800 years of rape culture

Yates Thompson manuscripts - The British Library

From The Taymouth Hours (Yates Thompson MS 13, folio 62r), 14th century. Courtesy the British Library

Rape in the Middle Ages was seen as a routine part of women’s lives, even as it was condemned. How far have we really come?

Carissa Harris is associate professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Obscene Pedagogies: Transgressive Talk and Sexual Education in Late Medieval Britain (2018).

Edited by Pam Weintraub

One of the most memorable lies about medieval rape appears early in Mel Gibson’s blockbuster film Braveheart (1995). As he ponders how to entice his English noblemen to live in Scotland, King Edward I declares that it’s time to reinstitute an old custom called prima nocte, or first night. He explains: ‘When any common girl inhabiting their lands is married, our nobles shall have sexual rights to her on the night of her wedding.’ (Just to be clear: this ‘old custom’ is fabricated to embellish a compelling narrative of Scottish suffering under English oppression.)

In the next scene, a large group of armed Englishmen interrupts a festive Scottish peasant wedding celebration. While their comrades restrain the struggling bridegroom with a dagger to his throat, two soldiers seize the bride by her arms. She looks back powerlessly at her new husband from the back of the English lord’s horse as it rides away.

Media portrayals of the Middle Ages often depict rape as a routine, legally sanctioned part of life for women, especially servants and peasants. They sensationalise medieval life and imply that things are so much better now by comparison, enabling us to bask in an unearned sense of progress. This fits with other popular ideas about that time period – that life back then was short and violent, marked by gaping disparities between nobles and commoners, and that women had no power whatsoever.

But did medieval rape culture in Europe really look like the Braveheart scene? And how much has actually changed between the Middle Ages and our own #MeToo era? The answers are surprising, and require a bit of unpacking to understand.

In England and Scotland between 1200 and 1600, rape – defined legally as a man having sex with a woman against her will and ‘by force’ – was considered a criminal offence, and there were laws in place to deal with rapists. Women themselves could press rape charges without the help of a father, brother or husband, in contrast to stereotypes of medieval women as helpless damsels in distress, dependent on men to come to their aid. Women could bear witness in court regarding their violation and try to seek justice and reparation. We can still hear their voices today in the form of survivor testimonies from medieval court records. These testimonies are often short on detail and laced with legal jargon, but we can nonetheless read them in the vein of present-day survivor narratives. While short and broad, the medieval documents nonetheless conjure contemporary traumas, such as the gut-wrenching account of Chanel Miller, found unconscious and half-naked behind a dumpster at Stanford University in 2015 after being sexually assaulted by Brock Allen Turner, then a student and swim team champ. Her missive, which went viral, expresses outrage that Turner, who faced 14 years in prison for felony sexual assault, in fact received just a paltry sentence of six months in 2016.

Had that much changed in 800 years?

One case from Glasgow shows how survivor testimonies from the distant past can challenge our contemporary assumptions about medieval women, rape and power. A servant named Isobel Burne claimed that one John Anderson had tried to rape her by accosting her while she was at work. He threw her down on her back and hit her on the head with a clod of earth before ‘speaking sundry abominable words, not worthy of rehearsal’. Anderson confessed that Burne was telling the truth about her experience. As punishment, he was banished from the town ‘for the great offence to God and the slander to Isobel’. Even though Burne was a servant and a woman, the court sided with her rather than her more powerful assailant.

In another case, William de Hadestock and his wife Joan claimed in civil court that James de Montibus had broken into their home in London on a summer evening in 1269 with a group of armed men. One witness corroborated her account and testified that ‘after [James] had entered the house, he closed the door and tore [Joan’s] dress down to the navel, threw her to the ground and raped her, breaking her finger’. The court imprisoned Montibus until he could pay a hefty settlement of £5 to the couple. The rape, which actually occurred before Joan’s marriage to William, didn’t destroy her marital prospects. Instead, her new husband stood by her side in court as she sought justice and fought successfully for monetary compensation…



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