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Medieval Bawdy Poem Resurfaces

Similar to the recently found fragments of a sexually explicit poem that was being used as binding material, another fragment was also recently found in a manuscript binding, this time from the most popular sexual poem of the medieval period.

Used to bind a medieval manuscript, University of Bristol’s Marianne Ailes found at the archives at the Dioceses of Worcester in England fragments from The Romance of the Rose, a popular 700-year-old poem that describes an erotic interlude between a courtier and his “rosebud.”

Although each copy of the 22,000-line poem is slightly different, the poem was originally written by Guillaume de Lorris in the late 1230s, and Jean de Meun, who completed it almost 40 years later, as a way to teach the art of courtly love.

This style of poetry was popular in medieval France and was so much in demand that it was considered the blockbuster of its day. Dante Alighieri (Divine Comedy) translated it into Italian in the 1300s and 100 years after it was initially written, Geoffrey Chaucer (Canterbury Tales) completed a partial translation in English.

At one point in the story, the poem is written like an allegorical dream wherein a prurient pilgrim attempts to possess the rose over which he is obsessed. The lover is described as a religious pilgrim who presents himself before a reliquary wearing a scrip (pilgrim's bag) and carrying a “stiff and strong” staff that was made for "sticking into ditches." Kneeling before the relic, he then describes himself as, "full of agility and vigor.” Finally, between the "two fair pillars," he is “consumed with a desire to worship."

Ailes postulates that it's likely that someone offended by the poem might have torn certain pages out of the book and used it instead to bind a manuscript that was less controversial.

Christine dePizan

In fact, the poem was in such disfavor by women that in the 1400s, author Christine dePizan set her concerns to paper when she complained to clerics that it justified rape and did not portray women in a dignified way, a series of letters and documents that later became known as the La Querelle de la Rose (Quarrel over the Rose).

It's also worth noting that even as recent as 1900, a translator was so disturbed by the Romance of the Rose's explicit allusions to sex that he refused to translate the most bawdy parts of the poem into English, instead leaving it in its original French for readers to translate on their own.

To learn more about the Romance of the Rose, watch this video.


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