Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law

By Kathryn Gravdal | Go to book overview

3. Replaying Rape: Feudal Law on Trial in Le Roman de Renart

The archeology of feudal rape law discloses itself in a group of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Old French texts entitled Le Roman de Renart, a cycle of narratives in which the characters are humanized animals. 1 The genre draws its sources from universal folklore. In the French medieval avatar, the hero is the trickster fox Renart. Composed between approximately 1171 and 1250, the collection is made up of elements, of varying length and homogeneity, called "branches." A great number of poets participated in the cycle, but we know nothing of them and most of the branches are anonymous. It is assumed the different authors were literate clerics. The genre enjoyed immediate success, a fact attested to by the considerable number of manuscripts, translations into other medieval vernaculars, and also the abundance of iconographic references to Renart in medieval art. The material was initially addressed to a chivalric audience, but was soon aimed at and heard by a broader, general public. Some branches are epic, staged in feudal courts, some parody romance and other popular literary genres, some are situated in the animal world. All are marked by the one permanent feature of the genre -- its constant irony.

One group of the Renart texts is about the formulation, the authority, and the application of rape law in society. The authors of Branches VIIa, VIIb, I, and VIII display a detailed knowledge of French feudal law, apparent in their construction of legal discourse, their elaborate representation of the feudal judiciary in trial scenes, and their insistence upon posing sexual conflicts in judicial terms. Far from condensing their legal erudition to spare their audience, these poets foreground and highlight the legal procedure of the day, confident that their listeners take great interest in feudal law and are perfectly capable of assimilating its technical points. Indeed, law and legal learning held an important place in the value system of the noble elite in feudal society. 2

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