In a find that has medieval scholars slightly hot under the collar, a poem believed to have been written in the 15th century was just discovered to have been composed at least 200 years earlier. Detailing a woman’s conversation with her vulva, it represents a shift in how and when sexuality was expressed in the art of the Middle Ages.
Christine Glassner of the Institute for Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences found the poem while combing through texts at the Melk Abbey library in Austria. Initially, she was unable to identify the thin parchment (roughly half an inch wide and less than 9 inches long) that had been reused to bind text—parchment was often recycled this way—and represented only a fraction of the work. With the help of colleagues, she was able to recognize it as the "Rosendorn" (the “Rose Thorn”), a poem previously believed to have origins in the 15th century.
It tells the story of a virgin who communicates directly with her vulva and debates which of the two is more appreciated by men. The woman believes her overall beauty is what draws interest; the vulva posits that only a portion of her body is what attracts men. The two sentient beings decide to part ways before realizing they’re best suited as a pair.
Such risqué writing was not thought to have surfaced in the German-speaking world until the end of the Middle Ages. But Glassner’s discovery dates to 1300 CE, moving up the expression of sexuality by as much as 200 years. Glassner called the text “incredibly clever” and a wry commentary on how a person cannot be separated from their sex.
With the discovery, scholars will seek to recontextualize how sexuality was expressed during a period when it was believed to have been largely kept private. The fragment is now on display at Melk Abbey.