During the Middle Ages, it is important to bear in mind the unities which helped hold together an otherwise fractious continent. The first that comes to mind is the international ecclesiastical language of Latin, another the world of courts and chivalry. Literature was also a focal point of unity, fostered within the middle ages on fold-poetry. The literary language of the Middle Ages was French: Brunetto Latini, an Italian, wrote his Encyclopaedia in French, as did Marco Polo with his travel memoirs. Let us look, then, at the categories of French literature during the Middle Ages, and to the Classical origins from whence they arose.

Romances of Chivalrous Adventure

As eluded to in the previous chapter, the epic as an artform was not truly completed with the example of Beowulf, and we reserved its full re-emergence until the tales that focused around Charlemagne and the threat against the Mahometan foe. The chief example is, of course, The Song of Roland. It is still unfortunately not on the level of Homer. Let us recall the requirements of the true epic:

  1. It is written by a single poet
  2. Encompasses a hero’s adventure, conveying historical, geographical, and spiritual context
  3. Conveys a profound moral truth

Allowing a benefit of doubt for the first requirement, it definitely fits the second requirement. The hero is Hroudland, Lord Warden of Brittany under Charlemagne. The adventure encompasses the Battle of Roncevaux Pass of 778, and Hroudland’s death therein, and the spiritual fight for Christendom itself. But does it convey a profound moral truth? It is debatable. Ignoring the fact Roland was actually killed by the Basques and not the Saracens, there are other confused elements to the plot: the Saracens worship a trinity of idols, Mahomet, Tervagant, and strangest of all, Apollo. With such a confused and spars trace of classical influence, it cannot be put on the same branch as Homer. The Song of Roland also opens up a slew of diffuse and rambling poems of extreme length, a structural problem prominent in many works of the middle ages.

Some, still, are worthy of our attention. The most notable for its use of classical inspiration is The Romance of Troy (Le Roman de Troie), written by Benoit de Sainte-Maure about 1160 and runs to 30,000 lines and, as should be obvious from the title, encompasses the fall of Troy as its subject-matter. In it Troy is only defeated when the Trojan prince Antenor, as a fifth columnist, plots with the Greeks to admit a storming party. Benoit’s main source was The History of the Destruction of Troy (De excidio Troiae historia) by Dares the Phrygian, a work of a late declining Latin world, itself a translation of a now lost Greek original that seemed intent on denigrating the Romans by defaming their ancestor Aeneas, who joins Antenor in opening the gates to the invaders. More importantly for its influence on French literature, it is also intent on introducing the theme of love, notably absent in Homer.

Troilus and Cresside
Troilus and Cressida: The Middle Ages inserts Romance into the Trojan Mythos

Achilles is killed at a secret rendezvous with Polyxena, daughter of Priam; and an account of the beautiful Briseis, Achilles’ captive, is given at length. Strangely absent in Dares is the Troy romance that would come to dominate later tales, that of Troilus and Cressida. This later Trojan romance, which would inspire Shakespeare, perhaps fostered on tales of Troilus and Briseis found in Dares’ history. The Phrygian’s history is, alas, a forgery in as far as it pertains to the original work and also lends us the trope of the story being hitherto hidden from the world, only for you, the reader to marvel at its apparent truth now unearthed. This trope is akin to modern works such as Poe’s M.S. found in a Bottle, among others.

However truthful or not Dares’ work was, Benoit used it for historical purposes, as he did another work of late antiquity, Diary of the Trojan War by Dictys of Crete.  These were contemporary works that were easy to read and popular enough that St Maure could have them at his disposal. The popularity of The Romance of Troy fuelled imitation, examples including Guido de Columnis’ History of the Destruction of Troy; The Romance of Aeneas, a ‘French romance meets Virgilian Epic’.

Aristotle & Phyllis
The Lay of Aristotle: The powerful tricks of women were heavy on the medieval mind

Other works found inspiration in fusing romance with other classical epics – The Romance of Thebes, inspired by Statius’ Thebaid; The Romance of Alexander by Lambert le Tort, based on the lost collections of Callisthenes, Aristotle’s nephew, who is said to have accompanied Alexander on his campaigns. Romance and the classics would also mix to turn out strange tales such as the Lay of Aristotle, a typical fabliau theme of the power and tricksiness of women. Wherefrom had the French gained this obsession with love, and its many pitfalls? The influence of one Roman writer stands out above all else in this regard: Ovid.

