Rape and Sexual Coercion in the Penitentials: Evidence Before 1100

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Friedensen, Rachel E.
thesis / dissertation description
This thesis engages with previous scholarship on rape in early medieval texts, known as penitential handbooks. Whereas scholars on the topic have taken the stance that rape was not present in the penitentials, I argue that rape and "rape-like" actions were, in fact, present. First, I show that the penitentials differentiated between abduction and captivity for sexual purposes (usually denoted by raptus) and abduction for other reasons, often economic or political. Second, the penitentials show evidence of a growing concern for consent—penances varied for different sexual sins, depending on the whether or not the parties consented to the acts. Third, I posit that rape can be found in the penitentials through a linguistic analysis of verbs such as maculare, corrumpere, rumpere, contaminare, and polluere. I theorize that the layers of meaning, such as staining, defiling, or physically corrupting the body, point to rape as often as consensual sex. Additionally, the authors of the penitentials use the adjective invita, meaning reluctant or unwilling, to describe the feminine actor in a sex act. Finally, I argue that certain sex acts in the penitentials, such as incest, child sexual abuse, and sex with unfree people, can also be considered "rape-like" actions. The authors of the penitentials did indeed include rape in the lists of prohibited sex acts; it merely requires a more nuanced exploration to see it.