Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Nature forging a baby
  • Creator: Master of the Prayer Books of around 1500, illuminator
  • Description:

    In this illustration, Nature forges an infant in a blacksmith’s shop. It appears above these lines in the Roman de la Rose
    When they had made this oath so that all could hear it,
    Nature, who thinks on the things that are enclosed
    beneath the heavens, was entered within her forge,
    where she would put all her attention
    on forging individual creatures to continue the species.
    The Romance of the Rose, translated by Charles Dahlberg, p. 217
    Nature is personified as a well-dressed woman wielding a hammer. Her flowing blonde hair is held back in a bejeweled crespine headdress, and her colorful, billowing dress is protected by a white smocked front. Her subject is a baby which she constructs on an anvil on her workbench. The shop also contains a forging fire to the woman's right. Strewn on the floor are baby cast-offs, seemingly unsatisfactory versions of the child the woman is creating in the foreground. This female personified Nature is quite active in the image taking great care and concentration to form the baby. The workshop setting, in combination with this style of action, emphasizes the force that this character possesses. This allegorical figure of Nature is seen in other contexts and in dialogue with other characters in the poem. Contemporary clerics and other authors, including Christine de Pizan, held very different perspectives on the Roman de la Rose. These reactions provide insight into how the text, as well as this image of Nature, were viewed in the fifteenth century.

    Manuscripts provide a unique window into the culture and social dynamics of the Middle Ages. The Roman de la Rose text is particularly interesting due to its themes, multiple authors, and apparent popularity as demonstrated by the over 300 surviving medieval copies. This particular manuscript was commissioned by Engelbert II, count of Nassau and Vianden (d. 1504) and was lavishly decorated by Flemish artists with four large miniatures bordered by naturalistic flowers and eight-eight column miniatures. The manuscript’s representations of the Garden of Love and the Carolle in the Garden have been widely reproduced in connection with discussions of courtly love. The text was copied from a volume printed in Lyon around 1487, although the illustrations in the incunabulum did not influence the manuscript's decorative program.

    Most likely, Guillaume de Lorris began the Roman de la Rose around 1230. The approximately 4,000 lines in French verse begin the tale of the dream of a young lover on a journey dictated by courtly love. The first part of the text is light and hopeful, portraying a brave protagonist overcome with love. Forty years later Jean de Meun completed the poem, adding 17,000 more lines of verse. The change of author is evident in a tone that the British Library manuscript catalog characterizes as “more didactic, scholarly, and pessimistic." Although the lover is ultimately successful in his quest to conquer the Castle of Jealousy and obtain the Rose, the text by Jean de Meun is much more pragmatic and straightforward. The work, as a whole, is an allegorical love poem that changes meaning depending on the author. At the point where Guillaume originally left the poem, the protagonist is separated from the Rose and is left in despair. Yet in Jean’s conclusion, the protagonist uses deception to pluck and steal the Rose. While Guillaume's writing is marked in its idealization of romantic love and proper conduct, Jean comments on contemporary subjects such as free will versus determinism. These contrasting views are the crux of many debates surrounding the Roman de la Rose.

    Generally, nature does not have one consistent role in medieval literary works - but often the allegorical figure is envisioned in roles that embody the author’s ideas about sexuality. For example, in the Roman de la Rose, the Nature character supports Cupid and Venus to encourage more procreation including outside of marriage. This single purpose of Nature meant that people who did not reproduce (including virgins, clerics, and same sex couples) violated Nature’s law - as presented in the Rose. Of related importance is the overarching theme of motherhood in the portrayal of Nature, which cannot be separated from the allegorical figure as a woman. In the blacksmith's shop, she is creating new children to replace the humans taken by death, an accurate representation of how women’s role in reproduction was so fundamental. While an allegorical figure represented as a woman could be an opportunity for empowerment - in the Roman de la Rose it is antifeminist as Nature enables the “conquest” of the Rose and allows herself to be degraded by the priest Genius and agrees with him that she, and all women, cannot be trusted.

    The powerful, and almost disturbing, depiction of Nature as it creates new life is particularly interesting, as it is counter to the more common, feminine depictions of Nature in which she is portrayed with gentility and grace. To understand the cultural relevance of this work, it is necessary to view the image in terms of what Nature is doing rather than who she is. Since the miniature shows her creating new life, it relates to cultural views surrounding female sexuality. In the Middle Ages, female sexuality was viewed in a functional manner as a tool for reproduction. Additionally, art depicting seduction or sexuality often involved goddesses rather than human women. Therefore, the power shown in creating new life comes at the expense of the depiction of Nature as erotic or beautiful and converts her into an almost grotesque form. This transformation was not at all uncommon for the time. Newman observes that in Christine de Pizan’s later work, she utilized goddesses to represent the multi-dimensionality of women. However, as this miniature suggests, that was counter to the common narrative that power and femininity were mutually exclusive.

