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Medieval Allegory and Philosophical Texts

Medieval Allegory and Philosophical Texts

Religion and Medieval Artistic Expression.

The Christian church was the most influential cultural institution in medieval Europe, having far more influence over every facet of life—including response to and production of texts—than any temporal or secular political or economic organizing system. From its earliest inception, the ecclesiastical establishment controlled the dissemination and interpretation of its foundational text, the Bible, accounting for any apparent inconsistencies through an elaborate system of reading that attributed multiple levels of meaning to the Scriptures as well as finding connections between events in the Old Testament and the history of Christ's ministry in the New Testament. This mode of interpretation was invented and disseminated by the early church fathers. Most prominent among these were Augustine of Hippo (354–430), whose autobiography The Confessions and treatise The City of God exemplify fourfold-interpretation of the Bible, and Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) whose Moralia in Job (Moralizing of the Book of Job) took every verse of that Old Testament book and found four different ways of understanding them. These modes of interpreting Scripture not only influenced the expression of spiritual ideas and sentiments in the Middle Ages, but also had significant impact on the visual arts and on literature. When applied to literary texts, this pervasive mode of thinking was known as allegory. In addition to literary works like Piers Plowman or the Romance of the Rose which were completely allegorical, many works of medieval literature—even those associated with "realism"—incorporated some limited allegorical aspects in their overall scheme.

Medieval Allegory Defined: The Letter and the Spirit.

Allegory, which sometimes employs an extended metaphor, is a narrative mode in which a series of abstract ideas are presented through concrete, realistic characters and situations operating within a literal plot that makes sense in and of itself. Allegorical literature is typically encountered in two distinct forms. In the older type, called personification allegory (the most famous example of which is The Romance of the Rose) characters personify abstractions like Jealousy or Friendship, but these characters have no existence in the real world and do not "symbolize" anything more than their name implies. The narrative then dramatizes the encounter between abstractions made visual. In the second type of allegory, called symbol allegory (of which the Divine Comedy is the most famous example), the characters are real people who exist, or once existed in the real world, who "stand for" or symbolize something beyond themselves. This literal plot is meant also to convey an extra level or, in the most complicated types of allegory, several levels of moral, religious, political, or philosophical meaning. To medieval readers of allegory, the difference between the literal and the "figural" or allegorical level reflected Saint Paul's pronouncement in 2 Cor. 3:6, that "The letter kills, … but the spirit gives life." The early church father Saint Augustine of Hippo interpreted this to mean that the "letter" or literal level of a text covers and conceals the "spirit" just as the chaff covers the grain, or, in a more familiar comparison, the "nutshell" conceals the "kernel" of the nut.

The Four-fold Method of Medieval Alle-gorization.

In interpreting Scripture, the church fathers recognized the potential for up to four levels of allegorical or "exegetical" interpretation:

  1. the literal level, the thing as it really stands in the text;
  2. the allegorical level, which refers to the Church or something standing for a universal truth;
  3. the tropological or "moral" level, which pertains to the spiritual life of individuals, teaching how they should behave; and
  4. the anagogical or eschatological level, which stands for something pertaining to the hereafter.

In short, the literal level teaches things; the allegorical level tells what should be believed; the tropological or moral level tells what should be done; and the anagogical level explains where a person goes after death. Although this complex system was seldom used directly in the creation of literature, it was important as a mode of thinking and occasionally appears in some of the more self-consciously religious allegorical texts. In the late fourteenth-century poem that modern editors call Pearl, a touching story of a father struggling with the death of his young daughter, the poet meditates on the meaning of the word which has become the poem's title in ways very similar to the "fourfold scheme." The major symbol of the "pearl" is, literally, a lost gem or the dead daughter; allegorically it represents primal innocence before the fall or the state of a baptized infant; tropologically it emphasizes one's duty to regain innocence; and anagogically it points to a beatific vision in the heavenly paradise. Much more common than this complex fourfold allegory was a type of narrative built entirely on personifications, which allowed writers to explore directly the interactions between abstract moral qualities (often characterized as vices and virtues) fighting for control of the human will.

Romance of the Rose.

