a fallacy, “for… everything you own is enclosed within yourself” (82).

 

 

Unless the 'rose' this courtier fell in love with was Amber Rose, I really don' see what the big deal is.  Get over it!

Unless the ‘rose’ this courtier fell in love with was Amber Rose, I really don’ see what the big deal is. Get over it!

There are other paradoxes within the poem.  The character Love prescribes behaviour to the courtier, mentoring him on how to achieve love, but in is instructions are a number of paradoxes.  When lecturing the courtier on visiting the beloved, Love has this to say: “You would be very glad to go into her house… but be careful to conceal this from other people, and seek another reason for going there, for it is sensible to be discreet” (Lorris, 37).  The irony is that Love also tells the courtier to be honest, saying that he should be “neither treacherous nor false” (50), but here clearly instructs him to be deceitful and hide his true intent.  Such deceit is necessary because maidens are seen as a commodity and men are suspect until they have proven themselves worthy.  The courtier, then, must prove himself to be morally beyond reproach, and to do this must first be immoral be deceiving others.  Clearly the moral codes in the medieval court have failed to serve their purpose by placing too much value on chastity.

 

Rose McGowen would also be an acceptable beloved, but assuming she was the courtier's beloved might be anachronistic.  Unless he had a time machine.

Rose McGowen would also be an acceptable beloved, but assuming she was the courtier’s beloved might be anachronistic. Unless he had a time machine.

Such morality would have likely been handed down from the church.  At the time, the church would have been expected to exemplify virtue, but it is clear when reading Lorris’s work that this was not the case.  Early in the work there is a depiction of “Religious Hypocrisy” (8).  This manifests itself later when Love speaks to the courtier about what his eating habit should be: “is fitting that you should lose weight, for love… leaves the true lover with neither colour nor flesh”, going onto state that because “of this, you can tell those who betray women, for they flatter them by saying that they have no appetite for food or drink, but I see” that they are cheats if they are “fatter than abbots or priors” (39).  The abbots and priors are supposed to embody virtues, but in practice they are archetypes of gluttony, so much so that Love can employ them as such and assume that a person he has just met will understand the context.  This is reminiscent of Chaucer‘s depiction of religious figures in The Canterbury Talessuch as the prioress and the friar. If the institution that is meant to epitomize virtue is associated more with vice, then it is clear that the morals of medieval society are not serving the purpose which they are meant to.

 

 

 

Axl Rose might be a suitable beloved as well.  Why not?

Axl Rose might be a suitable beloved as well. Why not?

In reading the poem, it seems clear that morals weren’t what was truly important, but rather it was the performance of morals.  Reputation mattered more than the virtuous act in many instances, and perceived foolishness was the greatest sin.  Rebuff is chastised for not policing the garden and is told that he is “getting slack, and… will have the universal reputation of being soft and weak, and of believing those who flatter” (56) him.  The reprimand is reinforced when Rebuff is told that only “a fool would trust” (56) him.  It is in response to this that Rebuff builds a wall around the rose that serves as the beloved of the courtier, and also a high tower in which to place Fair Welcome, whose only crime is having befriended the courtier.  The threat to reputation was serious, and reputation was fragile.  The courtier and Fair Welcome are punished based on pure slander that is provided by Evil Tongue (who surprisingly is NOT actually meant to allegorically represent fellatio or cunnilingus,but sadly just gossoip: and I thought the story was about to get good) and spurned Jealousy and Shame to take actions against Fair Welcome and the courtier.  Like a woman’s chastity, then, a man’s reputation was easily assault through slander.

 

Another piece of art from the poem's manuscript.

Another piece of art from the poem’s manuscript.

There are some peculiarities in the poems.  When the courtier meets Chastity, he says that he “shall not now mention her dress and veil, the gold braid that adorned her hair, her clasp and her belt, for it would take too long” (52), but does actually mention them: he just doesn’t go into great detail about them.  He’s like that guy that has to tell you he isn’t going to talk about hisex.  You know, like he won’t mention anything about how she cheated on him, or never appreciated him, and how she lied to him about everything.  And you know that time that she borrowed 250 bucks from him to cover the rent and said she’d pay it back but didn’t?  Well, he won’t talk about that either.  In one scene the courtier describes a woman, writing lame compliments about her forehead and eyebrows before saying that “her eyes [were] not set too close together but [were] widely and properly spaced”.  I’m not sure what he was getting at here, but it sounds as if he is trying to assure the reader that this woman does not appear to have down syndrome, as if he has made that mistake in the past and is adamant that it is not going to happen again.  When he first meets Joy, he notes: “I, who have seen twenty-nine, have never seen a chaplet so beautifully worked in silk”.  WOW! You’ve seen TWENTY-NINE chaplets?  And you’ve counted them all?  Why is this guy keeping track of how many chaplets he’s seen?  This seems like an obsessive habit.  And what the fuck is a chaplet anyways?  The scary thing is that he then goes onto note that Joy gave her love to Pleasure when she was seven year old.  SEVEN?!?!?!? WHAT! THE! FUCK!   I know that in Shakespeare’s time women were getting married at fourteen, and arranged marriages were settled sometimes at infancy, but to ‘give her love’ at seven years? What the fucking fuck!  And why is it that this guy hears about a girl of seven having sex when he first speaks about her to the reaer he feels the need to open up with the chaplet?  As if that were a more important detail then the fact that her husband was essentially raping her since the age of seven.  On a COMPLETELY UNRELATED SIDE NOTE, perhaps Woody Allen might want to pick this up as his next project.  I’m sure doing a film adaptation of a medieval poem would be an interesting experiment.

 

Men like Don Draper made up love to sell pantyhose to housewives.

Men like Don Draper made up love to sell nylons to housewives.

Once I was done reading the poem, I felt relief.  Not since The Pilgrim’s Progress have I read such a dull, boring, plotless tale that served as not much more than a lecture about virtue, vice and the true meaning of love.  Love doesn’t even exists.  It is something that ad men like Don Draper made up to sell nylons to women like Rachel Menken.  The author’s do seem to be very much aware of love as a construct and do write some interesting passages.  Rebuff, for examples asks the courtier: “What does it matter to me if you love?  I am neither chilled nor warmed by it” (49).  This passage demonstrates that lack of a practical use for love.  It is strictly a construct.  Meun even goes so far as to say that love “is a mental illness” (67).  If it isn’t a mental illness, it does at the very least, if one were to go by the presentation of love in Roman de la Rose, require a degree of compartmentalization that is on a par with the kind of doublethink performed by O’Brien in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Sadly, I’m not sure love has changed much in the centuries since the Roman de la Rose was published, but if you want to read paradoxical interpretation of love written in the medieval period, you might be better off going with Chrétien de Troyes‘ Arthurian romances.  A good start would by The Knight of the Cart and The Story of the Grail  They are far more entertaining and outlandish.  Lorris’s work is more akin to a poetic version of Everyman, which isn’t meant as a compliment.  At the end of the day, you’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on you.

 

Works Cited

Lorris, Guillaume de.  Roman de la Rose.  From The Romance of the Rose.  Trans. Frances Hogan.  New York: Oxford University Press.  2008.  1-61.  Print.

Meun, Jean de.  ‘Advice of Reason’.  From From The Romance of the Rose.  Trans. Frances Hogan.  New York: Oxford University Press.  2008.  62-110.  Print.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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