Julie Van Espen was on her way to meet her friends. She took a road she was used to. A road she knew well. A road she thought perfectly safe. Nonetheless, she made a terrible encounter. A 39 years-old man known from the judicial system crossed her path. He raped her. Then killed her. He threw her body into the canal and stole several of her belongings. The facts happened on a regular Saturday evening. It was not even dark yet. The young woman’s body was found on Monday, May 6th, 2019, at 5pm by the Belgian authorities.
I read about it this morning in today’s newspaper and I’m properly enraged. If anyone asks as to why I tend to be overprotective of my 23 years-old fiancée: this is why. The rape culture in Europe is more than worrying. It is baffling, appalling and most shameful.
Sure! You can read Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and you can praise it as a wonderful work of fine literature. However, did you know that Ovid recommends rape whenever a woman declines a man’s advances?
What wise man doesn’t mingle tears with kisses?
Though she might not give, take what isn’t given.
Perhaps she’ll struggle, and then say “You’re wicked!”;
struggling she still wants, herself, to be conquered.
Who takes a kiss, and doesn’t take the rest,
deserves to lose all that were granted too.
Though you call it force: it’s force that pleases girls: what delights
is often to have given what they wanted, against their will.
She who is taken in love’s sudden onslaught
is pleased, and finds wickedness is a tribute.
I’m writing and not streaming or podcasting this, so you can’t hear me throw up, but vomiting quite sums up my feelings regarding Ovid’s work. It is disgusting!
I’m a man. I know how we’re wired. It takes us less than 5 seconds to know if we want to have sex with a woman or not. Any woman. I walk down the street, I see women passing by and my brains are all fried up as I attempt daydreaming instead of drooling. However, there is such a thing as education. I don’t talk to these women. I avoid looking at them if I can feel their gaze on me. I don’t follow them on purpose. I don’t whistle. I don’t catcall them. I make sure they won’t feel me as a threat. And I also get properly pissed when I see men not following the same code of conduct. We are not beast. We can choose not to harass women and young girls. We can choose to leave them alone.
Therefore we should read other classical texts than Ovid’s poems in class. Hell. We can even look into medieval chronicles for that matter if we can’t find any classical poet not indulging into rape culture. Medieval texts get a bad press and it is true that we find gruesome stories and ghastly fantasies in those texts too. Nevertheless I’d like to tell the tale of a 14th century chronicle that “illustrates the infamy of the assailants, but also the qualities of the people victimized.” [Marvin (2017), 91] Yes, because such a work actually exists. The Anglo-Norman prose Brut is it called.
The author remains to this day anonymous. His work however laid the foundation of English historiography for a few centuries. It should be more popular and studied than it is today.
Julia Marvin observes that contrarily to most medieval texts, the Anglo-Norman prose Brut “treats rape as another of the grim realities of a world in which people betray their religious and social creeds, a crime by man for which the women assaulted are not responsible.” [Marvin (2017), 85]
You all know about Merlin, right? The magician that helped Arthur to become King. Maybe you know the legend according to which he is the Devil’s son. Do you know why such a legend even exist? Because it would be too inconvenient to talk about rape, that’s why!
“In Wace, Merlin’s nameless mother (who has become a nun), explains to Vortigern that something repeatedly came to her in such a manner that it could not be seen, and a sage of the court confirms that she has described an incubus.” [Marvin (2017), 86] Isn’t that neat? There is no men going around threatening women and gallivanting their way to rape. You can only suffer from supernatural creatures and, after all, you know none of them actually exist, right? It’s like that monster under the bed when you’re a kid. It isn’t real. Well, our anonymous author tells a different story. He gives Merlin’s mother a name, for a start: Adhan. She is “a secular high-ranking gentlewoman, she has not retreated to a convent, and her story, while mysterious, is largely rationalized:
‘The lady answered softly (to Vortigern) and said that she had never known the company of an earthly man. “But, Lord King”, she said, “when I was a young maiden in my father’s household, and in my company were other of great lineage who often went in summertime to play games and enjoy themselves, I remained all alone in my father’s chamber, and I did not want to go out for fear of sunburn. One time a very handsome young man came and entered the chamber where I was all alone, but how or where he entered, I did not know, for the doors were strongly barred. And he played the game of love with me, for I did not have the strength of power against him to defend myself. And he often came to me in this way so that he fathered this child by me.’
[…] The writer recognizes rape – even of a gentlewoman in her own home – as something all too easy to believe, not to be explained away by magic.” [Marvin (2017), 86-87]
It is unacceptable that a legend should be more convenient than the truth. It is scandalous that Merlin should the Devil’s son and that he is deprived from a more realistic origin story. He might be a wizard alright. But his mother was raped nonetheless. Could anyone address that in their next novel/movie/tv-series about the enchanter? Just to set the record straight for once?
The story that touched most my heart however is the story of Buern Bocard, a baron of the kingdom of Northumbria. The story has that he was away from home, faithfully guarding the coast in the name of his King when something terrible happened to his wife.
“The lady his wife, who was marvellously beautiful, received the king courteously and with great honor, and she served him very richly.
When the king had eaten as much as he wanted, he took the lady by the hand and led her into her chamber, ad said that he would speak with her in counsel. And he had the room emptied of everyone except those who guarded the doors, who were the king’s closest intimates and well know his will.
But the lady did not at all understand why he did it, until the king had had his will of her. And when he had done what he wanted, he left and returned to York. And the lady remained weeping and she mourned greatly over it, and she became pale and dejected and wan…” [Marvin (2017), 88]
Buern Bocard returned home and saw how upset his wife was. He worried.
“He asked what was the matter with her.
‘Indeed, lord’, she said, ‘I’m discarded for the king has dishonoured me against my will.’ And she told him the whole truth about how the king had raped her by force, so that she would rather be dead than alive.”
It broke Buern’s heart to see his wife in such dismay.
“‘My fair love,’ he said, ‘hush yourself. Against force weakness does not avail, and so you will never be less dear to me, since you have told me the truth.”
Buern’s story gives us another of the Anglo-Norman prose Brut teachings: a woman once raped doesn’t become a lesser version of herself. She is still a “fair love”, a “fair lady”, a focus of love, compassion and admiration.
Now, that is how we can already start to take a stand against rape culture. By finding historical texts actually making a stand against it and read those texts instead of the so-called “classics”. Pardon my French but fuck Ovid and his retarded views on loving relationships. I want to be Buern Bocard. That’s what a call a man.
The Anglo-Norman prose Brut teaches us three principles that everyone should know and never forget:
1. Women are never responsible for being raped.
2. Rape shouldn’t be tabooed: it has to be addressed brazenly and openly.
3. A woman that is raped is not a lesser version of herself.
Keep that in mind, as Julie Van Espen died tragically and nothing will bring her back to life. She was killed by a man who was a known rapist and that a judge had felt safe to let walk free. You know, because there is no such thing as an actual monster, right? What’s a rapist, really? Isn’t it only like that monster under the bed that you fear when you’re a kid? Isn’t it only a legend? The answer is no.
Rape? Face it and fight it. Don’t belittle it! There is no middle ground.
~ Le Soir. Édition Bruxelles, no 106, Mardi 7 mai 2019.
~ Julia Marvin, The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Norman Prose Brut Chronicle. the Manuscript Culture of Late Medieval England. York: York Medieval Press, 2017.
~ Ovid’s Ars Amatoria: English translation; French translation.