On disavowing sexual assault

Content Note: this post discusses the existence of sexual assault. It does not go into any detail, but does talk about it as a sociological and legal construct.

By now you have probably seen that there is a new show set in the Game of Thrones/ASOIAF universe coming up called House of the Dragon. This is OK news if you are me, because I am extremely going to watch that garbage one way or another. This is because of who I am as a person. I am not, however, gonna, like, get my hopes up that it will be good after … the unpleasantness of the ending of GoT. ANYWAY that is not what I am here to talk about today. Instead, I want to talk about the statement of one of the showrunners Miguel Sapochnik, who when asked why there was so much sexual assault in the upcoming series was heard to remark that, “You can’t ignore the violence that was perpetrated on women by men in that time”. And man, do I have something to say about this.

Now first of all looking at sexual assault as something specific to the Middle Ages is pretty funny, because in a European context the early Romans that everyone is constantly dick riding for didn’t care about it. Early Roman law documents don’t suggest that forced sex was punished at all. Like at all at all. Nope. None of that. Maybe this is to do with the fact that social norms accepted it. After all the gods were out there sexually assaulting, so who were you a mortal to argue with that?[1] Otherwise it might just be because the Romans were garbage people. Who knows?

This changes a bit during the later Republic when dudes were forced to grapple with heady questions such as: Are women people? Do they, like, feel things? And by the imperial period, forced sex was considered serious enough that if caught it was punishable with death. Interestingly, under Augustan legislation forcible sex was made illegal by extending edicts against the taking of property by force to people’s bodies.[2] Suddenly you could be subject to capital punishment for assaulting either a woman or a young boy.[3] To be fair, it is likely that the women and boys who enjoyed justice were from the upper classes, but still it is something.

A hermit sexually assaulting a women, from British Library Yates Thompson MS 13, fol. 177 r.

When the Christians took over, not a whole lot was added to embellish on this. But by the fourth century, Church leaders decided that they wanted to work with the empires to help curb sexual assaults. The Council of Ancyra, held in 314 declared that if an affianced woman was abducted and assaulted she should be given back to her betrothed. In 451 the Council of Chalcedon said that laymen who raped were to be excommunicated and the clerics who did so should lose their offices.[4] Which, yeah, I should think so?

The Emperors were pretty happy to go along with this, but it’s around here that our ideas about what rape is begin to skew. See, in this period, the definition of rape, or raptus, was not necessarily what we would see as rape. Sure sometimes it meant forcible rape, but it could also just mean taking a woman out of her house without the permission of her parents or other male guardians. For this reason we see the Emperor Constantine (c. 272-337) declaring that sometimes the women involved in “rape” would be publicly punished alongside their theoretical assailants. How? Well, if a woman willingly ditched her dad’s house and went and eloped with a guy – that was rape, and she was an accessory to it. So according to Constantine she should probably be burned to death alongside her abductor.[5] Nice.

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When you take this into consideration it makes it clear that the idea that “rape” is some sort of endemic feature of the medieval period, or the late antique one if you want to split hairs here, is a really stupid one. Sometimes raptus absolutely means what we mean when we say rape. Sometimes it just means that someone was kidnapped. Sometimes it means that a chick had sex with someone that her dad didn’t like.

From BL Royal 20 C VI, f. 150.

This is especially important to keep in mind in the earlier medieval period when you see references to, for example, vikings “raping and pillaging”. This doesn’t necessarily mean what we mean when we say rape. Because sometimes it is worse. I would argue that being taken from your home, enslaved, and sent far from your homeland is probably the worst thing that could happen to someone, you see. So just keep that in mind.

Over the medieval period this idea – that abduction was a form of rape – remained, but a part of that was the assumption that if someone was abducted they would necessarily be sexually assaulted. In the eleventh century, for example, Ivo of Chartres (1040-1115), bishop and canon law expert, said that it was the opinion of his friend Pope Urban II (c. 1035-1099) that any man who kidnapped a woman was probably going to sexually assault her anyway. As a result, any such man would need to somehow prove that he had not if apprehended.[6]

As the period wore on, however, the Church noticed that abducting a woman was just a way that people chose their marriage partners if their parents wouldn’t allow them that choice. And the Church was extremely big on the idea that individuals should choose who they marry, not families. As a result, they started pushing back against stuff like your boy Constantine up there burning both people to death. They started pushing the idea that if a woman was raped the crime could be ameliorated by marrying her. Johannes Teutonicus (d. 1245) – a church law scholar – was a big proponent of this. As far as he was concerned if a family was mad they could just go ahead and disinherit their daughter over it. The would have to do so after providing her with a dowry if she was under 25 and the guy was of the same social class though.[7]

Romantic courtly love gesture, or edging close to rape? Depends on whose dad you ask. From the Codex Manasse, 22 v.

