Teaching the “Roman de la Rose” in hyper-really allegorical times: Apocalypse Now

Previously on UBC Medieval Studies 301A: European Literature from the 5th to the 14th Century – “THE LIBERAL ARTS”:

Expanding an excerpt from the previous post, going beyond embedded screenshots, welcome to The Middle Week of the course en direct. 17-23 October 2016; with classes on the 18th and the 20th.

At the midpoint of the term, the course, and the book: expect chiasmic hinges. A week before Samhain: expect a thinning of the veils between realities. I didn’t expect that this would be the class where we digressed the most from The Rough Plan and where those digressions were all relevant: this was the set of class notes that expanded the most, from the preparatory pre-class version to the full version after the week’s classes. I certainly didn’t expect that this would be the class that really brought us all together, in delighted fascination at the actual mathematics of the number 666, as shown by an actual mathematician (whose final project was an allegory, a dystopian speculative fiction short story).

Expect the unexpected, as ever, in teaching.

[Channel 4 documentary on great comedy moments (2017), no. 12: Monty Python, “The Spanish Inquisition” (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, series 2 episode 2, 1970) and the idea of rewriting history]


Bodleian, Douce MS 134; from a Twitter thread by Damien Kempf


  • reading: False Semblance, prophesy, calculations and time (and timelessness and being out of time), apocalypse (Roman de la Rose 3-14, 21-26, 168-193, 307-308, 312-318)


Bodleian, Douce MS 195 f. 74r, top of second column; a Twitter post by@medievalpoc referring to MedievalPOC: People of Color in European Art History

Context for image above: this is a two-column manuscript. On this two-page spread (73v-74r), Love quizzes the Lover on his upholding of the Ten Commandments (from l. 10299 onwards), which also allows for some plot revision / reminders.


  • At the end of f. 73v column 2 and the top of 74r column 1, the Lover shows he has retained them, by reciting them in their shortest version, and Love praises him (l. 10373-74, 10375-84). The Lover explains that he has lost one of the “comforts” that Love gave him, Fair Welcome, who is imprisoned. Love promises to reward his vassal’s loyal service by rescuing FW.
  • 74r column 1 ends with Love assembling his barons in parliament (l. 10409-12); the top of column 2 continues (being careful not to split a couplet), then there’s your rubricated image, and then the rest of column 2 lists Love’s barons… including introducing False Semblance (l. 10428-40); with the last four lines of his introductory description, and Love’s reaction to his presence, over the page.
  • 73v-74r neatly demonstrates how reading across lines of verse, down columns, and page-turning are physically incorporated into the book for that “and what happened next?” momentum, pace, and suspense.
    Next: Love’s speech, and the interruption / digression in the middle of it by our good FS himself (to explain himself so as to be accepted into the army: l. 10889-11980).
    Which brings us up to date (as it were), and to this week’s classes!


1 Discussion of blog questions & comments on week 6 (this ended up taking up more of class than predicted)

2 Image work with Romandelarose.org:

Genius & False Semblance speeches: consider who the intended audience/s is/are and how they are being appealed to:
—How far is the Rose (or: how far can we still think of it as only/purely) a “courtly” work?
See for example the illuminations in BNF fr 9345 (+ ms description): flick through the manuscript and imagine that you are an illiterate noble…
—Questioning “history,” “literature,” “power”
—Questioning & criticism of power-politics, property (inc. trade, money, finance), “wealth,” “values,” “nobility,” “lineage”: from within (lower hierarchical ranks, outer edges) and
—What is the role of clerks in these parts of the text? How are they all used to, referred to, represented, perceived, viewed?


1 Student presentation & class discussion

2 Timelessness, time out of joint, being outside time or in several times at once, flipped times & realities, and Apocalypse Now

  • Applied arithmetic & calculations: End Times (the study of which = eschatology) and a “dark age” in the future
    —Death (future, past, ever-present) and human egalitarian universal; “the great leveller“; in common to all regardless of rank and privilege (but not truly democratic: subject to external forces); see also, Fortune
    Hope: for heaven after death
    —Hell (continuing, other-/underworld, or outside time)
    —Apocalypse (future):
    Apocalypse, catastrophe, cataclysm; monsters and other hybrids (ex. FS himself)… or future paradise, a new golden age?
    Hope: for heaven after The Last Judgement (of the living and the dead)
    —Apocalypse within a “universal history and everything” book: Cambridge University Library MS Gg.1.1 
  • Apocalypse now: real/actual/temporal/worldly/earthly flat-footed practical everyday life and that other human universal that is The Real Dark Ages
    Cambridge University Library MS Gg.1.1 includes a history of Edward I of England (late 13th-early 14th c.)
    —Survival and/as subversion:
    the philology of subversion, and verse and words associated with it;
    ploughing and its earlier and Medieval history, including a technological innovation impossible without arithmetic (and logic and geometry); and a reminder not to lose sight of external reality, the bigger picture, in a social history that is at once larger and that of le “petit” peuple: food and famine and death
    An image from last week:


    (via our presenters last week)

    See also: the Domesday book (timely: St Martin’s Day and the collection of taxes, 8 November)

