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", in Steinar Imsen (ed.)'s 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 or articles myself, just the originally linked article.
Its main claim seems to be that "the Middle Ages seeming dark is an misconception created in Italy in the 15th century" and that "the 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 or rape was fairly uncommon during the Middle Ages:
- If rape was common, historians 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?