09.11.09, McWebb, Debating the Roman de la rose

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Gabrielle Baika

The Medieval Review 09.11.09

McWebb, Christine, ed.. Debating the Roman de la rose: A Critical Anthology. Routledge Medieval Texts. New York: Routledge, 2007. Pp. 446. ISBN: 9780415967655.

Reviewed by:
Gabrielle Baika
Florida Institute of Technology

Christine McWebb's edition is a very complex critical undertaking whose ambition is to provide readers not only with an anthology of the documents of the Querelle, but also with a critical edition and an English translation of the texts included. The main element of novelty with respect to the previous editions of the debate is a broadening of the chronological framework: Christine McWebb demonstrates that although the Querelle intensified during the years 1401-1402, it was, in fact, part of a more complex intellectual debate that began in 1340 and ended in 1410. In this light, McWebb makes a very important terminological distinction between the "debate about the Roman de la Rose" in a larger sense (that refers to a period of seventy years, beginning with Petrarch's assessment of the Rose and ending with Christine de Pizan's remarks in the Livre de fais d'armes et de chevalerie) and the "Debate Epistles" proper, or simply "Quarrel" or "Debate" (which covers only the years 1401- 1402).

Christine McWebb has left no stone unturned in tracing the first reactions to the French poem in texts predating 1401, as she has included in her volume a vast panoply of authors who quoted, or referred, to Jean de Meun, whether to express admiration for, or discontentment with, his allegorical poem. Interestingly, this array of authors--rodophiles or rodophobes--begins with an Italian poet: Petrarch, and the negative evaluation of the Roman de la Rose in the context of his efforts to prove the Italian intellectual supremacy over the French one.

Besides introducing authors who mentioned the Roman before the debate itself, the first chapter in McWebb's edition, a chapter focused on Italian humanism and French clericalism in the fourteenth century, also reserves room for two important themes: the antimendicant controversy and antifeminism. These two subsections of the volume are extremely useful as they provide excellent hermeneutical tools for understanding the questions of Faus Semblant and the Jealous Husband in the debate proper. Chapter 2, entitled "The Defense of Courtly Discourse and Morals" marks the transition from clericalism to courtly literary culture, as it focuses on excerpts debating moral issues by authors such as Eustache Deschamps, Philippe de Mezires and Christine de Pizan, the latter with her 1399 letter from the God of Love. Deschamps's "Ballade de moralitez" is a happy text choice in this volume, as it contains a praise of Geoffrey Chaucer and his translation of the Rose into English. The inclusion of a text by Petrarch and praise of Chaucer by a French author help McWebb achieve her goal of highlighting the transnational character of the debate around the Rose.

The usefulness of Chapters 1 and 2 of the volume becomes even clearer in reading the seven documents of the debate proper (treated in chapter 3), documents that now can be interpreted in light of the clerical and courtly discourses presented in the previous two sections. The order of the seven epistolary exchanges follows the organization proposed by Christine de Pizan in her manuscript Harley 4431 dedicated to the Queen of France. In Chapter 4, suggestively entitled "The Architectonics of Voices," McWebb adds Pierre d'Ailly's Jardin amoureux to the standard texts attributed to the debate and penned by C. de Pizan, Jean de Montreuil, Pierre Col and Jean Gerson. I find the addition of Jardin Amoureux an excellent choice, as Pierre d'Ailly, a recipient of some of J. de Montreuil's letters, indirectly participated himself in the debate, by rewriting Guillume de Loris's Garden of Delight in a profoundly Christian setting, clearly opposed to Jean de Meun's hedonistic philosophy.

Chapter 5, "The Debate after the Debate and French Humanism" is two- pronged, in that it deals with two authors, treated separately: Christine de Pizan, present this time with five texts, produced between 1403 and 1413, and Laurent de Premierfait with his assessment of the Rose. The inclusion of de Premierfait in this critical anthology is another element of originality in McWebb's edition. A friend of Jean de Montreuil, de Premierfait refers twice to Jean de Meun's work in a translation of Boccaccios's De casibus virorum illustrium, a translation dating from 1409. In my opinion, the second reference quoted by McWebb is of utmost importance in the context of the cultural relationship between France and Italy, in general, and Jean de Meun and Dante, in particular. De Premierfait argues that Dante, "the noble Florentine poet," read the Romance of the Rose in Paris and was so impressed by it that he decided to imitate it in his Comedy. This seminal statement by de Premierfait will trigger a literary controversy that has remained unsolved to this day: that of Dante's debt to Jean de Meun.

Christine McWebb's new critical anthology of the "Querelle de la Rose" moves intelligently from context to text and then back to context, giving the volume a perfectly circular structure that facilitates reading and comprehension. Each fragment quoted is introduced by a concise but welcome biographical and socio-cultural section. The endnotes contain detailed references to secondary sources, translations and previous editions. Commendable is also the linguistic competence of the contributors to this edition (McWebb and E. J. Richards) who aptly manipulate old texts in both Old French and medieval Latin.

I find this new critical anthology remarkable for its ambitions and comprehensiveness, and for its clear organization around historical chronology and literary themes (it even has a section called "User Guide"). In a virtual graduate course on the debate around the Roman de la Rose, this new edition could serve as a textbook in its own right, a very modern one, as it is also paralleled by a website (http://margot.uwaterloo.ca/) offering excerpts from the Rose sections criticized in the Querelle. The volume is definitely a mandatory item in the library of any teacher or student of early-modern French literature.

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Gabrielle Baika

Florida Institute of Technology