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in Early Modern England1

In early modern England, rape – a capital crime – constituted about 1 per cent of indicted felonies. Guilty verdicts were rare, although a majority of convicted rapists were hanged. Attempted rape – a misdemeanour – likewise formed only a tiny minority of prosecutions for assault although the conviction rate may have been higher. Early modern historians have paid little attention to rape and other forms of sexual violence. Those few who have considered it have focused predominantly upon the incidence of prosecutions relative to other crimes and, working on the sensible assumption that the majority of rapes and sexual assaults were never reported, have been concerned with why this might have been so.2 Yet the social history of rape in early modern England could be described as a non-history, a history of absence. Rape is defined and interpreted in terms of the silence of historical actors, the impediments to successful prosecution, a perceived lack of historical evidence, and the limitations of early modern criminal court records as sources. It appears in its nascent historiography as a phenomenon which is practically inexplicable; yet also as one that requires no explanation at all. In accordance with a broader methodological shift towards textual analyses of narrative sources, a new history of rape is emerging which is no longer characterised by silence but by a desire to listen to and analyse the testimonies of raped and sexually assaulted women, alleged rapists, and witnesses.3 This approach raises a number of important methodological and conceptual issues concerning both the complex relationship between language, event and interpretation, and the difficulties inherent in locating rape as a historically specific rather than as a transhistorical phenomenon. In this essay, I explore some of these issues through an analysis of well over 100 seventeenth-century narratives. These are drawn from a range of common and canon law courts in which rape and attempted rape were asserted or denied.4 I have generally deployed the term ‘sexual violence’ rather than ‘sexual assault’ because not all such narratives refer to incidents that were prosecuted as sexual assault or rape in criminal courts. Accounts of rapes and attempted rape are found, for example, in cases of defamation, sexual incontinence, adultery, and other types of violence and interpersonal dispute.5 © Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1998, 108 Cowley Road, Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

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Gender and History

In a recent and pioneering article which constitutes a significant step towards restoring the violence of rape – its literal, physical, sexual violation – to its history, Miranda Chaytor examines how rape was represented in thirty-four accusations brought in seventeenth-century England. Chaytor broaches a number of important themes, many of which merit further investigation.6 One issue to which she astutely draws attention is the significance of metaphor in early modern women’s rape narratives. She persuasively reads sexual violation back into women’s accounts of rape in which the raped body ‘scarcely appears’. In some narratives women’s honour was ‘metaphorically transposed from the sexual body to the body that worked’. For a woman reporting a rape, as Chaytor notes, ‘honour was everywhere except in her chastity’. Women also represented rape in metaphors of disruption and pollution: ‘The rape victim’s work was disrupted, their clothing stolen, tumbled, trampled on, soiled, “slitted from bottom to top” – just as they themselves had been stolen and trampled on, their bodies slitted and soiled’.7 Chaytor’s identification of these features makes a substantial contribution to the history of rape in the early modern period. However, my interpretation of these characteristics differs from hers. The difference lies in the assumptions which inform our approach to the sources and our respective analyses. These...
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