So this is where things get hazy, because this is probably a good thing? Like, yeah for sure let people get married if they want to, damn! But on the other hand, it also means that if a woman was sexually assaulted after being abducted against her will then that could all be washed away by marrying her. And well, yikes. Some people noticed the issue here, and people like the the decretists – Church law nerds who were specifically nerdy about the writings of Gratian (359-383)– said that when thinking about rape you had to consider the amounts of force an assault involved. The more violence involved, the worse the crime was. As a part of this, for them the victim had to resist or protest in order for something to be rape.[8]

Again, this is tricky one. Yes it is probably good to differentiate between sexual assault and two people getting married against their parents’ will. On the other hand – why hello it is the introduction of the perfect victim. In order for a crime to be considered you had better pray that your trauma response is fight or flight because otherwise some Church dudes were here to tell you that you were assaulted wrong and you might end up married to the perpetrator.

So – it’s complicated! Sexual assault absolutely existed in the medieval period. Let’s get that straight, but also it’s not as easy as looking at the past, seeing the word raptus, and saying “this is about rape and wow there sure is a lot of it around.” I mean are the Game of Thrones people going to be showing women eloping with their chosen husbands and then getting burned up by a dragon or something in the name of historical accuracy? (That’s a free idea for you right there guys. You are welcome.) No! I doubt it! They are just going to show what you and I think of as sexual assault without thinking about the complexities of the term or the period.

The Rape of Lucretia, The Hague, KB, 66 B 13 fol. 289r .

Further, acting like sexual assault was a specific problem “in that time” aka the Middle Ages is just, hahahah, whooo boy. No. Like oh more of a problem then than in the Early Roman period when it wasn’t a crime? More so than NOW? Because I have some news for my man Miguel. According to the excellent Rape Crisis (who is are the place to go if you need help or support around a sexual assault in the United Kingdom) the highest ever number of rapes in the United Kingdom ever reported to police was last fucking year, and it was 67,125. That is a lot. But it is even more when you consider that only one in 100 rapes is reported to police. This is a catastrophic amount. It is therefore no wonder that one in four women have been raped or sexually assaulted, as well as one in six children and one in twenty men.  So, forgive me if I cannot really get behind the assertion that sexual assault is somehow a specific feature of medieval society as opposed to modern.

Further, and this goes without saying – A Song of Ice and Fire is not real. Not Westeros. Not the Summer Islands. Not the Great Grass Sea, and definitely not the dragons. Now I like the little nods to medieval stuff in the world probably more than the next person. I find it cute and also nice. But the thing is, in a world where magic is real you are making choices. You don’t have to show sexual assault all the time because you are somehow bearing accurate witness to the medieval past. It is simply not necessary. You can choose not to show it just like you choose not to show accurate medieval things like crop rotation, or the discovery of the three-field system. It is a choice.

If what you want is a way explain why you have a bunch of sexual assault in your dragon show I have a fig leaf for you right here – you could just say that it is an accurate reflection of a patriarchal society because well, yeah. Sexual assault is absolutely endemic in our society right now. This show is a part of that society. While it is taking place in an imaginary world, it, like most good art* is reflecting our own world back to us and asking us questions about what that means. This world has sexual assault just like the real world does. It is unfortunate but true.

All of which brings me to my final point – you could just like have some courage and say you put it in because you, too, are steeped up to your eyeballs in patriarchy and just didn’t really interrogate why you did it. You just did, because it is really hard for us to critique the culture that we are in. We are inured to it. Patriarchy and sexual assault is the air we breathe, and if people aren’t very very careful their art will reflect that without critiquing it. I would argue that this is what happened here, and there is a lot of furious back peddling to explain why.

I don’t think all art needs to be comfortable. I am fine with challenges and I also think there is something to be said here about how we specifically get upset about seeing sexual violence in a show that is absolutely rife with physical violence that largely goes unmentioned. What I do think is an issue is using incredibly bad history to make up for your own shortcomings as an artist. Either stand by what you did or don’t. But don’t blame it on medieval people when we are just as bad.

