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23.12.07 Delogu/Miller (eds.), Approaches to Teaching the Romance of the Rose

23.12.07 Delogu/Miller (eds.), Approaches to Teaching the Romance of the Rose

At more than twenty-thousand lines of Old French verse, the Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun--with its enormous and textually variant manuscript tradition, its difficult conceptual content, its unusual status as a work with two authors, its learned digressions, its themes of misogyny and sexual violence, and its endlessly plural literary afterlives--offers distinctive challenges to teachers and students in higher education. This latest addition to the MLA’s Approaches to Teaching World Literature series is an invaluable guide for instructors who want to work with this text, informed throughout by practical wisdom and the firmly-held conviction that the challenges of this text are well worth facing up to. The editors, Daisy Delogu and Anne-Hélène Miller, have assembled an outstanding roster of experts with a range of different sub-specialisms; collectively the contributors have managed to produce a concise, accessible, and intellectually generous volume. It is aimed at instructors from a range of disciplines, who might be wanting to make use of the Rose in a range of different settings and formats.

The book follows the established structure for volumes in this series by beginning with some practical aids to working with the text (“Part One: Materials”), before turning to compressed discursive essays (“Part Two: Approaches”). The second part is subdivided into four smaller sections with essays on the literary and intellectual background (“Context and Framing”), analytical frameworks (“Critical Approaches”), pedagogical case-studies (“Teaching Strategies”), and ways of approaching the afterlives of this influential text (“Receptions of the Rose”).

After a concise introduction laying out the key challenges of the text and the structure and aims of the book, the “Materials” section plots a number of ways through the vast territory of the Rose, recommended texts and editions, other medieval works to put alongside it, and a quick reference account of secondary criticism organised under a range of headings--altogether an excellent orientation. One of the infuriating challenges of working with the Rose is that the highly variant textual tradition means that the line numbers of different editions and translations rarely correspond. In a great service to the discipline, Delogu and Miller provide a table that divides the Rose up into key episodes, giving the line or page numbers for the most common scholarly edition (Lecoy), the English translation based on that (Horgan), the widely available parallel-text Old French-Modern French edition (Strubel), and the other main English translation (Dahlberg). It is perhaps a shame that this table doesn’t cross-reference the older critical edition of Langlois, as students and instructors might still encounter this in their reading of secondary criticism--but in fact Langlois is made available indirectly, because the Dahlberg translation is keyed to Langlois’s text and includes the relevant line-numbers.

Although it is only the “Teaching Strategies” section that is expressly conceived as a set of pedagogical guides, all of the contributors give helpful attention to what might work well in the classroom. The “Context and Framing” section begins with a co-authored essay by Daisy Delogu and Kevin Brownlee, an excellent brief account of both parts of the poem as complex and engaging literary artefacts. Alex Novikoff then offers a clear and lively evocation of some key contexts for Jean’s part of the Rose: the thirteenth-century University of Paris and the dispute between the mendicants and secular clergy. Jessica Rosenfeld models an exemplary thinking-through of philosophical ideas in literary texts through her account of Aristotelian ethics, and offers some insightful advice on moving a classroom discussion beyond the “resolving notion of ‘critique’” (57). Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski turns to the classical mythology that appears in the Rose, and gives a helpful account of medieval mythographic traditions before working through some key sequences in the French text.

The next sub-section, “Critical Approaches,” examines a number of different routes through the text. A pleasing feature of the essays gathered here is that, while they open the Rose up to instructors who might want to fit it into courses organised around particular approaches (psychoanalysis, histories and theories of gender and sexuality, animal studies / ecocriticism, the postcolonial and global Middle Ages), none of the essays depends on immersion in a particular critical language or theoretical literature. In this way, they offer opportunities to enrich discussion of the Rose, no matter what the overarching framework of a course might be. The section begins with a psychoanalytic approach, represented here by an essay by Claire Nouvet, who models a lucid reading of the Fountain of Narcissus episode from Guillaume’s Rose in terms of Freud’s account of narcissistic desire. Next are two essays on gender and sexuality in the Rose, both of which grapple head-on with a particularly challenging issue often mentioned in the volume: the text’s misogyny. Chimène Bateman gives a really thoughtful account of the concept of sexuality outlined in the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality; examining both Guillaume’s and Jean’s part of the text, she looks at what is potentially limiting as well as potentially enabling in both parts, suggesting that Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech might help students think these issues through. Tracy Adams, next, models some ways of thinking about the Rose as a text about different forms of sexual acculturation, and so competing models of medieval masculinity. Jonathan Morton presents a suite of approaches to different moments from the Rose from the perspective of animal studies and ecocriticism, along the way suggesting useful ways of connecting the Rose to a range of medieval and later sources. Eva Kuras has a bipartite essay that begins by modelling some ways of situating the text within a broadly postcolonial framework (connecting it with Crusades literature and representations of desire for the territories of the East), before demonstrating a comparative approach by placing the Rose alongside a number of Persian romances from the eleventh and twelfthcenturies.

