Hot Takes

Raped. Beaten. Killed. A 23 years-old woman meets a horrible end; and why we MUST take a stand against Rape Culture!

A picture of Julie Van Espen posted on her Facebook wall the night she went missing.

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.

AskHistorians Contributions

“Why is the rule by William the Conqueror seen as such a turning point in English history instead of Cnut the Great’s rule?”

I have heard of the date 1066 so much but not 1016 when Cnut became king of whole of England – Why is it so?

[Question by u/littlesaint: link to the original reddit post]

My answer

I see many discussions on historical facts, but I think the best approach to answer this difficult question is with historiography: the writing of history. Also I’m pretty happy because I can provide some light on the subject. I hope you’ll like it.

I read in J. Bellis’ monography (The Hundred Years War in Literature. 1337-1600, 2016) that “in 1754 David Hume held that ‘William had even entertained the difficult project of abolishing the English language’, persuaded by the fabrications of the chronicle of pseudo-Ingulf, not until 1826 demonstrated to be a fifteenth-century forgery not an eleventh-century original. […] In their emphases on the conquerors’ alleged attempts at total linguistic abolition, the emotive invective of the French conflict of the eighteenth and nineteenth century was surely rearing its head: Hume and Scott were (unwittingly, perhaps?) the Gloucester and Castleford of their generations.” (p. 28)

A few pages before, J. Bellis writes on Gloucester and Castleford’s works.

“Early in the thirteenth century, Lazamon described the Normans as ‘unnatural people’, the dominance of their language as ‘malicious practice’ and ‘an immoral act’. […] He represented conquest as a specific act of linguistic vandalism, an overwriting of the precious and precarious textual landscape that encoded British history.§ Such romanticized reconstructions became more exaggerated as the events became more distant. In the early fourteenth century, the Metrical Chronicle (historically attributed to Robert of Gloucester, although this is debated) inveighed against the fact that ‘the English people have been dragged down to the ground, on account of a false king, who had no right to the kingdom.’ […] Two whole centuries after 1066, it projected an image of the conquerors as an unassimilated, unwelcome group, and the English as a racial subset living among invaders. […] Thomas Castleford took the topos further, writing of the Conqueror, ‘he cleft the land of England from English blood’. […] He depicted the dominance of French in the legal system as a deliberate ploy to condemn the English in a language they could not understand.” (p. 21-22)

J. Bellis concludes:

“This romantic exaggeration, itself inherited from the later Middle Ages, was in turn inherited by criticism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Edward Freeman (1876) held that ‘the tongue of the Norman conquerors … utterly displaced the national tongue’. He called ‘the abiding corruption of language’ ‘the one result of the Norman Conquest which has been purely evil’, lamenting that ‘the tongue which we brought with us from the elder England … has become for ever the spoil of the enemy’. Again, this reflects thirteenth- and fourteenth-century constructions (conducive to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century reconstructions), not the reality; it neatly illustrates for just how long the depiction of ‘linguistic conquest’ went on gathering momentum.” (p. 28)

We can therefore trace back a long chain of texts that construct the 1066 Norman Conquest as a total disaster for England and the English language in particular. It all begins in the 13th century with Lazamon point of view on the matter, which is then inflated by Gloucester and Castleford’s writing in the 14th century. This leads to the writing of the pseudo-Ingulf chronicle in the 15th century, “that purported to be an eleventh-century monastic chronicle” (Bellis, 2016, 25), but that is nothing but a forgery and has been written to sustain the war propaganda against the French. That last text was taken very seriously, however, by Hume and Scott, who romantically exaggerated the impact of the Norman Conquest on the 11th century Anglo-Saxon England. Their point of view was then carried on by the honourable scholar that was Edward Freeman and the impact of the Norman Conquest has been discussed ever since.

On the other hand, there is no such historiographical debate, spreading through several centuries, about Knut’s conquest. Partly because, “as Pearsall holds, ‘Englishness had always been constructed’ negatively, ‘out of opposition to Frenchness’, which ‘had been the whetstone of English national sentiment from Norman times and … was always capable of being reinvoked’.” (Bellis, 2016, 64)

The marking of 1066 as a point of “no return” was, however, not rendered obvious by former chroniclers. Among them we should mostly consider the anonymous author of the prose Brut. Before diving into that I’d ask you to allow me a short excursus about the Brut literature.

The Brut is a medieval narrative source that can be written in Latin, Old French (anglo-norman) or Middle English. Its literary tradition, as far as we can trace it back, starts with Monmouth own Historia Regum Britanniae (a most important historical chronicle that also lays the foundation of the Arthurian literature). That first Latin chronicle was written in the 12th century. It was then translated and adapted into Anglo-Norman verses by Wace, a few decades later. Those two massive works had a very clear and single objective: legitimize the Plantagenet kings as the rightful rulers of England.

