Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meung

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

Guillaume de Lorris is not known to have written anything other than the first portion of The Romance of the Rose. Jean de Meung, perhaps in connection with a scholarly career, undertook translations from a number of Latin works. He rendered Vegetius’s fourth century Epitoma rei militaris as L’Art de chevalerie; also extant is Jean’s translation of the letters of Abélard and Héloïse, but his versions of Giraud de Barri’s The Marvels of Ireland and Saint Aelred of Rievaulx’s De spirituali amicitia (early twelfth century) have not survived. This latter work had a discernible influence on The Romance of the Rose, particularly in the view of friendship presented by the character Reason. Jean was influenced most, however, by one other work he translated, Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae (c. 524; The Consolation of Philosophy). Boethius, as a character in his own work, is instructed in points of Neoplatonic metaphysics by Philosophy, and Jean adopts both this instructional mode and much of Philosophy’s teachings in his portrayal of Reason.

Manuscript tradition assigns to Jean two other poems, a Testament (thirteenth century) and Codicil (thirteenth century). This ascription is uncertain, but it is worth mentioning that the Testament contains a retraction of certain “vain little poems,” probably not intended to include The Romance of the Rose. As is also the case with Geoffrey Chaucer, such a retraction is problematic at best, and critics tend to divide into two camps, either questioning the sincerity of such last-minute penitence, or else imparting thereby a greater moral seriousness to even the apparently playful aspects of the author’s works.


The Romance of the Rose is a major work of Old French literature and of the allegorical genre. Its popularity was immediate and widespread (as attested by the more than three hundred manuscripts which still survive), and the poem exerted a strong influence at least down to Elizabethan times. By 1400, interest in the poem had developed into a “quarrel,” or debate, with one faction (including Christine de Pisan) decrying the misogyny and lasciviousness in the poem, and the other faction upholding the poem’s aesthetic worth and moral soundness. Probably the most illustrious medieval author to be influenced by The Romance of the Rose was Geoffrey Chaucer, who translated part of the poem into Middle English. Dean Spruill Fansler considered Jean de Meung to have been Chaucer’s “schoolmaster,” in that Chaucer’s first exposure to authorities such as Boethius and Macrobius was doubtless through The Romance of the Rose. Chaucer’s first major poem, The Book of the Duchess (c. 1370), is a dream allegory much indebted to Guillaume de Lorris in its descriptive passages. Subsequently, The Romance of the Rose became for Chaucer but one of many Continental influences, but it is worth noting that Jean’s portrait of the Old Woman is echoed in Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. A major contemporary of Chaucer, the anonymous “Pearl-Poet,” makes explicit reference to The Romance of the Rose, and the poem exerted a structural influence on his dream allegory Pearl (c. 1400).

The popularity of The Romance of the Rose continued into the Renaissance; as Alan Gunn notes in The Mirror of Love: A Reinterpretation of “The Romance of the Rose” (1951), twenty-one editions of the poem were printed between 1481 and 1538. Edmund Spenser, particularly in The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), is the major figure of this period to have reaped benefits from a reading of Jean de Meung. From him, according to scholar Rosemund Tuve, Spenser learned how “to use large images in a huge design, philosophically profound if allegorically read.”

In the following centuries, interest in the poem waned as allegory in general fell into disfavor. In the twentieth century, beginning perhaps with C. S. Lewis, critics and readers have once again found in The Romance of the Rose a work of complex artistry. Interpretations of the poem vary widely, however—so much so that scholars may even be said to have entered into a new “quarrel of the Rose.”


Most of what is known of both authors of The Romance of the Rose is inferred from their works alone. Midway through the poem, the God of Love mentions two of his most faithful servants, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean Chopinel (“the lame”) of Meung-sur-Loire. From the statement (line 10,588) that Jean will continue Guillaume’s work forty years later, critics have worked back to a date of around 1230 or 1235 for Guillaume’s portion and 1275 for that of Jean. Jean de Meung is otherwise known to have lived in Paris from 1292 until 1305. Presumably, he had left Meung-sur-Loire, a small village southwest of Orléans, for the intellectual climate surrounding the recently established University of Paris.


