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  • Effacing Rape in Early Modern Representation
  • Barbara J. Baines

The purpose of this study is to explore the effacement of rape in legal and literary texts of the English Early Modern period; the relevance of this effacement for the late twentieth century will be apparent. As Renaissance legal and literary texts were mutually influential in their representations of rape, they were also grounded in certain constructs of female sexuality and consent derived from a complex body of theological, medical, and philosophical texts, both medieval and classical. 1 To this (mis)understanding, the twentieth century has contributed its own post-Freudian conceptualizations. 2 But Susan Brownmiller is right only in the first half of her statement when she says, “Men have always raped women, but it wasn’t until the advent of Sigmund Freud and his followers that the male ideology of rape began to rely on the tenet that rape was something women desired”; in fact, this tenet predates Freud by many centuries. 3 For an inquiry into the history and thus the ideology of rape, the Renaissance is an ideal period because it both re-presents medieval and classical assumptions and lays the foundation for what we recognize as our own modern concerns. Then as now, the heart of the matter is the concept of consent.

Writing the history of rape is an extremely precarious endeavor. Some modern historians contend that there is no such history, for “rape is too risky, too political a subject to be dealt with comfortably.” 4 Sylvana Tomaselli asserts, “The fact that we have no history of rape . . . is more revealing of modern attitudes to rape than an indication of our forefathers’ (and mothers’) indifference to it. The reluctance to acknowledge the reality of rape . . . is only a relatively recent phenomenon. . . . In the past rape was neither passed over in silence nor made light of. Think only of Helen, the Sabine women or Lucretia.” 5 Although I would agree that historicizing what has been effaced is no easy task, I wish to take issue with Tomaselli’s assertion, for “the reluctance to acknowledge the reality of rape” is the history of rape. Men and women in the past were no less reluctant than we are today to deal with the problem. That reluctance can be shown; the silence can be heard. [End Page 69]

Perhaps we are inclined to think that rape has no history because we assume that history is that which makes itself recognizable through change. The legal history of rape, however, is very much the same old story. The few studies we have of legal efforts to contend with rape in the medieval and Early Modern periods reveal a great disparity between the text of the law and its practice: that is to say, between the severity of the laws and the will to apply them. 6 In the disparity between its statutes and its practice, the law becomes a mirror image of its own all-too-familiar construct of the woman who says no but doesn’t really mean it. And when we do indeed think of Helen or of the Sabine women, or especially of Lucrece, we discover that rape is “troped” or metaphorized, rationalized, politicized—in short, transformed into an occasion for the conflict between men and for the privileging of male honor. We must ask how and for whom rape is taken seriously.

I. Medieval Law and Legal Compendia

Medieval law pertaining to rape recognizes the offense primarily as a signifier in the power relations among men. J. B. Post’s analysis of the statutes known as Westminster I and II (the first written in 1275, the second in 1285) charts “the strange process whereby the ordinary and straightforward remedies framed for a crude and shameful crime were effectively taken away from the victim, and put at the disposal of secondary, and sometimes opposing, interests.” 7 In a more explicit account, Nazife Bashar explains, “Rape law in the medieval period was constructed around the protection of male property in the form of their movable goods, their wives and daughters, their bequeathed inheritances, their future heirs. Rape was seen as a crime against property.” 8 The fact that...

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