Sunday, 28 July 2013

Rape and abduction in Anglo-Saxon England


I'm sure most people will remember that pretty controversial and outrageous statement that Republican (aren't they always!) Todd Akin said about rape victims being able to avoid pregnancy -
"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down". 
Yes, Todd, I'm sure you got an A in Biology. Funnily enough, with the pro-life folk always talking about abortion being something from the Dark Ages, this view that raped women can somehow prevent pregnancy is in fact from the Dark Ages! Maybe that's why many are considered to be White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

According to Julia Coleman, in her chapter "Rape in Anglo-Saxon England", the earliest definition of rape in the Anglo-Saxon period can be found in the ninth century laws of King Alfred (remember, the guy who let the cakes burn). Here are some facts:
  • The rape of a non-virgin wasn't treated to be as serious as the rape of a virgin
  • Because marital sex was seen as a dutiful act to a spouse, it is likely that non-consnsual sex in a marriage wasn't seen as rape - unfortuantely many people still think this way
  • Abduction, elopement and adultery are also lumped in with rape
And what was the punishment for what was then considered rape? Well, mostly just a fine to the victim or her husband or father, but it could be as serious as castration in the case of a rape by a slave.

From another source, there is the likelihood that compensation was offered to the victims (or their "owners"), "ranging from 5s for seizing her by the breast to 60s for rape [...] The fine for removing a nun from a nunnery is also 120s, divided between the king and the ecclesiastical authorities [...] Compensation for rape is reduced by half if the victim was not a virgin " (Early English Laws). All this is presumably in shillings (20 shillings to a pound). Some other sources give different amounts for compensation. 

A screen shot from Corine Saunders' Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England

In post-conquest England, after the Norman invasion, it is notable that there appears to be no mention of the victim's or the rapist's social class - whether you were a slave or a Lord, your genitals were getting the chop!

"Sausies for din-dins!"

As Coleman states, it wasn't only the woman's dignity that was affected - it also affected the men in her life's pride, as they feel lessened by the fact that they were unable to protect her. This can also be seen on a larger scale, with reports from Ancient Greece up until present day - rape is a pretty common consequence of warfare. "War rape" is more than just about the physical act, and goes beyond the terrorising of the woman (or man) who is being victimised. As Susan Brownmiller says:

(R)ape by a conqueror is compelling evidence of the conquered's status of masculine impotence. Defense of women has long been a hallmark of masculine pride, as possession of women has been a hallmark of masculine success. Rape by a conquering soldier destroys all remaining illusions of power and property for men of the defeated side.

Anglo-Saxon England, being a realm which was involved in regular conflict with the Danes and later the Normans, is no exception to this, and unfortunately women were often used as a tool to demonstrate the taking of the country to the men.

Rape in Anglo-Saxon England
Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England
The Semiotics of Rape in Renaissance English Literature

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