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Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law.

Actions which are not pleasurable do not need to be prohibited; this tension between desirability and condemnation is especially fraught in the case of rape, characteristically if not uniquely a male crime, perpetrated, legislated against and represented in societies whose political, legal and literary cultures are dominated by men. Gravdal's book is a brave and intelligent attempt to work through the distressing implications of this problem. Its title illustrates the ambiguities inherent in the vocabulary of rape, which slides from sexual assault (|he ravished her') to implicating the victim's charms (|she was ravishing'), to making the male actor of a victim of his passion (|he was ravished by her'), and finally to imagining her pleasure (|she was ravished'). The French vocabulary of rape and rapture (rapt, ravir, etc.) characterizes a slippage between violence and |courtliness', OF esforcer one between violence and heroics. Sexual violence is thereby mystified. Similarly, mediaeval legislation about rape is |often buried in the complexities of adultery, marriage or abduction laws' (p. 6). Produced under a male hegemony legal and literary texts share an interest in the subordination of women. Although sexual violence may assail other values of patriarchy (notably chastity), it is a dramatic demonstration of power; representations of rape confirm and contribute to an ideology of male dominance, they construct gender roles as much as they reflect them, and this is true of legal texts as much as it is of literary ones. Literature about rape may find favour with female audiences not because they find the subject titillating, but because it causes them anxiety, and the aesthetic framing provided by the text distances the brutality of assault for women, just as it does for men.

From these contentions, elaborated in her opening chapter with more detail and sophistication than I can do justice to here, Gravdal goes on to examine the use of the motif of rape in five sets of texts: Latin and Old French hagiography; the romances of Chretien de Troves; the Roman de Kenart; the Old French pastourelle; and the court records of fourteenth-century French clerical and secular courts. This last chapter makes chilling reading, the more so as Gravdal convincingly shows how similar are the mentality and terminology of pastourelle seducers and those of court notaries. The pastourelles, which romanticize rape as an adventure women can expect and enjoy, emerge worst from this study. Gravdal also mistrusts Chretien's apparent condemnation of rape, since his stories require the threat of rape as a test of the hero (Yvain); since even the heroes themselves either tempt rape (Erec makes his wife ride apparently undefended) or attempt it (Perceval); and since in the most graphically described rape scene (in the Charrete), the |victim' turns out to be responsible for the assault. The works which emerge in the best light are those of the only woman author mentioned (Hrotsvita) and the Renart, which shows how |the feudal legal system supports cultural indifference to male violence against women' (p. 99). Admirers of courtly literature may be offended by this book, and it would certainly take more space than Gravdal allows to argue to what extent men, while all benefiting from patriarchy, may also criticize and seek to change it. I regret her silence over the chansons de geste and the fabliaux, the way plot summary occupies so much of the available space, and mistranslations such as ne cuit |she did not imagine' (p. 110), omnibus |men' (p. 127). But this remains an important and challenging contribution to gender studies in the French Middle Ages.
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Author:Kay, Sarah
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
Words:589
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