|Jaroslav Čermák, The Abduction of a Herzegovenian |
Woman (1861). Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Abduction. A literary motif, long used in fictional works, the abduction or captivity motif plays a significant role in popular medieval romance. Several Middle English romances refer to captivity and ransom, for example Richard Coeur de Lion, and buying and selling people, for example Guy of Warwick, Sir Isumbras and Floris and Blancheflur.
This is the first of a three-part post about abduction in Middle English romance, which will look specifically at the late English romance, Octavian. This verse romance poses some interesting questions about the politics of abduction in medieval romance, namely how abduction can be redefined as protection or rescue.
In this first post, I offer some background on the contemporary context of abduction in the later Middle Ages, pointing out some of the differences between what we understand as abduction and rape today, compared with the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The second post will focus on abduction in Octavian itself and the third will connect abduction in Octavian with contemporary discourses surrounding abduction and captivity.
In late medieval England, the threat of kidnap was, for some, very real. John Bellamy points out that the ‘charge of abduction […] [was] very common in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’ (33) and that studies of statutes from the later Middle Ages reveal increasing sanctions for kidnap in England throughout the fourteenth century. Sue Sheridan Walker and Christopher Cannon have both noted an increase in the number of cases relating to ravishment of wards and wives in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Henry Ansgar Kelly points out that historians have tended to focus on the kidnap of women, although it has been argued that the capture of male heirs was actually more prevalent. Yet, legal statutes in 1275, 1285 and 1382 specifically addressed the kidnap of women, suggesting that while others may have also been captured in the Middle Ages, kidnap was a significant problem for high status and wealthy women in the later Middle Ages, who may well have been the audience for Octavian; John Simons considers that the audience for Octavian were likely to have been merchants and lower members of the court circle not, as has previously been suggested, a popular low bourgeois audience (106-7).
Bellamy notes that the ‘abduction of heiresses […] seems to have become commoner towards the end of the Middle Ages’ (32). Indeed, it has been suggested by Goldberg that kidnappings of marriageable women ‘were an established strategy within aristocratic culture’ (23). Caroline Dunn identified 556 cases brought between 1200 and 1500 which relate to the capture of women, 407 of which were considered in the fourteenth century. In fact, Dunn argues that the second half of the fourteenth century, the period in which Octavian was composed, was the period in which the highest number of cases of kidnap were brought in the Middle Ages. Octavian was thus written during a period when the capture of women was a particularly prominent social and legal concern.
Yet, what exactly constituted kidnap in the Middle Ages? As has been pointed out, ideas of rape, capture, and forced marriage were interlinked in the Middle Ages. James A. Brundage argues that ‘notions of rape [in the Middle Ages] emerged from the raptus – literally carrying off by force – of the Roman law’ (141), of which sexual intercourse was not a necessary element. Brundage says that ‘medieval definitions of rape required abduction of the victim’ (144) and Bellamy posits that charges of rape and kidnap were often brought together.
While rape and kidnap are discrete crimes today, in the Middle Ages such offences were regularly prosecuted as a single transgression, referred to by the term raptus which could indicate both abduction and rape. Isabelle Mast states: ‘it is often difficult to distinguish between rape as “forced coitus” and rape as “abduction”; the Latin raptus and rapere could mean either’ (104).
Early medieval law distinguished between rape and abduction, but by the time of the first legal statute against abduction in 1275, the two crimes had become legally blurred. Corinne Saunders has argued persuasively for the close connection between rape and abduction and the frequent blurring of these concepts into the more generalised notion of raptus, which she argues is closest to the modern English term ‘ravishment’ (4). Kathryn Gravdal identifies the slippage in meaning from violent abduction to sexual pleasure of the thirteenth-century French term ravissement which, she argues, conflates ideas about women’s attractiveness and a man’s desire to rape. The distinctions between rape and abduction were, then, ambiguous.
That the taking away of women in the late Middle Ages was closely linked to rape and that it was a concern for high-status women reveals the most common reasons for the capture of women. Kidnap was not carried out for reasons of political dissent, as it is in today’s Middle East, but was generally motivated by efforts to secure property and wealth. The easiest way to achieve this was through forced marriage.
Dunn indicates that ‘men who sought economic and social promotion targeted wealthier widows, captured them, took them away from their families, forced them to speak words of matrimony in front of complicit priests, and raped them to consummate the marriage’ (92). It was not just widows who were at risk: the capture of wards (both male and female) was a significant issue with the motivation for kidnap often being to secure the wealth of the ward’s estate. A ward was a young man or woman below marriageable age (in the Middle Ages this was twelve for girls and fourteen for boys) who was placed into the legal care of an adult guardian. Wardship was a lucrative way to turn a profit in the Middle Ages; as Menuge observes, ‘large sums of money could be made from the sale of wards and their marriages’ (154).
This seems to have been the case in the kidnap of Alice de Rouclif, whose marriage had been arranged over a large sum of money which her prospective husband, John Marrays, was undoubtedly aiming to secure when he brought the case (Menuge, 160). Furthermore, laws against kidnap in the Middle Ages often figured the capture of a woman as loss of property for her husband, father or guardian. John Bellamy and Christoper Cannon both note that kidnapping was referred to as trespass, along with such crimes as ‘breaking into houses [and] taking goods’ (Bellamy, 33), which usually sought ‘financial compensation for the monetary loss incurred from the wrong’ (Cannon, 80). Contemporary cases thus reveal how ‘medieval men sought to retain possession of their ravishable women’ (Dunn, 116). This is kidnap for fiscal gain, not for politics.
So how, given the social and cultural anxiety surrounding abduction, can it be integrated successfully into a romance narrative? What changes need to be made to the discourse of abduction in order for abduction to become ‘heroic’? I will consider these questions in my next post, looking more closely at the abduction of the heroine, Marsabelle, by the hero, Florent, in the romance Octavian.
Bellamy, John. Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.
Brundage, James A. ‘Rape and Seduction in the Medieval Canon Law.’ Sexual Practices & the Medieval Church. Ed. Vern L. Bullough and Brundage. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1982. 141-148.
Cannon, Christopher. ‘Rapuits in the Chaumpaigne Release.’ Speculum 68.1 (1993): 74-94.
Dunn, Caroline. ‘The Language of Ravishment in Medieval England.’ Speculum 86.1 (2011): 79-116.
Goldberg, P. J. P. Communal Discord, Child Abduction and Rape in the Later Middle Ages. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Gravdal, Kathryn. Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
Kelly, Henry Ansgar. ‘Statutes of Rapes and Alleged Ravishers of Wives: A Context for the Charges against Thomas Malory, Knight.’ Viator 28 (1997): 361-419.
Mast, Isabelle. ‘Rape in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis and Other Related Works.’ Young Medieval Women. Ed. Katherine J. Lewis, Noël James Menuge and Kim M. Philips. Stroud: Sutton, 1999. 103-32.
Menuge, Noël James. ‘Female Wards and Marriage in Romance and Law: A Question of Consent.’ Young Medieval Women. Ed. Katherine J. Lewis, Menuge and Kim M. Phillips. Stroud: Sutton, 1999. 153-71.
Saunders, Corinne. Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001.
Simons, John. ‘Northern Octavian and the Question of Class.’ Romance in Medieval England. Ed. Maldwyn Mills, Jennifer Fellows and Carol M. Meale. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1991. 105-11.
Walker, Sue Sheridan. ‘Punishing Convicted Ravishers: Statutory Strictures and Actual Practice in Thirteenth and Fourteenth-Century England.’ Journal of Medieval History 13 (1987): 237-50.