Le Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose) is a medieval French poem styled as an allegorical dream vision. As poetry, The Romance of the Rose is a notable instance of courtly literature meant to entertain and to teach about the art of romantic love. Throughout the narrative, the word Rose is used both as the name of the titular lady and as an abstract symbol of female sexuality. The names of the other characters function both as personal names and as metonyms illustrating the different factors that lead to and constitute a love affair.
The Romance of the Rose was written in two stages. In the first stage of composition, circa 1230, Guillaume de Lorris wrote 4,058 lines describing a courtier's attempts at wooing his beloved woman. The first part of the poem's story is set in a walled garden, an example of a locus amoenus, a traditional literary topos in epic poetry and chivalric romance. Forty-five years later, circa 1275, in the second stage of composition, Jean de Meun wrote 17,724 additional lines, in which allegorical personages, such as Reason, Nature, and Genius, discuss the philosophy of love and the Lover attains his goal.
The Romance of the Rose was both popular and controversial. One of the most widely read works in France for three centuries, it was possibly the most read book in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Its emphasis on sensual language and imagery provoked attacks by Jean Gerson, Christine de Pizan and many other writers and moralists of the 14th and 15th centuries. Historian Johan Huizinga writes: "It is astonishing that the Church, which so rigorously repressed the slightest deviations from dogma of a speculative character, suffered the teaching of this breviary of the aristocracy (for the Roman de la Rose was nothing else) to be disseminated with impunity."
Later reactions suggested that it had a tenuous encyclopedic quality. The nineteenth-century scholar and writer Gaston Paris wrote that it was "an encyclopedia in disorder" and British author C. S. Lewis described it as having an "encyclopedic character". One historian wrote that while the Roman de la Rose is obviously not an encyclopedia, "it evokes one, represents one, dreams one, perhaps, with all its aspirations and limitations".
About 300 manuscripts are extant, one of the highest figures for a secular work. Many of these are illustrated, most with fewer than ten remaining illustrations, but there are a number with twenty or more illustrations, and the exceptional Burgundian British Library Harley MS 4425 has 92 large and high quality miniatures, despite a date around 1500; the text was copied by hand from a printed edition. These are by the artist known as the Master of the Prayer Books of around 1500, commissioned by Count Engelbert II of Nassau. The peak period of production was the 14th century, but manuscript versions continued to be produced until the advent of printing, and indeed afterwards - there are at least seven manuscripts dated after 1500. There are also seven incunabula printed editions before 1500, the first from Geneva in about 1481, followed by two from Lyons in the 1480s and four from Paris in the 1490s. An edition from Lyons in 1503 is illustrated with 140 woodcuts. Digital images of more than 140 of these manuscripts are available for study in the Roman de la Rose Digital Library.
Part of the story was translated from its original Old French into Middle English as The Romaunt of the Rose, which had a great influence on English literature. Chaucer was familiar with the original French text, and a portion of the Middle English translation is thought to be his work. Critics suggest that the character of "La Vieille" acted as source material for Chaucer's Wife of Bath. There were several other early translations into languages including Middle Dutch (Heinrik van Aken, c. 1280). Il Fiore is a "reduction" of the poem into 232 Italian sonnets by a "ser Durante", sometimes thought to have been Dante, although this is generally thought unlikely. Dante never mentions the Roman, but is often said to have been highly conscious of it in his own work. In 1900, the pre-Raphaelite F. S. Ellis translated the whole of the poem into English verse. C. S. Lewis's 1936 study The Allegory of Love renewed interest in the poem.
Miniature from a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose (Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 195), folio 1r, portrait of Guillaume de Lorris.
The God of Love locks the Lover's heart. f. 15r.b, Roman de la Rose MS NLW 5016D