With the controversy over #twittersilence – itself a response to misogynistic reactions to, essentially, women’s speech – it seemed like an appropriate time to reflect a little on the representation of female silence in the middle ages. I thought some of you might be interested in reading a short extract from my forthcoming book, Fatherhood and its Representations in Middle English Texts. In the fourth chapter, I address the father-daughter relationship. Silence – demanded, given, or enforced – was not only a feminine virtue in this period but also a distinctively daughterly virtue, I argue, and in my analysis of Middle English texts it becomes clear that through daughters’ speech or silence were manifested some of the most profound aspects of the father/daughter relationship. Behind the cut you will find a few hundred words from this chapter; I think that the parallels that can be drawn with modern rape culture are quite clear. But I’ll let the text speak for itself.

…[W]ork on fathers and daughters has been used by feminist psychotherapists to make critical forays into areas of therapy long dominated by patriarchal conceptualization of the construction of the family. In particular, recent work on father-daughter incest represents attempts to deconstruct patriarchal expectations of the causes of incest, in abusers and victims and also in the psychiatric academy. It would be a gross simplification of the ways in which family roles and gender are culturally contingent to directly apply the findings of these researchers to the middle ages. However, because some of the tropes that they identify regarding female culpability for sex crime, female beauty and paternal power have origins in western culture in the middle ages or even earlier, I have been able to borrow some of their language to describe trends I have recognised within my material: it is a use of conceptual frameworks that helps situate this project in its substrate below the body of this work on fatherhood. That is, these theoretical constructs help me deconstruct the foundation of fatherhood, which is patriarchy.

In uncovering the history of modern father-daughter incest, psychotherapists have noted that it can be characterised as a ‘silent crime’. Reports of incest have been suppressed, not only by abusive families, but also often by the medical establishment: as Judith Herman observes, ‘until recently, each investigator who has made this discovery has ended by suppressing it. The information was simply too threatening….’ In feminist analyses of incest, one of the gravest effects of incest is that it denies women a voice.[1] However, within medieval narratives, silence is a female virtue, and a father’s authority seems absolute. In these texts, the moments at which women speak – or choose not to speak – can be particularly important in understanding the power relationship between fathers and daughters. At the moment when it might seem that a woman gains her own voice, her function is to reassert the essential rightness of patriarchy against a father who is losing his own paternal identity because of his selfish lust.

In late medieval society, not only were women meant to be submissive to men, but children were meant to submit to their parents. As Gratian put it: ‘It is the order of nature among human beings that women obey man and sons obey their parents, because it is justice in these matters that the lesser obey the greater.’[2] Thus it could be considered that the father-daughter dynamic is the familial relationship with the greatest difference in power. The father’s role is to govern, whilst the daughter’s is to obey. Moreover, the daughter should obey in silence, or at least with little speech, as ‘idle talk’ is something for which medieval women were often chastised.[3] Women were meant to be meek and guided by the head of their household, be it father, husband or master. The narrator of the fifteenth-century poem How the Wise Man Taught His Son recommends that the son seek a ‘meeke and good’ wife who will serve him ‘weel and plesauntly’, while in the previous century the poem How the Goodwife Taught Her Daughter advises that the reader should with ‘sybbe ne fremde make no jangelyng’.[4] Women talking with other women was particularly dangerous, because as Karma Lochrie puts it, it shows a ‘troubling disregard for authority, institutions, and masculine reputations.’[5] Preventing women talking to other women is a means for men to control not only female speech, but female dialogue. Here, then, are two rules for being a good woman – to be obedient and to be silent – that would make it difficult for a daughter to voice a complaint against her father in case of incest.

Moreover, it was typical in this period for a woman to be blamed for extramarital sexual activity, regardless of whether or not she initiated it or indeed even consented. The fifteenth century poem Why I Can’t Be a Nun blames Dinah for her rape because ‘for sche bode not stylle, / But went owte to see thynges in veyne’.[6] In effect, to use a more modern term, Dinah was ‘asking for it’. The implication that harm, both physical and spiritual, will come to women who leave their proper sphere is found in Caxton’s The Knight of the Tower, a 1483 translation of the fourteenth-century Livre pour l’enseignement de ses filles du Chevalier de La Tour Landry. In one of the knight’s stories, a woman goes out at night to see her lover, and ‘she felle in to a pyte whiche was twenty fadom depe’. She is miraculously saved after praying and repenting.[7] She seems to be guilty of both the sexual misconduct of having a lover and social misconduct: that is, leaving her home at night. It is easy to blur the line between these so that the act of leaving the appropriate feminine space of the house for the physically dangerous outside world becomes associated with falling into a ‘pyte’ of sexual misbehaviour. If a woman goes ‘as it were a gase / Fro house to house to seke the mase [diversion]’, she will reap the consequences.[8] Furthermore, women are to blame for men’s passions simply because they inflame it through their physical appearance, as the thirteenth century Ancrene Wisse argues:

Heo is bitacned bi theo thet unwrith the put – the put is hire feire neb, hire hwite swire… Best is the beastlich mon thet ne thenchet naut on God, ne ne noteth naut his wit as mon ach to donne, ach secheth for to fallen in this put thet ich spec of, yef he hit open fint… [H]a is witi of his death biforen ure Laverd ant schal for his saule ondsweren an Domes-dei…[9]

A woman’s beauty here is a pit, a place that traps men. Although the woman has not actively done anything to encourage a man’s desire, by letting her beauty be seen, according to this text she is complicit in his fall into sin.

