Rereading Rape in Medieval Literature: Literary, Historical, and Theoretical Reflections

By Vitz, Evelyn Birge | The Romanic Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Rereading Rape in Medieval Literature: Literary, Historical, and Theoretical Reflections


Vitz, Evelyn Birge, The Romanic Review


The following essay is a reflection on rape.(2) More precisely, it bears on

the ways in which the theme of rape has been handled in some recent

scholarship--in a number of books and articles, and in a wide array of lectures

and conference presentations that I have heard at academic gatherings in the

past several years. (Every conference now devotes sessions to rape and sexual

violence against women.) Some of this work is sound and provocative. But much

of this scholarly trend is, in my view, plagued by a tendency toward naive,

anachronistic, and inappropriate readings of literary works, high levels of

indignation and self-pity, and a pervasive hostility to men. We all agree that

rape itself must be strongly condemned. But I believe that there is room for

serious debate on the scholarly treatment of the theme of rape in literary and

historical texts--and indeed that such debate is overdue.

The following pages will lay out in some detail what I see as the underlying

assumptions of this scholarship, and will argue against them. My quarrel is with

ideas, not with individuals, but it will be necessary to refer to the work of

particular scholars to make my arguments clear. Briefly, my major points will

be:

--First, the scholarship on medieval literature with which I am concerned

demands that rape should be treated straight-forwardly and realistically. I

will argue that the standard of realism proposed is not only alien to medieval

literature, but also internally incoherent.

--Second, according to this scholarship, to assert that medieval women

enjoyed hearing or reading references to forced sex, or that they entertained

fantasies of rape, is untrue, insulting to women, and politically dangerous.

But, as will be shown, it is highly likely that some medieval women did find

certain kinds of rape scenes entertaining; the charge is no more insulting to

women than it is to men; and in any event we must face facts.

--Finally, this scholarship makes two conflicting claims. On the one hand it

argues that "rape is rape": that it is easy to determine what rape is--simply a

sexual act committed, by force, by a man against the will of the woman in

question. Failure to recognize rape in literature is seen as a sign of male bad

faith. But this same scholarship also argues the opposite: that almost

everything is rape; all male domination cum female submission is to be thought

of as rape.

I will argue that literary rape is, indeed, often difficult to identify.

Thus, I too will blur the distinction between rape and other forms of sexual

violence. But rather than adverting to that great cultural Floating Signifier,

the Phallus--the elusive Idea of Patriarchy--I propose that we should view

sexual violence in medieval literature in the larger context of the many things

that men and women alike understood as happening to them by force and against

their will.

I. Rape and trope

Much contemporary scholarship disapproves of representations of rape which

distract attention from the ugly and brutal reality of the act. One feminist

scholar has claimed that in much of Western literature "the act [of rape] is

systematically erased, elided, displaced, naturalized, and rationalized."(3)

Rape is said to be typically "troped" in literature:

By "trope" I mean a literary device that presents an event in such a

way that it heightens figurative elements and manipulates the reader's

ordinary response by suspending or interrupting that response in

order to displace the reader's focus onto other formal or thematic

elements. The mimesis of rape is made tolerable when the poet tropes

it as moral, comic, heroic, spiritual, or erotic . …

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