Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Bodily Peril: Sexuality and the Subversion of Order in Jean De Meun's Roman De la Rose

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Bodily Peril: Sexuality and the Subversion of Order in Jean De Meun's Roman De la Rose

Article excerpt

One of the most celebrated and most controversial portions of Jean de Meun's continuation of the Roman de la Rose is the sermon preached by Nature's priest Genius to the troops of Love. (1) This remarkable passage is not Genius's first intervention in the poem. Though modern critical readings of Genius tend to focus on the sermon alone, he is introduced into the poem some three thousand lines earlier, at the same time as Nature herself, and as a prelude to Nature's long 'confession' her priest delivers a diatribe of his own, focusing on the machinations of a woman who cajoles her husband into revealing his involvement in criminal or otherwise suspect activities. (2) Genius narrates the woman's lengthy monologue, a combination of recriminations and self-justifications whose persuasive force is heightened by her use of sexual enticements, and the husband's eventual capitulation and disclosure of his dark secrets: a disastrous error, since it allows the woman to achieve mastery over him through her power to repeat what he has told her.

Genius's reflections on the unruly woman are inspired by the extravagant lamentations of Nature, which he sees as characteristic of feminine volatility. He backtracks in the end, however, attempting to console Nature with the assurance that the story (or at least the antifeminist diatribe that emerges from it) is not directed at her, for she is unfailingly loyal and stable, endowed by God with such wisdom that she is 'sages san fin' (l. 16676). The tale stands out from its immediate context, often receiving illustration and rubrication as a narrative episode in its own right. Medieval scribes, perhaps confused by the seeming irrelevance of the antifeminist tirade to the figures of Nature and Genius, often attributed the passage to the narrator rather than to Genius, even though the text allows no doubt that it is Genius who delivers the entire speech. (3) Medieval readers, however they may have understood the narrative function of the passage, were much attracted to it, frequently marking its lines with marginal 'nota' signs. (4) What is the significance of this vignette and the antifeminist tirade that accompanies it? How does it relate to the larger picture of language, gender, and sexuality as portrayed throughout the Rose? And how, for that matter, does it relate to its immediate context, that of the interaction of Nature and Genius? Is it or is it not relevant to Nature herself? By considering these questions, I intend to use Genius's warning tale as a means of investigating some of the startling twists and turns taken by Jean de Meun's Rose, and the interpretive difficulties thereby created.

On its surface, at least, Genius's tale is quite conventional, presenting gender stereotypes that are well established in the Rose and elsewhere. The unruly wife, garrulous, impassioned, dangerously erotic, manipulative, and eager for power over her husband, is a commonplace of medieval humour and of antifeminist literature in general, and has already been invoked in the Rose both in the accusations of the Jaloux and in the teachings of la Vieille. Similarly the henpecked husband, overwhelmed by his wife's deceptive language and by her ability to exploit his sexual vulnerability, is a standard figure in the fabliau and other comic genres. The repeated identification of Nature as a stereotypical woman, emotional, talkative, clever, yet somehow scatterbrained, and full of complaints about men, is on the one hand quite comical, for as Genius's admission suggests, she is not a woman in the ordinary sense. (5) On the other hand, however, this application of misogynist tropes to Lady Nature is authorized by the traditional association of the natural and the bodily with the feminine, an association that underlies the Rose. It might be as well to recall, in this context, that Original Sin, the event that corrupted sexuality in particular and Nature in general, came about because, as God himself put it, a man listened to his wife and thus relinquished his authority over her. …

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