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Rape in Laws and Literature of Medieval England Essay

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Updated: Jan 17th, 2022

Medieval Europe is known for having severe punishments for some crimes. Laws of that time allowed a sentence of felons to various procedures including torture and death. England was one of the countries, which had these practices. Although according to documents and literature, rape has been widespread, various cases of trials show that death penalties were rare, and it was hard for victims to prove the act had taken place. Despite the seriousness of the crime, “convictions were rare, and lawmakers did not consider the raped woman to be the only victim of the crime” (Dunn, p. 52). It must be said, that men were not the only ones who could be convicted of abduction. Women were just as responsible. British literature has evidence of women often trying to seduce men, which has been a common logic of that time.

One of the stories, where a woman is depicted as the one responsible for seduction, is told in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The lord’s wife tries to start a relationship with Sir Gawain while her husband is away. She threatens Gawain to keep him by force, saying “Ȝe schal not rise of your bedde, I rych yow better” (Tolkien, p. 34). Since Gawain is a knight, he does not agree and stays faithful to his vows. This situation shares a traditional belief of that time, which states that women are untrue to their husbands. The case with wives committing adultery has been serious in people’s minds for it has been destroying the model of the patriarchal society. It has mainly been reasoned by chances of men raising another’s children. Even when a court was hearing a case of a female rape victim, the male jury often took into consideration the possible acts a woman had done to seduce a rapist. This way, victim-blaming has been a common practice.

The evidence of the death penalty for rapists can be found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The plot builds around a knight who was accused of rape. The case was clear and “This knight was all but numbered with the dead / By course of law, and should have lost his head” (Chaucer, p. 126). However, the Queen decided to spare his life if the knight would succeed in solving her question. This poem shows that there existed various ways of sentencing rapists. In this case, the decision was made based on the judge’s preferences. The poem also argues the female role in relationships. Thus, the answer to the question of what all women with the most are female sovereignty over their partners. The prologue to the poem has a description of the Wife’s five husbands, which presents interest by proving that women were not as obedient as men wanted them to be.

The British Medieval literature gives just a small insight into the case. More information can be found in the law documents of the time, even though the number of sexual violence cases made “less than one percent of all indictments” (Pallotti, p. 211). The penalty for rape and abduction depended highly on the accordance raised by the felon and the victim. Sometimes the court’s verdict made a rapist pay a fine to a victim’s side. The important issue is the fact that a fine was to be paid to the victim’s husband or father as he was in charge of a household. The reason for it is that in Medieval England rape was considered traumatic only to a woman’s body, and the crime itself was characterized as “the theft of the woman as property either of her husband or her father” (Menuge, p. 106). The other possible way of resolving the issue was marriage. Sometimes abduction accusation was used by couples wishing to be married against their parents’ will. Despite the law, which proclaimed that a couple’s free will was the only requirement for marriage, in reality, families had the final vote.

The research of Medieval British literature, in general, gives an insight into the moral standards, which could be a base for the rape culture. A brave knight saving a fair lady from trouble is a traditional storyline. The general idea lays in female characters portrayed as passive and waiting for a man to decide on their destiny. The stories hardly ever raise the question of female consent, thus showing a knight as a conqueror. Moreover, in the end, a knight usually acquires a lady’s property in the form of lands and other valued items. The subject of goods was also discussed during real court hearings, for a victim could ask for compensation in the form of property ownership. Rape, among other relationship-based crimes, had “significant bearings upon property interests, household structure, and notions about morality” (Brundage, p. 1). The literature hardly ever focuses on this part, paying more attention to the moral side.

After researching the issue of rape in Medieval England, the conclusion can be drawn that this issue is complex and there existed various ways for criminals to escape the death penalty, which is proved by-laws and literature of the time. While men made a larger part of felons, women usually shared the guilt by being accused of seduction and having an unfaithful nature in general.

Works Cited

  1. Brundage, James A. Law, Sex and Christian Society in Medieval Europe. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987. Print.
  2. Chaucer, Geoffrey. Selected Canterbury Tales. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc., 1994. Print.
  3. Dunn, Caroline. Stolen Women in Medieval England: Rape, Abduction, and Adultery, 1100-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Print.
  4. Menuge, Noel James. Medieval Women and the Law. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2000. Print.
  5. Pallotti, Donatella. “Maps of Woe Narratives of Rape in Early Modern England.” Journal of Early Modern Studies. 2 (2013): 211-239. ProQuest.
  6. Tolkien, J. R. R. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967. Print.
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