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02.03.07, Saunders, Rape and Ravishment In the Literature of Medieval England

02.03.07, Saunders, Rape and Ravishment In the Literature of Medieval England

Rape has been the topic in a number of recent studies, such as in James Brundage's Law, Sex, and Christian Society (1987), Kathryn Gravdal's Ravishing Maidens (1991), and Angeliki E. Laiou's collection of articles, Consent and Coercion to Sex and Marriage in Ancient and Medieval Societies (1993), not to mention the considerable number of relevant journal articles and chapters in books (see, for example, my "Treatment of Rape in Literature and Law" in Women's Studies Encyclopedia, ed. Helen Tierney, vol. III, 1991). In other words, medieval scholarship has made serious efforts to connect with the modern discourse on this terrible crime by looking both at legal, social, and economic documents, and also by studying the literary testimonies.

Corinne Saunders offers a highly valuable and welcome contribution to this topic by focusing on the evidence she has gathered from medieval English literature. She widens, however, the theoretical approach by looking both at rape and at ravishment which illuminates an important perspective on male violence against women which could take many different forms. Saunders at first offers several extensive overviews, beginning with a summary of modern, feminist discussions of rape. This might be a valuable exercise, if the majority of views did not represent such radical positions that they undermine their own validity. According to Andrea Dworkin, for instance, every sexual relationship between man and women involves violence which reduces the woman to an object, hence all intercourse is rape (7). Similarly, Susan Griffin opines that male sexuality and violence are inseparable (9), and Catherine MacKinnon claims that all current definitions of rape are established by men and therefore worthless (11). Unfortunately, such extreme and absolutist perspectives devalue the critical acumen and make such studies worthless, at least for an investigation of rape in the Middle Ages. It would have been much more fruitful, I think, if Saunders had presented a critical assessment of current scholarship on her topic, a "Forschungsbericht," to find out, for example, what lines of argument have traditionally been pursued and what particular choice of material she has made to gain new insights. Only briefly do we learn that the concept of discourse will guide her investigation. The statement that "[r]ape became a kind of touchstone for medical thinkers, and instance of female weakness as well as an example of the way that the reproductive processes worked" (29) might need further elaboration, since the way in which it is formulated now seems to be fairly misleading and inaccurate.

The observation that the "perspective on rape" was only one of many strands of a complex discourse (30) provides the stepping- stone to the second chapter, in which Saunders reviews the way secular and Church law in England treated rape throughout the centuries. In particular, she studies Anglo-Saxon law, post- conquest law, and canon law, offering many citations and their modern English translations. Although it could amount to generalization, Saunders observes that whereas Church law focused on the loss of virginity from a religious perspective, secular law emphasized not only the legal implications of rape, but also the psychological, emotional, and traumatic impact of rape on women. It also deserves to be pointed out that the legal documents reveal considerable changes in the public discourse on rape and that these documents codified the judicial evaluation of the crime of rape depending on varying criteria.

Next Saunders surveys the depiction of rape in hagiographical literature, where many gruesome scenes not only of rape, but primarily of torture and other forms of physical violence to the female body can be detected. The most important ancient models of virtuous women who were raped or ravished were Lucretia and Helen of Troy, whom the author treats in the fourth chapter, carefully examining how they were depicted by medieval writers, such as the anonymous author of the widely influential Gesta Romanorum. Here the two concepts of rape and ravishment come together, but they are not synonymous, though the drastic consequences for the women are practically identical. As Saunders points out, most medieval writers assumed that women had such seducible bodies that they enjoyed any sexual intercourse, even if it was rape, as Lydgate, for instance, illustrates. It makes sense, consequently, that Lucretia commits suicide instead of seeking judicial justice because only her own death could cleanse her from the public accusation of having consented to the sexual act with her perpetrator. Whether it would be justified to include the figure of Helen of Troy in the discussion of rape because she was abducted and hence would fall in the same category, as Saunders suggests, remains an open question. The danger emerges that the extremely feminist/lesbian perspective might replace the simple historical observation, that is, Helen's voluntary following of Paris to Troy and her sexual union with him then would be tantamount to rape, and then all sexual intercourse indeed could be called rape -- a rather absurd notion.

Only in the last three chapters does Saunders address the actual topic of her book, the treatment of rape in medieval English literature, specifically in romances and other secular narratives. Here she demonstrates her true expertise, an impressive knowledge of a vast range of texts where the violent act of rape occurs. But she also examines the testimony by Andreas Capellanus in his De amore where the clerical author recommends to Walter, and so to his aristocratic audience, that a peasant woman can be raped at any time without much care regarding her personal situation and emotions. This appears to be a valid critique of Andreas's text, but it also ignores the highly ironic, dialectical nature and takes something at face value which is obviously not supposed to be read in this vein (now see Catherine Brown Contrary Things, 1998, here not consulted). Saunders also investigates Jean de Meun's Roman de la rose, before she finally turns to the Middle English examples, such as Floris and Blancheflour, Lybeaus Desconus, Ywain and Gawain, Le Freine, Sir Degarre, among many others. Sometimes we hear of gross forms of violence, sometimes rape is curiously translated into the initiation of love ("conflation of love and violence," 214), and sometimes the texts refuse a simple reading of rape, as the female voice expresses that she willingly submitted to the ravishment and that it was not (!) rape, such as in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Gesta Romanorum. But in all romances where giants or other-world creatures appear, their treatment of women is undeniably described as rape (233).

The complexity of the issue gains momentum in the narratives by the two most famous late-medieval English authors, Geoffrey Chaucer (Chapter 9) and Thomas Malory (Chapter 8). Rape surfaces as a crime often mentioned, but it is not viewed approvingly; on the opposite side, and especially in Chaucer's work, as Saunders points out, rape became the very touchstone for knights to demonstrate their chivalrous behavior in protecting women. But in Chaucer's texts, as the author convincingly demonstrates, the female experience is presented in a surprisingly sensitive manner, as he reveals an astonishing modern awareness of gender issues (310). Most pleasantly, Saunders does not force her evidence to reach an overarching and uniform conclusion. By contrast, she openly admits that "the variety of medieval thought does not allow for generalisation or ready synthesis" (318), as rape was one of those critical issues which triggered intensive debates and was seen from many different perspectives.

Curiously, this impressive monograph lacks some balance in dealing with the primary material. Although we are informed through the book's title that Saunders will deal with the literature of medieval England, in large parts she explores her issue by extensively looking at secular and clerical legal texts, at medieval Latin and Old French literature, and turns to her actual topic only fairly late. Nevertheless, Saunders has to be applauded for boldly addressing an important issue which has, alas, not lost its actuality even today. She does not follow -- as one might expect considering her introductory overview of current research literature -- ideologically minded, postmodern feminist theory, but concludes, with a remarkable degree of sensitivity, that medieval authors harbored views of rape quite as negative as those of modern times, and approached the topic through a broadly based discourse.