The medieval women who spoke out against sexual violence
With the release of new historical drama The Last Duel, its storyline centring on an accusation of rape, Professor Hannah Skoda considers attitudes towards sexual violence in medieval society and brings the stories of courageous women who spoke out against their attackers to the surface
Warning: this article contains detail of historical violence that some readers might find distressing
While it is unusual for Hollywood to take an interest in 14th-century French legal history, the story of The Last Duel has proven too good to resist. A film based on the 2005 book of the same name by Eric Jager will be released on 15 October 2021, starring Jodie Comer, Matt Damon and Adam Driver.
The title refers to a real trial by combat fought between two knights in medieval France – but this is not just a story about two men. The cause of the duel was an accusation of rape, and at the heart of the story lies a woman, Marguerite de Carrouges. Her courage and steadfastness eclipse that of the duelling knights. It was Marguerite who was raped. It was she who chose to speak up. It was she who had to recount what had happened, multiple times and in excruciating detail, to huge groups of men who were determined to disbelieve her. And when Marguerite’s husband finally demanded a trial by combat against the accused, it was not only him who risked his life: if he lost the combat, she was to be burned for perjury.
The real Marguerite was clearly an extraordinary woman. But her story reminds us of thousands of other victim-survivors who chose not to remain silent. And in the Middle Ages, the stakes were appallingly high. Women faced repeated trauma, public humiliation and shame, and potentially heavy punishment themselves.
Rape and medieval society
Medieval law clearly condemned rape. Laws of rape tended to be brutal – forcing a woman to have sex ‘against her will’ was most definitely a crime, to be punished most cruelly with castration, blinding or hanging. The English legist Bracton stated that: “There must be member for member, for when a virgin is defiled she loses her member, and therefore let her defiler be punished in the parts in which he offended.”
Legal frameworks were clear that this was a heinous offence. Women across the social spectrum could bring an appeal of rape, and it was understood that rape of sex workers was still rape. An astonishing recent discovery by Gwen Seabourne of Bristol University has shown that assaulting an intoxicated or unconscious person could also be defined as rape. One Isabella Plomet was raped in 1292 by her doctor who had drugged her, and he was found guilty as charged.
The language in medieval legal documents conveys the horror and disgust which the crime evoked, using terms like “most horribly”, “cruelly”, “shamefully”. Some rapes were deemed particularly terrible because of aggravating circumstances: in 1386, Adam Matte tried to buy sex with Maud Whetewell. She refused, but granted him access to her maidservant and locked the door. He assaulted and raped her, and she died the next Saturday “by reason of the shame, the rape and... Adam’s (venereal) disease”.
The language in medieval legal documents conveys the horror and disgust which the crime evoked
But even if laws about rape were stringent and uncompromising, their prosecution looked very different. Then, as now, only a small proportion resulted in a conviction, and most women would have been unable to access the means to bring a case in the first place. When men were found guilty, most often the legally stipulated punishment was not applied and they were simply fined.
Scholars have pointed out that such financial settlements were key for victim-survivors. In some cases, the settlement might even involve the marriage of the victim to the rapist: abhorrent as this was, for many victims it was their only means of social survival. Everything was stacked in favour of the rapists, with juries extremely reluctant to enforce such vicious punishments, or to believe the women.
Nevertheless, women did speak up again and again. Recent scholarship listens more carefully to these voices. Contrary to popular belief, women could often bring cases themselves, sometimes with the help of male guardians, despite this being fraught with risk – public humiliation, and, most dramatically, punishment for perjury if the accused was found innocent.
And the trauma of the moment had to relived over and over. Women had to recount what had happened multiple times, not allowing even the slightest detail to differ as this would result in the case being thrown out.
In a particularly distressing case of 1321, an 11-year-old girl made a mistake in her testimony. She initially stated that a rape had happened on the Wednesday and subsequently that it had happened on the Sunday. She was laughed out of court and sentenced to pay huge damages against the rapist – and since she couldn’t pay, she was to be imprisoned and was only pardoned because of her age.
In another 13th-century case, a woman named Rose claimed that she was raped and subsequently imprisoned for two years. She pursued the case through the courts, but it was rejected because, as the accused put it: “Rose did not name a definite day or a definite year or a definite place when he had raped her.” (Eventually, the rapist was fined 10 pounds).
Listen: Hannah Skoda explores the nature and consequences of crime and violence in the middle ages, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:
The burdens of trauma and evidence
The burden of proof was extremely high. The victim-survivor had to report the rape immediately and neighbours needed to have heard their screams. The onus was on the victim also to prove non-consent – that she had fought back and resisted in every way possible.
The 12th-century English legist Ranulf de Glanvill wrote: “A woman who suffers in this way must go, soon after the deed is done, to the nearest vill [a small territorial unit] and there show to trustworthy men the injury done to her, and any effusion of blood there may be and any tearing of her clothes.”
She needed to demonstrate that extreme physical violence had taken place. The more bruises and blood, the better, as far as the courts were concerned.
Women had to narrate what happened in ways which corresponded to particular legal stipulations and expectations. They needed to find visible proof: showing that their clothing had been torn was often crucial, and damage to other possessions. For example, the rape of Maud of Sundon was taken particularly seriously because she had three gold rings and 20 shillings stolen.
Women needed to find visible proof: showing that their clothing had been torn was often crucial
In one particularly bloody case of 1438, Margaret Perman was raped by one Thomas Elam. She died of her wounds, because he also “bit the said Margaret with his teeth so that he ripped off the nose of the said Margaret with that bite and broke three of her ribs there from which the same Margaret eventually died… because of the poison and infection of the same bite”. These cases were horrific, and it was the responsibility of the women to accumulate visible evidence at great personal cost.
If the man was found not guilty, the accuser could be punished. In 1330, a rape victim became pregnant and since it was believed that conception must indicate a woman took pleasure in sex, she was disbelieved and sentenced to imprisonment herself.
So, why did women speak out? This is a conundrum which historians have grappled with for decades. There is no simple answer, but we can admire their courage and conviction. Even in these extreme circumstances, many women refused to be silenced. In the era of #MeToo, the voices of these victim-survivors resonate particularly strongly.
Hannah Skoda is Fellow and Tutor in Medieval History at St John’s College, Oxford. She works on the social and cultural history of the later Middle Ages, and has authored Medieval Violence (OUP, 2012) and co-edited two volumes on Legalism (OUP, 2012 and 2017)
Read more from Hannah Skoda: 12 myths about life in the Middle Ages – busted