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Old 26th April 2006   #1
Join Date: July 2005
Posts: 1,784
Default Sweet Idleness (Medieval Beauty II)

We noted in our previous discussion of Medieval Beauty that the first intimations of the Renaissance, and of the restoration of Classical ideals, appeared in the Middle Ages--particularly in the art of poetry.

Perhaps the most significant bridge between Antiquity and the Renaissance is a 13th-century allegorical poem titled Le Roman de la Rose ("The Romance of the Rose"). This was the medieval equivalent of a bestseller, and was translated into many languages. Hardly any man of letters in the Middle Ages would have been unaware of its 25,000 lines.

The creation of two French authors--of whom the first, Guillaume de Lorris, penned the passage that we shall discuss--Le Roman de la Rose closely resembles the Psychomachia of Prudentius in being populated by characters who embody abstract concepts. In the course of the romance, the narrator wanders through an allegorical garden and, along the way, encounters numerous female personified abstractions--especially vices and virtues.

The first personifications whom the narrator meets are sins and vices, including Avarice, Covetousness, and Envy. As one might expect, these ladies are grotesquely unattractive (i.e., emaciated).

But then, after passing through a second gate in the garden, the narrator meets a damsel who embodies a positive concept, and her beauty is described in the most rapturous poetry of the entire work. This lovely maiden is named . . . Idleness.

Attentive readers will notice right away, from the excerpts below, that this damsel is virtually identical in appearance and demeanour to Indulgence, from Prudentius's Psychomachia. But the crucial difference between the two works is that Prudentius, writing at the dawn of Christianity, in the 4th century, presents Indulgence as a vice (even if a very tempting one). In Le Roman de la Rose, however, Idleness is unmistakably and enthusiastically presented as a virtue.

And since both of these figures, Indulgence and Idleness, are types of the goddess Venus (whose mythological characteristics include both self-indulgence and languorous idleness), Guillaume is clearly undertaking a rehabilitation of the Classical ideal of beauty--and indirectly, of the goddess who represents them--in his encomium of this fair maiden. (Note, for example, that Guillaume's Idleness bears Venus's most characteristic attribute--a mirror, in which she perpetually admires her own beauty.)

The narrator's encounter with Idleness proceeds as follows:

Finally the yoke-elm wicket gate
Was opened by a maiden mild and fair--
Most gracious, and of beauty rare:
Her blonde locks bright as bowl of brass;
Tender her flesh as that of new-hatched chick--
Radiant her forehead--gently arched
Her brows . . .
No falcon, I would boldly swear,
Hath eyes that could with hers compare.

Lillian Russell

Her cheeks, commingled white and red;
Her mouth a rosebud, and her chin
Well rounded
, with sweet cleft therein.
Of seemliest dimensions was her neck
In length and thickness . . .
A man might travel to Jerusalem
And find no maid with neck more fair and smooth
And soft to touch

Valerie Lefkowitz modelling for ''Figure'' magazine, 2004

Her throat was white as snow
Fresh fallen upon a branch. . . .
And all her body formed and knit
So well, as nought might equal it.
Much doubt I, if since Time had birth
A fairer dame hath trod the earth
With body better made or form more fair.

Charlotte Coyle--Torrid cover

A graceful golden chaplet on her head
Was set, than which no maiden ever had
One more becoming, chic, or better wrought.
Above the polished chaplet she had placed
A wreath of roses fresh from morning dew.
A graceful silken robe wore she,
Her hair was tressed back most becomingly
With richest comb. Her hand a mirror bore.

Hans Makart, ''The Five Senses: Sight'' 1872-79 (detail)

White gloves protected her white hands from tan.
She wore a coat of rich green cloth of Ghent
All sewed with silk
On which much labour had been spent
In broidering, while her sleeves around
With silken cords were laced and bound.
It seemed from her attire
That she was little used to business.

Amber Cather modelling Delta Burke swimwear, Spring 2006, from JC Penney. If she were fuller-figured, Amber would be one of the most revolutionary models in the industry.

When she was combed, adorned, and well arrayed,
Her daily task was done. A joyful time--
A year-long, carefree month of May--
Was hers, for care she drove away
And dreamed of nothing, night and morn,
But how her body to adorn.

The incomparable Shannon Marie--still the most gorgeous model the industry has ever known

When thus for me she had unlocked the gate,
Politely did I thank the radiant maid
And also asked her name and who she was.
She answered pleasantly, without disdain:
"All my companions call me Idleness;
A woman rich and powerful am I.
Especially I'm blessed in one respect:
I have no care except to tress and comb
My hair, amuse myself, and take mine ease

Kate Dillon modelling for Lane Bryant, Spring 2006

"When this is finished then my day
Is ended, and to mirth and play
I give myself
. My dearest friend
Is Mirth, and by his side I spend
Long pleasant hours . . ."

* * *

Once again, we see how consistently the timeless ideal of beauty is expressed in this poem. There are the references to "blonde locks," a fair complexion ("commingling white and red"), a "soft" neck exhibiting "thickness" (the original term is more poetic), and every other feature that we encountered in the Ars Versificatoria of Matthew of Vend˘me.

In so many ways, this eternal ideal of femininity is directly opposed to the artificial contemporary standard imposed by the media. She is the very opposite of a "tanorexic." The fairness of her skin is such a crucial aspect of her beauty that the poet admires how she "protected her white hands from tan." And as her name ("Idleness") implies, instead of torturing herself with exercise, she expressly avoids exertion of any kind, in order to preserve her plump appearance ("Tender her flesh," "soft to touch").

