Several lines of Der Rosendorn on the Melk fragment.
Image: Austrian Academy of Sciences

The surprising discovery of a fragment inscribed with an old German poem, in which a female virgin argues with her genitals about who is more desirable to men, pushes the origin of the poem back 200 years, changing our conceptions of sexuality in the Middle Ages.

The saucy old poem is called Der Rosendorn, or The Rose Thorn, and only two copies of the text were known to exist prior to this discovery. Christine Glassner from the Institute for Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) made the find while leafing through manuscripts at the library in Austria’s Melk Abbey, according to a press release.

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Glassner didn’t think much of the tattered old fragment at first, and for good reason. As noted in the Guardian, the thin piece of parchment measured 22 centimeters long and just 1.5 centimeters wide (8.7 inches by 0.6 inches), and its 60 lines were grossly incomplete, having only a few letters per line after being cut from a larger, presumably complete document. On its own, the fragment was deemed unremarkable, as long strips of parchment were often used during the Medieval Era to bind texts.

Upon closer examination of the fragment, however, it soon became obvious to Glassner and her colleagues that they were dealing with a poem of historical significance. With the help of Nathanael Busch of Germany’s Siegen University and other collaborators, Glassner was able to identify the text as belonging to Der Rosendorn, making it only the third known copy of the poem, the others being the Dresden Codex and the Karlsruhe Codex.

Perhaps more significantly, the newly discovered poem was dated to around 1300 CE, which is 200 years older than the previous versions. This means the erotic poem was written earlier during the Medieval Era than previously thought, offering new insights into the social and cultural norms involving sex during this time period in Europe.

The poem itself involves a virgin female (“junkfrouwe”) who is having a debate with her apparently opinionated vulva (“fud”) about which of the two is more attractive to men. In the press release, Glassner said the poem was “incredibly clever,” showing that “a person cannot be separated from their sex.” A post from the History Blog describes Der Rosendorn in detail:

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.

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The poem shows a surprising degree of sexual openness. Scholars of the Medieval Era figured this sort of erotic content didn’t appear in German language texts or in the oral tradition until the end of the Middle Ages, typically in cities around the 15th century, according to The History Blog.

The author of this German language poem is unknown, as is their gender. No evidence exists to suggest the document was deliberately destroyed on account of the poem’s lurid content, according to the press release.

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Now, take a moment to imagine this erotic poetry recited or even acted out by Medieval troupers.