The ‘Roman de la Rose' and Thirteenth-Century Thought (Video)


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  • [Music]
  • Hi, I'm Johnny Morton. I'm an Assistant Professor  in the Department of French and Italian at Tulane  
  • University. And I'm going to talk to you for about  10 minutes about this, which is a book that I  
  • co-edited that came out in July of 2020 and it's  called (I'll read you the title) it's The ‘Roman de la Rose' 
  • Thirteenth-Century Thought. So as you can probably  work out I am a specialist in Medieval French  
  • literature. So the Roman de la Rose is French. It's a  book, a very long poem, that was written in French  
  • in the 13th century, hence the title. And the Roman de la Rose means the Romance of the Rose. Now what  
  • a romance is, is not entirely clear in the 13th  century. Now "roman" in modern French means a novel.  
  • In the 12th and 13th century, a "roman" particularly means something that is  
  • written in the French language as  opposed to being written in Latin.  
  • It's more complicated than that but  that's probably a good place to start. So what  
  • I'm really interested in my research, looking at  literature written in French, is how it thinks;  
  • how it deals with ideas. This is particularly  interesting, I think, because the main  
  • language in which people talk about  science, or philosophy, or medicine, or law,  
  • or theology in the Middle Ages in Europe (the  middle ages in western Europe) is in Latin.  
  • And so this is in French. Well this one actually-  this book is written in English. But the book it's  
  • about, The Roman de la Rose, is written in French. And  it's quite a weird book.  
  • What I'm gonna do is tell you a little bit about  The Romance of the Rose and then a little bit  
  • about why I'm interested in it, and then a little  bit about what's going on in this book. And I may  
  • finish with an attempt to persuade you to read this book but...
  • what generally happens, actually, with   books like this, this is a collection of essays, is  
  • that people might read one or two of the essays  or maybe three or four. So you can always, if you  
  • go to the library, you can always take out this  book, read an essay, take it out read a paragraph.  
  • I'm going to go and talk about medieval  literature now. So I'll stop talking about my book  
  • and I'll talk about The Romance of the Rose.  So it's a very, very weird text. The whole thing  
  • happens in a dream. We're told that the main  speaker had a dream when he was younger and  
  • the whole dream turned out to be true, everything  in it. And it's sort of a love story, but it's very  
  • surreal. So in it this guy has a dream, and in this  dream he goes into this amazing garden and then he  
  • falls in love with the rose, not a woman but a rose.  And so it's called The Romance of the Rose. And  
  • as he's looking at this rose he gets shot by  Cupid, who is the god of love, who's not a cute  
  • baby but he's a kind of quite scary man with  a great big bow and arrow. Who shoots him about  
  • 20 times and he falls in love with this rose and  then he spends the whole poem trying to pluck it.  
  • Okay, so this is quite strange and it may be  the reason why we give roses on Valentine's Day.  
  • Certainly before this text, the rose was a flower particularly associated with  
  • the Virgin Mary. That's the mother of Jesus  in medieval theology. And after this book it  
  • became associated particularly with romantic  love or particular parts of the female anatomy.  
  • And so that's already quite strange, right. We've  got a dream about someone who wants to kiss a  
  • flower. The thing that's really weird about it is  that this very long text, the story seems  
  • kind of simple but it's 22,000 verses of  poetry. So in terms of a book it's probably about  
  • this thick. I don't have the book with me on hand  to show you, otherwise I could show you exactly
  • how big a poem it is. So the story is not  that complicated but what there is in the story
  • is a huge amount of philosophy, huge amount  of different ideas. And what I've been interested in 
  • in my whole research career, not just about The  Romance of the Rose, but particularly about it is  
  • why people bother putting ideas into literature.  Why people bother putting ideas into poetry.  
  • And then what happens when  you do put ideas into poetry  
  • or into fiction? How do you know if you  don't say these ideas clearly in nice  
  • clear language. How do you know what the ideas  really are? Now this is particularly true when  
  • this whole dream is allegorical. So the rose  isn't really a rose. The rose is supposed  
  • to be a woman, but you're not quite sure who  she is or if she's real. And this is true of  
  • the whole of the language of this text. It's that   you're not sure how much to believe it.  
  • And this is particularly true of literary  language and poetry. When one word can mean several  
  • things at the same time, which is nice if you want  to play pretty games with words. But  
  • it's not so useful if you're trying to advance  a scientific theory. Okay, so what's the point? Why  
  • put so much philosophy into this text? And that is  the question that motivated my first book, which is  
  • not this one. It's a different one it came out in  2018 and it's called (I know this one) it's called...
  • The Romance of the Rose in its Philosophical  Context or The Roman de la rose in its Philosophical 
  • Context: Art, Nature, and Ethics. So those are the  questions that I'm particularly interested in.  
  • What is art? What is nature? How they thought  through in a poem, which is very artificial. How  
  • does an artificial thing think about nature? And  things like that. So my work is quite philosophical,  
  • although I'm not a philosopher. So one of the-   another thing I should say about the Romance of  
  • the Rose is that it is one of the most important  pieces of literature in the Middle Ages in Europe.  
  • Potentially one of the most important works of  literature in the European tradition, even though  
  • it's not that well read anymore. Because it's  in part, it's so weird and it's quite difficult.  
