In medieval English court records ravishment is something that could have happened to a virgin, a married woman, a young boy, or ten silver coins. Caroline Dunn confronts this terminological difficulty, which has plagued legal historians for centuries, as part of a broader study that seeks out the role of women in the legal system of medieval England. She does so by examination of evidence for prosecutions of rape, abduction, and adultery as found in court records spanning 400 years of English history. To conduct her analysis Dunn amassed an impressive collection of over 1,000 cases and offers a rich analysis subdivided into topics that include rape, elopement, forced abduction, adultery, and false accusations, enriching this analysis by frequent engagement with relevant secondary literature and also contemporary literary works. The book closes with an ample appendix, guiding readers to the many different sources she drew upon.
Throughout Dunn questions the extent to which these cases reflect male control over women, also asking how those women could maneuver around these controls. As Dunn insists, it is crucial to understand that women could, and often did, play a very active and willing role in these cases of "stolen women." Certainly some women were thrown onto the back of a horse by a ravisher, forcibly abducted and raped and married against their will. Meanwhile, Dunn contends, other women were quite eager to run off with a suitor their families disapproved of, or willingly left their husbands in the company of their lovers or other men who assisted their flight from an unhappy marriage. In short, this is far from a history of the oppression of women by the men who stole them or tried to get them back, or the men who enacted laws to keep women in the power of their parents or husbands.
Dunn also consistently provides her readers with probing examinations of why, for example, a law might have been passed and also why people would or would not have taken advantage of new statutes to prosecute cases in the new legal context provided by a new law, giving particular attention to economic interests. In so doing she raises several compelling and related issues, such as the struggle over control of marriage choice as found in the Later Middle Ages, and shifts between church and state jurisdiction, particularly over matters related to marriage and adultery, when she draws upon comparisons to similar assertions of secular authority in Italy.
Before treating the categories of rape, abduction, and adultery in detail Dunn offers a thoughtful introduction to the language of the law and litigation, working in particular to establish a careful history of the complex use of raptus. in English legal records. Providing a detailed and convincing account of how the language of raptus evolved to include far more than sexual assault, Dunn explains that raptus was used consistently to denote sexual violence before the late thirteenth century. She concludes that scholars working with an ambiguous reference to raptus before 1275 can probably assume that the alleged offence was a sexual assault. After 1275, English legislation adopted canon law's broader treatment of raptus now using the term to punish more than sexual assault, encompassing abduction, elopement, and adultery. For Dunn, this seemingly comfortable conflation of so many different kinds of offences reflects the contemporary legal and social understanding of a woman's role in her family, with her role in inheritance and her sexual chastity both central to her worth and to the family's worth, both things that could be stolen away.
Throughout, Dunn consistently asks what kinds of women were "stolen" in particular in a given situation (daughter, wife, or widow; rich or poor). Interestingly, unmarried women predominate only in the first of the categories of raptus treated by Dunn: rape. Indeed, Dunn argues that the majority of alleged rape victims in her sample claimed they had been virgins before the rape took place. Dunn offers a number of possible explanations for this prominent role of virgins, including high standards of physical evidence for rape, as well as the need for alleged rape victims to try to protect their sexual honor. Dunn completes the chapter by examining what information she could glean about the victims and about their alleged rapists, the time and place of the rapes, and finally confronts the low conviction rate, which has often been taken as a sign of the oppression of women. Arguing against that idea, Dunn reminds her readers that these courts yielded a low conviction rate for most serious crimes, and suggests that judges might have been reluctant to impose the harsh sanctions the law required against rapists. Dunn also reminds her readers that some accusations may have been false. We cannot, therefore, assume any pernicious effort to silence women in recognizing the low conviction rate for rape. Looking beyond these court records, Dunn points to the very real possibility that most rape accusations, even those not initiated in court, could have moved in the direction of a private settlement, providing marriage or compensation for the victim and her family.
Throughout this book Dunn makes careful and intriguing use of these court records, which in all of her categories displayed low conviction rates. To take just one example we can consider her treatment of wife-theft accusations levied in the later Middle Ages, used against forcible abduction and adultery alike. As Dunn explains, wife-theft accusations multiplied dramatically in secular courts after new legislation was issued in 1287 that allowed men to act against their adulterous wives and their lovers. Why, as Dunn asks, would abandoned husbands bother to initiate these suits, when they must have been aware of a low likelihood of conviction? Dunn offers a fascinating explanation, if one that unfortunately cannot be bolstered with evidence. As Dunn suggests, husbands who initiated these suits may well have not intended to obtain criminal punishment of their wives' lovers--though perhaps they would not have minded--and that the real goal was to publicize their wives' adultery so the husbands' other heirs had a better chance of ensuring the wives' loss of inheritance rights after the husbands died. Dunn suggests a similar use of adultery accusations in the wake of 1382 legislation that allowed a husband to deprive his wife of her inheritance during his own lifetime. At the same time, Dunn also carefully explores the motivation for alleged acts of "wife-theft." The prevalence of self-divorce in late-medieval England, so well-studied by Richard Helmholz and Sara Butler, is here given further credence with attention to cases of spousal desertion, sometimes staged as abductions, sometimes no, sometimes involving adultery, sometimes more directly a means to help a woman escape a difficult or dangerous marriage.
One of the most important lessons Dunn offers scholars working on sexual offences is found in her final chapter on false accusations. Indeed, given the political, social, and spiritual force of such an allegation, scholars should always keep in mind the very real possibility of false accusations, and should consider, as Dunn does, how and why these accusations were made.
On the whole, Dunn displays an admirable ability in scrupulous analysis of court records and legislation, attending to the interests of lawmakers as well as all potentially interested parties. That said, this reader remains eager for still more information and explanation, particularly a more detailed explanation of the data used in the given subcategories, such as the adultery cases, as well as more information in support of the many fascinating claims suggested by the author. Above all, one finishes this book wanting to hear a great deal more from Caroline Dunn.