    Also: being aware and wary of assumptions about “history” being the history of royalty, prestige, and power, as prejudices can be perpetuated even when “history” is extended from a Eurocentric focus to include other peoples and places…

    … updated (2019-02-17) to add this map of 11th-12th century trade networks of Afro-Eurasia, by Martin Jan Månsson …
    (there’s a high resolution zoomable version at https://easyzoom.com/imageaccess/ec482e04c2b240d4969c14156bb6836f )
    … and even if that restrictive view of history is pretty and good for tourism and thus the economy and (at least in theory) for people overall: here, for example, a Vancouvercentric vision of “Old Europe” …

2b SIDE-NOTE: On History and Histories:

[Update (2019-02-17): I’m adding an explanatory note here, as this post has had a lot of traffic recently and I realised that many of the linked images were broken, and recognised that this next part on history was cryptic, even by my usual notes’ standards. This part of the class set up some ideas of what history is, what it might be, and how the Roman de la Rose might help us to think about it; the better to understand the Rose and its context and to understand our own times and places: thinking literarily, poetically, and allegorically; thinking medievally and medievalistically; and thinking beyond such demarcating ~isms (and the modern anachronism of periodisation), comparatively, relationally, and globally.

It was a tricky thing to do as students were very varied. They included people in other faculties like the Sciences or Engineering who were taking this course as an Arts elective and who had not necessarily ever done any history courses. They also included upper-level majors in History, Sociology, and Anthropology. And English literature students. And Medieval Studies students (generally in History or English). Any of whom could of course also have met plenty of history elsewhere: these were all curious intelligent adults who read, look, listen, and think. In this as in other classes, I had to presume both knowledge and no knowledge; placing myself, or relocating and dislocating myself, as a sort of clumsy bumbling outsider both in that classroom—I am a foreigner here anyway—and in the Rose—as a careful respectful medievalist SF time-traveller wandering and wondering about its alien world, which is and always should be as alien to me as it was on a first reading and as I assume it to be to any other newcomer to it.

Remember, too, that the contemporary term histoire—like the modern French—is both “history” and “story”; hoping to embrace both senses; to open up a multiplicity of hi/stories; and to avoid the pseudo-objective pitfalls of reductive positivist historiography and rigorous historicism, and their exclusion of what is perceived as a dread subjectivity in “story”-telling. Mindful that this is a course in “Medieval Studies,” not “just” history (or literature, or one of these disciplines’ contituent parts, or a single “~ist” approach to them): multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary.

In outlining different shapes and flows of histories below, I used examples that would have been familiar to the context and readership of the Roman de la Rose, including examples in the Rose itself; and referred to terms and ideas familiar to students (this being an interactive class, some were brought up by students themselves) from their other courses. Conceptually, this kind of comparativist approach is a remixing and translation, in the narrow and broad senses of Medieval translatio.

And now, back to the original notes … ]

  • look at central reference points
    —nostalgia for a mythified Golden Age past before a Fall → present → dark or shiny future
    —mortal dread of non-being, annihilation
    —point of view: ex. “middle ages,” “illuminated/dark ages” = for whom?
  • History (1): this world continues + hope for an afterlife (in another world or a parallel coexisting one)
    —Ancestors and a spirit world
    —Heroism can lead to the reward of immortality as a deity or other higher-order being
    —(as feat. in the Rose): the Classical Greco-Roman Golden Age → Silver → Bronze → Iron → ?
  • History (2): we are somewhere in the middle, then history ends with End Times + hope for heaven / peaceful perfect paradise
    —pre-Christian → from Christian conversion onwards (= when the Roman Emperor Constantine I (met earlier re. York) converts (312) and Christianity becomes the official state religion of the Roman Empire (380))  → The End Of The World and hope for eternal heaven
    —Age of the Father = events covered by the Old Testament → of the Son = New Testament → of the Holy Spirit = from the first Pentecost up to the Second Coming of Christ (and the end of the world and hope for eternal heaven)
    —A universe moving from the Big Bang towards a tendency for entropy to increase (ending in heat death)
  • History (3): we are somewhere along a line, moving forwards through defined periods + hope for paradise here on earth
    —moving towards liberal democracy including individual and minority rights, tolerance, freedoms ex. of religion: with as key stages
    renaissance humanism(s) → The Enlightenment → the French Revolution → Modernity = future hope
    —19th-20th century capitalist and imperial/ist version: ages defined by changes in the means of production, economy, and labour (agrarian → industrial → post-industrial), in a grand march of progress punctuated by revolutionary “leaps”: Hegelian dialectical materialism, Marxism, historical materialism:
    aristocracy →revolution→ bourgeoisie →revolution→ dictatorship of the proletariat = future hope
    —a history of technological and scientific innovation, again moving forwards, with periods / ages / epochs / eras defined by evolutionary (ex. Darwin) or other revolutionary paradigm shifts (ex. Kuhn, Foucault, Haraway):
    period →paradigm shift→ period →paradigm shift→ etc. → future hope (ex. post-humanism)
    —a variation in which history ends with a new Golden Age  / Paradise on earth that lasts for a fixed time, usually 1000 years; includes (social, political, and/or religious) millenarianism and (a subset) millennialist religious groups/sects/cults
  • History (4): cyclical, wavy, spiral, and other shapes and movements (may coincide, overlap, or otherwise flow into one or more of the above … ex. Latour)
    —repeated reincarnation, moving “up” or “down” in the next life
    —Ecocriticism, the anthropocene, a Singularity/~ies
    —a world that has already ended, begun again, continued: Golden Age (and silver, bronze, iron), the Roman Empire and medieval European history from an eastern Mediterranean point of view (= the continuation of the Roman Empire after the fall of Rome)
  • History (X): Further histories not covered or alluded to above: …??? (add in comments on week 7)

