02.03.19, Minnis, Magister Amoris

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Tracy Adams

The Medieval Review baj9928.0203.019


Minnis, Alastair. Magister Amoris: The Roman de la Rose and Vernacular Hermeneutics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. xv, 352. ISBN: 0-19-818754-8.

Reviewed by:
Tracy Adams
University of Auckland

Magister Amoris, Alastair Minnis's study of Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose, is a modern critical analogue of that medieval classic, an exuberant and ultimately self-sufficient gloss. The study takes Jean's continuation as its point of departure, and each of its chapters provides a new set of insights into how medieval readers understood that work's welter of discourses. But in recreating the historical context within which the Rose developed, Minnis draws together many issues of general interest to medievalists, including medieval reading practices, notions of allegory and satire, theories of language, and Ovidian reception. The study thus far surpasses its point of departure and will be of great use to anyone seeking information on literary interpretation during the thirteenth and fourtheenth centuries.

In its introduction and six chapters, Minnis furnishes historical contexts for the Rose's often overwhelming abundance of meaning and for medieval readers' responses to this characteristic. (Some reveled in it while others tried to "prune" the Rose's profusion of signification.) It is with some trepidation that the reviewer tries to "prune" the study's copiously documented arguments into the space of a review, but, to paraphrase the study's basic idea, Minnis attributes the Rose continuation's excessiveness to Jean's self-conscious endeavor to establish himself as a new magister amoris, to his "ambitious attempt to overgo Ovid and succeed to the mastership of love, with all the intellectual instability, challenge and contestation which that office involved" (34). Rather than attempting to reconcile the contradictory impulses that mark the Ovidian oeuvre by pressing them into a coherent system, Jean foregrounds them by means of amplificatio. The result is a work whose allegorical possibilities appear to be endless, a work whose "chaos" is "due not to a lack of form but rather to a surfeit of competing forms, a true embarrassment of riches" (34).

The first chapter, "Academic Prologues to Ovid and the Vernacular Art of Love" sets the stage by considering twelfth- and thirteenth-century reception of Ovid's love writings. The academic prologues to Ovid's works, which have been well studied, are briefly categorized here. But especially interesting is Minnis' analysis of a series of short love treatises that have received little critical attention, the vernacular arts d'aimer, translations of the Ars amatoria and Remedia amoris. Minnis emphasizes that these works mark the transition from Ovid of the classroom to Ovid of the secular aristocracy. Translated into the vernacular during the thirteenth century, Ovid, earlier accessible only to clerics, suddenly became available to a wider audience. One of the consequences of this wider availability was a new tendency to play out the contradictory elements of Ovid's writings, and this resulted in an increased range of medieval Ovids. Minnis writes that "medieval scholars, translators and imitators of the ancient poet. . .twisted the waxen nose of Publius Ovidius Naso in different directions, quoting him as an expert on physics or medicine here, using him as a source and model for fashionable love poetry there" (35). When he entered the secular world, he "proved invaluable to vernacular poetics, since his text and gloss provided the means and method for bestowing value on contemporary poetry" (35).

Although the purpose of Minnis's treatment is to prepare for his discussion of the Rose's competing discourses, which means that it is necessarily brief, it nonetheless suggests the interest of these neglected works to discussions of love during the Middle Ages. They have been edited and some have been treated individually. Their existence has also been noted in major critical works on "courtly" love literature like the studies by Karnein and Schnell. Still, there has been no serious study comparing the different arts d'aimer -- their constructions of love, their possible audiences and purposes. It is thus a pleasure to find them discussed by Minnis. Given the widespread perception that attitudes toward women during the medieval period were limited to the misogynistic disdain of clerics and the ritualistic adoration of courtly lovers, a perception based in part on more widely-known works like Richard de Fournival's Li Bestiaires d'Amour, also discussed in this chapter, these works merit more extensive treatment in further studies, for they offer a wide variety of views on male/female relationships. Indeed, one of the arts d'aimer discussed, that of Guiart, suggests marriage as a means of making love endure, as Minnis points out (43).

