The Romaunt of the Rose

Background to manuscript and digitization project

The Hunterian Collection

The Special Collections Department in the University of Glasgow Library is home to one of largest collections of manuscripts in the UK. The Hunterian Collection alone has c. 650 items, some fifty of which are Middle English texts. There is, for example, a unique collection of Middle English medical manuscripts, collected by Dr William Hunter (1718-83), Physician Extraordinary to Queen Charlotte .

In this collection is also the unique witness of the Middle English Romaunt of the Rose (Hunter 409; previously V.3.7). The Library is also fortunate to have the earliest printed edition of this work by William Thynne (1532). As will be shown later, it is certain that Thynne used the Hunterian manuscript of the Romaunt when preparing his edition, as the printers’ marks on this manuscript correspond to the column divisions in Thynne’s edition. Two leaves are displaced in the manuscript and this error is repeated in misplaced lines in the printed edition.

Le Roman de la Rose

This work was one of the most popular in the Middle Ages. It survives in over 200 manuscripts, many of which are richly illuminated. It influenced many medieval poets such as Deschamps, Machaut and Froissart as well as Chaucer. Guillaume de Lorris wrote the first part (c. 4000) lines in c. 1225. This section sets the scene of Amant (the Lover) who approaches the beautiful, walled Garden and finds amongst its many delights the Rose, protected by thorns and guardians such as Daunger ‘rebuff’ and Amant, who is is advised by Lady Reason. It is the archetypal courtly love story of young love, set in May in a beautiful garden with those advising both the Lady (the Rose) and the Lover how to conduct their affair. It is a textbook of the laws of love which outlines how lovers should behave.

The poem was continued by Jean de Meun (c.1240-c.1305) whose style and aims were very different. He was a cleric and educated at the University of Paris with encyclopaedic knowledge and interests. He adds much material about philosophy, science, clerical satire on women and marriage, and much miscellaneous wisdom and debate. He created the character of la Vieille, the Old Woman, who passes on her ‘wisdom’ on the art of seducing men, her bad experiences with men and cynical advice on how to avenge them. She sums up her philosophy as: ‘Briefly, all men betray and deceive women; all are sensualists, taking their pleasure anywhere. Therefore we should deceive them in return, not fix our hearts on one.” She becomes the model of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath whose many utterances are paraphrases of la Vieille.

It is not surprising that Le Roman de la Rose became a highly controversial work in the Middle Ages when a literary quarrel was conducted between the poem’s admirers and detractors.

To see some examples of Roman de la Rose manuscripts, visit the Roman de la Rose Digital Library; based at John Hopkins University, this project aims to create a digital library of all extant manuscript copies of Le Roman de la Rose, with full digital surrogates of about 150 of these manuscripts to be available by the end of 2009.

The Author and Composition of the Romaunt of the Rose.

Chaucer states in his Prologue to The Legend of Good Women that he translated the French Roman de la Rose:

For in pleyn text, withouten nede of glose,
Thou hast translated the Romaunce of the Rose (lines 328-9)

There has been much scholarly debate about whether or not the Romaunt of the Rose is this translation. It is possible that only part of the Hunterian text is by Chaucer or a contemporary. In the original 13th century French Roman de la Rose, the first 4058 lines were written by Guillaume de Lorris and the remaining 17,722 lines by Jean de Meun. The Romaunt is only 7696 lines long and is in three fragments: A (lines 1-1705), B (lines 1706-5810 and C (5811-7696). In the MS the text appears as one poem with no breaks, but there is a distinct change in fragment B which contains northern forms and rhymes not associated with Chaucer. For example, the rosebud is called a ‘knoppe’ in the fragment A and consistently a ‘bouton’ in the second fragment. The long debate about authorship is summed up by Charles Dahlberg in his edition of The Romaunt of the Rose in the Variorum Chaucer Series, vol 7 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999). The consensus of opinion is that Chaucer did indeed write Fragment A, which is a close translation of Guillaume de Lorris, while few accept Fragment B as his work with its Northern forms and rhymes not associated with Chaucer; Fragment C has also been accepted as Chaucer’s in recent investigations, e.g., by Xiang Feng in 1990, because it is more like Fragment A with a close translation and Chaucerian practices.

Alfred David suggests:

An attempt was made to continue Fragment A, probably believed to be by Chaucer, perhaps for commercial purposes. Two different translators worked on the continuation, perhaps simultaneously; neither completed the task….The project was finally abandoned, though someone combined the three fragments into one continuous text. It is hoped that this digitised version will lead to further study of the poem and thence more discoveries about its authorship. There is also much debate about the date of composition, although it is generally thought to be an early work by Chaucer. Those who believe that Fragment A is by Chaucer suggest a composition in the 1360s, an early work by Chaucer, as it lacks the sophistication found in later verse.