*I am not saying this is good art

[1] Pomeroy, Goddesses, pp. 8, 12; James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 47; A. Bride, “Rapt (Empêchement de)), in, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. A. Vacant, et al., (Paris, Letouzey et Ané, 1909-1950), 13/3: 1666.
[2] Dig. 4.2.1. (Ulpine)
[3] Dig. (Marcianus)
[4] On Ancyra, see Giovanni Domenico Mansi (ed.), Sacrorum conciliorum nova et amplissima collection, Vol 2. (Paris: Hubert Welter, 1901-1927), p. 531. On Chalcedon see, Giuseppe Alberigo et al. (eds.),  Conciliorum oecumenicorum decreta, Second Edition, (Freiburg: Herder, 1962), p.75
[5] Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe, (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 107.
[6] Ivo, Decretu 8.24, in PL, 161: 589.
[7] Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society, p. 397.
[8] Ibid., p. 311.

For more on myths about the medieval period, see:

Plague Police roundup, or, I am tired, and you people give me no peace
If you are going to talk about the Dark Ages, you had better be right
JFC, calm down about the medieval Church
I assure you, medieval people bathed.
On colonialism, imperialism, and ignoring medieval history
“I wasn’t taught medieval history so it is not important” is not a real argument, but ok
There’s no such thing as the ‘Dark Ages’, but OK
On why the misuse of the word ‘medieval’ is a bad thing

Ⓒ Eleanor Janega, 2023

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My book, The Once And Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society, is out now in the Americas, and available for pre-order in the UK, Aus, and NZ.

Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, George Michael evangelist.

13 thoughts on “On disavowing sexual assault”

  1. A question here : in Lewis Trondheim’s quite good fantasy serie “Ralph Azam” (set in a clearly medieval civilization), a subplot involves a lady pilloried for some reason.
    And as night falls, we see evildoers preparing to take advantage of the absence of witness to repeatedly rape her since she’s powerless to defend herself, being in the pillori.

    What’s the historical reality of this ? Were pilloried people (who we know were subjects to outrage and public sadism) regularly raped and was it considered part of the punishment ?
    Or if not, what prevented the rapes ?


    1. We don’t have a lot of documentation on sexual assault as a result of being in the pillory, no. The thing that stops it in general is shame, which is incredibly powerful. Even in an absence of naming this as assault it would be fornication, which is incredibly frown upon. Moreover, in a public place you would be almost guaranteed to be discovered. There are watchmen, if there is noise someone will come. It’s still a sin even if you discount the crime.


      1. Thanks for the explanations.
        If you happen to read Ralph Azam (which I really liked, though the ending seems a cop-out to me) would you be kind enough to come back to this post and explain what he got wrong ?
        Because in the context of the comic book it really sounded obvious.


  2. A very interesting read, thank you very much ! There might be a few errors that might merit checking out :

    – Bret Devereaux mentions that we actually don’t know what early Roman Law says about rape/forced sex, since there are very few sources on early Roman Law. See here : https://acoup.blog/2022/08/05/fireside-friday-august-5-2022/. Of course, it may depends on what you mean by early Roman Law, Prof. Devereaux seems to see it as early/middle Republic.
    – You write that “[w]hen the Christians took over, not a whole lot was added to embellish on this”, and yet immediately mentions the Council of Ancyra, which would be contemporary to the “Christian take-over” of the Roman empire (313, even though 380 would likely be a better – if disputed in contemporary scholarship – date).
    – Most importantly, the Gratian the Decretists were so fond over is certainly not the Roman emperor but the author of the Decretum Gratiani (around 1130s for its first version, 1143 for the second one). Most of the Decretists were more or less contemporaries of this Gratian, and the Decretum was (somehow remains !) hugely influential for canon law.


  3. Also, the Brett Devereaux’ post that lead me to this article mentions that you’re invited with him at a Paradox event in Swede (or another Scandinavian country, not sure) ?
    Considering how much he’s a public critic of game, I understand why he’s invited, but may I ask the reason you go too ?
    Are you a closeted gamer ? And if so what do you play ?

    (another thing : Devereaux seems a nice guy but he’s starkly right-wing, how come you two seem to get along that well ?)


    1. Yeah Sweden. I am like, not quote a gamer because I grew up broke and never had video games so like, don’t know how to do them very well? BUT I do stream with my mate Sinan and play CKIII specifically, and I like watching people play videogames if that makes sense.
      Brett, in my estimation, is simply a lib who I will turn.


      1. Since Brett Devereaux is doing a serie on CKIII just right now, and you’re more of a specialist of the period that he is (and also have different politics than him), will you comment on it ?
        Respectfully I mean, since he’s a pal of yours and seems a nice guy even if he’s accessory to war crimes (though giving advice to the US Army beyond “dissolve yourself and bring all your internal documents to International Court”).


  4. Rape Crisis say “5 in 6 women who are raped don’t report”, rather than 99 in 100. “One in 100” is their figure for the share of reported rapes leading to charges in the same year.


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