Enclosure, BDSM, and Homoeroticism!

by Micah Goodrich

This is a post about Chaucer’s Roman de la Rose. The Lover comes upon a wall decorated with portraits of women such as Cruelty, Baseness, Covetousness, and Old Age, all of whom effectively guard whatever is within the enclosure – information the Lover does not have but is interested to happen upon. The wall was square and high, and served to enclose a garden, com nevere shepherde theryn (where no shepherd had ever been). It is the sound of the birds within the wall that provokes the Lover to find a way to enter the garden. Tormented with anguish and alone, the Lover finds a small door and knocks desperately to enter. Who else but Idleness greets him there and lets him inside the enclosure.

The Lover learns that Myrthe is the lord of the garden. The Middle English Dictionary does state that mirthe is difficult to distinguish between its two meanings of general happiness, and someone’s pleasure. And, in fact, the Lover is quite fascinated by Myrthe, and desires to know the type of person he is: Sir Myrthe, for my desiryng / Was hym to seen, over alle thyng / His countenaunce and his manere / That sighte was to me ful dere. (ll. 725-8). When the Lover walks down a path he comes upon Myrthe and his folk who he watches from a distance (the Lover seems to enjoy voyeurism). Courtesy catches the Lover glancing at them and encourages him to join in, or at least come closer. The Lover then goes on to describe Myrthe as ful fair…ful long and high…fetys…wel besye (good to look at). He describes Myrthe three times as fetys (shapely, or handsome), and that he has never quite seen another man like Myrthe – who to him semed lyk a portreiture (standing in sharp contrast with the unfavorable descriptions of the lady-portraits who guard the homoerotic garden). The Lover’s obvious attraction to Myrthe is compounded by the fact that Myrthe’s companion is Joy. Which suggests to me that for the Lover, at least within this enclosure, is able to derive joy (not guilt) from pleasure.

The Lover admires the range of folk which dance with Myrthe, and hangs onto the fact that Youth is perhaps the most lustful of all, who with her lover they make no force of pryvete – they do not need to worry or care about concealment. It is after the Lover’s observation of Youth that we learn that the God of Love together with Swete-Lokyng effectively stalk the Lover as he wanders throughout the enclosure – he does not rest until he walks throughout the entire garden: But nowhere wold I reste me, Till I hadde in all the gardyn be. (ll. 1347-8). It is at this point that the Lover finds a nice place to sit and launches into a discussion about Narcissus, since he was at that very spring apparently. [And maybe my favorite line in Chaucer’s Roman de la RoseNarcisus was a bacheler (l. 1469). I know bacheler in Middle English really just means a young bloke, but it is funny]. Why is the story of Narcissus important to this discussion of homoeroticism? He rejects a lady who prays to God that something terrible will happen to Narcissus, so when he looks into the spring he sees His nose, his mouth, his yen sheene / And he therof was all abasshed. / His owne shadowe had hym bytrasshed / For well wende he the forme see / Of a child of gret beaute. / Well kouth. (1518-23). So transgressive, right? I guess. His own shadow had bytrasshed him (I really enjoy that word – deceived him, but I like the first definition of committing treason), to see another male youth in the water which he then falls in love with and dies because he cannot have him. So really this entire enclosure is built around the spring of Narcissus who fell in love with someone entirely unattainable and unnatural. The Lover explains that the mirror (spring of Narcissus) has destroyed (blent) many men. It brings men to newe rage, and changes their wight corage. And somewhere along the line Cupid sowed the seed of love in that spring and now it is the Spring of Love, so the Lover is not really weary any longer about taking a peak. He looks, and is then deceived by seeing in the enclosure, through his own reflection in the spring roses-bushes enclosed by a hedge. (So much enclosure, must be dangerous). So the Lover is infatuated with this rose, and it is difficult to tell if the reader is to understand the story as now told through the Lover’s reflection or not (?) And just as a caveat I do not think this particular Rose is a lady.

I want to talk about the fantastic BDSM elements in the Roman de la Rose though, so I am going to switch gears a bit. So I want to discuss in a sort of haphazard state three separate elements which I think are at play here:

Voyeurism, Enclosure, and Control

As was previously mentioned, the Lover looks onto Myrthe and his followers watching from afar. Later the God of Love explains to the Lover that the third gift comyth of sight and of biholdyng (l. 2895). The instructions throughout the Roman de la Rose are structured around a heternormative concept of “love” or “desire”, but in reality, the Lover is experimenting with both love and desire in non-normative gender variants. Once the God of Love delivers his message to the Lover and leaves, the Lover states that it is the rose-bud that was his heart’s sole desire, and that although the rose-bud is within an enclosed hedge, the Lover wolde fayn / Have passed the hay, if I myghte / Have geten ynne by ony slighte / Unto the botoun so faire to see. / But evere I dradde blamed to be, / If men wolde have suspeccioun (ll. 2970-2975). The Lover desires to trespass the enclosure, but will not because he will be blamed for it, but also because men would be suspicious of him. Then he meets Fair Welcome (Bialacoil), his beau. (I totally ship the Lover and Fair Welcome).

It is Fair Welcome who allows the Lover entry into the hedge to access his desired object, the “Rose”. (Later after everything goes down with Rebuff & Co., Pity states that it is actually Fair Welcome that Lover desires most, Of Bialacoil, his moste joye [l. 3563). The Lover discusses the sundry folk who inhabit the rose-bush enclosure, Rebuff (the guardian), Shame, Reason, and Jealousy. Fair Welcome encourages the Lover to touch the rose-bush, but not pluck it from its natural place. Fair Welcome saw it liked (l. 3075) the Lover to prese in, to touche the roser (l. 3072), so he pulls a green leaf off of the rose-bush for the Lover, which indubitably makes him feel aqueynt / With Bialacoil, and so pryve, I wende all at my will hadde be. (ll. 3081-3083). It is the privacy of the enclosure, Fair Welcome’s supremacy in the enclosure, as well as his control over what the Lover can and cannot touch that creates and strengthens the intimacy and desire of both the object (“Rose”) and the object’s distributor who is Fair Welcome. It is also important to note that the Lover and Fair Welcome are effectively being watched by Rebuff & Co.

This post is getting unwieldily, and I have too many thoughts about this, and I have an ungodly amount of student papers to grade. However, I would like to leave everyone with a little saucy-bit:

A, Bialacoil, myn owne deer! / Though thou be now a prisoner, / Kep atte leste thyn herts to me / And suffre not that it daunted be; / Ne lat not Jelousie, in his rage / Putten thin herte in no selvage. / Although he chastice thee withoute / And make thy body unto hym loute, / Have herte as hard as dyamaunt, / Stedefast and nought pliaunt. / In prisoun though thi body be, / At large kep then herte free; / A trewe herte wole not plie / For no manace that it may drye. / If Jelousie doth thee payn, / Quyte hym his while thus agayn, / To venge thee, atte leest in thought….I drede thou canst me gret maugre / That thou enprisoned art for me, / But that is not for my trespass, / For thurgh me never discovred was / Yit thyng that oughte be secree. (ll. 4377 – 4403).

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