An Oppressive Silence: The Evolution of the Raped Woman in Medieval France and England
By Zoë Eckman
Published on Medievalists.net (2011)
Introduction: 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 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. 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.