"Le Roman de la Rose" (The Romance of the Rose) was started in 1230 and completed around 1280. It is a medieval French poem styled as an allegorical dream vision and some parts that were later removed are quite steamy.

Its 22,000 lines describe the attempts of a courtier to woo his beloved. It was a medieval blockbuster, at least among the wealthy who could afford books, and a century later Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, adopted and translated it for a new audience.

Now the oldest surviving pages, used as a folder or binding for other documents, have been revealed. Parchment was durable but expensive so it was common for it to be reused. 

Credit: The Bishop of Worcester

The specific pages found are the conclusion of the story which describe a sexual encounter between the two main characters, the lover and the rose, including some lines from the end of the poem missing from the manuscript used for the standard modern edition by French publishing house, Livre de poche.

An early translation by the Victorian medievalist FS Ellis in 1900 refused to translate this section of the text but included it in Old French as an appendix noting that he ‘believes that those who will read them will allow that he is justified in leaving them in the obscurity of the original’.

At this point of the story, the lover is presenting himself a pilgrim before a reliquary, equipped with his ‘staff’ and ‘scrip’ - a pilgrim's pouch or bag; the staff is described as ‘stiff and strong’. He talks of his past uses of his equipment, of ‘sticking it into those ditches’ and kneeling before the relic ‘full of agility and vigour, between the two fair pillars...consumed with desire to worship’.

Professor Marianne Ailes of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Medieval Studies and Department of French said in a statement, “The Roman de la Rose was at the centre of a late medieval row between intellectuals about the status of women, so we have the possibility that these specific pages were taken out of their original bindings and recycled by someone who was offended by these scenes.”