Rhetorical Descriptions of Beautiful People

from Poetria Nova, Romance of the Rose, and Guy of Warwick

Geoffrey of Vinsauf's directions for describing a beautiful woman (from his Poetria Nova, tr. Ernest Gallo, The Poetria Nova and its Sources in Early Rhetorical Doctrine, The Hague, 1971, pp.45-46.)

If you wish to describe womanly beauty:

Let Nature's compass draw the outline of the head; let the color of gold gleam in the hair; let lilies grow on the lofty forehead. Let the eyebrows equal black whortleberries in appearance; let a milky way intersect the twin eyebrows; let restraint rule the shape of the nose, lest it fall short of, or exceed, the proper bounds. Let the sentinels of the forehead gleam from both sides, twin little eyes with emerald lights, like a constellation. Let the face be like the dawn, neither rosy nor white, but of both and neither color at the same time. Let the diminutive mouth shine forth like a half circle; let the swelling lips be moderately full, and red, fired with a mild flame. Let order join together the snowwhite, even teeth. Let the savory odor of the mouth be like frankincense; let Nature, more powerful than art, polish the chin smoother than marble. Let the milky supporting column of the head, of exquisite color, raise the mirror of the face on high; from the crystalline throat let there proceed a certain spendor which can strike the eyes of the beholder and steal the heart. By a certain law let the shoulders be similar, neither sloping nor rising but resting in a straight line. Let the upper arms, as long as they are slender, be enchanting. Let the fingers be soft and slim in substance, smooth and milkwhite in appearance, long and straight in shape: in them let the beauty of the hand shine forth. Let the snowy bosom present both breasts like virginal gems set side by side. Let the waist be slim, a mere handful. I will not mention the parts beneath: here the imagination speaks better than the tongue. But let the leg show itself graceful; let the remarkably dainty foot wanton with its own daintiness.

And thus let beauty descend from the top of the head to the very feet, and let all be adorned alike to the smallest detail.

If you wish to add the apparel to the form already depicted:

Let the golden hair be bound at the back. Let a circlet of gold enhance the whiteness of the forehead; let the face appear adorned in its natural color. Let a star-bearing necklace encircle the milk-white neck. Let the border of the tunic gleam with linen, and the wool cloak burn with gold. The girdle conceals the waist, with gems shining all around. Let the arms be rich with bracelets, and gold encircle the slim fingers; and let a jewel finer than gold send forth its beams. In these fair garments, art strives with matter. Neither hand nor mind can add to this array. But the face will be of more value than this rich clothing. Who does not know the fire of this brand? Who does not find a flame there? If Jupiter had seen it in days gone by, he would not have wantoned with Alcmena in the guise of Amphitrion, nor assumed the features of Diana in order to deflower you, Callisto; nor would he have deceived Io by a cloud, nor Antiopa by a satyr, nor the daughter of Asopus by a flame, nor you, Deiois, by a snake, nor Leda by a swan, Dana by a shower of gold. This woman alone would he cherish, and see all the others in her.

The description of Idleness, the porteress of the entryway into the Garden of Love in the Romance of the Rose clearly owes something to the tradition of the Poetria Nova:

A mayden curteys openyde me.
Hir heer was as yelowe of hewe
As ony basyn scoured newe,
Hir flesh tendre as is a chike,
With bente browis smothe and slyke.
And by mesure large were
The openyng of hir yen clere,
Hir nose of good proporcioun,
Hir yen grey as is a faucoun,
With swete breth and wel savoured,
Hir face whit and wel coloured,
With litel mouth and round to see.
A clove chynne eke hadde she.
Hir nekke was of good fasoun
In lengthe and gretnesse, by resoun,
Withoute bleyne, scabbe, or royne;
Fro Jerusalem unto Burgoyne
Ther nys a fairer nekke, iwys,
To fele how smothe and softe it is.
Hir throte, also whit of hewe
As snowe on braunche snowed newe.
Of body ful wel wrought was she;
Men neded not in no cuntre
A fairer body for to seke.
And of fyn orfrays hadde she eke
A chapelet so semly oon
Ne werede never mayde upon
And faire above that chapelet
A rose gerland had she sett.
She hadde [in honde] a gay mirrour,
And with a riche gold tressour
Hir heed was tressed queyntely,
Hir sleves sewid fetisly,
And for to kepe hir hondis faire
Of gloves white she had a paire.
And she hadde on a cote of grene
Of cloth of Gaunt. Withouten wene,
Wel semyde by hir apparayle
She was not wont to gret travayle,
For whan she kempt was fetisly,
And wel arayed and richely,
Thanne had she don al hir journe,
For merye and wel bigoon was she.
She ladde a lusty lyf in May:
She hadde no thought, by nyght ne day,
Of nothyng, but if it were oonly
To graythe hir wel and uncouthly. (Rom A 538-84)

