Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law

By Kathryn Gravdal | Go to book overview

Introduction: The Archeology of Rape in Medieval Literature and Law

Between the image of a Middle Ages in which men are so brutal they see nothing wrong with sexual violence and that of a Middle Ages dominated by powerful women who enjoy sexual freedom, this book traces the contours of something less sensational, perhaps less appealing, but more complex. It studies the naturalization of the subordination of women in medieval French culture by examining representations of rape in different discursive genres, both literary and legal.

This book is not a history of rape. Its first purpose is to scrutinize the cultural ideology that supports rape as a stock narrative device in various medieval genres. In the course of that examination, it explores the relations between signifier and signified, between text and society, from a new vantage. My initial question was not whether medieval poets were proponents of sexual violence, but that of the relation between rape and literary genre: how does it happen that the representation of sexual violence is built into a variety of medieval genres and what purpose does it serve?

Literary critics from various fields are today engaged in a polemic over the function and meaning of rape in its textual representation. 1 Depicting, narrating, or representing rape certainly does not constitute an unambiguous gesture of endorsement. 2 But it is crucial to ask of a historical period whose literature is enthusiastically given over to the idea of Woman: why then is rape a stock device in so many genres and what is the relation genre bears to gender? Annette Kolodny describes a critical position that corresponds to my point of departure in the following chapters: "The power relations inscribed in the form of conventions within our literary inheritance . . . reify the encodings of those same power relations in the culture at large." 3.

Medieval culture itself is anything but silent on the topic of rape. 4 The absence of a literary history of rape in medievalist criticism may reveal more

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