Ovid and Romantic Love

There are important classical concepts to the development of romantic love which formed in the middle ages which should be considered – the code of chivalrous courtesy, Christian asceticism and the scorn of beauty; the transcendent virtue of woman; the military tactics of winning a woman’s heart, with the woman’s heart being stored within a walled fortress, to be overcome, not by cunning but with true heroism and honest endeavour.The ideal of Romantic love has had a long history since its formation, among the most famous being Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Wagner’s Tristan & Isolde, and, in parody form, the rambunctious adventures of Don Quixote. The antithesis to the trope also emerged where first did the romance – in France – in much later novels such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, eventually finding its denouement with Sartre’s Nausea. But we are a long way away from Sartre yet. We are still in medieval France, and the romance is sprouting the first buds of desire, and the seeds of this budding was planted by Ovid.

Ovid’s style is light, supple, and amorous. He is both cynical to love and endowed with a fascination of it. He is the most French of Latin writers. Born in 43BC, he rose to quick-fame though his love poems, namely The Art of Love, which eventually contributed to his involvement of the disgrace of Augustus’ granddaughter Julia, though details are scarce. Exiled to Tomi (now Constanta in Romania), he penned his opus on miraculous transformations, his Metamorphoses, many of which would be motivated by sex. He is ranked by Dante as among Homer, Horace, Virgil, and Lucan in the hierarchy of ancient poets. His influence on medieval writing can be seen by that earliest of French romantic tales, that of Abélard and Heloise. Peter Abélard (1079-1142) was master of Notre Dame at the time of the revelation of his love for Heloise, for which he was castrated and silenced. What had led to this cruel response by the church? How had he professed his love for Heloise? By quoting Ovid.

We yearn for the forbidden, desire the denied

Heloise had in turn responded with lines from the Art of Love. She may well have used the translation by Chretien de Troyes, the famous originator of the character of Lancelot. Thus, not only is Ovid critical to the emergence of French romance in the works which we will further outline below, we also cannot underestimate the affect of Ovid to the insertion of Lancelot love triangle into Arthurian legend.

An early example of Ovidian poetry of the middle ages is Pyramus and Thisbe, a 900-line poem of two unhappy lovers forbidden by their parents to marry. Believing Thisbe to have died by a mischance, Pyramus kills himself. Finding him dead, Thisbe decides to follow suit. The tale is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and has its traces in ancient Babylon.

Thisbe listens to Pyramus through the wall: The earliest forbidden love story was revivified in the Middle Ages by use of Ovid’s interpretation

Often quoted by Provencal troubadours from the end of the twelfth century onwards, the tale is repeated throughout history: Chaucer in his Legend of Good Women, Gower’s Confessio Amantis, Boccaccio’s L’Amorosa Fiammetta. Other variants of the plot are seen in Aucassin and Nicolete, and most obviously in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer-Night’s Dream of Shakespeare.

Another example of Ovidian legacy is the tale of Philomela, who was ravished and mutilated by her sister’s husband Tereus. He cut her tongue out and kept her prisoner, but she wove her story into a tapestry and sent it to her sister Procne. Procne, as a mark of ravenous revenge, kills her son and has Tereus eat him. The tale has Procne change into a brown-blood stained swallow for her sins, with Philomela turned into a nightingale. Tereus also fails to come out unscathed, his fate is being turned to a hoopoe. Again, in his Metamorphoses, Ovid is here renewing existing mythology, some of the oldest in our world, but it is Ovid’s versions in particular that the French found influential. This can be seen in the case of the Old French poem Philomena which emerged in middle ages France. Like with Pyramus and Thisbe, the legend found its feet in European literature with new aplomb – there are traces of it in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Arnold’s Philomela, and Eliot’s Waste Land, though it is noticeably ignored by Keats in his ode To a Nightingale.

The flourishing effect of Ovid is confirmed in the Flamenca poem of 1234 that includes a list of well-known stories which minstrels would be expected to sing. In it, songs of Christian chivalry are heavily outnumbered by Graeco-Roman myth, with Ovid as the chief source. Having established the emergence of the medieval romance in France, and its debt to the Roman mythos in general and Ovid’s interpretations of the myths in particular, all that remains is to detail the most important and crowning achievement of the medieval love-romances – The Romance of the Rose.