A sense of allegory has not been completely lost to the modern reader, who is likely to have come upon instances in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), if not in John Bunyan, Spenser, or medieval morality plays. Guillaume de Lorris imparted a major impetus to the popularity of one subgenre of allegory, the dream allegory. In contrast, to understand Jean de Meung’s “exploded” approach, it is worth referring to the more encyclopedic style of allegory which Boethius had anticipated, and which was developing shortly before Jean’s time in, for example, the Complaint of Nature by Alanus de Insulis. One other convention which may prove to be a barrier for the modern reader of The Romance of the Rose is that of courtly love, which was found earlier in Provençal lyrics and their reinterpretation of Ovid’s Ars amatoria (c. 2 b.c.e.; Art of Love), and in the romances of Chrétien de Troyes. The relationship of this convention to medieval reality is widely disputed, but its signs are obvious enough: The Lover is struck by Cupid’s arrows and undergoes a physically debilitating “lovesickness,” which can be relieved only by the Lady’s favors.

The first and most obvious feature to note about the text proper is that it is the work of two authors. Guillaume’s portion, lines one through 4058, was left unfinished. In some manuscripts, a quick and inartistic close was provided, presumably by some enterprising scribe. Jean’s massive continuation (to line 21,780), however, became a lasting part of the poem. The fact of dual authorship raises questions about the unity of the work—that is, whether Jean understood Guillaume’s intentions.

The Romance of the Rose

Guillaume establishes the pattern of versification for The Romance of the Rose Macrobius, author of the Commentarii in somnium Scipionis (fifth century) is cited as an authority. Since Macrobius categorized merely erotic dreams as meaningless “insomnia,” some commentators have inferred that Guillaume must have intended his readers to delve beneath the first, erotic level of the dream allegory that follows.

One night, the author, “in the twentieth year of his life,” fell asleep and dreamed what he would call The Romance of the Rose, in which may be found “the whole art of love.” It is Love who commands him to retell the dream, in a poem undertaken “for she who is so precious and so worthy to be loved that she should be called Rose.” These remarks can be examined closely for clues to the interpretation of what follows. If the dream is told at the urging of Love, it seems unlikely, as C. S. Lewis pointed out, that Guillaume intended to close with a “palinode” (or repudiation) of Love. The dedicatory remark indicates a clear affinity between the Rose and “the Lady,” but a more precise allegorical interpretation is not given.

The Dreamer wakes to a fine May morning, dresses, and goes out from the town, led on by the sweet singing of birds. (The lyrical landscape through which he walks becomes a commonplace used by other writers in dream allegories.) He follows a river to a garden enclosed by high walls, upon which are depicted the first of the allegorical figures: Covetousness, with her clawed hands; Old Age with her mossy ears; and so on. (Symbolic details such as these recall the iconographic details of medieval paintings.) Apparently, these figures signify those qualities banned from the Garden of Delight, and perhaps from the courtly life in which young love may bloom. Inside the wall, the figures will be animated, and yet the static, pictorial sense with which Guillaume begins his allegory is consistent with the generally decorous tone of his work.

The Dreamer, hearing birdsong from within the garden, seeks out a doorway, which he knocks upon and which eventually is opened by Idleness. She exhibits all the qualities of beauty which are commonplaces in medieval literature, including sweet breath and clear skin (which is likely to have been rather rare in medieval reality). The Dreamer wanders on to the next group of allegorical figures: Diversion, Joy, Courtesy, and their company of dancers. All are lovely, elegant youths dressed in the most delicate fashions. Surpassing them, however, is the God of Love in his robe of many flowers, with all manner of birds flocking about him. The sweetness of these scenes and the sylphlike creatures who...

(The entire section is 3933 words.)