Chapter 2, "Lifting the Veil: the Sexual/Textual Nakedness in the Roman de la Rose" proposes that in making Ovid available to a diverse public, vernacular writers exchanged the allegorical interpretations behind which early readers of Ovid had "covered" his material for the more literal readings of thirteenth-century readers. Challenging the totalizing allegorical interpretations of critics like Robertson and Fleming, Minnis writes that Jean allows integumental or allegorical discourse to compete with the literal or satiric, the language employed to righteously lay bare vice, but allows neither to dominate. Often Jean strips Ovidian works traditionally read allegorically of their covering and allows Ovid to speak as a satirist: "It could be argued, then, that in large measure Jean has lifted the veils from Ovidian fabulae, the possibilities for integumental allegoresis being spurned in favour of exemplum, and indeed of euhemerism, by which I mean a strategy of humanization," writes Minnis (108). A major exception exists, however, and it is not the character of Raison, "despite her mention of the theory of the interpretative method" (108). The speech of Genius, rather, demonstrates the sustained use of allegory and theological symbolism. To Genius, of all people, is "entrusted the allegorical centrepiece or climax of the entire text. . ." (113). The end product "incorporates both secular and sacred imagery of the most sobering kind" (113). Which discourse is authoritative, that which clothes secret meanings in ornate words or that which exposes meaning? The conflict between speaking "properly" or directly and speaking "improperly" or figuratively is examined in Chapter 3, "Parler Proprement: Words, Deeds, and Proper Speech in the Rose". Raison, expert on language, insists that she has a perfect right to name directly anything she pleases, without gloss. And yet she also instructs the Lover to gloss poets, a suggestion he refuses. The questions raised by Raison's contradictory views on language reflect popular debates over whether "proper" language should be approved on the ground that language is a matter of institutio or impositio, and therefore cannot in itself by bad, or disapproved on the ground that direct speech causes embarrassment. The increasing access of the "vulgar" to literature rendered urgent such questions: what did it mean to speak "properly" to a vulgar public? Minnis's discussion of the two broad discourses that authorize the Rose, the allegorical and the literal, culminate in a discussion of the work's ending, an ending whose closure he finds impossible precisely because neither of these two discourses is ever afforded full authority. In Chapter 4, "Signe d'estre malles: Genre, Gender and the End of the Rose" an allegorical interpretation of the final scene after the fashion of De Planctu naturae is deemed untenable: the pleasure to be found in love implied by the Rose's participation in the tradition of the arts d'aimer is incompatible with the purely functional pleasure Alain de Lille's Nature grants sexual relations. Nor is Minnis satisfied with a purely literal interpretation the Lover's plucking of the Rose. Instead, he finds the ending's true relevance in the Jean's "phallocentric hermeneutics." Comic, and yet obsessed with male potency, the ending "has as a potential didactic function the illustration and advocacy of that heterosexual behaviour which is the cultural norm. This text is about what might be termed 'masculation', by which I mean the process of 'becoming male'" (201). Minnis examines the Rose into the context of works with similar endings, including the Pamphilus, and insists upon such works' socializing qualities. Clerics were trained to experience sexual desire, to "assert their masculinity" and yet were obliged to maintain a chaste lifestyle. The ending of the Rose allows desire to be experienced vicariously, affirming the principle of masculinity. The displacement of what for better or for worse can best be seen as an example of male-bonding into a wider and mixed audience could only provoke the conflicting reactions it does to this day.

The final two chapters, "Theorizing the Rose: Crises of Textual Authority in the Querelle de la Rose" and "Pruning the Rose: Evart de Conty and European Vernacular," examine two different medieval reactions to the Rose's excessive quality. The first recounts the story of the famous literary debate, the Querelle de la Rose, between Christine de Pizan and Jean Gerson, on the one hand, and Jean de Montreuil and the brothers Col on the other. This tale has been told many times, but Minnis adds a new insight: the contested issues can all be related to the debaters' individual relationships to Ovid and Ovidian commentary. Both sides, for and against the Rose, Minnis suggests, cast their arguments in the terms of traditional commentary on Ovid himself.

Jean's continuation was both celebrated and reviled by its medieval readers for its confusing abundance of competing literary discourses and forms. Its chaotic quality incited some of its readers, such as the anonymous author of the Eschez amoureux of 1370-80, subject of Minnis's sixth chapter, to "prune" the work into a more manageable shape, by re-writing it in a less ambivalent form. This work was itself the subject of a commentary by Evrart de Conty, in whose "more comprehensive vision of married love as normative" Minnis sees "an attempted erasure of a substantial part of Jean de Meun's legacy as magister amoris" (265). This chapter also offers a survey of vernacular commentary in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The study thus ends as it begins, by offering a historical context for the cacophony of discourse that is the Rose. But far beyond that, in bringing his prodigious knowledge of medieval poetics to bear upon the Rose, Minnis offers "a true embarrassment of riches" to borrow the expression he applies to the Rose, opening a window onto a wide variety of medieval reading practices.

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Author Biography

Tracy Adams

University of Auckland