A fluid poem

Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la rose
France, thirteenth century

University Library, MS Add. 2993, f. 13r
France, 1354
Vellum, 197 x 126 mm (119 x 82 mm), VIII + 158 + V ff.

The Rose, like many medieval vernacular texts, circulated in numerous versions. When copying the poem, scribes would add verses (anything from a single couplet to several hundred lines) and cut passages they considered irrelevant or inappropriate or for which they simply did not have space. In some cases, these anonymous scribes can be seen as authors in their own right and the texts they produced offer glimpses of how medieval readers understood the Rose. The most intriguing addition in this manuscript, shown on this page, compares the mirror of Narcissus, in which the Lover first sees the beloved rose, with the mirror of Virgil. Legend had it that Virgil’s mirror showed all activity within seven leagues of Rome, thus safeguarding the city from her enemies. Narcissus’ mirror, according to our scribe, was even brighter and more revealing than this great mirror of antiquity.

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