3 In the middle of the weird space-time-(dis-)continuum that is a dream narrative outside time: an interruption by the real world outside and a date, in numbers.

  • Clerks, clerkliness, a clerkly (sub-/ counter-)culture:
    —Appealed to through references to writing and studying
    + use of puns and punning poetic devices (grammatical rhyme, adnominatio)
    —Who: religious / clerics (in training or ordained)
    + some clerks in training = students (inc 13th-c ancestors of geeks, nerds, hipsters, flâneurs, free spirits, critics, inventors & innovators, revolutionaries, and other applied thinkers)
    —A reminder that both groups include nobles (and others who have bought their way in) but that clerkliness is also a meritocratic way to education, stable life, social mobility, “success” and power; open to all, based on talent-spotting (which is as controversial then as it is now) regardless of birth, wealth, or priviledge
    —Clerk-professional-writers, white-collar literate workers, scribes, secretaries, recorders, note-takers, historians, storytellers; and anyone literate & anyone with a liberal arts education (or equivalent) is a potential future reader… and writer…
    —… and part of a longer historical continuum, intellectual history / the history of ideas, resisting (but fearful of) fashion and Fortune’s wheel
    —Critical topics: the general (e.gg. humanity, hubris, hypocrisy) and the particular (specific to clerks and their culture, and to their immediate external reality)
  • At the Rose‘s centre: a real physical book, writers, and events in the real world
    A romance trope of the period, mise en abyme ekphrastic self-referentiality:
    —Knowingly dreaming, lucid dreaming, visions, prophecy, and seeing your own tomb (ex. Lancelot)
    —The mirror-book that doesn’t exist yet: except that Genius refers to the Romance of the Rose as a book that already exists: p. 306 (19835))
    —Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun don’t exist yet: in his address to his army, Love refers to the future G & J and to future readers within a section on authors: p. 161 (10465) – 164 (10651)
    Guillaume de Saint-Amour (punning name is actual and accidental; De periculis novissimorum temporum, 1256): p. 177 (11479), 182 (11757)
    —A date!!! 1255: p. 182 (11757)
  • Rise of the mendicant orders / friars and what that has to do with antifraternalism and references to “The” University at the centre of the Rose:
    —A date and a place!!! 1255: p. 182 (11757)
    —the model for all humans: imitatio Christi: to varying degrees (we are not all expected to attain the level of hermits), and with frequent calls for reform, higher standards, questioning the accumulation of wealth especially when poverty exists
    —ordinal/regular clergy/religious (bound by orders or rules)
    vs secular clergy/religious (living “secularly” in the world: parish priests, bishops, etc.; own property, may own property individually)
    —mendicants (begging as extreme poverty) = attached to a House, but out in the world and no fixed abode, no property
    vs monasticism  = contemplative, hermits in cells (or caves, or up pillars, walled up in bridges, up trees in forests, etc) or nuns and monks cloistered in convents / monasteries, property held communally
    Carmelites (mid-12th c.), Franciscans and Dominicans (both early 13th c.); the Augustinian friars (hermits uniting as a group) have just been granted papal formal foundation as an Order (1243)
    —extremists & cross-fertilisations with other heterodox groups / heresies: the Fratellini in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose
    —GdSA vs extremist millennialist Franciscans:
    1200-ish: Joachim of Fiore idea = still in Age of the Son (not Holy Spirit) → a new revelatory work (replacing and transcending old Christian Scripture & Church) around 1250/60 would move the world into the Age of the Holy Spirit → the good (“the Order of the Just”) live as free happy equal peaceful monks for 1000 years.
    SEE ALSO: side-note 2b higher up↑
    1250: Gerald de Borgo Santo Donnino Introductorium in Evangelium Aeternum
    1250s: the Evangilium Aeternum interpreted by Joachimites to be that promised new holy book and the Franciscan Order as that order
    —1254: heresy and Paris University power-politics:
    Increasing number and importance of Franciscans resented by secular masters, revolts, GdSA a ringleader & petitions pope Innocent IV, numbers of Franciscans teaching at Paris U restricted, pope dies, restrictions quashed by new pro-Franciscan pope Alexander IV).
    Also involved: Bonaventure (Franciscan and one of those defending the mendicant orders against detractors like GdSA) stopped temporarily from teaching (1256?), John of Parma

Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies, King’s College London; part of a free outreach festival, workshop, and collaborative exhibition (image is from @clamskcl & links to event website)

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