A chapter I wrote quite a while ago, on the legal history of rape in western Europe, has just come out in a collection about medieval crime and deviance.
‘Rape and Law in Medieval Western Europe’ looks at the ways in which different medieval jurisdictions approached rape. The records on which it is based are not straightforward (languages, handwriting, changing meanings of words, and more …), but, carefully examined and considered, they do give at least a sketch of the ways in which rape was thought about, and treated, in medieval law.
There are comparisons and contrasts to be made with regard to the ways in which a case might be brought before a court, the factors which would make sexual misconduct seem to those [men] trying a case more or less serious, and the consequences of a finding of guilt. It is easy to find statements about the serious nature of rape, but often – and this is certainly the case in English records – difficult to find examples of completed, ‘successful’, prosecutions of offenders. This should lead us to ask why that might have been the case, but also to question what we mean by ‘success’ in this context. In medieval English law, if felonious rape was prosecuted through to a conviction, the consequence would be a sentence of death by hanging, and forfeiture of property. The vast majority of rape cases stalled or were diverted at some point before this fatal outcome, however. It seems likely that a significant proportion of them were settled, so as to give some financial assistance to a woman who would now, perhaps, face significant difficulties. No doubt in some cases a complainant simply gave up.
Jurisdictions showed variation in terms of who was seen as a possible victim of rape (Only women? Only or particularly certain sorts of women/girls?) in terms of procedures and in terms of the consequences of a finding of guilt. As we might expect, there were some very negative attitudes towards women embedded in law and practice, though there are also intriguing occasional examples which seem to show sympathy and significant support for women and girls who had been raped. Much of what we would probably like to know lies hidden behind the terse records of cases which remain, and some insights can be gained by considering medieval literary treatments of rape (even though somebody like me, with no real expertise in literature, should tread very warily here). The one law-literature matter which I was, sadly, unable to treat here was the recent developments in the Geoffrey Chaucer-Cecily Chaumpaigne case, which became big academic news long after I actually wrote the chapter (which, I think, was in 2018 … academic publishing can be slow …) and too close to the date of publication to allow for an addition to the text. I intend to write a little more about that soon, as I think there are a couple of ‘legal historian’ points which people might find helpful/interesting).
The overall message of the chapter, I suppose, is one of competing, sometimes contradictory, ideas at play, coming out in different ways in different systems, and even within the same system at different times. Fitting the chapter into a book on the construction of crime and deviance, I would say that the job I hope it does is to warn against seeing medieval rape law as something which can be understood as showing a contrast between ‘the law’ – something stark, simple and clear – and ‘practice’ – which very frequently departs from ‘the law’ so as to let men off with their sexual misconduct. Certainly, a lot of rapists (in our terms) will have ‘walked’, but the ‘escape routes’ were not wholly external to legal doctrine, and legal doctrine was far from the clear, ‘worked out’ and comprehensive thing it is sometimes assumed to have been. Here, as in several other areas of ‘criminal’ law, ‘the law’ is, at least in part, constructed by practice.
Stepping back from the chapter itself, it strikes me that it would have surprised my past self, starting off in the 1990s as a new lecturer and trainee legal historian, that I was working on this area at all. My Ph.D. was on economic regulation, and my early research projects were not focused on women, nor on matters of gender. Not looking into women’s history was a very self-conscious choice, stemming from the opinions of others, influential in the world of legal history, and also from my own thoughts about what it meant to be an academic. The ‘opinions of others’ point was that the legal history tradition in the institutions where I had taken my first steps in the discipline was not given to much consideration of such matters, regarding them as peripheral, trivial, ‘trendy’. The internal inhibitor was that I had drunk in the idea that academics were supposed to be neutral, completely external to the material which they studied. Taking such an approach was the way to win the pat on the back of a good exam grade at school, and at university, and the way to avoid the sniggers and suggestions of ‘stridency’ or ‘special pleading’ from a predictable portion of the department, should there be any suggestion that a woman was focusing her attention on women. To get past that internal inhibition took me quite some time, and the kick up the backside of a combination of factors.
One shaping factor was where I ended up working. After leaving full-time study, I got a job at Bristol. Arriving here, I was treated with great generosity by the resident co-ordinator of both Roman Law and Legal History, Andrew Borkowski. He made room for me and my interests in the Legal History unit, and the unit he had developed was already rather less private law focused, and rather more open to issues of family law and gender than were those which most undergraduates would have been taught (and still are taught in some places). Initially, I came on a one-year teaching contract, and had every intention of going back to study full time for a Ph.D., in a Law department, where, I would imagine, I would have been immersed once more in the traditions of internal, ‘classical’ legal history, never more to look to matters dismissed as (shudder) ‘social history’ . Bristol made it hard to leave, however, offering both a permanent contract and assistance with doing my Ph.D. part time. A particularly important aspect of this offer was that I could seek supervision from the School of Historical Studies. This, I think, was crucial for the path I have taken. While my Ph.D. thesis was not about anything particularly gender-focused, it did, incidentally, lead me to acquire an additional set of skills and perspectives, which, I think, helped me to break down my own inhibitions against ever, in any way, talking in my academic work about things which were connected to myself. On a less positive note, another factor in the path from economic regulation to a focus on women came in the form of personal experiences of various kinds, including being taken aback by the ways in which institutions and their senior management treated those who took maternity leave or had childcare responsibilities (not so long ago as all that …). (And yes, saying that ‘out loud’, I see how far I have come from the ‘got to look objective’ stance: hinting at some of the less-than-optimal experiences I had with university promotions procedures and those who operated them at key points in my career …). My second monograph, about the many and various ways in which medieval women might be confined marked something of a shift of orientation, as well, perhaps, as something of a burning of bridges. A very influential law-department-based ‘classical legal historian’ was incredulous that I could plan to write a book which would place women to the fore. What about the men?! It felt, though, like something I had to do. Then there were a couple of lucky archival finds (on ‘drug rape’ and ‘work-based sexual harassment) and I began to be known (in certain small and dusty academic corners) as somebody who ‘did women’, and to be asked to write things in this area, including the chapter which has just come out. So there we are: I am now proud to embrace it, but I think today’s lesson is that it isn’t just academic publishing that can be …
a bit slow.
Photo by Melissa Keizer on Unsplash – tortoise, slow, etc etc.