Romans and Roses, and Mirrors

Looking through the lots of one of the recent auctions of Sotheby’s (of Livres et Manuscrits, to be precise), I bumped in an interesting mirror-in-art artifact, shown above. It is a fragment of a manuscript, or more specifically its frontispiece. Interestingly, though, this image doesn’t have any particular relationship to the manuscript itself, and acts as a Ex Libris of a kind, pointing to the owner of the volume. Only it had been made not as a small stamp but as the whole page, bound into the book by its new owner (around 1520s).

The owner, called Guillaume Le Bret, has commissioned not only the image but also a signature – see below:

Here I would need a help to translate it from the Old French. (PS: The help came from i_shmael – it reads ‘On le vend a Paris auclouBreunio a l’enseigne de la corne de Sarphf pour Guillaume le Bret’, or, roughly ‘Sold in Paris in a clos (something like a ‘yard’) Bruneau under the sign the Antler,  in the nameof (=ask) Guillaume le Bret’.)

Before I will talk about Messieurs le Bret, I have to immediately admit that I don’t quite understand this picture. What is depicted looks like two mermaids, one of whom holds a mirror.  I wrote about mermaids and their mirrors (see Mirror with a (Fish) Tail). But I also wrote about melusines, which could be also relevant for this case, as one of these creatures (the left one) looks more like a melusite (though she doesn’t have any mirror). For a backgrounder, see The Tale of Two Tails, or the Mirror & Melusine). The mirror itself is wonderful, and it even reflects the mirror of the mermaid/melusine. Yet the meaning of this performance under the tree is escaping my understanding.

Speaking about Guillaume Le Bret, I found only a very minimal information about him – and his apparent partner in business, someone called JehannePaluel. They are both referred as ornemanistes, or decorators of the manuscripts – see Guillaume Le Bret et Jehanne Paluel : des “ornemanistes” bretons révélés par un livre d’heures à l’usage de Saint-Malo).

Apparently, there was a special occupation in the Medieval Europe, of refurbishing and re-styling the already existing manuscripts. If you had a chance to peruse old manuscripts you could notice that some of them have these traces of later decorative efforts – this could be coloring or adding the initials etc. For examples, if you look at the following fragment, you could spot these doodles that had been added later.

It’s all very interesting, although it doesn’t have any specific relation to the mirror, the subject of mine. In fact, this entire story is just an introductory vignette to the main text that will follow.

***  MAIN TEXT ***

The main text will be about the manuscript itself. This is how it looks:

And this is – finally – its frontispiece in full:

From now one the posting will be about Rommant de la Rose – or Roman de la Rose, how it’s spelled today – and its mirrors.

It is actually very strange that this posting was not written earlier.  In fact, it could easily become not the first, but the second posting of this blog.  The first, inaugural posting of this project was the story about Christine de Pizan (The Mirror of the Book of the City of Ladies) who apparently hated this book. Triggered by this feeling, I could as well pay attention to the text, and voilà, this posting would be written already six years ago.

I have learned this anecdote about Newton from the book by Ilya Prigogine, but I never actually checked if it is true.  In short, Prigogine writes about one record in a diary on the young Issac Newton where he formulates two most important and unresolved problems in physics: behavior of a pendulum in the lowest and in the highest position of its end.

Newton expected to solve the first one before lunch, and then move to the second one. As we know, Newton was solving the first problem till the end of his life. As a result, he never managed to get to the second one. Prigogine writes that if Newton would focus on the second problem first, an entire history of physics, and perhaps even an entire history of the European civilization could be completely different.

Physics (and civilization) aside, this blog could also be very different if I would decide to write about Roman de la Rose before lunch.  It didn’t happen back then – but at least the after lunch time has come!

To the roman.

Roman de la Rose (which is, in fact, a large romance) is one of the most important, pivotal even, texts in the European history. Very few other texts – in any (not counting the Bible) were written, re-written, then published and re-published in Europe between the 13 and 15 centuries so many times as this book. It was translated to the majority of the European languages (it was the very Geoffrey Chaucer, for instance, who translated it to English). And most importantly, it was read, and read very eagerly. This book has been found in the majority of large libraries of that time. It was read by the elites, and later by all literate people. It was a reference point for many other books, and other many auhors aluded to its plot in their texts (not only literature,  Roman de la Rose was freqently used in theological and legal debates. 

What is even more interesting, and particularly for this blog, is that the book was also abundantly illustrated, first in illuminated manuscripts and later in printed books. The iconography of the Roman de la Rose already forms a separate discipline.

Then and in spite of this fame, the book fell out of fashion and by the 16th century was nearly forgotten. The edition I started this story with could be one of the latest volumes produced. The next editions would be published only in the 18th century, but more like a literature curiosity. It is only by the 19th century the book has reached its current revered status.

As you could see on these covers, the book was written by two authors, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Though these are not two of your usual co-authors.

The text of the poem consists of two uneven parts: the first is about 4 000 verses long, and the second is almost 18 000 verses. It is believed that the first part was written by Guillaume de Lorris, around 1220-30s. It was apparently lost and then found (or ‘found’), some 50 years later, by Jean de Meun who decided to publish it – but also to add his own sequel to the story.

