The Aesthetics of Rape Myths (trigger warning)

In my previous post about medieval English laws on rape, I described how difficult, isolating and exhausting the process of bringing a rape case to court was for medieval women, who were automatically considered less likely to tell the truth than men. My research project looks at the ways medieval narratives reinforced, or reflected, social perceptions of women and truth, amplifying the effect of the legal system. A modern parallel shows us how the qualities we usually associate with fiction – the aesthetic qualities of a well-written narrative – play important roles in conveying these social perceptions.

Modern laws have moved on from their medieval roots (not far enough!), but one of the biggest issues facing women in the UK today is the persistence and prevalence of ‘rape myths’.

Modern rape myths begin with the stranger in the ‘dark alley’, the man who waits for a woman walking home alone after nightfall. In reality this describes a tiny percentage of rapes, but it is often cited the default example of ‘real’ rape, of rape where the victim is innocent. It’s also a narrative in which the perpetrator is necessarily a blank, a shadowy figure without an identity, and not the named man known to the victim (as he usually is in real life).

The insidious impact of this myth is even more complicated than its simple lack of truth: in its visual imagery, it is a dead ringer for that other popular rape myth, the ‘grey area’. In rape mythology, a ‘grey area’ is the zone of confusion which – apparently – prevents otherwise decent and upstanding men from realizing that rape is rape. The same imagery of darkness or greyness, substitued for the figure of a named, identified rapist, encourages us to conflate these two myths in our memories. They work together to convince us that rape itself is something shadowy, something whose perpetrators are uncertain, hard to identify, hard to blame.

What is frightening – and frighteningly powerful – about these rape myths is that they are aesthetically powerful, like the most compelling story. They have the consistency of imagery that the best fiction has. So, they shape the ways we imagine and talk about rape, without us even realizing they have done so, and they blur together the distinction they claim to uphold, between the first, ‘valid’ kind of rape in the dark alley, and the ‘grey area’ of other rapes.

It is vital that we learn to recognise the ways rape myths work as narratives, so that we can be wise to the messages they send out, and so we can learn to counter what they say.

For more on rape myths, have a look at Rape Crisis’s page:

If you’re in the mood for a cracking rant deconstructing some of these rape myths, have a look here:

Believing Women

New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M 638, f. 16. The Rape of the Levite Woman

New York, Pierpont Morgan Library, MS M 638, f. 16. The Rape of the Levite Woman

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.

The King of Tars’s Daughter: Pregnancy, Deformity and Faith

I’ve got a post about my new project brewing, but I’m going to jump right in with this one, which I was turning over in my mind last night while I was watching the first episode of Helen Castor’s brilliant documentary ‘Medieval Lives’. It’s still up on iplayer, and well worth a watch.

Castor’s documentary looks at medieval childbirth, and she explores the state of medical knowledge, as well as the social attitudes and practices surrounding pregnancy and labour. The manuscripts she looked at include some fascinating medical textbooks, which show how medieval doctors imagined babies might be positioned in the womb.


Medieval Foetuses in the Womb (London, BL MS Sloane 2463, f. 217)

I wanted to think about another side of childbirth in medieval England, that is, about the stories people told and the fears and hopes these stories reflected. I look at Middle English romances, which were the popular fiction of late-medieval England. Bringing together drama and fantasy with sensationalism, sex, misogyny and racism, these stories are packed with information about cultural stereotypes and attitudes towards women.

The King of Tars tells a story familiar to medieval readers, in which a woman encounters the evils lurking in the world beyond Christendom. The Christian daughter of the King of Tars marries her father’s enemy, the Muslim Sultan of Damascus, hoping to convert him to Christianity. She becomes pregnant, and when she gives birth, the child is not a healthy baby, but a grotesque ‘lump-child’, a bundle of flesh without limbs or features. The narrator dwells on the horror of the scene:

      “lim no hadde it non … In chaumber it lay hem bifore/ Withouten blod &    bon. … it hadde noither nose no eye,/ Bot lay ded as any ston.”

      (“It had no limbs … It lay before them in the birth-chamber,/ Without   blood or bones … It had neither nose nor eyes,/ But lay dead as any stone.”)

The gruesome birth appalls and enrages the Sultan, who initially blames his wife. She, however, convinces him to let her have the baby baptised, and the act of baptism restores the ‘lump-child’ to a normal human baby who begins to cry. Convinced by this concrete proof, he converts to Christianity.

It’s easy to get caught up in the shocking aspects of this story – the extreme Islamophobia, the miraculous transformation of the baptism. But the description of the deformed, lifeless baby, the angry husband and the distraught new mother makes this story an unsettling one.

The Sultan’s initial anger towards his wife draws on a tradition of medieval men who were repelled by, and fearful of, the female processes of pregnancy and childbirth. St Jerome, noted medieval misogynist, declares ‘Women with child present a revolting spectacle’. Writing to a thirteen-year-old girl, he rants about the disgusting physical effects of pregnancy, the swelling of the belly, and the use of medicines to bring about abortions. This disgust and distrust of pregnant women extended to men’s attitudes towards the mothers of babies born with ‘deformities’. The Bible itself said ‘women in their uncleanness will bear monsters’.

Set against these powerful misogynistic messages, the miraculous conclusion of the romance seems flimsy and inadequate. How did medieval women listening to this story respond to its descriptions? Did they think of their own experiences of childbirth – or those of their mothers, sisters, or daughters? Was the mother of the story, who proves herself innocent of blame as well as true in her Christian faith, a source of inspiration, or a focus of pity?