Tuesday, June 9, 2015


As I began to read The Romance of the Rose with its poetic, allegorical depiction of a young heart pierced by Cupid’s arrow, I often imagined myself a thirteenth-century scholar discovering the book. I would have to have lived in a monastery to be able to read, but my training would have made me much more able to read Latin than French, even if French were my first spoken language. The books I would have read in Latin would mostly concern the Christian faith: the Vulgate Bible, the prayers and texts of the mass and offices, devotionals, theological works, and so on. I would also have read Latin treatises on the mathematical arts; perhaps I would have learned music from Guido of Arezzo. And I might have read some of the orations of Cicero or some other classical authors.

But then I come across a poem in French – the language of cooking and cleaning, the language I argued with my brother in while we were growing up – and this French poem speaks of a passion that consumes the thoughts, overthrows reason, and brings both the best and the worst possible emotions. What do I make of it? I might be tempted to forsake my vows. I might scoff at it as so much nonsense. But either way, I’m sure I would be fascinated.

Then the real me realized that my imagined scenario was exactly that of Jean de Meun. Original poet Guillaume de Lorris never finished his romance, so Jean undertook to complete it about forty years after it was begun. And Jean was clearly educated in Latin classics. (See the previous post.) So then I thought about a reader from the next century coming across the dual-authored work and what he might have made of it. Guillaume’s part would have led him to Jean, and Jean’s part might have sent him back to Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy or to Ovid or Homer.

Or maybe I’m Shakespeare reading the work three hundred years later. I come across these lines from Reason:
Love is hostile peace and loving hatred, disloyal loyalty and loyal disloyalty; it is confident fear and desperate hope, demented reason and reasonable madness. . . . It is a most healthful sickness and a most sickly health.
I might then decide to write a play (based on yet other sources) in which I give the male lead these lines about love:
Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness, serious vanity,
Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms,
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
Or maybe I’m a twenty-first century reader trying to work his way back through historical patterns of thought by reading the classics, and peel back the onion skins one by one: Shakespeare, Jean De Meun, Boethius, the Bible, Cicero, Plato. This would make a good book itself: the story of an archeologist of literature who uncovers past civilizations by digging through layer upon layer, each later culture built on the ruined foundations of the one prior.

Or maybe you are the protagonist of the story. If any of my poor accounts lead you to a good book, then your journey of archeological discovery has begun.

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