Rape and Silence: Ovid’s Mythography and Medieval Readers

  • Mark Amsler
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Thinking about representations of sexual violence in Medieval and Early Modern texts, we will always return to Ovid’s writings, to how they might have been read and reread by medieval audiences and writers, to how we read them being read. Ovid has already partially preempted us by writing Remedia amores as a self-ironic rebuttal to his earlier texts on love and sex. But medieval readers of Ovid interpreted and revised Ovid within other hermeneutic codes—cosmological, allegorical, ethical, historical, courtly. In this essay, I explore how medieval readers of Ovid’s mythographic rape narratives often elided or erased the rape itself (the letter of the text and the literal body) by interpreting sexual violence as an allegory of creation or spirituality, or as a moral exemplum in which gender and sexual behaviors are subordinated to other sociopolitical codes. Constructing readings framed primarily by categories of ethical or spiritual utilitas, official commentaries and mythographies participated in later medieval discourses about rape and sexuality in various ways: by downplaying legal questions of rape, by silencing sexual violence (in the textual letter and the literal body) or by decoding rape narratives as integumenta structured around gendered binaries of virtue and vice. However, some later medieval readings and rewritings of Ovidian rape narratives (by Chaucer, Gower, Christine de Pizan) challenged many of these mythographers’ assumptions about reading for pleasure or moral edification.


Sexual Violence Twelfth Century Pagan Text Attempted Rape Literal Body 
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© Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose 2001

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  • Mark Amsler

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