Sexual Violence in the Early Medieval West
By Przemysław Tyszka
Acta Poloniae Historica, No.104 (2011)
Introduction: The concept of ‘sexual violence’ present within the relevant literature, academic discourse, institutionalised language and colloquial speech is a contemporary construction brought about under the influence of current social and cultural phenomena. Here of key importance is the idea of human rights, in particular those of women and children. The contemporary understanding of the acts and events lurking behind such a concept should not consequently be treated as universal, transhistorical or even as ahistorical. The phenomenon of sexual violence is a historical phenomenon and as such one undergoing changes. Acts of sexual violence, perceived as transgression against sexual norms in force in a given society – criminal acts, bad deeds, sins – obviously existed equally in the early Middle Ages. However, the people of the time did not treat these acts as directed against a conceptionally isolated ‘sexuality’ but against bodily inviolability and the virtue of the individual. We should consequently characterise sexual violence in its early medieval form taking into consideration the specifics of this epoch, and in particular the then current principles and concepts of social order as well as the patterns of men’s and women’s behaviour. This postulate applies to research into any epoch and historical society.
The question as to the scope of the phenomenon under discussion is not only theoretical and methodological in character; it also has an exact practical dimension. We come across many varied acts and ways of behaviour within early medieval sources which involved (to a greater or lesser degree) the use of violence and that were linked to the sexual sphere. A researcher must therefore undertake a decision every time as to whether the given event or form of behaviour was or was not a manifestation of sexual violence.
The most general question relating to the definition and at the same time the scope of this phenomenon in the past, may be formulated thus: what is the relation between violence and sexuality? And also more precisely: how should one understand the concept of sexuality (the sexual sphere) within the context of violence? Consequently, there appear several important issues both general and specific in character. Firstly: what kind of acts do we consider as sexual violence in relation to the early Middle Ages? And in particular: does the phenomenon come down to a forced sexual act (in the broadest sense of the word, i.e. in a situation whereby somebody against the will of another person achieves sexual satisfaction)? Does it equally involve actions which are conducted against the will of another person and which require the use of violence to a greater or lesser degree but which do not result in a sexual act, such as the beating or murder of a rape victim with the aim of intimidating him/her or covering up the identity of the perpetrator? Is sexual violence equivocal to the use of physical violence or just bodily contact? Does the concept imply, as if in principle, the arising of bodily harm or may it also represent first and foremost moral damage?