Lucia Akard on ‘Finding rape in the archives: methodologies for hearing survivor voices from the past’

Lucia Akard on her talk ‘Finding rape in the archives: methodologies for hearing survivor voices from the past’ at the CGIS Discussion Group on 7 November 2018.


One of the primary aims of my research on rape in later medieval France is to open up the space to hear victim/survivor voices from the past. I believe it is a moral imperative, and essential to any feminist approach to the topic. It’s also just really, really interesting. Upsetting, definitely. But attempting to gain access to marginalized voices from the past leads one down a methodologically and theoretically complex winding road. My topic of study may at times be bleak, but it is never uninterested, and I rarely feel uninspired. 

Such was the tenor of the conversation generated by the CGIS reading group I lead. Though there were only a few participants, we were all engaged with the topic and eager to discuss new theories of approaching the sources. 

I assigned two readings for the group, a chapter from Kathryn Gravdal’s Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and the Law and the introduction to Suzanne M. Edwards’s The Afterlives of Rape in Medieval English Literature. Through these two texts, both of which approach medieval sources on rape in theoretically interesting ways (Gravdal analyzes literary sources and then compares them to court records and Edwards determines discourses of survival, i.e., how medieval possibly understood their survival, from a variety of english sources), the discussion group generated new ways of thinking about consent. 

We determined that consent to sexual acts was at the heart of the issues, and that in order to understand anything about the experience of rape in any time period, we had to start with consent. We discussed the idea that the term “consent” itself is lacking, at least when applied to heterosex, as it implies that both parties have consented equally. But the agency that a man and a woman exert in sexual relations with one another is unequal, and thus their choices are as well. They may both consent, but the female party has much more to consider, and this was especially true in the Middle Ages. How would consenting to sex change her prospects of marriage and thus being provided for? Was she ready to have a child, and possibly die in childbirth? Was she prepared to lose her virginity, which was perhaps her largest tool for social bargaining? 

Eventually, we got away from the historical and began thinking about the modern period. Is consent really the best way to teach healthy sex to undergraduates and younger students? Shouldn’t we be striving for enthusiastic and equal consent, rather than simply positioning consent as a hurdle to clear? And at what point does the modern woman achieve equal consent with a male partner? Is she free of the burdens that plagued the medieval woman looking to engage in sex? 

I left the discussion with more unanswered questions than I’d started with, but I gained just as many new avenues to approach answering them.