Representing Rape in Medieval and Early Modern Literature
  • Elizabeth Robertson
  • Christine M. Rose
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Feminist analyses of rape have only just begun. This volume engages in a conversation with earlier studies of rape to argue that stories of sexual violence against women serve as foundational myths of Western culture. Our collection of essays has two functions. First, the volume explores the resistance that representations of rape in Medieval and Early Modern literature generate and have generated for readers, especially for the female reader. Second, it investigates what early representations of rape tell us about social formations governing the relationships between men and women in those periods, and, more specifically, those cultures’ notions of women as subjects. The editors and essayists of this volume seek to highlight the repetition of rape in art, and brush aside, as Calasso suggests, the “seaweed” of trope to reveal the skeleton of the system that perpetuates it. This is not to say that rape is only one thing; rather, in its extremity, rape makes manifest the specifics of a given culture’s understanding of the female subject in society.


Sexual Violence Female Identity Early Modern Period Medieval Literature Medieval Text 
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  1. 1.
    For Daphne’s story, see Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 1, trans. Mary M. Innes (New York: Penguin, 1976), pp. 41–43.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    Some of these tracts are anthologized in Alcuin Blamires, Women Defamed and Women Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992). For an earlier discussion of such views of women, see R. Howard Bloch, Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991); see also The Medieval Feminist Newsletters response to earlier formulations of Bloch’s ideas (Fall, 1988).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Catherine A. MacKinnon, Toward a Feminist Theory of the State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 172.Google Scholar
  4. 7.
    In Chaucer and Gower: Difference, Mutuality and Exchange, ed. Robert F. Yeager, English Literary Studies Monograph Series 51 (Victoria, BC: University of Victoria, 1991), pp. 130–52. Reprinted in Violence Against Women in Medieval Texts, ed. Anna Roberts (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1998), pp. 115–49.Google Scholar
  5. 10.
    Christine de Pizan in her City of Ladies, ed. and trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards (New York: Persea Books, 1982), pp. 160–63, in Book 2, 44.1ff., has Lady Rectitude refute the notion that women want to be raped, giving several examples, of whom Lucretia is one: “Rest assured, dear friend, chaste ladies who live honestly take absolutely no pleasure in being raped. Indeed, rape is the greatest possible sorrow for them…” (161). Likewise, Marie de France’s Fables recounts the particularly sinister rape of a female bear by a male fox (“The Fox and the Bear,” Fable 70), and the author grimly notes in her moralitas at its end that even the wise and virtuous cannot escape the wiles of the wicked: “and it must always be this way,” hoping perhaps that the heuristic force of witnessing the literary rape of the helpless bear, entangled in bushes by her fur (interestingly, her body is her trap) and mounted by the fox, will encourage her audience to keep it from “always” being “this way.” See Harriet Spiegel, ed. and trans., Marie de France: Fables (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987), p. 185; and Spiegel’s “The Male Animal in the Fables of Marie de France,” in Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), pp. 111–26, esp. p. 116. Both Marie and Christine vehemently oppose eliding textual rape by finding it fun.Google Scholar
  6. 11.
    For recent collections of essays discussing the social construction of the body in the Middle Ages, see Linda Lomperis and Sarah Stanbury, Feminist Approaches to the Body in Medieval Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993) and Sarah Kay and Miri Rubin, Framing Medieval Bodies (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994).Google Scholar

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© Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Elizabeth Robertson
  • Christine M. Rose

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