    Discussions and arguments surrounding the Roman de la Rose have been ongoing since the fifteenth century. The original debate was mounted by Christine de Pizan, an author at the French royal court. She criticized the Rose for its misogynistic portrayal of women. This initiated a debate in letters with two royal secretaries, Jean de Montreuil and Gontier Col, as well as Col’s brother Pierre, a Canon of Paris. They dismissed Christine for being a woman - the very idea that she was fighting against in her criticism of the Rose. Christine questioned how the text further perpetuated misogyny and immorality in poetry, France's literary nationalism, and language as a whole. Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, opposed the Roman de la Rose alongside Christine. He believed that the poem went directly against the rules set out by Nature and her commandments. Gerson further argued that the poem’s model for male sexual behavior and the excuses Nature offered in support of it are completely false. One of Nature’s most important roles, in fact, was to ordain marriage in the first place.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Allegory Gender Infants Literature- Verse Nature (Literary Figure) Roman de la Rose Women in Active Roles
  • Geographic Area: Low Countries
  • Century: 15
  • Date: circa 1490-1500
  • Related Work: Full manuscript page, British Library, Harley 4425, fol. 140r.
    Nature in a garden, British Library, Harley 4425, fol. 140r.
    Illustrations from the manuscript, British Library, Harley 4425.
    Digitized manuscript, British Library, Harley 4425.
    Procreating couple, Nature at her forge, Roman de la Rose, circa 1375-1400, French, University of Chicago Library, Ms. 1380, fol. 102v.
    Nature at her forge (includes animals), Roman de la Rose, circa 1405, French, J. Paul Getty Museum, Ludwig XV 7, fol.121v.
    Nature forges human hands, Roman de la Rose, 3rd quarter of the 15th century, French, Yale University, Beinecke Library, Ms. 418, fol. 282v.
    Nature forging a phallus, obscene lead-tin badge, 14th century, German, Stuttgart, Landesdenkmalamt Baden-Württemberg. See more information in the Kunera database, object number 04997.
  • Current Location: London, British Library, Harley 4425, fol. 140r
  • Original Location: Netherlands (Bruges)
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Parchment; Paints; Gold;
  • Donor: Layman; Engelbert II, Count of Nassau and Vianden (1451-1504)
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 39.5/29/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources:

    De Kesel, Lieve. "None Is More Splendid Than the Roman de la Rose of Count Engelbert II of Nassau. Some Considerations on the Silencing of Male Bouche in Harley 4425 of The British Library in London." Nouvelles de la Rose. Actualité et perspectives du Roman de la Rose. Edited by Dulce Maria González Doreste and Maria del Pilar Mendoza-Ramos. Universidad de La Laguna, 2011. Pages 61-78.

    Debating the Roman de la Rose: A Critical Anthology. Edited by Christine McWebb. Translated by Earl Jeffrey Richards. Routledge, 2007.

    "Detailed Record for Harley 4425." British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Available open access.

    Fleming, John V. “Natural and Unnatural Nature.” Roman de la Rose: A Study in Allegory and Iconography. Princeton University Press, 2015.

    Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. The Romance of the Rose. Translated by Charles Dahlberg. Princeton University Press, 1971.

    Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe. Edited by Thomas Kren and Scot McKendrick. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2003. Pages 4-5, 44, 73, 315, 323, 394, 398, 401-03. Available open access.

    Newman, Barbara. “Did Goddesses Empower Women? The Case of Dame Nature.” Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages. Edited by Mary C. Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski. Cornell University Press, 2003. Pages 135 - 155.

    Park, Katherine. “Nature in Person: Medieval and Renaissance Allegories and Emblems.” The Moral Authority of Nature. Edited by Lorraine Daston and Fernando Vidal. University of Chicago Press, 2003. Pages 50-73.

    Roman de la Rose Digital Library. Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University and the Bibliothèque nationale de France. https://dlmm.library.jhu.edu/en/romandelarose/.

    Thorpe, Deborah. "Heated Words: The Politics and Poetics of Work in ‘A Complaint against Blacksmiths’". Parergon 32, 1 (2015): 77–101.