Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law

By Kathryn Gravdal | Go to book overview

2. The Poetics of Rape Law: Chrétien de Troyes's Arthurian Romance

Rape is not recommended but one will be allowed under specific conditions if the author feels it is necessary to make a point. 1

Our close reading of female sexuality and male brutality in Wace Vie de Sainte Marguerite, disclosed there gestures belonging to the power struggle behind "romantic love." Wace, we know, was also the first writer of vernacular Arthurian romance. The very name of Arthurian romance conjures up images of valor, courtliness, and gentility; we hardly associate courtly literature with sexual violence. Yet from the earliest stages of courtly romance, the character of Arthur is linked with the narration of rape. Wace recounts the liminal episode of Arthur's combat against the giant of Mont Saint-Michel. 2 Arthur learns that a giant abducted a young virgin, Helen, niece of the Duke of Hoel, and sequestered her at Mont Saint-Michel. There Helen dies while being raped by the giant:

La pucele volt porgesir,
Mes tandre fu, nel pot soffit;
Trop fu ahugues, trop fu granz,
Trop laiz, trop gros et trop pesanz;
Name li fist del cors partir,
Nel pot Heloine sostenir.

( Brut, 2857-62)

[The giant] wants to have carnal knowledge of the virgin, but she is tender and her body cannot bear it. He is too tall and too large, too ugly, too enormous and too heavy. Her soul is driven from her body; Helen cannot hold up under his weigh.

-42-

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