This ‘hapless collusiveness’, as it might be called, has not disappeared with the Middle Ages; well into the twentieth century, a common view expressed by therapists was that girls have contributed to or even initiated incest:[10]

These children undoubtedly do not deserve completely the cloak of innocence … [There was] at least some cooperation of the child in the activity, and in some cases the child assumed an active role in initiating the relationship… Finally, a most striking feature was that these children were distinguished as unusually charming and attractive …

Even within the modern medical profession, articles that firmly place the burden of responsibility on fathers may make the point that children are ‘charming, seductive, and provocative’.[11] It is worth citing these examples to emphasise how deeply embedded are these cultural tropes, which originate well before the medieval period. Within Roman mythology the topos of the ‘Seductive Daughter’ was well-established. The most famous classical case of father-daughter incest was probably that of Myrrha, who tricked her father into having intercourse with her, and was used by Ovid as an example of female concupiscence. Ovid’s poetry was relatively well known amongst higher status groups and indeed was used as pedagogical material in Latin instruction.[12] This material was part of a pedagogical tradition that used the arguments of antifeminist discourse as teaching aids in the art of rhetoric. The Querelle des femmes featured heavily in later medieval rhetoric, and was used to demonstrate the formulation of elegant and convincing arguments.[13] So attitudes about rape and female culpability were being not only absorbed through popular culture but also actively taught, with the authority of the classroom or tutor behind them, to young men. 

Extracted from Rachel E. Moss, Fatherhood and its Representations in Middle English Texts (D.S. Brewer, 2013), pp. 115-8. The book will be available from 19 September, if you’re interested in reading the rest of the chapter!


[1] Herman, Father-Daughter Incest, 7. For further details, see See ‘Chapter One: The Incest Secret’, in the same volume, 7-66.

[2] Gratian, from Decretum, excerpted in Blamires, Woman Defamed and Woman Defended, 84.

[3] On the dangers of gossip, see Karma Lochrie, Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 56-92.

[4] How the Wise Man Taught His Son, in Furnivall, The Babees Book, ll. 81-2; How the Goodwife Taught Her Daughter, in George Shuffelton, ed., Codex Ashmole 61: A Compilation of Popular Middle English Verse (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2008), l. 21.

[5] Lochrie, Covert Operations, 75.

[6] Why I Can’t Be a Nun, in James Dean, ed., Six Ecclesiastical Satires (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University, 1991), ll.348-9.

[7] Geoffroy de la Tour Landry, The Book of the Knight of the Tower, trans. by William Caxton. Early English Books Online, http://eebo.chadwyck.com. Accessed 5 September 2012.

[8] How the Goodwife, ll. 61-2.

[9] ‘She is symbolised by the one who uncovers the pit – the pit is her fair face, her white neck… The beast is the beastly man that does not think of God, nor uses his wits as man ought to do, but falls into this pit that I spoke of, if he finds it open… [S]he is guilty of his death before our Lord and shall answer for his soul on Doomsday.’ (My trans.) Robert Hasenfratz, ed., Ancrene Wisse (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 2000), Part 2, ll. 101-12.

[10] Karin Meiselman summarises research prior to 1979 in Karin C. Meiselman, Incest: A Psychological Study of Causes and Effects with Treatment Recommendations (San Francisco, Washington, London: Jossey-Bass publishers, 1979), 1-55. ‘Seductiveness’ is discussed in the same volume, 161-5. Herman, from a feminist perspective, summarises the ‘pro-incest lobby’ in Herman, Father-Daughter Incest, 22-5, and discusses the ‘Seductive Daughter’ theory in the same volume, 36-42.

[11] Lauretta Bender and Abram Blau, ‘The Reaction of Children to Sexual Relations with Adults,’ American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 7 (1937): 514; Judith Trowell, ‘Setting the Scene’ in Trowell and Etchegoyen, The Importance of Fathers, 13. Rachel Devlin draws attention to the psychoanalytic tendency to privilege ‘the power of the adolescent girl’s Oedipal desire over and above the actions of the father, no matter how coercive or transgressive.’ Rachel Devlin, ‘“Acting out the Oedipal wish”: father-daughter incest and the sexuality of adolescent girls in the United States, 1941-1965’, Journal of Social History, 38 (2005): 17.

[12] Desmond, Ovid’s Art, 52-3.

[13] Floyd Gray, Gender, Rhetoric, and Print Culture in French Renaissance Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 7-18.

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