700 years before The Vagina Monologues came The Rose Thorn, a groundbreaking poem chronicling one woman’s witty woman’s conversation with her vulva
It’s been over two decades since the groundbreaking play The Vagina Monologues debuted on an Off-Broadway run at Westside Theatre, exploring consensual and nonconsensual sex, body image, genital mutilation, reproduction and all aspects of sexual life through the eyes of women of various ages, races and sexualities. The work smashed taboos, sparked frank conversations, and celebrated the female anatomy and femininity in a way never seen before. So successful was the play, in fact, that it ran for more than 10 years in more than 140 countries, and was heralded “the most important piece of political theatre of the last decade.”
Long before The Vagina Monologues came into being, however, there was plenty of exploration into the complexities of female sexuality in the literary canon. As far back as around 1300, in fact, thanks to an exciting discovery of a fragment of the original “vagina monologue” text from the Middle Ages.
In one of the most remarkable discoveries of recent times, medieval experts from the Institute of Medieval Research at Austria’s Academy of Sciences have unearthed a fragment from ‘Der Rosendorn’ (The Rose Thorn) on a thin strip of parchment in the library archive of the baroque Melk Abbey on the banks of the Danube in Austria’s Wachau Valley.
Measuring 22cm by 1.5cm, the fragment was discovered wrapped around a theological Latin text at the abbey as a way of recycling parchment, which was a common practice at the time. It was identified as part of ‘Der Rosendorn’ by Nathanael Busch of Siegen University in Germany, who worked alongside academics from Austria’s Academy of Sciences (OAW) and the universities of Mainz and Marburg to decipher the few words visible.
The precious fragment reveals 60 lines of new text and offers a fresh insight into the famous poem, which chronicles a virgin woman’s conversation with her vulva. But the discovery is all the more extraordinary given experts believe the poem was penned in 1300, two centuries earlier than The Rose Thorn had previously been dated.
The poem, which takes the form of a witty, free-flowing dialogue, tells of a virgin woman (junkfrouwe) and her speaking vulva (fyd) who engage in a lively debate over which would give a man more pleasure. While the woman argues that is it her looks which win men over, her vulva accuses her of putting too much importance on her looks. After briefly parting company, the two decide that they are better together, because a person and their sex are inseparable.
While the author of the poem is unknown, Dr Christine Glassner, of the Institute of Medieval Research at OAW, told Austrian media that the text “at its core is an incredibly clever story, because of the very fact that it demonstrates that you cannot separate a person from their sex”.
As far as archaeological discoveries go, the find can now be considered the earliest form of The Vagina Monologues. But the parchment fragment also provides valuable confirmation that one of the most enduring narratives throughout history was the study of female sexuality. And with this information, we can adjust our perceptions of the past. We might like to believe that women in the Middle Ages were were meek, submissive, and permanently drifting around in long robes with pendant sleeves, but as The Rose Thorn proves, women are, and have always been, playful, assertive, and in complete control of their sexual destiny.