Note that she realizes--as do all plus-size goddesses prior to the 20th century--that her soft appearance is particularly conducive to displaying attractive clothing (hence the delight that she takes in being "adorned, and well arrayed"). Whereas today's designers drape their styles over walking wire hangers, in every other century, artists realized that fashions look best on well-fed figures.

And Guillaume specifies that Idleness experiences tremendous delight in her existence ("A joyful time"), underscoring how much this pampered lifestyle is in harmony with natural feminine desires. In fact, although both Ellis and Robbins translate Idleness's companion as "Mirth," Dahlberg significantly renders the term "Pleasure"--that very Mode-like word! Idleness effectively spends her existence in what Mode called "The Pleasure Zone." Little wonder that she is so gorgeous.

In essence, then, since both Prudentius's and Guillaume's fair maidens are types of Venus (the Classical goddess of beauty), we may well establish the following forumla for achieving the true feminine ideal:

Indulgence + Idleness = Timeless Beauty.



Lorris, Guillaume de and Jean de Meun. Le Roman de la Rose. c.1230-75. Trans. Charles Dahlberg. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1971.

Lorris, Guillaume de and Jean de Meun. Le Roman de la Rose. c.1230-75. Ed. and trans. F.S. Ellis. 3 vols. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1928.

Lorris, Guillaume de and Jean de Meun. Le Roman de la Rose. c.1230-75. Trans. Harry W. Robbins. Ed. Charles W. Dunn. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1962.

Last edited by HSG : 20th September 2006 at 23:53.
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Old 27th April 2006   #2
Join Date: August 2005
Location: USA
Posts: 61
Default Re: Sweet Idleness (Medieval Beauty II)

It's refreshing to read that once upon a time, the ability to indulge in leisure and idleness was not seen as a character flaw or a sin but rather a blessing.

That's something our overly busy society needs to remember. Living in a high-stress manner is not good for soul or body.
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Old 30th April 2006   #3
Join Date: July 2005
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Default Re: Sweet Idleness (Medieval Beauty II)

Originally Posted by kirsten
It's refreshing to read that once upon a time, the ability to indulge in leisure and idleness was not seen as a sin but rather a blessing.

Exactly so. And in fact, Le Roman de la Rose inverts our skewed modern values, and uses thinness as visual proof of a character's sinful nature. The author, Guillaume de Lorris, performs the revaluation of aesthetic values that we have often called for on this forum--except that in his day and age (and in all eras prior to the 20th century), idealizing womanly fullness was not an "inversion" at all, but rather, an expression of the timeless standard of beauty.

Thus, when the poem's narrator encounters a lady who personifies Avarice, her describes her as having a "corpse-like body," and records that

She was ugly, dirty, weak, and lean,
Wasted and greener than a garden leek
Such her complexion was, she seemed diseased,
Or like one famine fated . . .

What's more, he records the shame that Avarice herself experiences at her own underweight appearance, and testifies how she desperately tries to cover up her shrivelled figure:

And with intent to hide her meagre
Shrunken limbs
she'd o'er them cast
A tattered threadbare garment . . . .

This, in Guillaume's more sensible era, the "body flaws" that clothing was meant to hide were not plump curves, but rather, their absence.

Soon afterwards, the poet encounters Sorrow, whose appearance is even more horrifying--because she is even thinner:

Not even avarice looked so lean
As she; for woe, distress, chagrin, and care
From which she ever suffered night and day,
Had yellowed and emaciated her.

But we really see how Le Roman de la Rose rehabilitates Classical beauty for the Christian Middle Ages in the poet's description of Hypocrisy:

She wore a haircloth shirt, and she was lean,
As though with fasting weary
. . . half dead.
To her and to her like will be refused
Entrance to Paradise. The Gospel says
Such folk emaciate their cheeks for praise
Among mankind, and for vainglory lose
Their chance to enter Heaven and see God

Thus, not only does dieting and insufficient self-indulgence ruin the physical appearance of these maidens (testifying to their inner ugliness), but--and this is the specifically medieval, Christian element--it even leads to the damnation of their immortal souls!

The poem indicates that salvation and "entrance to Paradise" is to be obtained by avoiding "famine" (i.e., dieting), by not looking "corpse-like," "lean," "wasted," and "emaciated," and by not exhibiting "meagre / Shrunken limbs." These qualities are associated with "Sorrow" (which is, after all, precisely what women suffer when they deny themselves indulgence, both in Guillaume's era, and in our own).

Just how hideous the Middle Ages regarded female thinness can be seen in the following image, from a medieval illustrated manuscript, which shows a lady who closely resembles a modern straight-size model used as a visual warning against sin:

Note the contrast to Guillaume's celebration of Idleness, with her "thickness" of figure, whose mirror-gazing is presented as a positive attribute.

Thus, Le Roman de la Rose subtly rehabilitates the Classical ideal of beauty--as personified by the goddess Venus--for the Christian Middle Ages, by indicating that the "chance to enter Heaven and see God" is specifically to be obtained by rejecting the sorrow of emaciation, and instead exhibiting full-figured femininity, as a physical manifestation of spiritual nourishment and health.

In every belief system prior to the utilitarian materialism of the last century, timeless beauty has always been viewed as exhibiting aspect of the divine.

(Note: all quotations from the Robbins translation.)

Last edited by HSG : 30th April 2006 at 13:44.
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