He did that and then published both his own and the original text around 1275 in Paris. This very first incunable didn’t survive and the earliest edition that we have today is dated circa 1280. There are only five other manuscripts attributed to the 13th century, but later in the 14th century the count went to dozens and then to hundreds of copies. Romance de la Rose has become the Big Business.

The question whether Guillaume de Lorris actually existed is a subject of a peculiar holy war. We know nothing about this scholar except the story told by Jean de Meun which lead many to believe that this is a fictitious figure.

The main argument in favor of Guillaume de Lorris’ existence is that these two texts, the earlier and the later one, are quite different, both in terms of vocabulary and style. The majority of contemporary researchers tend to agree the first text was indeed written earlier, and at least in the first half of the 13th century. Yet in terms of its authorship, the only option we have so far is to believe Mssrr. de Meun.

In my own, entirely subjective view the real Roman de la Rose is only this first text. It is a very nicely written poem, with a great plot and interesting characters, and in general is completely self-sufficient.   The second part is one huge, crumbly and boring, compilation of all kind of things: it is an encyclopedia, a breviary, and a DIY manual for a young philanderer. When reading it, one can’t avoid a suspicion that the author was paid by the number of words (and he produced them galore).

Such a volume would, of course, have an additional value that we could hardly appreciate these days. It had everything and in one place!  And with a piquant сherry on a pie! Up to eighty percent of this text is a repetition of various stories told in other books, only loosely linked to the main plot that started in the first part.  To be fair, there is a couple of interesting moments in this part too (for instance, the Siege of the Castle of Love), but in general I consider the second part inferior compared to the earlier one.

I sense that it is not only my own opinion, and that the history said its word, too. It was the first part of the Romance that made its impact on both textual and visual culture of Europe; in fact, it continues to impact many writers and artists up till now.

But enough about these meta-themes. Let’s go to the text itsef, and the role that mirrors play in it. I will first tell a digest of the whole story, to provide the Big Picture, and then talk about the mirrors.

The Romance starts as a typical Inception story: the Poet (or the Lover), the main character of the story admits that all that we will hear has happened in his dream.  It is in this dream he woke up one day in early May and walks out of town, to listen to the singing of birds.

As I will go through the text I will also show some of the illuminations from various manuscripts. The one above is a very typical illustration for the beginning of the story: first, we see the Lover sleeping and then walking in the field.

What has happened next may resemble the story of Alice in Wonderland, minus the rabbit hole.

“Suddenly the Poet faces that tall, impregnable walls that surrounding a mysterious garden. On these walls he sees the images of various figures that symbolize Hatred, Felony, Villainy, Covetousness, Avarice, Sorrow, Age and Time, Hypocrisy (calledPope-Holiness), and Poverty. They all block his way to the garden. I am using the words (names) from modern English, though they have been changing over time, starting from the first translation by Geoffrey Chaucer from Old French.

However, he eventually finds a small door to the garden and after certain negotiations with the guardian, a beautiful lady called Idleness (Ydelnesse) who was allowed a narrow door into the garden. The above picture shows this moment (and I will talk about it later) as well as one of the next episode, with the Lover near a fountain.

Entering the garden, he watches a perfomanace of somre sort, a carol danced by the Lady Joy and her comapanions: Beauty, Wealth, Gladness, Generosity, Courtesy and Sweet-Looking Youth. Our hero is completely charmed: he is surrounded by beautiful flowers and trees, fairy birds are singing about love and its pleasures, joy and merriment prevail everywhere.

Eventually walking around the garden, he finds the fountain of Narcissus, where he sees an image of the entire garden and its beautiful Rose. You’ve seen this fountain on one of the previous images, and I will show many more depictions of this scene later on. Below is just one of these illustrations:

It is in this fountain the Lover spots the Rose in one of the corners of the garden and decides to find it. When he does, he plunges into contemplation of its tender beauty. At this moment the Cupid, who followed the Lover armed with a bow and arrows, wounds him with five arrows, whose names are Beauty, Simplicity, Courtesy, Cheerfulness and Prettiness (Fair Semblaunt).

Pierced by the Cupid’s arrows, thus enflamed with the sweet passion, the young man declares himself a vassal of Love. The Cupid teaches him how he should behave in order to gain a favor of his beloved Rose: he must renounce all the low, material instincts, and fully dedicate himself to serving for the lady of his heart. He must show loyalty and generosity, and care about his appearance and manners. Then the Cupid opens his heart with the key and introduces him to the messengers of love: both woes and blessings (the blessings being Hope, Sweet Thought, Sweet Speech, and Sweet Look).

Encouraged by a supportive reception, the Lover approaches the Rose:

(Next follows colorful and wordy blah-blah-blah, with interesting phenomenological, psychoanalytic and even somewhat existential overtones, but all that is a bit aside from my main ‘mirror point’.)

