Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England

Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England

Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England

Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England

Synopsis

This work explores and untangles the theme of rape, and its counterpart ravishment, in Anglo-French cultural tradition between the disintegration of the classical world and the Renaissance. Tracing debate and dialogue across intellectual and literary discourses, Corinne Saunders places Middle English literary portrayals of rape and ravishment in the context of shifting legal, theological and medical attitudes. The treatment of rape and ravishment is considered across a wide range of literary genres: hagiography, where female saints are repeatedly threatened with rape; legendary history, as in the stories of Lucretia and Helen; and romance, where acts of rape and ravishment challenge and shape chivalric order, and romance heroes are conceived through rape. Finally, the ways in which Malory and Chaucer write and rewrite rape and ravishment are examined.Dr CORINNE SAUNDERS is Lecturer in Medieval Studies, Department of English, University of Durham.

Excerpt

While the heightened emphasis on abduction and enforced marriage in secular law of the later medieval period was to a great extent the result of shifting societal concerns, it also reflected the concerns of the Church over the crime of raptus and the issue of virginity. Canon law developed a complex law of raptus, which overlapped with but was not identical to secular law, and the subject of rape arose in different guises in other strands of religious discourse. The ways in which the Church treated rape and the offence of raptus were by no means straightforward, not least because theological discourse encompassed so many levels and genres of writing, from canon law commentaries and theological treatises intended for highly informed intellectual discussion, to confession and preaching manuals aimed at the practical guidance of lay congregations. Many of the issues addressed in the discourse of secular law recur, such as abduction, rape of virgins and marriage, but these are taken into new philosophical and spiritual realms, to raise questions of the construction of the psyche and the intersection of force with desire and will. Particularly interesting are vernacular, practical works such as penitentials and preaching manuals, since these seem to reflect the distinctive emphasis of early English legal discourse on rape as a serious sexual offence against women: it is thus possible to posit a distinctively English cultural perspective on rape, authoritative enough to be visible in both legal and religious writing despite the influence of Roman law and Continental thought. Philosophical considerations of rape also raise a number of the questions central to modern thought regarding rape.

I: Canon Law Commentaries

Fundamental to the development of the canon law of raptus was the twelfth- century Decretum of Gratian, which drew on Roman law to define and codify the concept. Gratian's twelfth- and thirteenth-century commentators discussed the nuances and difficulties of the law of raptus at some length in order to identify the major elements that constituted the crime, and these were in turn extended in summae, which followed the tradition of the great intellectual theologians such as Augustine. One of the most influential theological works . . .

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