«Rape was a very prominent issue in several areas of medieval society – especially in the law, the church, literature and everyday life – and the ...»
An Oppressive Silence: The Evolution of
the Raped Woman in
Medieval France and England
By Zoë Eckman
Rape was a very prominent issue in several areas of medieval society – especially in the
law, the church, literature and everyday life – and the actions of men to define and
regulate rape impacted both the way women perceived themselves and the way the
feminine was viewed by society. The purpose of this paper is to give an overview of how
concepts of rape and sexual violence evolved, placing special emphasis on the twelfth to fourteenth centuries and primarily within the traditions France and England. It will explore the concept of "rape" as it relates to the relationship between men and women in several contexts. The particular contexts examined will be those from which we have the greatest number of sources: religion, literature, law, and society.
The lack of any real substantial work on perceptions of rape in the Middle Ages makes it very difficult to construct a single framework or evolution for the raped woman.
The conception of "rape" varied among the members of the Church, lawmakers, poets, kings, peasants, other women and even the raped victims themselves. While we can discern the opinions of the men involved in the process, the most elusive and crucial part of the dialogue is left out: the voice of the woman. Even if we go only by the sources we Eckman 2 have, the facts are still terribly misrepresentative of the actual frequency of rape due to the low figures caused by the majority of rape cases going unreported. 1 This paper will argue that the definitions of rape created and enforced by men gave rise to a masculine concept of rape that silenced the voice of the raped woman.
As defined by Roman law, the concept raptus has the literal meaning of "carrying off by force"2 and is applied to the abduction of a woman against the will of the person under whose authority she lived. Under its Roman definition, sexual intercourse was not a necessary element3 and the term was also used simply to describe the theft of property. 4 Raptus was not designated a public crime, but a private one between the abductor and the man who had legal power over the woman or property violently seized. 5 Constantine, when he became Roman emperor in the early fourth century, made raptus into a public crime, punishable by death.6 He also declared that women found conspiring with their abductors to stage their own abduction – as in the cases of women who wished to marry against their parents' wishes – were also subject to the death penalty. 7 When Justinian became the emperor in the middle of the sixth century, however, he abolished the previous laws concerning raptus, and strongly enforced both the death penaltyand the new penalty: confiscation of property. Justinian also specifically described raptus as a sexual crime against only unmarried women, widows, or nuns. 8 Thus, husbands, under Justinian Law, could not be rapists. Another aspect of the Roman law of raptus is that it was adverse to the marriage of the victim to their rapist and this wariness – not only because staged abductions were common – continues up to time of Gratian in the mid
The early Christian belief in the rejection of the body for a new asceticism is grounded in an "ideological subordination of women and misogynist construction of the feminine".10 Rape, in this new environment, follows the tradition of much older beliefs that rape functions as an extension of the customary victimization of women – simply a fact of life which is accepted by the male members of the Christian society and is not very troubling.11 Augustine himself states that the height of holiness is the rejection of the body, and thus, the rejection of the woman. 12 But then marriage becomes a necessary evil which has to be accepted in order to prevent more serious forms of sexual deviancy.
The marital state allows for the fulfillment of sexual desires within a regulated structure, for the good of peopling the planet. Without the approval of marriage, concubinage, prostitution and rape would have been the only ways to relieve sexual urges.
Under the teachings of the early church, the sexuality of wives and daughters becomes the possession and product of their husbands and fathers.13 Thomas Aquinas, in the mid-thirteenth century, explained the connection between rape and the male head-ofhousehold when he redefined rape to mean "the use of violence to deflower a virgin," and then explained, however, that the term raptus can also be performed on the father in cases where the daughter and her "rapist" conspire and plan abduction to attain approval for their marriage.14 Thus, rape is performed on the body of a woman, but it is the father who is hurt by this violence. The female figure is completely inferior. Indeed, in the eyes of the Christian church, the only way a woman could be saved from the inferiority of her inherent female nature would be by renouncing her sexuality and "becoming like a man (vir) through virginity".15 In hagiographical literature, the female saint is sanctified by
The idea that the female body is the source of human frailty and sinfulness continues to achieve a central position in ideas of rape and masculine application of force on the feminine. It is mentioned in several early penitentials that a man who has sex with a pretty woman is less guilty because her beauty has "compelled" him to feel overwhelming sexual attraction. If a man has sex with an ugly woman, then his lust is at fault, but a beautiful woman is something which cannot be resisted and most of the sin lies with her as she is too great a temptation. 17 Another male conception of the guilt of the female body is present in medieval law – derived from the Galenic physiological model – that a woman could not conceive a child unless she consented to intercourse. Not only did she have to consent but, because a woman was believed to conceive only by the releasing of female sperm through orgasm, she had to enjoy the intercourse.18 This "guilt" of the female body would, due to a raped woman's pregnancy, betray the fact she had enjoyed being raped, ending her right to accuse her rapist.19 Continuing in the vein of the great Christian teachers, it was the canon lawyers – "those who controlled the production of legal discourse" 20 – who shaped, for the most part, the conceptions of rape between 1140 and 1500. 21 Of course, these were all men.
The greatest of these men was Gratian, who, around 1140, revolutionized canon law regarding rape. He moved away from the Roman tradition of rape towards a more sexually-based meaning. He characterized rape as sexual corruption involving both the abduction of the woman, in addition to unlawful intercourse; likewise, rape could only
The most defining feature was that coitus was now necessary, and violent abduction for any purpose other than sex did not count as rape.23 Also, because pure and simple rape was not a crime in church law,24 abduction was also made an essential component.