The latter part of the discription of Idleness concentrates on her characteristics and personal quatlities (as most rhetoricians advised). Especially in vernacular works, this was often much expanded (as in the following example).

The Middle English romance, Guy of Warwick (in the Auchinleck Version), shows the use of the descripio in a relatively unsophisticated context. This is a description of Felice, the king's daugfhter and future wife of Guy:

A doughter he had of hys wive
Hyr grete beaute y can not dyscrive
For the fairest men chesen hir y-wys.

That y you telle, sothe it is.
Of hir beaute yet a litell wighte:
With a faire visage lovely in sighte,
Hir skynne was white of brighte coloure;
Bodied wele and of grete valour;
Large tresses, and wele bee-comyng,
Browes bente and nose well sittyng;
The mouthe so wele sittyng ywys,
To kisse it ofte it was grete blys;
With grey eyen and nekke white,
Hir to see it was grete delite.
Hir bodye well sette and shaply;
By thoo daies ther was noon suche truely.
Gentil she was and as demure
As girfauk, or fawkon to lure,
That oute of muwe were drawe;
So faire was noon, in sothe sawe.
She was therto curteys and free ywys,

And in the .vii. artes well lerned, withoute mys.
All the .vii. artis she kouthe well,
Noon better that evere man herde tell.
Hir maisters were thider come
Oute of Tholouse all and some;
White and hoore all they were,
Bisy they were that mayden to lere;
And they hir lerned of astronomye,
Of Ars-metrik, and of geometrye.
Of Sophestrie she was also witty,
Of Rethoric, and of other clergye;
Lerned she was in musyke;
Of clergie was hir noon like.
She was a woman of grete corage,
Wise and faire and of gaye parage. (lines 59-94)

The description of the Duchess in The Book of the Duchess owes something to this tradition, as does the brief description of Criseyde, but by the time Chaucer wrote his later works he apparently considered the head-to-toe descriptio rather old fashioned; he uses it most fully (along with a good deal of old-fashioned "poetic" diction) in his description of the lower-class Alisoun in The Miller's Tale.

Handsome men were described in much the same way as beautiful women; here is the description of Sir Mirth, from the Romance of the Rose (it comes just after the description of Idleness, quoted above, and begins a series of portraits (presented in terms not unlike those in the General prologue):

Thanne gan I loken ofte sithe
The shap, the bodies, and the cheres,
The countenaunce and the maneres
Of all the folk that daunced there, 
I shall tell what they were. (lines 812-16).

Mirth is the first to be described:

Ful fair was Myrthe, ful long and high;
A fairer man I nevere sigh.
As round as appil was his face,
Ful rody and whit in every place.
Fetys he was and wel beseye,
With metely mouth and yen greye;
His nose by mesure wrought ful right;
Crisp was his heer, and eek ful bright;
His shuldris of a large brede,
And smalish in the girdilstede.
He semed lyk a portreiture,
So noble he was of his stature,
So fair, so joly, and so fetys,
With lymes wrought at poynt devys,
Delyver, smert, and of gret myght;
Ne sawe thou nevere man so lyght.
Of berd unnethe hadde he nothyng,
For it was in the firste spryng.
Ful yong he was, and mery of thought,
And in samet, with briddis wrought,
And with gold beten ful fetysly,
His body was clad ful richely.
Wrought was his robe in straunge gise,
And al toslytered for queyntise
In many a place, lowe and hie.
And shod he was with gret maistrie,
With shoon decoped, and with laas.
By druery and by solas
His leef a rosyn chapelet
Hadde mad, and on his heed it set.

There is at least a general resemblance between the description of Sir Mirth and that of the Squire in the General Prologue.