The humorous interludes of this story suggest that the French were beginning to feel a surfeit of romance. The most famous poem of the Middle Ages—far more widely known and read than The Divine Comedy—began as a romance and ended as one of the heartiest, bluntest satires in history. About 1237 Guillaume de Lorris, a young scholar of Orléans, composed an allegorical poem which was designed to enclose the whole art of courtly love, and to be, through its very abstractions, a model and summary of all amorous romance. We know nothing of William of the Loire except that he wrote the first 4266 lines of the Roman de la rose. He pictures himself wandering in a dream into a gorgeous Garden of Love, where every known flower blooms and all birds sing, and happy couples, personifying the joys and graces of the gallant life—Mirth, Gladness, Courtesy, Beauty… —dance under the presidency of the God of Love; here is a new religion, with a new conception of paradise, in which woman replaces God. Within this garden-the dreamer sees a rose lovelier than all the beauty that surrounds it, but guarded by a thousand thorns. It is the symbol of the Beloved; and the hero’s longing to reach and pluck it becomes an allegory of all the amorous campaigns ever waged by checked desire feeding imagination. No human being but the narrator enters the tale; all the other actors are personifications of the qualities of character to be found at any court where women are pursued by men: Fair-Seeming, Pride, Villainy, Shame, Wealth, Avarice, Envy, Sloth, Hypocrisy, Youth, Despair, even “New Thought”—which here means inconstancy. The marvel of it is that with these abstractions Guillaume managed to make interesting verse—perhaps because at any age and in any guise love is as interesting as the blood is warm.*
William died prematurely, leaving his poem unfinished; and for forty years the world had to wonder if the Lover, shot by Cupid and shivering with love, had ever done more than kiss the Rose. Then another Frenchman, Jean de Meung, took up the torch, and carried it to over 22,000 lines, in a poem as different from William’s as Rabelais from Tennyson. The lapse of a generation had changed the mood; romance had talked itself out for a while; philosophy was casting the pall of reason over the poetry of faith; the Crusades had failed; the age of doubt and satire had begun. Some say that Jean wrote his boisterous continuation at the suggestion of the same King Philip IV who would send his skeptical lawyers to laugh in the face of the Pope. Jean Clopinel was born at Meung on the Loire about 1250, studied philosophy and literature at Paris, and became one of the most learned men of his time. We know not what imp of the perverse led him to put his learning, his anticlericalism, his contempt of woman and romance, into a continuation of the most romantic poem in all literature. In the same eight-syllabled lines and rhyming couplets as William’s, but with a verve and vivacity all the world away from William’s dreamy verse, Jean airs his views on all topics from the Creation to the Last Judgment, while his poor lover waits in the garden, all this time longing for the Rose. If Jean has any romance left in him it is Plato’s fancy of a Golden Age in the past, when “no man called this or that his own, and lust and rapine were unknown”; when there were no feudal lords, no state, no laws; when men lived without eating flesh or fish or fowl, and “all shared earth’s gift in common lot.”53 He is not a freethinker; he accepts the dogmas of the Church without winking an eye; but he dislikes “those stout and thriving blades, the begging friars, who cheat with lying words while drink and meat they batten on.”54 He cannot stomach hypocrites, and recommends garlic and onions to them to facilitate their crocodile tears.55 He admits that a “gracious woman’s love” is life’s best boon, but apparently he has not known it.56 Perhaps he did not deserve it; satire never won fair maiden; and Jean, too schooled in Ovid, thought and taught more of using women than of loving them. Monogamy is absurd, he says; nature intended toutes pour touz—all women for all men. He makes a sated husband chide a primping wife:
What comes of all this bravery?
What benefit accrues to me
From costly gowns and quaint-cut gear,
Your flirting tricks and mincing cheer?
What for these orphreys do I care
With which you twist and bind your hair,
Entwined with threads of gold? And why
Must you have set in ivory
Enameled mirrors, sprinkled o’er
With golden circlets? … Why these gems
Befitting kingly diadems?—
Rubies and pearls, and sapphires fair,
Which cause you to assume an air
Of mad conceit? These costly stuffs,
And plaited furbelows and ruffs,
And cinctures to set off your waist,
With pearls bedecked and richly chased?
And wherefore, say, then, do you choose
To fit your feet with gaudy shoes
Except you have a lust to show
Your shapely legs? By St. Thibaud,
Ere yet three days are past I’ll sell
This trash, and trample you pell-mell!57
It is some consolation to learn that in the end the God of Love, at the head of his innumerable vassals, storms the tower where Danger, Shame, and Fear (the lady’s hesitations) guard the Rose, and Welcome admits the Lover to the inner shrine, and lets him pluck the image of his dreams. But how can this long-deferred romantic termination wipe out 18,000 lines of peasant realism and goliardic ribaldry?
