The meaning of rape in medieval law and literature has been the subject of controversy in recent years (especially for those intrigued by the tantalizing historical fragment that tells us the canonical author, Geoffrey Chaucer, was released from a charge of rape). In medieval terminology, the term ‘raptus’ is ambiguous since it can refer to either forced coitus or abduction, sometimes for the purposes of a consensual marriage. Suzanne Edwards makes an invaluable contribution to these discussions by shifting attention away from the presumed passive victim of rape and towards the active and potentially empowered rape survivor. Engaging an impressive generic and chronological range of medieval texts from the eleventh to the fifteenth century, including saints’ lives, religious tracts, romances, theological commentary, and legal statutes, the book is punctuated throughout with original and illuminating close readings of texts. Professor Edwards begins her book with a careful analysis of one of the most influential texts on rape in the Christian world, Augustine’s discussion of the rape of the Roman heroine, Lucrece. As she points out, Augustine’s analysis challenges the prevailing ideology of rape by arguing that the victim under no circumstances should commit suicide after a rape. This important argument both dismantles a pervasive pre-Christian ideology that links imperialist war with the dead body of the rape victim and grants women status as subjects with inviolable souls rather than merely seeing them as objects in a patriarchal structure that rests on the traffic in women. Edwards shows how Augustine reorients the shame women are supposed to experience after rape by arguing that shame is a productive state for Christians, all of whom are born into the shame of original sin. This observation leads him to propose that survivors of sexual violence possess privileged moral, ethical and spiritual insight. Survival of rape, an act against a woman’s will, then, counter-intuitively, has the positive effect of guaranteeing a woman’s chastity and her freedom from pride. Edwards does a superb job of explaining a complex theological text and of setting out Augustine’s creation of an influential dialectic in which an act to be strenuously avoided becomes an avenue to privileged insight, a dialectic that the rest of the book will show is manifest in a variety of literary genres. In the first chapter, Edwards explores the function of discourses of survival of rape in early medieval religious writing. Despite the critical attention that representations of rape in secular writings have received, few critics have explored extensively the function of representations of rape across a range of religious writings from saints’ lives to religious tracts. Edwards devotes the first chapter to a study of the role survival of rape plays in the construction of female sanctity in early saints’ lives, Goscelin of St. Bertin’s account of the Virgin of Antioch and the Life of Christina of Markyate. She contrasts early Christian martyrs who neither fear nor endure sexual violence with the protagonists of later medieval religious texts who embrace suffering and the survival of sexual violence as ideal experiences in their quest for sanctity. She skilfully shows how Goscelin and Christina of Markyate cast the suffering of sexual violence as a form of redemptive sacrifice, ‘a sign of a would-be saint’s refusal of exemplarity and willingness to embrace a divine will beyond understanding’ (p. 17). Professor Edwards' extensive diachronic analysis of saints’ lives shows how the status of sexual violence develops over time in the most popular genre of literature in the Middle Ages. Professor Edwards then considers the ways in which two major anchoritic texts, the thirteenth century guide to the reclusive life, Ancrene Wisse, and its companion tract on virginity, Hali Meidenhad, argue that the female contemplative should embrace rather than recoil from the experience of sexual violence. The insistent disgust about sexual intercourse the authors of both these texts display has often been noticed, but Edwards compellingly explains the function of that obsession by showing how a focus on sex acts against the will of the participant furthers the anchoritic reader’s pursuit of a life of perfection; that is, by continually emulating the shame of those who endure sexual violence, the contemplative female reader is able to protect herself from the pride her pursuit of perfection might inspire. This chapter not only provides a persuasive novel interpretation of the texts, but furthers our understanding of affective reading practices more generally, a topic that is just now receiving significant critical attention. In Chapter 3, Edwards offers an illuminating new study of the well-known The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale by Chaucer, which she considers in relationship to the discourses of sexual violence found in legal documents of the period. In a superb example of critical legal studies, she presents an enlightening interpretation of several legal documents associated with the rape and abduction of Eleanor West in the 1380s, a text that she shows to share important affinities with the Wife of Bath’s Tale. She first demonstrates that the central victim in the accounts of Eleanor’s rape surprisingly proves not to be Eleanor but rather her mother, a shift in focus required by Eleanor’s problematic subsequent agreement to marry her rapist. As Edwards explains, medieval rape law concerning this case both valorizes and undermines the meaning of consent in cases in which raped and abducted women later consent to marry their rapists. While maintaining her focus on the literary rather than the historical resonance of these documents, Professor Edwards demonstrates how Chaucer, in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, both registers and critiques legal norms concerning gendered violence. In this chapter and indeed throughout her study, Professor Edwards shows how important it is to attend continually to the harms women have suffered and continue to suffer through gendered violence while uncovering the ways in which some representations of those harms may actually undo the assumptions about gender that produced the acts in the first place. In the final chapter, Edwards, through an analysis of Middle English revisionings of the classical rape stories of Lucrece and Orpheus, broadens the scope of her study to consider the ways in which women’s survival of rape can model possibilities for political reform. John Gower’s version of the paradigmatic story of the rape of Lucrece rarely receives critical attention, and, although Eurydice’s abduction has been discussed in Sir Orfeo as a form of sexual violence, the link between the survival of rape and political reform in the Middle English poem has yet to be observed. Edwards’ analysis not only contributes to our understanding of two little studied Middle English texts, but also and perhaps more importantly, effectively demonstrates that, in the English Middle Ages, poets rejected classical models of political reform that depended on the destruction of women. Her careful analysis of both Middle English poems powerfully concludes an intellectually sophisticated book, significant not only for its subtle interpretations of gendered violence in the Middle Ages, but also for its implications for our understandings of sexual violence in the present. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Oct 13, 2017
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