Grants of $779,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon
Foundation will allow The Johns Hopkins
University and the Bibliotheque Nationale de France to
provide scholars with virtual access to more
than half the known versions of Le Roman de la Rose,
a medieval poem on the art of love that was the
most-read work of French literature for hundreds of
The two grants will enable the pioneering Roman de la
Rose project at
Johns Hopkins' Sheridan
Libraries to digitize 90 manuscripts of the poem held
in the BNF and another 40 manuscripts from
university and municipal libraries throughout France.
Since the project's inception 10 years ago, Rose
manuscripts from the Walters Art Museum in
Baltimore, J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Pierpont
Morgan Library in New York, University of
Chicago, Bodleian Library at Oxford University and two
private collectors have been digitized,
providing scholars around the world with an online
comparative analysis of works produced centuries
apart, and creating a new paradigm for digital scholarship.
The French national library's holdings of one of the
most popular and widely reproduced
vernacular works of the Middle Ages constitute not only the
most extensive collection of Rose
manuscripts but also the most varied in format, text,
illumination and decoration. In all, just over 250
widely varying manuscripts are thought to survive today,
scattered primarily in libraries and museums
throughout Europe and North America.
One of the two grants, for $731,000, will fund the
transfer of all 130 French manuscripts to an
electronic format, boosting the Sheridan Libraries' virtual
collection to a total of 150 manuscripts.
"The Mellon grant enables us to make available for
worldwide scholarship more than half of the
Rose manuscripts known to be extant today," said Winston
Tabb, Sheridan Dean of University
Libraries at Johns Hopkins. "We are delighted and honored
to collaborate with our colleagues in
France to provide an integrated approach to digital access
and preservation of these incomparable
manuscripts, especially the five in Paris that have served
as the basis for the critical editions
produced over the last 200 years."
Working with colleagues at Stanford University
Libraries, the Rose project team will use a
second Mellon award of $48,000 to make its digital library
and Stanford's more compatible. Parker on
the Web is a collaborative venture between Stanford and
Corpus Christi College at Cambridge
University to produce an interactive virtual library
comprising more than 500 manuscripts from the
sixth to the 16th centuries from the Parker Library at
Corpus Christi. Stanford's Parker on the Web
is also a Mellon-funded project.
Le Roman de la Rose, or The Romance of the
Rose, is a poem of more than 20,000 lines
composed by two 13th-century poets working about 50 years
apart. The first poet tells of his dream
of an enchanted garden where he sees and falls deeply in
love with a young woman, whom he allegorizes
as a perfect "rose." The much longer second half of the
poem transforms the allegorical dream
adventure into a philosophical commentary on the difficulty
of distinguishing between illusion and
reality in life.
From 1285 (well before the invention of the printing
press) to about 1620, the Rose was the
most popular vernacular French work, better known in its
time than the works of Dante or Chaucer. No
doubt some of that popularity derived from the explicitly
sexual images introduced by the second poet
and intended to expose the hypocrisy of the doctrine of
courtly love, which portrayed human sexuality
in spiritual terms.
The poet's frank language inspired artists of some
manuscripts to paint highly erotic images,
provoking horrified responses and sparking a controversy
that continued throughout much of the
period. Christine de Pisan, one of the leading poets of the
15th century and an adviser to the queen of
France, led one of the most spirited denunciations of the
Rose. Her critique of the poem as anti-feminist has been
echoed by some modern scholars.
"Rose scholarship has long focused on a few
manuscripts available in Paris," said Stephen
Nichols, James M. Beall Professor of French and Humanities at Johns
Hopkins and co-director of the
project. "The idea was to study the text of the work but
not the colorful and informative paintings
found on many manuscript pages.
"Access to a wide variety of manuscripts produced over
a period of 250 years will now allow
scholars to study the paintings and poetry together, as
well as revealing evolving styles of manuscript
painting and linguistic change," Nichols said. "Students
will experience the variations of the work as
medieval people would have known it. The Rose digital
library makes possible cross-disciplinary
scholarship by literary scholars, art historians,
philosophers, historians and anyone interested in the
history of medieval books."
The collaboration with the French national library
boosts the scale of the Rose project
exponentially, which is particularly gratifying for Thierry
Delcourt, director of the Department of
Manuscripts at Bibliotheque Nationale.
"This project is of special importance for the French
national library for it will supply, for the
first time, a comprehensive digital library of one of the
most important French medieval texts,"
Delcourt said. "Scholars will be able to study the textual
tradition and the iconography, and to
compare easily manuscripts from different countries and
various libraries. Thus, they will establish a
better text and improve the old editions.
"And the Rose Web site will also provide access to
these treasures to a wide audience,"
Delcourt said. "The French national library is very proud
to be chosen as the main partner of this
Since the inception of the Rose project a decade ago,
advances in cyber-infrastructure have
transformed research in science and engineering by enabling
the exploration of datasets housed in
multiple repositories. Sayeed Choudhury, associate dean of
the Sheridan Libraries' digital programs
and co-director of the project, said he sees the same
potential for the humanities.
"Designing an open source tool kit that would allow
scholars to interact with the contents of
multiple collections using a common set of software tools
would offer a model for transforming
humanities scholarship, similar to what the scientific
community has demonstrated," he said.
The preservation and dissemination techniques
developed for the Rose project will yield
strategies for digital versions that can be applied to a
broad range of cultural heritage artifacts, he
"Imagine the research potential of these digital
collections if multiple sets of software tools
can be created to access and explore them," Choudhury said.
"We are excited at the prospect of
contributing to innovations within the digital library
world that can revolutionize the way humanities
scholars in a number of fields conduct their research."
Grants from the Andrew W. Mellon, Samuel H. Kress and
Gladys Krieble Delmas foundations and
the Getty Trust have funded earlier phases of Project Rose
development. To visit the Rose site, go to