Our Lover is, however, too ardent and his thoughtless behavior leads to the appearance of the guards of the Rose: Resistance, Fear, and Shame who block his path.

Blinded by his passion, the young man stubbornly tries to win the reciprocity of the beloved and doesn’t listen to the advice of the Reason, who, watching him from his high tower, calls for moderation and forbearance. A friend tells to the Lover how to calm the guards, and the Cupid sends to Generosity and Pity to help. But when the guards are pacified and the Resistance is finally broken, Chastity rises on the way. Then Venus interferes in the matters, and thanks to her assistance the Lover finally succeeds in kissing the Rose.

This causes the wrath of the guards: Slander calls for Jealousy, together they awaken the Resistance and erect an impregnable castle around the Rose, where they also lock the Favored Reception.

At the very end of the Part I, the young man complains about the impermanence of Cupid and Fortune and mourns his bitter fate.  (Notice the lack of the Happy End.)

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
At this point, our hero passes a stream and turns into the White Queen  arrives to the second part of the Roman de la Rose, written by Another Author.  As I wrote, I won’t be dealing with this part, so let’s go back to our mirrors.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

In fact, in this posting I will talk only about the very first mirror, the one that is held by Idleness (or Oiseuse in the French version), the lady who let the Lover into the garden. She is described as a beautiful and refined lady, well-groomed and nicely dressed.  There is only one line in French text that speaks about her mirror:

En sa main tint ung miroër

Or, as Chaucer put it

She hadde [in honde] a gay mirour

This was enough, however, to generate a large iconography of this scene. Thanks to that we now can track the history of mirrors as technology (and the history of depicting mirrors in art) during almost three centuries.

(I need to add here that I was lucky to discover an incredibly valuable online resource that has helped me tremendously when preparing this posting, a huge digital archive of about 320 manuscripts of this poem (see Roman de la Rose).

It doesn’t mean, of course, that mirrors are depicted in every illumination illustrating this scene. Both examples I have shown earlier don’t have any mirrors, and nor does the one below:

But we are lucky to have many where we do have mirrors. Below are a few very typical examples:

These mirrors are getting bigger with time, but still the earlier manuscripts how fairly simple designs (basicalltmsimle round mirrors, even without handles):

Gradually these mirrors become more elaborate. Some of the later ones look like table mirrors (notice, however, that this particular mirror still doesn’t show a reflection in its surface):

There is a subset of illustrations that show such reflections:

Notice that without knowledge of the text these scenes can be interpreted as if the girl is flirting with the guy. This is not that case, since in the original story the Lady Idleness was the very decency.

I may be wrong, but I see a key in the mirror’s reflection in the following illumination: a hint to the opening of the door, the main action of this scene:

And here our hero even touches the mirror:

Entering the Garden is quite an important scene that anticipates many other developments in the poem, and so in some illuminations it has been placed on the front leaft:

Here we see our hero still sleeping, just about to wake up and venture to his journey, yet the lady Idleness is already waiting for him with her Large Key, the Comb – and the mirror. Interestingly, but the mirror here is placed separately, as if hanging from the sky:

In this version we don’t see the key, but the mirror is already in the hands of the young lady.

A couple of another examples, where the illuminators tried to depict the enclosed nature of the garden (and very successfully, I have to add):


In some versions this scenes missed the Hero (sic!), although we still see the Heroine, with her mirror:

Again, if one is not familiar with the story, this illumination may cause lots of questions: why would the young girl climb a fortress wall, and start beautifying herself with the help of a mirror?

Here is another example of the Lady with Mirror but without context.

As we can see, the illustrators managed to try all possible combinations of the girls and boys, gates and walls, and mirrors and combs when depicting this scene.

In some cases I can only guess if there was a mirror here or not:

I tried a ‘heatmap’ filter to this image that helps us to see a bit better that she is holding something in her hands, but whether it is a mirror or not (or whether it is a simple round mirror or a more elaborate table one.)

Sometimes we clearly see the mirror, but the girl is somewhat headless.

All the illumination that I presented so far were ‘one per manuscript’, i.e., only one such illumination illustrated the scene in the poem. There are a few examples of full-steam comics when the scene is depicted in two images (notice an interesting square frame):

And I even found an example with three images:

Such an edition should be extremely expensive, as every illumination was significantly adding to the cost of production of these manuscripts. All the images above are clickable.


In all the above examples I deliberately omitted the time of making and the details of specific manuscripts. All this could be added, but this posting will start arriving at the level of a thesis by its size and heaviness. What I actually wanted to preserve is a bit lightweight format, with all the examples from different times presented in a timeless (pomo) manner.

I was initially planning to tell the story about the second ‘mirror’ of the Roman de la Rose in this posting, too, but I see now that it will be too much.  I will write a separate posting about this second case.

PS: Soon after I have fnished this posting, I found few more examples of the mirror of the Lady of Idleness, please see them below all in one go:





The last two examples  (3. and 4.) show the moments much later in the story, when the Hero and the Idleness already walking in the garden. Interestingly, but thye are in fact from the same manuscript, and yet we see two very different mirrors.


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