Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law

By Kathryn Gravdal | Go to book overview
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Conclusion

The preceding chapters form a cultural archeology in which we can reposition the idealization of the feminine that emerges from French medieval courtly literature. When we contextualize the construction of the feminine in courtly love discourse among other contemporary discourses, their complicity in naturalizing what seems to have been the common practice of violence against women is revealed.

This book has attempted to dislodge two persistent myths about men, women, and sexual discourse in medieval France. The first is the notion that women enjoyed unparalleled sexual power and freedom in the days of courtly love. The second is the converse belief that rape was commonplace in the Middle Ages because society was so barbaric that men "did not know any better."

The first myth holds that courtly love literature reflects historical reality. Joan Kelly's landmark article "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" is an example of research inflected by this idealistic view of the Middle Ages as a time in which women enjoyed great sexual freedom: "Medieval courtly love, closely bound to the dominant values of feudalism and the church, allowed in a special way for the expression of sexual love by women." 1

The myth of a medieval society virtually ruled by women who enjoyed sexual parity with men is almost as misleading as the myth of ignorant sexual barbarism. While Kelly's impressive accomplishments in her study, the findings concerning women in the Renaissance, remain as valid as they are precious to us, they are nevertheless grounded in a limited reading of medieval culture. Kelly cites literary texts almost exclusively. Furthermore, from the wide range of medieval literary genres, she metonymically takes two parts for the whole: courtly romance and troubadour lyric. Moreover, Kelly regards literature as reliably mimetic. Adultery, for example, is represented as tolerable; Kelly thus assumes that men tolerated it in women. By reading a wider variety of discourses, such as court records, we discover the striking medieval practice of punishing wives severely for adulterous

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