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Roman de la Rose

Lutenist and singers in a garden: an image from Roman de la Rose

Roman de la Rose
British Library Harley MS 4425, f.14v
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email imagesonline@bl.uk

This is said to be the most beautiful manuscript of one of medieval literature’s biggest bestsellers. The allegorical poem of chivalric love is illustrated with 92 brilliant miniatures, of which four are half-page paintings with decorative borders. It was written and illuminated by the artist known as The Master of the Prayer Books of c.1500. Enchanting settings, rich pageantry and elaborate costumes conjure up the lavish and cultivated life-style of the royal court of Burgundy in the late 15th century.

What’s ‘Roman de la Rose’ about?

‘The Story of the Rose’ was composed in France at the height of the age of chivalry and courtly love by Guillaume de Lorris. The author’s declared intention was to expound the “whole art of love”. He began writing in the late 1230s, but left the work unfinished when he died around 1278. The very long poem was completed, some 40 years later, by Jean de Meun, sometimes also known by the nickname ‘Clopinel’ because he was lame. In French, ‘clopiner’ means ‘to limp’.

The earlier part of the poem tells of the Lover’s quest for the Rose, which symbolises his lady’s love. Guillaume relates the story as if it were a dream, speaking through the voice of the Lover. Rising one May morning the he strolls along a riverbank, enjoying the sights and sounds of a new spring. The Lover’s footsteps take him to a lush orchard enclosed by a high wall.

The walled garden belongs to a nobleman called Déduit – the Old French word for pleasure. It is here the Lover must seek his elusive Rose. In the quest, he is tutored in the art of courtship by the winged God of Love and encounters a series of allegorical characters. Each is an expression of the object of his affections. Together they provide a charming commentary on the psychology of romantic love.

A very different view prevails in the later part of the poem, written by Jean de Meun. He takes an altogether more down-to-earth and cynical stance on the relationship between the sexes in the real world beyond the sheltering walls of the pleasure garden. This change in tone reflects a new, more rationalist mood emerging in the second half of the 13th century. The allegorical figure of Reason plays but a small part in the cast of Guillaume’s half of the story, serving only to curb the most excessive of the Lover’s passions. But in Jean de Meun’s half, she becomes the mouthpiece for his often-acerbic philosophy, aimed at a wide range of social and political targets.

The ‘Roman de la Rose’ became enormously popular. Some 250 manuscripts of the poem are known to have survived from medieval times. It exerted a strong influence on literature in France and beyond, Guillaume’s verses in particular serving as the model for courtly poetry.

What does this page show?

This highly detailed miniature depicts the Lover being shown the entrance to the walled garden by Lady Idleness, who is described as having yellow hair, grey eyes, a seemly neck and perfumed breath. Inside the garden, a lute player entertains elegantly dressed ladies sitting by a fountain.

The walled garden played an important symbolic role in medieval art and literature, both religious and secular. Christians saw the enclosed garden - in Latin, the ‘hortus conclusus’ – as a symbol of the perpetual virginity of Christ’s mother, Mary. The metaphor derived from a verse in the biblical ‘Song of Solomon’: “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.”

The secular equivalent was the ‘hortus delicarium’, the garden of pleasure. It too was an enclosed space protected from the rigours of everyday life, a place where the wealthy, particularly women, could enjoy cultural amusement and intellectual inspiration.

Both gardens usually had flower-strewn lawns, sometimes called ‘strews’, rather than beds of flowers. The grass was often raised to form turf seating. Trellises with grape vines and climbing roses were popular, and many gardens had decorative fountains or fish pools at their centre.

Tree branches were trained to form shady arbours where ladies could enjoy the air without fear of compromising their fashionably pale complexions by exposure to the sun. Tanned skin was the sign of the labouring classes: wealthy women aspired to having skin as pale as alabaster.

All these features appear in the idealised garden of the ‘Roman de la Rose’, which is planted with date palms and spice trees, as well as peaches, quinces, cherries and nuts. It’s carpeted with flowers of every colour and season, and inhabited by gentle creatures of the forest: the hart, rabbit and squirrel – each having symbolic associations with femininity or fertility.

Who made this manuscript?

This copy of the ‘Roman de la Rose’ was made in the last decade of the 15th century for Count Engelbert of Nassau, who was leader of the Duke of Burgundy’s Privy Council. His family had been officers in the Burgundian Court at Bruges for three generations. As a wealthy courtier he could afford richly illuminated manuscripts such as this. Another important manuscript commissioned by him is known as the ‘Book of Hours of Engelbert of Nassau’.

The writing and painting of his ‘Roman de la Rose’ was carried out in Bruges and is attributed to the Master of the Prayer Books of c.1500, who is named from a group of religious manuscripts with closely matching styles dating from the years around the turn of the 16th century. He may have been an individual or a small studio of artists working closely together. The Master of the Prayer Books is noted for the lively depiction of scenes from both courtly and working class life in the late middle ages, which are found in his devotional as well as his secular works.

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