Does This Explicit Medieval Poem Hold Dark Undertones?
Fragments from a popular sexually explicit medieval French book have been discovered describing what journalists are calling a “hot-encounter" and “X-rated language”, but is this text a much more sinister attack at femininity?
Fragments from the 700-year-old poem were discovered built into a book binding which held together a 22,000 lines long manuscript completed by two authors. The poem tells of a sexual encounter between a “lover” and his “rose” and while media outlets are calling the fragments a medieval “50 Shades of Grey”, like in this Daily Mail report, older female writers accused this poem of horrors, such as endorsing rape.
But to get to these lowly historical places, we must first understand a little about the context in which this legendary piece of writing was crafted.
Fragments of a medieval poem have been rediscovered after more than 700 years. The pages, completed around 1280, were found being used as book binding for another document. (Diocese of Worcester)
A Song For The Lovers
Essentially, this controversial text is styled as an allegorical dream vision about love where a young man attempts to possess the “rosebud” with which he has become obsessed. The poem was extremely popular in medieval France and according to this Glasgow University article, the poem is thought to have influenced master poets such as Chaucer, Gower, Dante, and Petrarch.
The text was found in another book binding discovered in the archives of the Diocese of Worcester in England which had been completed around 1280 AD and the risqué bit was the conclusion to a French poem entitled “Le Roman de la Rose”, or “ The Romance of the Rose” detailing a sexual encounter which Marianne Ailes, a medievalist at the University of Bristol in the UK who rediscovered the new fragments of the manuscript, said was the “blockbuster of its day.”
With A Stiff Staff And Pouch In Hand
The poem recounts the story of a lover (male) chasing a rose (female) and when the lover presented himself before a reliquary he “held a staff and scrip”. The latter is a pilgrim's bag and where his staff is described as being “stiff and strong” the writer leaves little to the imagination. Kneeling before “the relic” the lover was full of agility and vigor and between the “two fair pillars” he was consumed with desire.
The poem speaks of a man (the lover) seeking the favor of a woman (the rose) with rod in hand. (University of Glasgow)
Dr. Ailes confirmed that the poem was started in the early 13th century by two authors who worked together to finish the piece by 1280 and from the number of surviving manuscripts and fragments of the poem it is known the piece was exceptionally popular. To have found it being used to bind another book comes as no surprise as parchment was expensive and very durable, so it perfectly suited recycling and reapplication.
Writers Sometimes Leave Big Plot Gaps, Deliberately
The first clue Dr. Ailes found that turned the key in this discovery was when she recognized the name “bel accueil” which means ‘fair welcome’ and features in Le Roman de la Rose. The professor said that she realized that this was “something very special and unique” but what really captured her attention was how early the handwriting looked.
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The new pages of the medieval poem show an X-rated side to the love affair. (Diocese of Worcester)
Because of its explicit nature The Roman de la Rose sparked a late medieval row about the status of women in society and Dr. Ailes suggests specific pages might have been taken out of their original bindings and recycled by someone who was “offended” by these scenes. Returning to the Glasgow University article, much of the appeal of the Roman de La Rose is said to lie in its allegorical meaning in that both poets promise to explain the meaning of the dream, but fail to do so, leaving it wide open to interpretation.
Within the clever and deeply stirring prose many scholars see hidden religious verses while others see it as secular. However, perhaps most relevant to today, when we are witnessing such a rapid rebalancing of sexual archetypes within society and increasing equality, the fifteenth century writer Christine de Pizan initiated the Querelle de la Rose attacking the poem for not only defaming women, but according to Noah D. Guynn’s University of Chicago paper entitled Authorship and Sexual/Allegorical Violence in Roman de la rose, also for “justifying seduction and rape”.
An illustration from ‘Roman de La Rose’, the French medieval poem, depicting a fountain and a stream pouring outwards from the center of the garden. (Jamesacoxon / Public Domain)
While the Rose is ‘not’ raped in the definition of the word today, perhaps the allegorical assault raises the question of what exactly rape is, and this poem suggests it is closely linked with seduction. Let’s hope the defining lines between rape and seduction are a little less muddy today, or every dude that ever spun a line on Tinder had better watch out!
Top image: Provocative scenes from the medieval poem, ‘Roman de La Rose’, have been discovered. Source: Dmitry Pichugin / Adobe Stock.
By Ashley Cowie