  • So in the Middle Ages it was incredibly popular.  There was only one book in the vernacular, not  
  • in Latin, that was copied more and that's Dante's  Divine Comedy. And so this is a very important book.  
  • And it has- the way that it does philosophy is  radical, it's new, and it's very influential. Not  
  • least on poets like Geoffrey Chaucer and Dante as  well, actually, and Petrarch, and Boccaccio, and  
  • other Italians too, and pretty much anyone writing  in French for the next two or three hundred years.  
  • So this book is finished in about  1278 thereabouts, maybe 1280. And so  
  • this is a question, like I said. The question I'm  interested in is why people, why the authors (and  
  • there were two authors) would want- so I'm going to  start that bit again. So the question, the  
  • question that I'm particularly interested in  is why the two authors of the Romance of the  
  • Rose, and there are two, they didn't know each  other. One of them left it unfinished and the  
  • other one continued it. The question is why did  they bother putting all of these ideas in it.  
  • And how do we work out what those ideas are.  So I had a go at answering this question  
  • in a book that came out two and a half years ago  now. And then I thought with my colleague, I put  
  • this particular this conference together with a  a good friend and colleague of mine called Marco  
  • Nievergelt and along with another colleague who's  in philosophy called John Marenbon. They're  
  • both wonderful. If you ever come across anything  either of them have written I recommend it.  
  • So Marco especially and I thought, why don't  we get together a load of specialists in  
  • philosophy and make them read the weird  book of poetry and see what they make of it.  
  • And that's what happened. So in 2016 we  organized a small conference in Paris.  
  • And we brought together a series of  historians of philosophy, and historians of  
  • medicine, and specialists in literature to read  the book together and talk about it. And that's  
  • how we ended up with a collection in here. So  I can- I'll just very quickly- I'm gonna hold up  
  • the- if you're interested I'm  gonna hold up the titles of the books
  • But do you know what? There's a website-  you can even just- you can look it up on  
  • the website. If you go to the website of the  publishers called Cambridge University Press.  
  • And if you go to their website and you  can look up this book and see what's in it.  
  • But I can just- I'll quickly run you through. I'm  going to stop talking fairly soon. I'm going to  
  • quickly run you through the kinds of things that  we were thinking about. So for my part, I wrote an  
  • essay about sophisms and sophistry. So sophistry  is kind of fake philosophy. And it gets talked  
  • about in Plato. In ancient Greek philosophy the  sophists are kind of the enemy of the philosophers.  
  • And Aristotle also talks about sophists  as people who are fake philosophers.  
  • And so I'm interested in how poetry is kind  of fake philosophy. And what you have to do  
  • to make sense of that fakeness. And how you  nonetheless can get something useful from it.  
  • So that was my one. Another colleague wrote  about law and legal theory. And looked at how
  • the poem dealt with questions,  quite detailed questions,  
  • that were discussed in legal philosophy in the  13th century. Another person wrote a piece about  
  • the terminology of psychology and the imagination.  And how this poem is used to think about thinking.  
  • Someone else, another philosopher, wrote  an essay about what belief is and how that is-  
  • that philosophy is expressed in the Romance of  the Rose. And so essentially what I'm hoping- so  
  • what I'm hoping essentially is that  people who later come and study this text  
  • will now have to take seriously just how much  philosophy there is in it. And this book is going  
  • to be a very useful resource for people who may  not be experts in philosophy or may not be experts  
  • in french poetry but are interested in one of  them. And this will help them think about it more.  
  • What I might do just quickly, this might get  cut. Again I don't know. This might not make  
  • the final cut. I want to just quickly talk  to you about the cover image. So this is from  
  • a 14th century manuscript of The Rose. And the  manuscripts are often beautifully decorated. And  
  • this is a figure called Genius, who is disguised  as a bishop. He's dressed up like a bishop. And this  
  • is where you can see the the fakeness. He's not  really a bishop but he looks like one. And he's  
  • giving a lecture to- this is the army of the god of  love, who are going to help the central character,  
  • he's called the lover, get to the rose. And what  he's reading out is a sermon that basically says  
  • that people should try and have as much sex as  they can in order to get into heaven. That's not  
  • the only thing he says, but it's one of the things  that he says because Genius,  
  • he's not a real bishop. He represents, among other  things, the principle of the continuing the species.  
  • So he wants people to have as much hetero sex  as possible. He also gets himself sidetracked and  
  • he goes off in a very very homophobic rant. He's  very not okay with queer sex or non-reproductive sex. 
  • And so you have- this kind of illustrates- you  have what looks like a teaching scenario. This  
  • looks like the transmission of knowledge.  And what you have in it is slightly absurd.  
  • So then you have to make sense of  that. You have to make sense of the absurdity.  
  • And you have to make sense of how it is that  you can learn from people even when 50 percent of what  
  • they say is nonsense. And sometimes I like  to think that that is the kind of problem  
  • that students in my classes have to deal with.  Where sometimes I will say things that will be  
  • useful and sometimes I will say things that  are maybe less useful. And I think students,  
  • if they take one thing from this video, should be  that they should always come to class prepared to  
  • think critically about what their  teachers tell them. And that's, I think,  
  • what this book is about ultimately. And on that  I'm going to stop and I encourage  
  • you all to make the most of the library  and especially to look at this book in it.
  • [Music]