Reckonings and re-imaginings: rethinking medieval gendered violence after #MeToo

May 31, 2023
Erika Dilling

by Erika Dilling, Global Health and the Environment Honours Major, 3rd year at York University

Stuck to the side of the toilet paper dispenser in the women’s washroom, a peeling sticker reads “Did you know intoxicated people cannot consent to sex?”. Hanging as naturally as a well-placed sconce, self-defence advice and sexual assault crisis lines decorate public spaces – the messaging ever more prevalent in the wake of the #MeToo movement. 

In “Reckonings and Re-Imaginings: Rethinking medieval gendered violence after #MeToo”, Matthew Roby, Gavin Foster, Mariah Cooper, and Kathy Cawsey rewind the conversation a few centuries to challenge what are often believed to be uniquely modern issues including ‘incel’ culture, Roe v. Wade, ‘frat bros’, and more. 

Kathy Cawsey explored the motif of courtly love in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess. In essence, courtly love is initially unrequited but demonstrations of nobility and chivalry eventually persuade the love interest to accept the suitor’s hand. Reinforced in this conception of love is the belief that a woman owes a man her body if he is persistent enough. The concept is not unlike modern instances of ‘incel’ or ‘nice guy’ culture, which operates on a similar expectation that women inherently owe something to persistent suitors. The connection demonstrates an ideological phenomenon emerging not just from contemporary online forums, but a detrimental way of perceiving relationships that can be traced back to the 1300s.  

Mariah Cooper provided a fascinating discussion on medieval raptus laws and collective sexual violence as a male bonding experience. With the medieval conviction rate alarmingly similar to modern day Canada, perhaps it is not shocking that the US Supreme Court justice, Samuel Alito, referenced Bracton Law (medieval English law) in the leaked documents revealing his intent to overturn Roe v. Wade. Mariah Cooper illustrated that acts of gendered violence perpetrated by groups can be understood as a male rite of passage both historically and in the modern era – see Hockey Canada’s 2018 scandal for more evidence.  

But in these difficult conversations, the resilience of survivors is often overshadowed by the intensity of the tragedy. Gavin Foster and Matthew Roby urged the audience to consider passages detailing sexual assault in Old Icelandic riddarasögur (romance sagas) and Tolkein literature as moments of heorism. Gender norms and prevailing imaginings of heroism and power have restricted triumphant interpretations of female characters in these genres. Recognizing the marginalization survivors of sexual violence experience both in literature and in the physical world is the first step in truly seeing the enormity of their victories.  

It seems to me that, 

“Still she did not blench: maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings..., fair but terrible. A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly. The outstretched neck she clove asunder, and the hewn head fell like a stone. Backward she sprang as the huge shape crashed to ruin, vast wings outspread, crumpled on the earth; and with its fall the shadow passed away. A light fell about her, and her hair shone in the sunrise.” (LOTR Book 5, Ch 6) 

would complement the peeling self-defense posters in bathroom stalls quite nicely. 

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, consider reaching out to local services like