Surviving in over 300 extant manuscripts and translated into nearly every medieval language, the thirteenth-century allegory Romance of the Rose was the single most influential secular literary work written in the Middle Ages and a key text in the development of the medieval genres of dream vision, allegory, and romance quest. The text is divided into a pair of opposing but complementary parts, composed by two different thirteenth-century French authors. Guillaume de Lorris wrote the first 4,000 lines of this seminal dream vision in 1230–1235. The dreamer's quest for the rose remained uncompleted until Jean de Meun added almost 18,000 lines, continuing Guillaume's allegorical plot, but adopting a more satirical tone; he completed the work in 1275. This pair of authors exemplifies the medieval reverence for past authorities; both are heavily indebted to Ovid's works in their conception of love. Jean also incorporated the re-discovery of Aristotelian and Platonic texts that had recently become part of the curriculum at the University at Paris.

Guillaume de Lorris 's Romance of the Rose.

Guillaume's section of the poem opens in typical dream vision fashion, set in a May time locus amoenus (literally a "beautiful place") in which the narrator, who eventually is identified as Amant (lover), dreams that he discovers an enclosed garden. The garden's exterior walls are decorated with images of allegorical figures representing social groups and human types who exemplify the "vices" of courtly society (such as hatred, felony, covetousness, envy, poverty, hypocrisy) or who are superficially unacceptable for elite membership in the garden of Deduit (mirth or diversion). Escorted into the garden by its gatekeeper, Idleness, the dreamer encounters allegorical abstractions representing the qualities of the leisured existence enjoyed by Deduit and the aristocratic inhabitants of his garden, a microcosm of courtly society: Beauty, Wealth, Generosity, Openness, Courtesy, and Youth. Proceeding through the garden, the dreamer encounters the fountain of Narcissus, whose myth literally reflects the self-absorption experienced by lovers. Gazing into the waters of Narcissus's fountain, the dreamer sees a reflected rose and is infatuated by the rosebud's surface beauty. The process of being "smitten" becomes literal and concrete as he is stalked by the God of Love, who shoots into the eyes and heart of the dreamer five allegorical arrows—beauty, simplicity, courtesy, company, and fair seeming—all catalysts to the psychological experience of love.

Allegory in Romance of the Rose.

As personification allegory, Guillaume's Rose represents a courtly lady confronted with the dilemma of erotic desire as it comes into conflict with the need for mesure ("restraint," "rational control"), which will protect her reputation. The God of Love instructs the dreamer about how to pursue the goal of a single kiss from his beloved Rose and outlines what he can expect from the experience of love. Guillaume's text here illustrates one especially common aspect of courtly love, whose victims are afflicted with an array of physical discomforts (chills, heat, pangs, sighs, lost appetite and strength, insomnia) and emotional torments (jealousy, despair) that are gladly suffered by the lover for the moral self-improvement conferred by love. Despite her attraction to the nameless young man, called "Amant" or "Lover" in the poem, the Rose is protected from the dreamer's too avid pursuit by a court of attendants (mirroring actual court life), including Shame, Fear, Chastity, and Resistance (depicted as a churlish Wild Man). These abstractions are all allegorized aspects of her own attempt to maintain rational control over her honor. The attributes of the Rose representing her caution are balanced by others indicating her openness to the experience of love—Generosity, Pity, and Fair Welcoming—who encourage Amant to kiss the Rose. As soon as he does so, Jealousy imprisons the Rose and her Fair Welcome in a tower, where La Vieille (Old Woman), a cynical bawd experienced in the ways of sex, guards them. The first part of the poem breaks off with the dreamer's pursuit of the Rose at an impasse, when Guillaume de Lorris apparently died before completing his story.

Jean de Meun 's Philosophical Continuation of Romance of the Rose.

In 1275 Jean de Meun more than tripled the length of Guillaume's unfinished text with a continuation of the courtly adventure of Amant's quest to possess the Rose, to which he added new themes and many lengthy digressions from Guillaume's original simple narrative. Jean expands the concept of love from Guillaume's narrow and artificial focus on the emotional satisfaction of love to a more universal concept of fruitful cosmic love presided over by a personification called Natura. Whereas Guillaume strove for simplicity and innocence in both content and poetic style, the well-read Jean imbued his section of text not only with the cynical treatments of romantic love and marriage found in popular story collections and misogynistic satires like The Fifteen Joys of Marriage, but also the philosophical writings that he had come in contact with at the university. These included Plato and Aristotle, Aristotle's later commentators, and the writings of the Platonists of the twelfth-century School of Chartres such as Bernard Silvestris and Alan of Lille, whose conception of Nature in the Complaint of Nature Jean adopted. With lengthy and didactic speeches issuing from their mouths, Jean's allegorical characters resemble masters in medieval universities lecturing their students. Treating the subjects of the purpose of man's existence on earth and his role in the cosmos, these talking abstractions use exempla (narrative examples), the "colors" or figures of rhetoric, and classical quotations to illustrate their orations. As Jean continues the plot of the dreamer's erotic quest, Amant is advised by a new set of allegorical characters including Reason, representing the dreamer's own good sense, who "reasons" with him and tries to dissuade him from pursuing love.