The three most widely read books in the Western Europe of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were the Romance of the Rose, the Golden Legend, and Reynard the Fox. Reynard began his Latin career as Ysengrinus about 1150, and passed into various vernaculars as Roman de Renart, Reynard the Fox, Reineke de Vos, Reinaert, finally as Goethe’s Reinecke Fuchs. Divers authors contributed some thirty merry tales to the cycle until it totaled 24,000 lines, nearly all devoted to satirizing feudal forms, royal courts, Christian ceremonies, and human frailties through animal analogies.
Renart the fox plays impish tricks on Noble the lion, king of the realm. He scents Noble’s amour with Dame Harouge the leopardess, and by intrigues worthy of Talleyrand he persuades her to play mistress to himself. He propitiates Noble and other beasts by giving each a talisman that tells a husband of his wife’s infidelities. Dreadful revelations ensue; the husbands beat their guilty wives, who flee for refuge to Renart, who gathers them into a harem. In one tale the animals engage in a tournament, in solemn knightly regalia and parade. In La Mort Renart the old fox is dying; Bernard the ass, archbishop of the court, comes to administer the sacraments to him with extreme unction and gravity. Renart confesses his sins, but stipulates that if he recovers his oath of reform is to be held null and void. To all appearances he dies, and the many beasts whom he has cuckolded, beaten, plucked, or cozened gather to mourn him with happy hypocrisy. The archbishop preaches a Rabelaisian sermon over the grave, and reproaches Renart for having considered “anything in season if you could get hold of it.” But when holy water is sprinkled upon him Renart revives, catches Chantecler (who is swinging the censer) by the neck, and bolts into a thicket with his prey. To understand the Middle Ages one must never forget Renart.
The Roman de Renart was the greatest of the fabliaux. A fabliau was a fable of animals satirizing man, usually in octosyllabic verse running from thirty to a thousand lines. Some were as old as Aesop or older; some came from India through Islam. Mostly they lampooned women and priests, resenting the natural powers of the one class and the supernatural powers of the other; besides, ladies and priests had condemned the minstrels for reciting scandalous fabliaux. For the fabliaux were directed to strong stomachs; they appropriated the terminology of taverns and brothels, and gave meter to unmeasured pleasantries. But from their stews Chaucer, Boccaccio, Ariosto, La Fontaine, and a hundred other raconteurs brewed many a startling tale.
The rise of satire lowered the status of minstrelsy. The traveling singers derived their English name from the ministeriales, originally attendants in baronial courts, and their French name of jongleurs from the Latin ioculator, a purveyor of jokes. They filled the functions, and continued the lineage, of Greek rhapsodes, Roman mimes, Scandinavian scalds, Anglo-Saxon glee-men, and Welsh or Irish bards. In the twelfth-century heyday of the romances the minstrels took the place of printing, and kept their dignity by purveying stories occasionally worthy to be classed as literature. Harp or viol in hand, they recited lays, dits or contes (short stories), epics, legends of Mary or the saints, chansons de geste, romans, or fabliaux. In Lent, when they were not in demand, they attended, if they could, a confrèrie of minstrels and jongleurs like that which we know to have been held at Fécamp in Normandy about the year 1000; there they learned one another’s tricks and airs, and the new tales or songs of trouvères and troubadours. Many of them were willing, if their recitations proved too much of an intellectual strain for their audiences, to entertain them with juggling, tumbling, contortions, and rope walking. When the trouvères went about reciting their own stories, and when the habit of reading spread and reduced the demand for reciters, the minstrel became more and more of a vaudevillian, so that the jongleur became a juggler; he tossed knives, pulled Punch and Judy puppets, or displayed the repertoire of trained bears, apes, horses, cocks, dogs, camels, and lions. Some of the minstrels turned fabliaux into farces, and acted them without skimping the obscenities. The Church more and more frowned upon them, and forbade the pious to listen to them, or the kings to feed them; and Bishop Honorius of Autun was of the opinion that no minstrel would be admitted to paradise.
The popularity of the jongleurs and the fabliaux, and the uproarious welcome with which the newly lettered classes, and the rebellious students of the universities, received Jean de Meung’s epic of the bourgeoisie, marked the end of an age. Romance would continue, but it was challenged on every hand by satire, humor, and a realistic earthy mood that laughed at tales of chivalry long before Cervantes was born. For a century now satire would hold the stage, and would gnaw at the heart of faith until all the props and ribs of the medieval structure would crack and break, and leave the soul of man proud and tottering on the brink of reason.