Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law

By Kathryn Gravdal | Go to book overview

4. The Game of Rape: Sexual Violence and Social Class in the Pastourelle

How can we account for persistent associations of masculinity with power, for the higher value placed on manhood than on womanhood, . . . without some attention to symbolic systems, that is to the ways societies represent gender, use it to articulate the rules of social relationships, or construct the meaning of experience.

-- Joan W. Scott, "Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis", 1063

Just as the trial scenes in Le Roman de Renart create an imaginary place in which rape can become comic, so too does the medieval pastourelle constitute a discursive space in which one can laugh at the spectacle of rape. The pastourelle further resembles the branches of the Renart discussed in the previous chapter in that its levity does not preclude a degree of seriousness. The pastourelle uses the representation of sexual violence as a symbolic system which functions as a locus of political thought, inscribing its reflection on law, power, and social class on the body of the female character. The pastourelle tropes rape as the inevitable encounter between the members of two different social milieus.

The existence of an indigenous pastoral poetry in the French Middle Ages is in itself hardly surprising, especially since the poetry of Virgil was known, translated, and studied in medieval schools. 1 This new pastoral genre, a lyric form called the pastourelle (pastoure is the Old French term for "shepherdess") appeared in the European twelfth century. 2 The songs were first composed in the Provençal language of southern France, then flourished in Old French in northern France. 3

The medieval pastourelle displays predictable differences from the paradigm established in Virgil's Eclogues: the love celebrated is heterosexual, never homosexual; the poet-narrator takes on not the voice of the rustic shepherd but that of the knight. The genre presents several possible

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