The Romance of the Rose

To understand the Middle Ages through literature it is necessary to read three books: Dante’s Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, and The Romance of the Rose (Le Roman de la Rose). It is comprised of 22,700 octosyllabic verses, rhymed in couplets. Of these, the first 4,266 are ascribed to Guillaume de Lorris, written 1225-30. The work was subsequently completed by Jean de Meun in around 1270. It is a prolonged love affair, with the characters as hypostatized moral and emotional qualities – the Rose, who is the woman to be won, has guardians in the name of Slander, Jealousy, Fear, Shame, and Pride. These are not explicitly classical influences, which are more noticeable in the second half of the poem under the guiding hand of de Meun.

The entire premise of the work takes place within a dream, the action floating from a garden to the climax the capture of the tower, and the final interaction with the rose itself. The usage of a dream has classical equivalent, particularly Cicro’s Dream of Scipio, and Cicero himself had drawn inspiration from the Platonic device of placing philosophical truths within dreams and visions. But Lloris, our first author of the Le Roman de la Rose, was unaware the work he quotes was of Cicero, believing Macrobius to be its originator. We must remind ourselves we are in the muddied middle ages of thought and scholarship still.

The dream, like the sexual symbolism of the rose itself, is less overt classical reference than an expression of intense subconscious life within the new romantic framework being built in middle age France. Hence, the rose represents four aspects of womanhood, with post-Classical Christian augmentation:

  1. Wisdom
  2. The state of grace
  3. The Virgin Mary, and hence a virtue in innocence and chastity
  4. The Supreme Good

The tower is man’s endeavours to reach these traits. The act as a whole is romance itself. The expression of romance as manifesting from the inharmonious partners of physical desire and spiritual adoration was one which resonated with the audience of the time. It is an ultimately non-classical tension, emerging from the medieval Catholic scholastic framework. Allegory and the middle ages, a union derived from Christian thought, can find influences from the late Latin period, through Christian figures like the poet Prudentius (348-c.405), and his major work, the Psychomachia or Soul-battle. The broader habit of using examples from history and myth to illustrate a moral lesion can be considered Classical, found as it is in works as old as Homer, and is exemplified in Juvenal. In the ancient great we find Xerxes is doomed pride; Alexander, boundless ambition.

Pleasure Garden
The Romance of the Rose: The height of French Allegorical Romance in the Middle Ages

A more conscious inspiration in Le Roman is Boethius’ Lady Philosophy, who is the source for the poem’s figure of Reason. Boethius’ writings would have found Jean de Meun through Boethius’ Latin imitator Alain de Lille’s (1128-1202) works De planctu Naturae and Anticlaudianus.

Apart from Prudentius and Boethius, we also inevitably find Ovid.

“This, the romance of the Rose,

Does the whole art of love enclose.”

Some 600 of the Old Woman’s 2,000 lines on women’s manipulation of appearance are taken directly from the third book of the Art of Love. By means of example, here is Ovid’s lines on the necessity to bring women gifts:

“Although you brought the Muses with you, Homer

But took no gifts, you’d soon be shown the door.”

And here Jean de Meun’s equivalent:

“To love a poor man she won’t care,

Since a poor man is nothing worth:

And were he Ovid or Homer’s self,

She wouldn’t care two pins for him.”

Le Roman de la Rose differs significantly from Ovid in that it attempts to approach love from the higher philosophical approach. Ovid is stuck in the social, the physical, and the aesthetic. The women of Ovid are the reverse of the symbol of the Rose: Roman gold-diggers and Greek kept vassals.

In its attempt at complete philosophical allegory, Le Roman de la Rose is to medieval love what Dante is to medieval Christianity. It is a metaphysical exploration, an intellectual dissection of love that became a particularly French approach thereafter. The disquisition of the Passions, that amorous analysis, is present from Corneille and Racine to Stendhal and Proust.

The work was remarkably popular, translated by Chaucer, turned to prose by Molinet (1483), though it did not reach posterity without criticism. Christine de Pisan in 1399 reporached it for its un-chivalrous attitude to womanhood and Jean Gerson, chancellor of Notre Dame, described the Romance of the Rose as ‘a work of chaos and Babylonian confusion’. Indeed, in its formlessness it is an anti-classical work, or at least its classicism is dormant, waiting for the coming Renaissance. Regardless for its faults, The Romance of the Rose is both a stirrer of excitement and a vital work of art. It takes its place as the pinnacle example of French middle age literature and the Ovidian transmutation of the idea of love.