The Christian "moralists continue[d] to view rape as an extreme variety of fornication, the inevitable end of lust that has no licit outlet". 25 For younger sons, clergymen and lusty knights, rape was the only way they could release their sexual energy. Rape was performed on the female body by the male, and these moralists rarely differed from the common constructs. Occasionally, they admitted, a female may rape a male or another female, but these circumstances were very rare. 26 This distinction caused a blurring of the line between forced and voluntary sex. In the twelfth century, in both legal and literary texts, the violent application of the masculine is construed as an expression of "conflicted love," the overwhelming passion that comes to characterize the romances.27 As stated before, the only way a female could escape the machinations of her "lord and master" was by imitating Christ, retaining her sexual purity, and resisting temptation.28 In the hagiographic tradition, the representation of female sinfulness in a sexual plot feminizes weakness and sexual transgression, as well as legitimizing the use of sexual violence as a test of the "saintly female". 29 The male clergymen, however, are in no way held to the same rigid standards, and it is these young clergy who are accused of the majority of the rapes30 and then let off very easily by the canons.31 Interestingly,
Chastity was viewed as the most important element of female honor. 33 By 1230, the rape of a virgin was considered a felony in the civil law courts and punishable by death or blinding.34 Also, if a man saved a woman from a rapist he was granted the choice to marry her, or to approve of her match to another – regardless of her choice in the matter.35 Because a daughter's virginity was her greatest treasure and a financial asset for her father in the business of marriage brokering, these fathers saw rape as the most heinous crime36 and did everything they could to protect their daughters. This inherent value in a virgin's purity probably accounts for the large amount of documents written up for nobles which all center around the practice of "heir and heiress snatching". 37 One imagines that a ransom for such a one-of-a-kind treasure must have made the rape of a virgin body (or, in this case, abduction with the threat of rape) very tempting.
Within marriage, however, the protection of the female body became virtually nonexistent. In Roman law, it was clearly stated that a wife could certainly be raped. 38 She did not change her physical status upon marriage, so she did not lose any of her legal right to protection against her husband. Quite opposite to this was the Christian view, in which the bonds of marriage that united the husband and wife delegitimized the female body. The body of the wife was no longer her own possession as she had given full rights to both her sexuality and her physical form to her husband during the marriage ceremony.
The abduction of a fiancée was likewise not classified as rape.
It is clear by now, that the evolving representations of rape have reified the male power structures in place in other aspects of society. 40 There is nothing, however, which
poet, alone had 50 examples of rape, attempted rape, or sexual coercion which was close to rape in his Amores.41 Georges Duby, connecting a male-created literature with the male-political system, called courtly love a "masculine game of power, property and violence".42 It is true that the "courtly" medieval literary society to which he was referring viewed sexual aggression as an expression of the natural animal forces of the universe – beneath the notion of amor, it was simply an extreme form of intense sexual desire carried through to its natural end. 43 The man is powerful and wants to possess the subservient female, so why should he not?
Andreas Capellanus gives a startling description of what one should do if this
feeling of amor strikes where a peasant is the object:
"If you should, by some chance, fall in love with some [peasant] women, be careful to puff them up with lots of praise and then, when you find a convenient place, do not hesitate to take what you seek and to embrace them by force. For you can hardly soften their outward inflexibility so far that they will grant you their embraces quietly or permit you to have the solaces you desire unless first you use a little compulsion as a convenient cure for their shyness".44 It is not clear how serious he was being, but as Gravdel points out in relation to the equally comic pastourelle form, these types of literary representations of rape give rape an acceptance, institutionalization, and humor which once again ignores the pain and suffering of the female subject.
The greatest harm done the female body by the masculine authorship of these forms is their insistence that the female desires to be ravished. 45 The masculine authors, like the sculptors of rape scenes where "the springtime landscape, dainty gestures,
thus silenced female voices and portrayed rape as something which did not harm women, and actually put forward the notion that women did not mean what they say.
The literary tropes built around rape all function for a male audience, and in a masculine context. Often in the romances, the wife of a noble man is carried off (sometimes even a queen) and the abduction of her body then acts as a display of power within noble spheres as if she were merely the flag in a game of "capture the flag." 47 Hanawalt and Gravdal both suggest that romances also serve an erotic function, where the male listeners (and writers) can enjoy the sexual domination and violent oppression of the female vicariously through the hero. 48 The literary traditions of the twelfth through fourteenth centuries brought about a return to legitimization of male force in socially approved relations between men and women.49 For example, in tales of courtly love the "theme was violent sudden 'love,' which, like a flame, once kindled was irresistible. It heated the blood, inciting a man to attain at no matter what cost [sexual consummation]". 50 Virility was an extremely important aspect of masculinity – another factor which suggests the prominence of group rapes by primarily young men.51 The belief that women enjoyed being raped has a long literary tradition dating back to the early hagiographic writer Wace, who said the "experience of rape is stuporous and trancelike: a woman suffers no pain from sexual assault". 52 As early as the thirteenth century, in France the conflation of rape and ravishment, and the literal meaning of sexual violence was being erased behind a romantic troping of ravishment. A "romantic" verse states the believed effects of rape on a woman pretty clearly: "Never would a woman
someone takes her against her will, regardless of how it comes about. A maiden suddenly ravished has great joy, no matter what she says". 53 Here it is stated that a woman will say something against being raped, but encourages the rapist to ignore what she says as she doesn’t mean it; the victim's voice is yet again taken away from her.
Christine de Pisan, one of the only women to write contemporarily about rape, responded in the early fifteenth century to this silencing masculine monologue with her
own resonant voice: