In the 13th-century French romance Mort Artu, Guinevere is condemned to be burnt at the stake for her adultery with Lancelot. Although she is rescued, and the story is a fiction, a historian says it is one of many depictions that have left us with ideas about the treatment of medieval women that are not only wrong but downright harmful.
In a study, Professor Sara McDougall says that, from the novels of Walter Scott and Victor Hugo to recent films and TV series, it has been a commonplace that Christian authorities in the Middle Ages feared and hated women. She says modern scholars have accepted and perpetuated this idea and claimed, specifically, that women bore the brunt of legal penalties for illicit sex.
According to McDougall, stereotypes of sexy women being locked in towers and burnt for adultery have been fuelled partly by fanciful medieval stories and religious diatribes against temptresses. Studying judicial records from medieval France, however, she found no evidence that women were treated more harshly than men for having sex outside marriage. On the contrary, many were treated with relative leniency.
McDougall, professor of global history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at The City University of New York, said: “We’ve known for a long time that women were thought to be less responsible than men — that there was this notion of female irrationality and irresponsibility. But we didn’t realise the full implications. It turns out to mean that, even when they had illicit sex, it was not considered their fault, because they were seen as out of control. They were what men did did things to. And in medieval Europe — at least in criminal proceedings — the courts were not in the business of victim-blaming.
“So, the attitude was, ‘Yes, you were irresponsible and unable to protect or defend your honour and this happened to you. But it wasn’t your fault and we’re not going to blame you for it — at least not in a criminal court.'”
McDougall said the records indicated that sex outside marriage, however deplored in principle, was a constant and a fact of life. It was common among married and unmarried men and women at every level of society, from royalty and nobility to lawyers, priests, artisans, labourers and servants. She said this could lead to “all sorts of trouble”, including civil or criminal trials leading to fines, whipping or banishment. “But on the whole, the women involved had far more to fear outside the courtroom than within.”
Among the records she analysed for the study, in the journal postmedieval, were those of the Châtelet, a royal court in Paris. She said scholars had previously described the court as deeply misogynistic and eager to punish women for sexual sin. Her research indicates that, between 1389 and 1392, the Châtelet condemned to death and various other punishments 19 women, compared with 127 men. None of the women were investigated for engaging in extramarital sex, although it was sometimes a part of their backstories. Their alleged crimes included murder, theft and sorcery. Although many were defamed as “working girls” or filles de vie, the only woman punished for a sex crime was a procuress who trafficked her sister-in-law to a knight.
In the same period, the court condemned at least nine men to death for sexual crimes — four for rape and five for bestiality.
In one illuminating case, in 1391, Colette la Buquette stood in front of the residence of the royal treasurer Jean le Mercier, lord of Noviant, on the rue de Paradis in Paris. She held the hand of a young boy who wore a sign proclaiming: “This boy is the son of Monsieur Jean le Mercier, lord of Noviant.” Although nobles often acknowledged bastards, this display was especially unwelcome to le Mercier, a man of humble origin who owed much of his status to his second wife, the heiress Jeanne de Vendôme.
Interrogated by officials, la Buquette claimed that more discreet efforts to gain access to le Mercier had been rebuffed. She said that, seven years earlier, le Mercier had been a guest at an inn in her home village in Normandy. After noticing her playing with other girls, he had seduced and deflowered her, given her a gold ring and left the next day. She had sought to raise the boy with her parents’ help but, when their money ran out, had come to Paris on her friends’ advice to confront le Mercier.
Le Mercier admitted to having sex in the inn but insisted, conveniently, that it was not seven but rather eight or nine years earlier — before his illustrious marriage. He added that he was willing to help the child but resented the mother’s methods and wished for her to be punished.
“Our image of sexy medieval women as hated and feared reflects modern cultural ideas”Professor Sara McDougall
Questioned again, under threat of force, la Buquette admitted that she had slept with a second man on the fateful evening. This man, a cleric, had raised the boy as his son and it was only after his death that she had remembered le Mercier’s possible role. The court’s further enquiries revealed that she had been caught stealing from her employer and committing various other offences. For all of this, she was condemned to punishment on the pillory and banishment from Paris. McDougall writes in her study: “What became of her once she left Paris we do not know. But for all the uncertainties in this testimony, we can recognise that until she made her public accusation against the nobleman, she does not appear to have had any trouble with the law.”
Among the cases from other courts studied by McDougall was that of the servant Marie Ribou, who said she was seduced, aged around 20, by a cleric living in the household she worked for. After a son was born from the liaison, she had always provided for him.
After her son’s birth, Ribou was seduced again, this time by a man who teased the prospect of marriage. When she became pregnant, this man, referred to as “de Prez”, took her to a relative’s home in a nearby village so she could give birth in secret. Afterwards, she returned to her home town of Chinon in hopes of a wedding, or at least receiving financial support. However, she said de Prez had not only refused her, but also claimed he was not sure the baby girl was his.
Ribou collected her daughter from the village where she had given birth and planned to confront de Prez with the child. However, on the return journey, overcome by “demonic temptation… melancholy and rage,” she drowned the infant. After the body was discovered, Ribou fell under suspicion and confessed to the killing. After learning of the case, in 1481, the king pardoned Ribou on condition that she atone by going on a pilgrimage. As McDougall writes: “No execution, in short, even for this unwed mother who added sin to sin by killing her own infant.”
Other cases show similar treatment. In 1406 King Charles VI even pardoned a young pregnant woman who had burnt down the house of her lover’s father after the younger man refused to marry her or acknowledge his paternity.
In light of the findings, she believes it is highly unlikely that another woman, Colette Phelipe, who stood accused in 1392 of abandonment of her one-year-old daughter as well as theft and fornication with different men, was punished with the full force of the law. There is no record or her sentence but scholars of her well-known case have previously suggested that she was most likely executed.
Even if the courts were less than brutal in these cases, McDougall stresses that domestic violence was “endemic” and many women may have been beaten, killed or shunned for having illicit sex. “If a woman was killed by her own family, tragically, we are less likely to know about it, because who would have made a complaint? Terrible things were happening to women all the time outside the courtroom, where I think all the really nasty misogyny and patriarchy was. The courts were focused on trying to deal with horribly dangerous people mostly doing horrible things to each other.”
In McDougall’s view false narratives about gruesome medieval punishments for sexual sin are harmful because they promote complacency about the present. As she puts it in her paper: “Our image of sexy medieval women as obsessively hated and feared, and especially the idea that as a result women were regularly locked in towers and sentenced to execution, reflects modern rather than medieval cultural ideas and political conflicts…
“Such projections facilitate a sense of contemporary self-satisfaction with supposed liberalist sexual freedoms permitted to women. They thus serve to disguise contemporary obsessions with the policing of female sex and sexuality in cultural and legal forms like compulsory heterosexuality, the erosion of abortion rights and even contraceptives, threats to transpersons, the lack of social support for caregivers, and more.”
The top image shows Cornel Wilde and Jean Wallace in the film Sword of Lancelot. Queen Guinevere is condemned to death for adultery in the 1963 production, which is based on medieval romances that have influenced modern perceptions of medieval justice. Photo: Alamy.