Scholars from the Institute for Medieval Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) have discovered a fragment from a German medieval poem about the adventures of a virgin and her anthropomorphised vagina that is almost 200 years older than any other known version of this eroto-satirical epic. Christine Glaßner discovered the fragment in the binding of a codex held in the library of Melk Abbey, an imposing baroque structure overlooking the Danube in Austria’s Wachau Valley. It was nestled between pages 204 and 205 of the codex.
The strip is long and skinny, 22cm by 1.5cm (8.7″x .6″), with just a few letters from 60 verses of the poem. It was reused for its parchment in the binding of a Latin text. She recognized it as something of particular interest and Nathanael Busch from the University of Siegen identified it as a fragment from Der Rosendorn (The Rose Thorn).
The so-called “Rosendorn” (The Rose Thorn) tells of a virgin woman disagreeing with her talking vulva about which of them is most appreciated by men. Until now, it had been assumed that such openness regarding sexuality in the German-speaking world did not appear until the end of the Middle Ages, for example in the urban culture of the 15th century. The find from Melk, on the other hand, was written around 1300 and thus revises the previous research. It seems that 200 years earlier than previously thought, erotic poetry was written, recited and perhaps even staged. Apparently, such poems were rarely written down and have even more rarely survived to the present day.
Previously known from two extant copies, in the Dresden Codex and the Karlsruhe Codex, dating to the 16th century, Der Rosendorn was written by an unknown German-language author. It tells the saucy tale of a virgin and her vulva arguing over which of them is most appealing to men. The virgin argues her beauty is the draw. Her vulva argues that beauty doesn’t matter because she’s the one who provides all the pleasure. They decide to break up and prove once and for all which one of them is right. The vulva splits off by ingesting a “manic root” (symbolizing penetrative masturbation) and goes on her way. The separation is a disaster. The vulva is uncaringly used by every man she encounters; the virgin offers herself to a mob of men who trample her in their rush. In the end, they decide to become one once more. The narrator, a man who spied upon them from the beginning, is the one who reattaches them and he does so in the most obvious way you can imagine: he, uh, fornicates the vulva back into the woman.
The motif of a sentient vulva taking corporeal form independent of the woman she was once part of is seen in French and German medieval literature, a satirical counterpoint to the courtly romances of the period. The rose in the title is a symbol of female sexuality, and the initial setting of the poem — a walled garden where a virgin extracts rosewater from a rose bush and bathes in it — mirrors that of the 13th century masterpiece of courtly love literature, Le Roman de la Rose.
In March of this year, the fragment was carefully removed from the codex binding and is now preserved on its own in the fragment collection of the Melk Abbey Library. It is being studied now as part of the “Manuscript Census” of the Academy of Sciences and Literature Mainz at the Philipps University of Marburg.