I recently read an article (in Norwegian), claiming that rape was much less common in the Middle Ages than what is commonly believed, and more specifically that it was much less common than what is depicted in G.R.R.Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire books.

It seems to mainly reference three sources:

  • Fredrik Charpentier Ljungqvist: «Rape in the Icelandic Sagas: An Insight in the Perceptions about Sexual Assaults on Women in the Old Norse World», Journal of Family History, 2015.
  • Hans Jacob Orning: «Kvinner og politikk på Island i senmiddelalderen», tidsskriftet Fortid, 2012.
  • Hans Jacob Orning: «Feuds and conflict resolution in fact and fiction in late medieval Iceland», i Steinar Imsen (red.): «Legislation and State Formation. Norway and its neighbours in the Middle Ages», Akademika forlag, 2013

Please note that I have not read any of these studies / articles myself, originally linked article.

Its main claim seems to be that "the Middle Ages were dark is an misconception created in Italiy in the 15th century" and that "the Dark Middle Ages are often depicted as being rife with sexual assault".

Some key points it brings up, which it claims make it likely that sexual assault / rape was fairly uncommon during the Middle Ages:

  • if rape was common, scientists would have found more references to it in the literature from the time
  • many medieval societies put great truck in honor, which would have made rape a grave offense. This is reflected in the punishments for rape, in Scandinavia you'd have been named an outlaw if convicted for it, (one of?) the strictest sentences at the time. There is also a story in the Bagler sagas in which a man is killed for something which may have been a rape, even though he was from the higher echelons of society.
  • the Catholic church had a very prominent place in society at the time, and it also had a very non-compromising view on extramarital sex.

The article also mentions some reasons why rape could have been more common:

  • It may have been used to dishonor and demoralize opponents during wars or feuds, but there are few accounts of this happening in literature describing such events.
  • Having sex with slaves against their will may not have been considered rape. Slaves were not common in Scandinavia during the mid- to late middle ages though.

There is of course quite a lot more in the article itself, but I am afraid I don't feel up to translating the whole thing :) Furthermore it, and some of its arguments I have paraphrased here, relate mostly to Scandinavia, but in potential answers I'd be very interested to hear of potential differences across Europe.

Anyway, as I ask in the title: Was rape and / or sexual assault common in Europe during the Middle Ages?

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    How do you define "common"? Lack of references is not evidence that it was uncommon, it could just as well be underreporting. Moreover, the medieval conception of rape would not coincide with ours. It definitely wouldn't include marital rape, for one. – Semaphore Dec 22 '17 at 10:16
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    Dubious. Rape is often not reported today. I see no evidence, just a series of wishful, untestable assertions. I am going to have to do for the squishy term "common". In the context of a question as provocative as this, greater rigor is required. – Mark C. Wallace Dec 22 '17 at 12:40
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    FWIW troops would plunder cities as a matter of course until a few centuries ago. It's easy to imagine soldiers raping women during war time - heck, they still do it nowadays. – Denis de Bernardy Dec 22 '17 at 13:58
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    I would point out that the "literature from the time" was largely written and copied by men. – T.E.D. Dec 22 '17 at 14:13
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    I'm not secure enough to answer this, but like to point that the concept of rape grow with time. Rape is always a crime, but the occasions where sex without consent was perceived as a crime grew a lot. Raping people after a military victory was perceived as a right. Primae noctis was a right. Today research point rape is about power, not sex, and gender power relation changed a lot after French revolution and feminism. What is perceived as rape in medieval eras is mostly about low class man that lack the power to have sax as a right. – Cochise Dec 23 '17 at 19:35

I wanted to comment on your question, and though my reputation is great enough to answer, it is not great enough to comment (allowing me to foolishly answer, but only wisely comment, hmm?).

The article states (thank you Google translate):

Since rape was such an extremely serious crime in the Middle Ages, there is little to suggest that it may have been commonplace.

In A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, page 469, Michel Rouche writes:

In the sixth century the Franks punished the rape of a free woman by a fine of only 62 1/2 solidi; Charlemagne increased the fine to 200 solidi; evidence perhaps that the crime had become more common.

Two different historians using essentially the same data (punishment severity) as evidence for opposing conclusions?

Gauche though it may be to pose questions in an answer:

  • What is common (one in six people raped in their lifetime)?
  • What is common (x% of people who commit rape in their lifetime)?
  • What is rape (non-consensual sex)?
  • What is consent?
  • Who may give consent?
  • What conditions allow or prohibit consent?
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