The above book, Stolen Women in Medieval England, by Caroline Dunn, is subtitled Rape, Abduction and Adultery 1100-1500. This subtitle is well earned, because all three activities become very tangled indeed in those records that survive of cases that reached courts.
The general impression the modern world has of medieval women is that they were “victims” of men who controlled everything in their lives. Whether it was their father, brother, husband, whatever, they were bullied into submission. Hmm, not quite. Many women back then knew exactly how to work the system. So that when we read of raids by armed men to abduct and force into marriage any woman who would bring wealth and property into the “bridegroom’s” clutches, things might not have been as simple and clear-cut as might seem.
Well, yes. A lot of this did go on, especially in the 14th century, when it was all too prevalent, but although there were many genuine attacks of this nature, there were also situations when woman, especially married ones, would connive with her abductor in order to escape from a husband she no longer wanted. Or for love of the supposed abductor, of course. And there were young lovers embroiled in elopements. But if it was a case of getting away from an unwanted husband, the deserted husband’s only course was to make legal complaint against the abductor, since he could not charge his wife with leaving him. Thus the charges had to be fairly stiff, leading to all these supposed instances of abduction and rape. A consequence of the husband’s legal move would be for the wife and abductor to claim to have been previously married, so the abduction was merely a case of the first husband claiming back his wife. Not easy to prove or disprove.
Once a marriage had taken place, and it had been consummated, it could not be undone. The Church frowned on such things, but did not annul the match, provided the exact words/vows had been uttered. These indicated what was called present consent. So, by publicly saying, e.g. “I marry you,” or “I take you” they contracted a valid marriage. Or, if in front of witnesses they said, e.g. “I will marry you” or “I will take you”, this constituted future consent, a form of betrothal, which, if subsequently consummated, became a validly contracted marriage. (Step forward Edward IV and Lady Eleanor Talbot/Butler!)
Another point I did not know before, was that when the word rape (usually variations of raptus) appears in records and rolls, it does not necessarily mean sexual rape as understood in the modern world. These rapists could also be mere abductors, whether with ill intent or if they were illicit lovers. So taking a woman and carrying her off would be termed rape in medieval records, even when sexual assault of any kind was not involved.
Those women probably most at risk of kidnapping were the widows, especially the wealthy ones. The taking by force of virgins was frowned upon, and outraged fathers/families could always disinherit the victim. Widows, on the other hand, possessed land and property of which a new husband would immediately gain control. For good if she had no heirs lingering from her late husband’s family, or just for her lifetime if there were step-children lining up to thwart him of hanging on to it. As you can imagine, these possible heirs would soon kick up if he tried! It didn’t stop the abductions, often by impoverished men, including knights, who wanted to improve their situation and fill their purses.
The above is just a brief summary and sample of the interesting facts to be found in Caroline Dunn’s fascinating book. The chapters have been well laid out and are easy to sort mentally, but there are so many footnotes that I for one began to boggle. Not because of their volume, but because their font was small. The author’s sources and references are amazing. Everything is accounted for.
This book is part of the fourth series of Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, and I do not hesitate to recommend it.