My research project – a study of the way medieval romances treat truth and gender – began with a question: what cultural assumptions lie behind stories that represent women as truthful or deceptive, as credible witnesses or as fantasists and liars? What can medieval and modern narratives tell us about the ways society is conditioned to believe – or disbelieve – women?
One medieval narrative that helps us to answer this question is that told by Margery de la Hulle, a young woman living in Berkshire in the thirteenth century. In a court case recorded in 1248, Margery states that, one July evening four years earlier, she had been raped by a man named Nicholas Whatcomb in Bagnor Wood, near Boxford.
At the time when Margery brought this case to court, the odds were heavily stacked against her. Medieval culture could be sympathetic to rape victims, but only when it was clear that they were ‘good’ victims – good women, wrongly accused and (almost invariably) well connected socially. Biblical stories such as the tale of the Levite woman, sent out of her house to be raped, drew horrified responses from medieval storytellers.
In real life, however, it was different.
Rape cases rarely made it to court. They were often withdrawn, and they very rarely ended in a guilty verdict. At every stage, the law reminded women that they were fundmentally less trustworthy than their male peers. The court members – always men – were required to inspect women for signs, such as bloodstained or torn clothing, which might give support to their claims. Women were legally required, before they brought a rape case to court, to describe their experiences to men ‘of good repute’. They were required to publicized their rape, to make a ‘hue and cry’ not only in their own local county, but in the neighbouring counties.
This is what Margery de la Hulle fell foul of. In her court case, the judge ruled that, since Margery did not ‘make hue and cry’ about her rape except in her local county of Berkshire, there was nothing to suggest the truth of her allegation. The penalty for Margery’s failure to follow the arcane rules of the court was immediate: she was guilty of making a false allegation of rape.
The medieval distrust of women who testified to their experiences of rape is frighteningly recognisable. We inherit the legal and theoretical framework that medieval women lived under, where ‘truth’ was a concept men were better equipped to interpret, judge, and communicate than women. The narratives that Margery’s society understood – the narratives in which women were treated as if they were automatically likely to lie – are narratives we still hear, but made more dangerous because for us, they are more insidious.