Images of sexual violence and ravishment appear in many medieval texts, from the works of Geoffrey Chaucer to less well-known texts like saints’ lives, political treatises, and accounts of mystical experience.
Suzanne Edwards, assistant professor of English, is interested in the ways in which legal and literary texts from the 13th through the 15th centuries variously represent and define sexual violence. For example, medieval laws link rape with non-sexual abduction and elopement. Margery Kempe, a mystic, describes her fear of rape with the same language she uses to describe her desire to be ravished by the divine. Edwards’ research focuses on how and why the language of sexual violence produces such dense and contradictory meanings.
She argues that these representations of sexual violence capture ethical and epistemological concerns about the will and the body. One of the texts Edwards studies, a guide for religious women, casts reading and marriage as forms of sexual violence. This guide takes an extreme position on sexual violence to explore how human beings can consent to sin, even when they experience that sin as a grave harm. “The imagery and narrative conventions of ravishment tell us about the competing ways in which medieval writers define the limits of bodily experience, human agency, and sexuality,” Edwards says.
Imagery of sexual violence reflects ideals about gendered social roles, but often, Edwards argues, in unexpected ways.
The philosophical questions about consent and bodily experience characteristic of late-medieval thinking about sexual violence resonated not just with ecclesiastical concerns about sin but also with civil concerns about private property and legitimate governance, another area of interest for Edwards. Imagery of sexual violence reflects ideals about gendered social roles, but often, Edwards argues, in unexpected ways. For example, in some texts the figure of a sexually violated woman models effective masculine rule, the possibility of acting meaningfully in the face of difficult constraints on action.
“There is no single definition of sexual violence in late-medieval England,” says Edwards. “It is a contested category that reveals how gender and sex were contested as well. Examining varied medieval accounts of ravishment might help modern readers to re-evaluate familiar concepts, such as consent and violence, gender, and sexuality.”