Jean de Meun 's Satirical Repudiation of Courtly Love.

Abandoned by Reason, Amant seeks the help of Friend, who acts as his go-between to the Rose. La Vieille (Old Woman) also lectures the Rose's Fair Welcome about the ways of attracting men through flirtatious behavior, a swaying walk, good table manners, and the employment of eye-catching clothing and cosmetics. By concretizing his abstraction False Seeming as a hypocritical friar, Jean also anticipates the satire of the fourteenth-century clergy created by Chaucer and Langland. Finally, Amant gains entry into the Castle of Jealousy, in which the Rose is imprisoned. With the help of Venus the goddess of love, he wages a "war" against the chastity of the Rose. At this point Jean de Meun interpolates into the love-quest plot several digressive sections borrowed from the Christian-Platonist scholars of Chartres. In a passage heavily indebted to Alan of Lille's Complaint of Nature, Nature makes her "confession" to her priest Genius, representing the generative principle. She complains about how mankind has abused nature by practicing the artifice of courtly love rather than propagating the race. Genius urges the practice of various types of fecundity and recommends taking refuge in a park, which features the Well of Life instead of the Fountain of Narcissus. Jean parallels the major myth that anchors Guillaume's garden, the myth of Narcissus, by using another myth to frame the dreamer's experience—the story of Pygmalion, an artist who fell in love with the sculpture he created to represent his idealized perfect woman.

Jean de Meun 's Satire of Medieval Pilgrimage.

As Romance of the Rose draws to its climax, the dreamer's identity shifts to a pilgrim figure, allowing Jean de Meun to satirize the widespread medieval experience of pilgrimage. Accessorized with the typical staff and scrip of pilgrim "weeds" or costume, which in Jean's impudent satire represent Amant's genitalia, the dreamer assaults the architectural "aperture" of the Rose/castle into which he is attempting to gain entrance. The castle has now become a hallowed "shrine" to erotic love. Having broken the barricade, the dreamer literally and figuratively deflowers the Rose, following the laws promulgated by Genius and Nature. When Amant impregnates the Rose, the dream suddenly ends. By this time, with the extra layer of pilgrimage added to the many other strata of allegory, Guillaume's original concept of Amant's delicate courtly adulation for a perfect Rose/lady has been satirized to the point of near-blasphemy.

Literary Influence of the Romance of the Rose.

The Romance of the Rose influenced many later medieval writers. Dante adopted this text's highly symbolic rose to other purposes in his Paradiso, in which his idealized female figure Beatrice is beatified alongside the Virgin Mary as a petal in the Celestial Rose, a metaphor for the highest reaches of Heaven. Chaucer, who translated Guillaume's text into the Middle English poem known as the Romaunt of the Rose, apparently also was familiar with Jean's continuation, for he echoes the arguments of Genius in his own dream vision, Parliament of Fowls. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer modeled the characterization of his pilgrim Pardoner on Jean de Meun's False Seeming, his hypocritical Friar, and La Vieille (Old Woman); Chaucer incorporated La Vieille's advice about table manners into the portrait of his pilgrim Prioress Madame Eglantine, whose name means "briar rose." Chaucer also took La Vieille's generally cynical comments about male-female relations and transformed them into the autobiographical discourse of the five-times-married Wife of Bath in her Prologue and her tale. The Romance of the Rose continued to be both influential and controversial throughout the medieval period. In the fifteenth century, Jean Gerson and Christine de Pizan strenuously protested the dubious value of Jean de Meun's text by taking part in a major literary debate with Jean's supporters in the "Quarrel of the Rose." Christine especially took offense at Jean's blatant antifeminism, a far cry from the reverent adulation for the Rose practiced by Guillaume's Amant.


Peter L. Allen, The Art of Love: Amatory Fiction from Ovid to the Romance of the Rose (Philadelphia, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992).

Maxwell Luria, A Reader's Guide to the Roman de la Rose (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1982).

J. Stephen Russell, ed., Allegoresis: The Craft of Allegory in Medieval Literature (New York: Garland, 1988).

Jon Whitman, Allegory: The Dynamics of an Ancient and Medieval Technique (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

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