Wace’s Roman de Brut—as it is called—was later on adapted into prose: the prose Brut. Now, we do have an awful lot of manuscripts containing different versions of that Anglo-Norman prose Brut. They were for most of all listed and described by the eminent scholar who was Lister M. Matheson.

A medieval chronicle was a “living text”, meaning it could be altered every time it was copied. Many things could change: from the content itself to the apparatus. The prose Brut was particularly popular because many chroniclers decided to add to it, generation after generation.

Circling back to the topic at hand, J. Marvin observed in her masterful monography (The Construction of Vernacular History in the Anglo-Normand Prose Brut Chronicle, 2017) that “the [prose Brut] chronicle also handles the Norman Conquest to minimize the appearance of a dynastic shift, taking pains to delegitimize Harold while legitimizing William as much as possible. It carefully notes William’s relationship to Edward the Confessor and his brother Alfred. […] It also emphasizes Harold’s unfitness, as a greedy and prideful oath-breaker, to rule. […] William’s victory becomes a triumph of right as much as might.” (p. 121-122) However, funnily enough, the apparatus of some prose Brut would later deconstruct that carefully crafted presentation of continuity.

“In London, Inner Temple Library, Petyt MS 511, vol. 19 (P511/19) the presence of the Latin genealogical poem that starts with William the Conqueror – ‘rex est anglorum, bello conquestor eorum’ – emphasizes his significance, and the sense of his beginning a new epoch in English history. For good measure, P511/19 also contains the Latin link between the prologue and the main text, and in the blank space left below the Latin link a fifteenth-century user has briefly repeated in Latin the information found in the earlier French note, including William’s conquest. This framing of the narrative is thus strongly reinforced for readers. And it appears to have had an effect. […] A fifteenth century annotator, probably the same person who added the Latin note, has provided a lengthy French note on the conquest of Britain and the change of the realm’s name, and there are also two manicules, one at the passage in the text acknowledging ‘la grant mescheance’ and another in the top margin beside the note.” (Marvin, 2017, 180-181)

The P511/19 contains what Lister M. Matheson classified as the Short Version of the prose Brut, which present a continuation of the chronicle up until 1333. It is therefore a 14th-century text and manuscript. The specific layout of the manuscript added to the 15th-century hand that wrote annotations in relation with the Norman Conquest further demonstrate the historiographical shift I was presenting in the first paragraphs, especially since the author of the prose Brut had particularly written his chronicle to showcase a rightful continuity between Edward and William’s reigns.

K. A. Murchison also demonstrates in her article about Le Livere de Reis de Engleterre (LRE), “Piety, Community and Local History: Le Livere de Reis de Engleterre and it’s Context in Cambridge, Trinity College, MS R.14.7” (2016), another early 14th-century chronicle, that the Norman Conquest wasn’t presented as a major shift by its author. “The chronicle is principally occupied with conveying the history of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. […] The author draws primarily on Geoffrey of Monmouth and Bede. […] Compared to its sources, LRE generally puts greater emphasis on the Church than the nation, and this creates the illusion of a transnational community of ethics, which deemphasizes national differences. […] As [John] Spence points out, England’s French prose chronicles typically justify the switch from Anglo-Saxon to Norman rule by emphasizing the legitimacy of William the Conqueror’s claim to the throne and by celebrating his reign. In contrast, LRE distributes praise or blame for William and other Norman rulers based on the way they treat religious individuals and institutions.”

These different observations help us to understand how the “Norman Conquest” gradually became a myth that served a purpose. Indeed, during the Hundred Years War “it was politically useful to keep insisting on the possibility of French aggression, and stoking the idea that its particular object was the English language. These allegations […] deliberately associated the French in the late fourteenth century with the Normans in the late eleventh, eliding present aggressors with former conquerors to depict a dubiously just, territorial skirmish as a defence of the realm (and the language) against its ancient and perennial menace. Perhaps it was not for nothing that the French are repeatedly described by the chronicles as ‘the Normandys’.” (Bellis, 2017, 63)

From that point onwards, 1066 became a very strong literary topos.

In conclusion, I’d like to add that I’m not stating, in any way, that William’s conquest of England as in and for itself is any more or less important than Knut’s. However I can safely assert that it became a much bigger deal for later historians. It was severely more discussed, it rose and brought on a lot more emotions (especially in connection with national pride and sense of identity), and that is why, in my opinion, William’s rule of England is seen “as such a turning point in English history”.