Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law

By Kathryn Gravdal | Go to book overview
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1.Plotting Rape in the Female Saints' Lives

The specifically Christian transformation of sexual difference into subordination occurs in slow and complicated patterns. Out of the early Christian rejection of corporal experience comes a new asceticism that grounds itself in an ideological subordination of women and a misogynist construction of femininity. 1 Pauline doctrine on sexuality informs the patristic theology that legitimizes the gradual exclusion of women from ecclesiastic structures, from sanctity, from the intellectual centers of monasticism, and eventually from the political spheres of daily life. 2

Ironically, the period known as the "Dark Ages," the nadir of European male civilization, constituted a time of great fecundity, promise, and power in medieval female culture. In the early Middle Ages, women were vitally necessary for the creation of a new society. They experienced legal, social, and intellectual advancement. As female roles expanded, medieval women exercised greater power than their counterparts in classical society. 3 But the empowerment could not last in the Januslike face of Christian patriarchy. As the looser structures of early medieval society became better organized, as the strength of the Church and monarchic hegemony grew, women lost their brief moment of opportunity. When the millennium arrived, women had been excluded from the mainstream of monasticism, education, and government. 4 The "renaissance" of female culture which Joan Kelly boldly pushed from the sixteenth back to the twelfth century had in fact long perished by that time. 5

Hagiographic discourse constitutes one of the few remaining traces available to study European culture in the first millennium. 6 In the hagiography of the early Middle Ages, the saint's martyrdom constitutes the apex of the narrative paradigm. Death is the climactic episode in the hagiographic text of the first millennium. Torture, hanging, burning, crucifixion, starvation, or decapitation are the points of interest in the narration of the saint's legend.

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