Roman de la rose (Romance of the Rose) was the most popular literary work of the
thirteenth century. Reading this excerpt, I think you’ll understand why. It was started in the
first half of the century by a relatively conservative Frenchman, Guillaume de Lorris, who
died having written only four thousand lines. Forty years later, the poem was taken up again
by a saucy wisecrack, Jean de Meun, who employed Lorris’ Christian allegorical frame and
added eighteen thousand more lines to sneak in some seriously scandalous content. The crazy
thing is: he got away with it. A hundred years later, when Christine de Pisan, France’s first
professional woman writer, started a letter campaign to complain about the Roman‘s
explicit discussions of male genitalia, she was attacked by the top religious figures of the
century. Somehow the Roman was accepted, and copies of it spread around Europe,
influencing the greatest writers of the day (Chaucer translated it, Dante adapted it, and
everybody stole from it).
* * *
The passage below is from the end, when the main character, The Good Lover, finally
gets the chance to pluck the allegorical rose he’s been after for the whole book. Now a case
might be made that the Roman‘s rose is no ordinary rose, and that the Lover’s staff
and sack are not just for walking and carrying, but if you, with your lascivious leanings, detect
any sexual innuendo in the following scene (gasp!), I need only remind you that it is meant to
represent the heart of a good Christian embracing the true teaching of the Church. And
naughty you if you think otherwise!
From The Romance of the Rose by Jean de Meun
translated by Charles Dahlberg
I set out like a good pilgrim, impatient, fervent and wholehearted, like a pure lover, on the
voyage toward the aperture, the goal of my pilgrimage. [Never have I seen a place where I
would so gladly gaze, even go down on my knees to adore . . . I would do anything in my power,
whatever end I might come to, if I could find someone who might offer it to me, or, if nothing
more, might allow me there.]
I carried with me, by great effort, the sack and staff so stiff and strong . . . The sack was
well-made, of a supple skin without seam. You should know that it was not empty: Nature,
who gave it to me, had cleverly forged two hammers with great care at the same time that she
first designed it . . .
Nature herself made me the gift of the staff and wished to put hand to its polishing
before I was taught to read . . . I am supremely happy when I gaze on it; and when I feel it
content and happy, I give her thanks for her present. Since then it has comforted me in many
places where I have carried it. It serves me well; and do you know how? When, in my travels, I
find myself in a remote place, I put it into the ditches where I can see nothing, to see if they can
be forded. But I find some so deep, with banks so far apart, that it would be less trouble to swim
two leagues along the sea shore . . . I know; I have tried many great gulfs . . . But let us leave
these wide roads to those who travel them willingly, and let those of us who lead a light-hearted life keep gaily to the seductive bypaths, not the cart roads but the intriguing
footpaths . . .
It was my wish that, if I could bring my entire harness . . . up to the harbor, I might
touch it to the relics if I were allowed to bring it so close to them. With my staff unprotected . . .
I knelt without delay between the two fair pillars, for I was very hungry to worship the
lovely, adorable sanctuary . . . I partly raised the curtain which covered the relics and
approached the image to know the sanctuary more intimately. I kissed the image very
devoutly and then, to enter the sheath safely, wished to put my staff into the aperture, with
the sack hanging behind. Indeed I thought that I could shoot it in at the first try, but it came
back out. I replaced it, but to no avail; it still recoiled. By no effort could it enter there, for, I
found, there was a paling in front, which I felt but could not see. It had formed the fortification
of the aperture, close to its border, from the time when it was first built; it gave greater
strength and security.
I had to assail it vigorously . . . I attacked so much that I discovered a narrow passage
by which I thought I might pass beyond, but to do so I had to break the paling . . . The passage
was so narrow that I became greatly distressed, for I had not freed any wide space. Indeed, if I
knew the state of the passage, no one had ever passed there; I was absolutely the first. The
place was still not common enough to collect tolls. I don’t know if, since then, it has done as
much for others as it did for me, but I tell you indeed that I loved it so much that I could hardly
believe . . .
Finally, I scattered a little seed on the bud when I shook it, when I touched it within it
in order to pore over the petals . . . I so mixed the seeds that they could hardly be separated;
and thus I made the whole tender rosebush widen.
© Princeton University Press, 1971