Headmaster's House, King's Manor, York
Headmaster’s House, King’s Manor, York

This week I was lucky enough to go back to my alma mater, York, to give a paper on rape and patriarchy in Middle English texts. It is no exaggeration to say that the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York profoundly shaped who I am as an academic; neither is it a mistake to say it shaped who I am as a person. I feel extremely proud to have been a member of a community that encourages imagination, intellectual exploration, and friendship and collaboration rather than competition. So that meant that when I went to give my paper – in glorious spring weather, as the photo I snapped on my phone shows – I felt as if I were among friends. Of course some of the people present actually are my friends, including my two former PhD supervisors, but there were also a lot of other people in the room I’d never met before. But we share an academic community, and so I’ve rarely felt as relaxed giving a paper as I did that warm April evening. I was rewarded with enthusiastic comments and a feast of interesting questions that really made me think. I can think of no better prize for paper-giving than that (except, perhaps, the pierogi and potato pancakes I was treated to afterward).

I’m not going to summarise my paper here – parts of it you have had previews of here and here, bits of it are from my book, and some of it will, I hope, eventually turn into something I  can submit for publication. I’ll also be fine-tuning this paper and adapting it for a conference specifically on rape that I’m attending in July, and which I hope I’ll have the energy to both tweet from and then blog about! (I’ll be about 32 weeks pregnant by then, I think, so we’ll see…!) But yesterday morning over on facebook I saw feminist blogger Lisa-Marie Ferla link to an article in The Telegraph where a judge has once again suggested a victimised woman was to blame for what had happened to her.

‘I find it incredible that young people can get so drunk that they don’t even know who they’re with. One only has to think about the horrible situation in Glasgow [Karen Buckley’s murder] to see how serious this could have been.’

Sarah Green, from the End Violence Against Women Coalition, had this to say in reply:

‘We have to get beyond this focus on women’s behaviour regarding rape and shift it to the men who choose to commit these crimes. Because violence against women is not inevitable.’

The emphasis on what women do to supposedly attract rapists is an ancient one, of course. The Old Testament’s story of the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34) was glossed in the middle ages as partly her own fault; 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’. Dinah wouldn’t stay at home like a respectable woman, and the didactic poetry of late medieval England repeatedly references the need for women to stay within the domestic sphere rather than going ‘as it were a gase [silly person] / Fro house to house to seke the mase [diversion]’ (How the Goodwife Taught Her Daughter, ll. 61-2). The primary risk is to a woman’s reputation – people will think she is silly, flighty, and possibly also sexually promiscuous. There is also an underlying worry that her gadding about will result in her becoming a victim of sexual violence. Not only will this ruin her reputation, but it will also imperil the soul of the man who rapes her – for which, staggeringly enough, she will bear some responsibility:

‘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.’ (From the Ancrene Wissemy undoubtedly awkward translation.)

If a man falls into sin because he’s so aroused by a woman’s beauty, and she provides him with the opportunity to take advantage of her, then she is to blame – even though it is the man who is described as a beast, not the woman.

This misogyny is depressing, but not unexpected. Just as today girls who get raped  are often asked by the authorities and by the media why they drank so much, or why they walked home instead of getting a cab, or why they were stupid enough to go into a bedroom with a young man they hardly knew, medieval women were seen as inviting sexual advances if they strayed far from home – even though of course for many medieval women, economic and social realities meant that few of them would have been able to stay quietly within the four walls of the household!

What’s even more depressing, perhaps, is that even if a woman does everything she is supposed to and is still raped, ultimately there is no restoration for her. In my paper on Tuesday I talked a little about the rape of Lucretia, a semi-legendary figure of the Roman Republic whose story was recorded by Livy, rendered into poetry by Ovid, and repeatedly used as a moral exemplar through the middle ages and beyond. Lucretia, a virtuous Roman matron, was raped by Sextus Tarquinius. The Romans used this story to illustrate the moral failings of the monarchy; by the late middle ages, the story was of particular interest as an illustration of feminine virtue and the importance of marital chastity. Le Ménagier De Paris, a late fourteenth-century guidebook, features the story in a chapter on chastity. Lucretia, unlike other foolish wives, stays quietly in the “innermost chambers of her house, in a large room far from the road” (not just in her house, but as far from the dangerous outside world as possible!), “saying her hours humbly and piously”. Sextus is an honored guest in her home, but he rapes her at swordpoint. It’s made clear from the narrative that Lucretia is entirely blameless; indeed, when she goes to her husband to tell him what happened, he “began to comfort her gently and to pardon her, pointing out many good reasons” why she was not to blame.

Nonetheless, Lucretia says that “Although my body is defiled, my heart is not; therefore I absolve myself of the sin but not of the punishment.” After this, she stabs herself to death. As Robin Bott argues, the raped female body is diseased tissue in a patriarchal society; it must be excised, or else the corruption may spread. It doesn’t matter, ultimately, whether or not a woman is at fault for her own rape; she is still poisoned, and for the good of her society, she must be rooted out. Whether victims are seen as virtuous and innocent, or as licentious harlots who share responsibility for their rape, they serve as a lesson about women’s appropriate place within patriarchy. In a society where female honour is of value primarily to the men who own it – father or husband – there is nowhere for a raped woman to go but down.

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