The “Teaching Strategies” section deals with pedagogical case-studies. Evelyn Birge Vitz discusses her fascinating and enabling work in teaching the Rose through performance. Suzanne Conklin Akbari lays out a number of different routes through medieval allegory and dream visions that might take the Rose as a key point of reference, and so suggests useful ways of connecting it to earlier Latin writings and medieval theorisations, later Middle French literature (Christine de Pizan), Middle English writing (Chaucer), and cross-cultural comparative approaches (the twelfth-century Persian Conference of the Birds). Elizabeth Woodward offers a concise account of book-production in medieval Paris, and suggests a number of ways of working through the Rose as an illuminated text, with the help especially of the online Roman de la Rose Digital Library. This resource is also highlighted in the co-authored contribution by Daisy Delogu and Aden Kumler, who examine a range of different text-and-image conjunctures in the Rose, and suggest how these might be linked to larger cultural-historical considerations, including medieval theories of optics. Stephen G. Nichols, one of the directors of the Roman de la Rose Digital Library, presents further ways in which this fantastic resource might be worked with in the classroom, discussing how direct contact with manuscript digitisations can raise questions about medieval reading practices and offer students new insights into the dynamics of the medieval text.

The final section turns to the reception of the Rose. Stephanie A. Viereck Gibbs Kamath covers the French reception of the Rose in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, from the anonymous conclusion of Guillaume’s Rose, through to Guy de Mori, Guillaume de Machaut, Guillaume de Deguileville, Alain Chartier, René d’Anjou, and Jean Molinet. This wonderfully compressed chapter is supplemented by a translation of the anonymous conclusion, which represents a considerable amount of original scholarly labour and is a great scholarly service. Anne-Hélène Miller offers advice for teachers wanting to link the Rose to sixteenth-century French poets by examining scenes within the text that mobilise questions about genre, poetic tradition, and canonisation, and so can be connected to the preoccupations of a range of later writers. Olivia Robinson’s contribution examines the challenges and necessary compromises of attempting to teach French-language material in an English Literature department, and demonstrates in an appendix her brilliant method of helping students close-read an unfamiliar language: a sample of Old French text with phrase-by-phrase glosses. Eleonora Stoppino looks at the Italian afterlives of the Rose with a focus on the Il Fiore of “Durante” (possibly Dante--with the arguments in favour of this attribution helpfully summarised), while Christine McWebb offers an account of the Debate of theRose, its larger cultural and political significance, an invaluable quick-reference guide to the key events.

Anyone who wants to begin teaching the Rose or refresh their approaches will benefit greatly from this companiable and reliable guide. The Rose was an exceptionally important work in the Middle Ages--indeed, the number of surviving manuscripts is even greater than suggested by several contributions here (1, 160, 191, 237): Timothy Stintson’s Extant Manuscripts spreadsheet on the Roman de la Rose Digital Library shows that the surviving manuscripts number well over 300. A relatively small number of instructors, by contrast, responded to the MLA survey on current practices and challenges in teaching the Rose issued as part of the preparation of this volume (the book lists 17 respondents, of which I was one--about half as many as the recent volume on Christine de Pizan). Although an unscientific measure, this would seem to suggest that the Rose is taught much less widely than might be merited by its enormous cultural footprint and intrinsic interest. As well as being a generous and helpful resource to instructors, then, this book makes the implicit but persuasive argument that we all have much to gain from teaching this fascinating, divided and divisive masterpiece of medieval literature.