Violence against Women
in Fifteenth-Century France and
the Burgundian State
In this essay, I discuss the existence of the systems behind violence against women, especially the ways in which systems of ideology, of belief, and of prejudice inform patterns of violent behavior, and how systems of social control enable repression or prevention of these violent crimes. The study of these systems can be elucidated through two approaches. First, I will look at the legal tools for prosecuting and judging crimes against women. Second, the interpretation of individual cases is enhanced by reading them with reference to the analysis of narrative proposed by Roland Barthes, Noam Chomsky, Jacques Derrida, and the poststructuralists. What we observe in the course of analysis of a number of cases from the legal records is a struggle to control the dialogue and the narrative so that judicial opinions or the negotiated outcomes of the cases conform to prevailing ideologies. The systems evolve from the underlying narratives of the cases.
To begin, it is useful to consider whether contemporaries in the Netherlands and in the Burgundian state (now partly in France) had well-articulated definitions for the various types of violence against women and precise sanctions for each of them.1 I do not include in this analysis crimes that are not typically gender related, such as robbery and murder. Even when limiting the discussion to crimes against women or in which women participated, the application of the laws is confusing. While the legal theory is quite clear and consistent, the practices of enforcement, jurisdictions, and jurisprudence are much more complicated because a second level of social ideas and conceptions influenced the application of the law.
Crimes involving deviant sexual behavior by consenting partners, such as adultery, homosexuality, and concubinage, might not be classified as violent or as crime at all in the medieval and modern periods, but rather as personal amusements and pleasures. I must, however, consider them here for two reasons. First, the church certainly classified these activi-