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27 July 2016

Metaphors, Misogyny and Courtly Love

In the early 15th century, there was a major literary debate at the French court. Featuring crude language, naughty metaphors, courtly love, misogyny, poetry and early humanism, this debate was inspired by a text in some illuminated manuscripts which have just been loaded to the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. The controversial text was the continuation of the medieval best-seller, the Roman de la rose by Jean de Meun, written 40 years after Guillaume de Lorris wrote the first part of the Roman (c. 1230). Some writers, like Christine de Pizan, saw Jean de Meun’s conclusion of the Roman de la Rose as highly provocative, crude and misogynistic. For others, such as Jean de Montreuil, the continuation’s themes and naughty metaphors were just stylistic devices and an improvement of the poetic genre.

The Lover and la Vieille, Le Roman de la Rose, c. 1490-1500, Harley MS 4425,  f. 129v

The debate took place between the king’s secretaries, clerks and Christine de Pizan between 1401 and 1405. It began with a short treatise composed in 1401 by Jean de Montreuil, the humanist and secretary of Charles VI and Provost of St Peter of Lille. In this text, now lost, Montreuil praised the Roman de la Rose and more particularly the part written by Jean de Meun. Jean de Montreuil was supported by his close friend Gontier Col, another secretary of Charles VI, and by Gontier’s brother, Pierre Col, canon of Notre-Dame.

Harley 4431   f. 4
Christine de Pizan writing in her study, from the Book of the Queen, France (Paris), c. 1410-1414, Harley MS 4431
, f. 4r 

By contrast, Christine de Pizan, a famous author at the court of Charles V and Charles VI, was a fierce opponent of the continuation of the Roman de la Rose by Jean de Meun, partly because of its misogynistic passages and lack of decency:

Mais en accordant a l’oppinion a laquelle contrediséz, sans faille a mon avis, trop traicte deshonnestment en aucunes pars – et mesmement ou personnage que il claime Raison, laquelle nommes les secréz membres plainement par nom.

'According to the viewpoint you oppose, in my opinion, he writes in several places in an indecent manner, even when he speaks as the character he calls Reason and names the secret parts explicitly.'

The monologue of Raison is one of the problematic passages Christine de Pizan underlined. She also objected to the story of the castration of Saturn and the explicit metaphor of the picking of the Rose. She also defended women, who were depicted by Jean de Meun ­­in passages involving allegorical figures like le Jaloux (the jealous one) and la Vieille (the old woman), as keepers of several sins:

Regardons oultre un petit : en quel maniere puet estre vallable et a bonne fin ce que tant et si excessivement, impettueusement et tres nonveritablement il accuse, blame et diffame femmes de pluseurs tres grans vices et leurs meurs temoingne estre plains de toute perversité.

'Furthermore, let us consider a little bit: what can be of value and of good quality when he excessively, impetuously and most untruthfully blames and accuses women of several serious vices and he claims their behaviour is full of perversion.'

According to her, this was not representative of the allegorical character of the Roman de la Rose but was rather the author’s opinion.

During the quarrel several letters were exchanged between Jean de Montreuil, Christine de Pizan, Pierre Col and Jean Gerson and others including a high-ranking prelate and a poet. Pizan was supported by Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris. The debate was an epistolary exercise within a changing literary movement: more than a simple quarrel, it was a literary controversy. On one side, there were the supporters of morality and of courtly love, including Christine de Pizan and Jean Gerson. On the other, there were the first French humanists such as Jean de Montreuil, promoting a new vernacular poetry. In the background, there was a literary movement for the codification of courtly literature initiated by the Burgundians under the patronage of Charles VI. Known as the Cour Amoureuse (1400), this movement took the form of a gathering of ecclesiastics, nobles and bourgeois at court, who advocated ‘joieuse recreacion et amoureuse conversation’ (‘happy recreation and lovely conversation’) with poetical plays and courtly songs.

Garden of pleasure, from the Roman de la Rose, Low Countries (Bruges), c. 1490-1500, Harley MS 4425, f. 12v

The participants took this literary debate very seriously. In 1402, Christine de Pizan gathered together all the letters involved in the debate and submitted them to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria and Guillaume de Tignonville (Provost of Paris) for arbitration under the title, Epistres sur le Roman de la Rose. In the same year, she wrote the Dit de la Rose, a poem of 650 lines dedicated to Charles VI’s brother, Louis d’Orléans, duke of Orléans. The allegorical character Loyauté, under the tutelage of Amour, founds the movement the Ordre de la Rose (which was based on the Cour Amoureuse of Charles VI). This Ordre de la Rose aims to defend women against slander. However, the Ordre de la Rose was designed as a circle where women played a central role, as opposed to the Cour Amoureuse which had the same purpose, to honour women, but was almost exclusively composed of men.

The quarrel finally came to an end with a new work by Christine de Pizan, La cité des Dames (1403-1404), which told the stories of virtuous women in the Bible and in French history. In addition to this, Jean Gerson produced several sermons on deadly sin and especially lust, which he used to condemn the Roman de la Rose.

Christine de Pizan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, from
Harley MS 4431, f. 3r.

The quarrel was relatively short-lived, lasting only a few years; however, it had a major impact on literature and manuscript production. Not only did it inspire one of the most enduring works of medieval literature—the Cité des Dames – it also impacted manuscript production. Later, Christine de Pizan solicited the help of the Queen once again, this time for a highly illuminated book that Christine supervised (now Harley MS 4431) which is mainly a compilation of her own works. She presented this manuscript to Isabeau of Bavaria in 1414. Ironically, the above controversy drew attention to the second part of the Roman de la Rose, the part by Jean de Meun. It had been generally neglected by illuminators but from that period onwards it was illuminated more frequently.

Laure Miolo




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