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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?

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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
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The only honest answer to this question is We don't know.

To state that rape, or any crime, or any activity, was more or less prevalent at one period of time than another requires written records to be kept. However, we have few records about crimes committed during the Middle Ages. IIRC, any form of records about common crimes & other activities only begin around 1500, maybe even 1600. These are either written records of criminal courts -- which are limited to crimes were the perpetrator is brought to justice, not crimes where the perpetrator is known but not accused, let alone crimes where the perpetrator is never identified -- or broadsides, which are concerned more lurid details of crime than accuracy. As a result, we often assume that left alone most peasants live a life free of crime because no crimes are reported about them: an unconscious argument from silence. In fact, they were often victims or perpetrators of all imaginable varieties of crime.

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    This may be overstating it a bit -- you can get some idea of relative frequency even without good written records -- but I still upvoted this because "We don't know" is such a good answer and should be used more often. Given how murky the present is, we should recognize that the past is murkier still. – Mark Olson Apr 15 at 21:14
  • You are likely right, I overstated my point, but consider this. Rome of the 1st century AD is considered a fairly well documented period of time, yet unless one is carefully reading thru the primary sources it is very easy to miss the fact that city suffered at least 2 epidemics & one famine during that period. Historians tend to focus on the intrigues of the upper classes & the political changes, leading us to assume nothing else of importance happened. – llywrch Apr 16 at 15:03
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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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    Charlemagne would have predated the high to late medieval period in Scandinavia by several hundred years. so it is a rather distant reference point both geographically and chronologically. This is really just more criticism for a question which is arguably too vague and too broad. – tripleee Apr 15 at 9:46
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Literary Sources are Unreliable, Legal Sources are Unreliable, Legal Records are Unreliable.

Let's start with literary sources. If rape shows up a lot in literary sources, it could mean that it's common in life. Or it could mean that people felt that stories with rape were more interesting or illustrated an important concept.

I'm sure that much is intuitive. The same applies to legal sources. The prevalence of laws regarding rape and the severity of the sentences indicate something about views on rape, but not the frequency of the crime. For example, American drug laws have oscillated wildly over the years in severity and emphasis, but actual drug use seems only loosely correlated to the changes.

Even court records are all-but-useless, as we don't know to what extent the authorities are interested or able to enforce the law. Rape, in particular, is a crime that is rarely consistent in its enforcement.

So, Is There Any Way to Know?

There are a few ways to find clues. Genetic testing can bring some insights. For example, some researchers have claimed to find evidence of frequent rapes in the distribution of genes across different populations. The theory is that a lot of "foreign" DNA in a population suggests more rape. Of course, it could also mean more prostitution. Or, just more lovin' in general.

Literary analysis can provide some insight, but it's more complex than simply counting references. The key is to look for references that are "surprising" - that is, for which there is no particular motivation for including in the story. The more tangential the reference, the better. Of course, this data is always very fragmentary but it's often valuable. I don't know if anyone has applied this sort of analysis to rape in particular, but I personally haven't found such references in my reading, which leaves me with the impression that rape was unusual enough that one didn't talk casually about it.

That's a pretty weak statement, but it'll be hard to support any stronger conclusion than that.

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  • The genetic theory referred to sound interesting. Can you please provide a reference. – Boaz Apr 16 at 16:42

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