The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales Sources: The Roman de la rose

The Roman de la Rose was probably the most famous, and certainly one of the most influential poems of the Middle Ages. It was begun by Guillaume de Lorris in 1237, but – for some reason - left incomplete at line 4058: although the poem does seem to be heading toward a finishing-point, it is usually presumed that Guillaume died before finishing it. A poet whose name has not survived then supplied the text with a quick 78-line ending, but it was later in the century that Jean de Meun took it in hand and wrote three times more than the text he had started with, taking the line count to 21,780.

The poem therefore falls into two distinct halves. The first 4058 lines (written by Lorris in c. 1230) simply describe the attempts of a courtier to woo the woman he is in love with, represented here as an allegory, “Rose”, which is both a female name and a pertinent (floral) metaphor. The poem is set in a walled garden, the inside of which represents love and romance, and the outside, normal “realistic” life. The additional 17,724 lines which Jean de Meun added are quite different in character, more philosophical, more misogynistic, far more sexual, and (significantly) “Rose” shifts from an abstract idealism to a character with physical, sexual and sensual reality. The “Rosebud” the courtier desires then, is a strange, shifting symbol: sometimes the woman, sometimes her sexual organs, sometimes her virginity, sometimes her love. More recently, scholarship has begun to construct arguments for the essential unity of the work; precisely how it was viewed by many medieval readers.

That Chaucer knew the Roman de la Rose is certain, and its influence can be felt across his own works. The poem is styled as a dream vision (of which Chaucer himself wrote several), and its focus on love, on women, and on female sexuality can be seen reflected in several of the Tales. Moreover, the dream vision’s focus on interpreting allegory: the distance between a metaphorical character within the fictional world and the meaning of that character to the reader in the “real world” is also inherited and complicated by Chaucer in the Tales. Many, many specific and general influences from the text can be seen in the Roman de la rose, from large borrowings like La Vielle, the original Wife of Bath (who speaks many of the same lines!) to smaller borrowings like the details of the Prioress' table manners.

Central too to the shift in authors of the Roman de la Rose is the shift from the representation of the female love object as an idealized, courtly, beautiful abstraction to a real, sexualized, human. Clearly, in reading the Miller’s, Reeve’s, Wife of Bath’s and Shipman’s Tales (to name but a few) the dichotomy between these two presentations of the female in the Middle Ages is preserved and highlighted by Chaucer in the Tales.