The body of proof: representations of rape and consent in medieval England’s laws and literature

Cooper, Mariah (2022) The body of proof: representations of rape and consent in medieval England’s laws and literature. Doctoral (PhD) thesis, Memorial University of Newfoundland.

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This research focuses on sexual assault in medieval England by examining twelfth to fourteenth-century trial records, England's medieval rape laws, and literary representations of rape in popular Middle English romance. By comparing representations of rape in romance, with contemporaneous trial documents, and the laws themselves, this dissertation argues that in medieval England, consent and non-consent to rape were based on the physical proof of resistance on the woman’s body. This is the body of proof. Analysing the five legal ages of England’s raptus laws, from Glanvill to the Statute of Rapes, it is evident that the gradual displacement of victim status away from the woman herself and in favour of her male kin was in response to continual frustration with the marriage clause and a persistent fear of malicious accusations of rape. This is represented not only in the laws themselves, but also in popular romance narratives. The analysis of previously unpublished twenty-eight cases from the court of the general eyre exposes a schism between the laws in theory and in practice. By combining these with an ecclesiastical perspective, as well as popular romance narratives, the research suggests that there were three constructed legal identities a woman could have had when appealing rape: the truly innocent victim, the reluctant but willing accomplice, and the scheming culpable woman. Through a comparison to popular romance narratives with scenes of rape and sexual violence, it is evident that these identities were not confined to the courts, but widely acknowledged in medieval English culture. The evidence suggests that there are remarkably consistent cultural tropes used in reference to survivors of sexual assault from the Middle Ages through to the twenty-first century. Ideas around "no means yes" and that the body can enjoy the assault are exposed in this research as existing in English medieval culture. In looking at rape laws, how the laws were interpreted by the courts through actual trial records, as well as the social attitudes towards rape as represented in popular romance narratives, this research presents new understandings of the cultural and legal discourse of rape in medieval England.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral (PhD))
Item ID: 15480
Additional Information: Includes bibliographical references (pages 423-438).
Keywords: rape, sexual violence, law, literature, gender studies
Department(s): Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of > History
Date: April 2022
Date Type: Submission
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
Library of Congress Subject Heading: Rape--England--History--To 1500; Sex crimes—England--History--To 1500; Sexual consent--England--History--To 1500; Law, Medieval; Literature, Medieval.

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