It is hoped that this digitised version will lead to further study of the poem and thence more discoveries about its authorship.  There is also much debate about the date of composition, although it is generally thought to be an early work by Chaucer.  Those who believe that Fragment A is by Chaucer suggest a composition in the 1360s, an early work by Chaucer, as it lacks the sophistication found in later verse.

About the manuscript

MS Glasgow, Hunter 409 (V.3.7), was probably written in the first quarter of the 15th century, as can be seen by the handwriting and illumination. A number of leaves have intricate and delicate marginal illumination largely of foliage and there are a number of illuminated capitals. The manuscript is written by one scribe throughout, apart from a second scribe’s corrections and the later marginal additions. It is a clear, early 15th century hand that might be described as hybrid anglicana formata in as much as it contains many of the features of a cursive formata hand, while embodying some textura features, for example in the minim letters and capitals. The hand is consistent throughout and is written in black ink.

Little is known about ownership, other than clues in the flyleaves and elsewhere in the margins. On folio 1r is the inscription ‘Thomas Griggs, possessor huius libri’ (‘Thomas Griggs, the owner of this book’), but nothing is known about Griggs, The manuscript must have been in the hands of Thomas Thynne in London by the the early 1530s. On folio 60r the name ‘Ihon thin’ appears, and this might refer to Thynne’s nephew, John Thynne. Lord Mountjoy’s name appears on folio 139r; this is possibly the father or son, Charles or William Blount, Baron Mountjoy (d. 1534 and 1545, respectively). Other 16th century signatures appear on the flyleaves, as can be seen on folios 150v, 151 r-v. We can only be sure of ownership when the manuscript was purchased by William Hunter in the early 18th Century and passed to the Hunterian Museum twenty-four years after his death in 1783. The manuscript was rebound by S.M.Cockerell and Son (Cambridge) in 1963.

Missing leaves

There are eleven missing leaves in this manuscript: The first and last leaves of the first quire are missing, probably taken because of the illuminations on the first folio. The missing folios are:

  • folio 1, lines 1-440
  • the folio following the present fol. 5, lines 333-380
  • two folios following folio 27, lines 1387-1482
  • one following folio 47, lines 2395-2442
  • one after folio 71 (lines 3595-3690)
  • three folios following folio 148.

The chances are high that these folios were illuminated and considered sufficiently attractive to remove. In this digital edition we have therefore substituted the Thynne pages where there are missing leaves in the manuscript.

It is highly unlikely that Thynne would have made his own translation in the missing folios, but it is possible that he had access to another manuscript of the text when the Glasgow one failed him. This latter argument is weakened, however, by the fact that Thynne would have consulted this hypothetical second exemplar when he met other problems, for example those presented by the misplaced leaves (see below), but this did not happen.

A single leaf has been discovered recently in the National Library of Scotland which, although not from this manuscript, covers the text at lines 2403 – 2450 of the poem; this is almost exactly the lines of the missing folio following fol. 47 of the Hunterian MS (quire 11, leaf 3) which would have contained lines 2395-2442 (48 lines). This exciting discovery will be followed up in the near future.

Misplaced leaves

In Fragment C lines 7109-58 appear before lines 7013-7108 and lines 7159 come after lines 7207-7302 in the manuscript. One can but assume that the folios containing these lines were misplaced in the copy exemplar which the Glasgow scribe used. The error did not occur when the Glasgow manuscript was bound, as the textual breaks are found in mid-folio. The only solution is that the leaves were misplaced during the binding of the copy exemplar and the Glasgow copyist was not aware of the thematic break or the lack of rhyme when he turned the leaf. The Glasgow scribe continues his copying with no concern for the break in sense, although at line 7110 he leaves a blank line, as he realises there is no rhyme and assumes a line is missing.

The fact that Thynne makes the same error is strong proof that he used the Glasgow manuscript as his exemplar. He was apparently aware that something was wrong when he met the section with misplaced leaves, as he makes clear printers’ marks at the point of disruption (see folio 145r).

Although there is no obvious, visible break in the manuscript, the poem is divided into the separate fragments mentioned above and does suffer from missing and misplaced leaves. It is generally thought that Fragment A (lines 1-1705), the Chaucerian translation, existed as an independent poem. The scribal errors, in particular the misplaced leaves, clearly show that the Glasgow manuscript was not an authorial copy and that the copy used by the scribe already had the misplaced folios in it. It is interesting that Thynne is aware of a problem of disruption to the sense and marks the manuscript accordingly.


In addition to the printers’ marks, described below, and the signatures, described above, there are many marginalia. At the beginning (lines 45-330 and 380-400) there are line numbers which refer to John Urry’s early edition and which were the work of an 18th century owner, Thomas Martin of Palgrave. On fol. 27r in the lower margin is a late 16th puzzle poem:

I had my….. And my…..
I lente my….. To my……
I asked my….. Of my …..
I loste my….. And my …..

The missing words ‘frynde’ and ‘sylver’ are added after the second line, albeit in the wrong order, as ‘silver’ should come first.

There are a few no. bene (nota bene) marginalia, e.g. at lines 2213 and 5852.

Thynne’s edition of 1532

Throughout the manuscript recurs the marginal mark ‘coll’. This was written by the printer, probably Thomas Godfrey, and in every case marks the column breaks of Thynne. This is one of the major clues which point to Thynne’s use of the Glasgow MS as his copy text, a common Tudor practice.

There are other printers’ marks which show that Thynne was aware of certain textual problems; one example is on folio 17v which has a marginal “lat a lyn’ between two lines which have “flourettes” and ‘scohouns’ in rhyme position. Thynne adds the line “Ypainted al with amorettes’, thereby restoring the rhyme.

At the point of the misplaced leaves a large printer’s ‘E’ with four horizontal lines appears (folio 145r) and a capital ‘T’ at the end of this section on folio 146r. Folio 151v has some interesting doodles, e.g., of a lady’s head.

Thynne makes many spelling changes and introduces weak preterites for strong ones, reflecting linguistic change in the hundred years’ gap. Thynne prefers the y- suffix on past participles. Alfred David claims that he does this to make it look Chaucerian or to add a syllable.

On folio 135v (line 6785) there is a missing line after “He made a book and lete it write”, perhaps as there is a rhyme missing. This blank has been filled in by a a later (16th century) hand with “Of thyngis that he beste myghte”, which also does not rhyme. Thynne has “Wherin his lyfe he dyd al write”. Although this makes sense it repeats the rhyme word. The interesting thing about Thynne’s substitution here and elsewhere is that he appears to have gone to the French original for this inspiration. The French has “ou sa vie fiste toute escrivre” (‘where he had his entire life written’).

On folio 143r at lines 7108-10 Thynne has added two lines:

That they ne myght the booke by
The sentence pleased hem wel trewly.

These lines occur at the point where the misplaced leaves make little sense of the text and are apparently added by Thynne to help make a link. Dahlberg in his textual notes gives a detailed account of this and other additions.

On folio 6r (line 193) the manuscript has ‘And she hadde visage’, which is metrically deficient. Thynne suggests “And she had a foule visage” which both restores the metre, the sense and reflects the French original ‘mauves’.

It would appear, therefore, that Thynne was conscious of the sense of the poem he was editing, aware of the faults in his copy text and capable of going back to Le Roman de la Rose to check the original sense. The eleven missing leaves in the manuscript are replaced by pages from Thynne’s edition.

The Digitisation of the Romaunt of the Rose

The Romaunt of the Rose has been digitised to make it more accessible to scholars and to help preserve the manuscript.

A transcription of the text is included, along with a digitised version of the first printed edition of the poem from 1532. The resulting website has created an important teaching tool for undergraduates and postgraduates in a wide variety of disciplines, such as palaeography, historical linguistics, medieval literature and art, and codicology. The juxtaposition of manuscript facsimile and edited text on screen allows the reader to the see the text in its manuscript context. Modern editions deny us immediate access to glosses, scribal changes, emendations through the ages and all that physically surrounds a text such as lemmata, illustrations and illuminated capitals. The aim of the transcription is to allow the reader of the manuscript to decipher the text more clearly. For that reason, the transcription is graphemic and kept as close as possible to the manuscript version. When there is obvious scribal error, the transcription is in red which indicates a link to the notes where the manuscript reading is given.

It is hoped that in the future it will be possible to digitise further Middle English texts from the Hunterian collection using this model.

Using the website

You can go to the beginning of the poem and navigate through the text by following the page links, or you can go straight to the index page and select the folio or lines you wish to see.

Once you choose a folio you will see the full manuscript page. At the top of the page it will indicate if there are details on this page which can be selected and magnified: run the cursor over the page and the arrow will change to a hand at the section which can be enlarged. Click on this section to bring up the magnified area.

Click on the red Enlarge Text at the top of the left-hand column to magnify the manuscript. This will give a larger text, but cut out some of the margins. Click on Manuscript and Transcription to see the digitised text side-by-side with a transcription. There are some words or phrases in red. Click on them to see a note on this/these word(s); these indicate readings in the transcription which differ from the manuscript, e.g., if there is a scribal error.

Click on 1532 printed edition to see the Thynne edition. Initially we placed the three texts – manuscript, transcription and Thynne – side by side, but this meant cropping the Thynne version and reducing the size of typeface. Some readers may want to study the Thynne edition by itself, so for that reason Thynne is in a separate window. The page of Thynne which will appear will contain the manuscript lines and there are line references at the top of each page of Thynne. One can align the Thynne page on screen with the manuscript page to compare the two texts. Forward and backward navigation on all three configurations is achieved by clicking on the arrows, enabling the paging through of the the texts.

Graham D.Caie
University of Glasgow
Introduction revised: 2008




© University of Glasgow - 17/2/2001 -