Female servants were generally considered sexually available to their employers even if the latter did not prostitute them to others. The records of ex officio prosecutions in any late medieval church court reveal frequent accusations of men having sex with their female servants. In many cases, of course, this may have been consensual, at least insofar as a woman who chooses to form a liaison with her employer in order to improve her financial position or guarantee herself a job can be said to be acting as a free agent. In other cases, though, it clearly was coerced, whether by physical force or by threats of economic ruin. Whether or not coerced, this sexual behavior differed substantially from that expected of elite women, and the women servants were often blamed for it, both in court and in the writings of moralists.
Just as the regulation of prostitution indicates standards differentially applied, the legal treatment of rape also reveals different expectations of sexual behavior at different social levels. The records of late medieval London indicate that it was especially young women in domestic service who were considered fair game for rape. The reasons for this may have been largely practical: rape was a difficult crime to prove and convict in any case, but this would have been especially so for young women without family or resources (and many of these young women in service came from outside the town). (Bloch 1991) Thus men looking for sex felt that there were certain women they could rape with impunity.
In fact, any woman seen walking in the street after curfew—presumably poorer women, or servants who had errands to run—was a potential sexual partner. When John Britby was arrested in 1394 for having sex with another man, John Rykener, he testified that he had approached the latter, “thinking he was a woman, asking him as he would a woman if he could commit a libidinous act with her.” (Karras 1996) Any woman found in the streets of the City of London on an evening was assumed to be sexually available. In the case of the transvestite Rykener, this assumption was well founded. In other cases, the assumption led to rape. In 1440 a “young girl” named Margaret testified that “she went to a gentleman of my lord of Gloucester called Caxton to bring a bag there, and the said Caxton kissed her and lay on top of her on the bed and repeatedly violated her…, ” (Karras 1996) The fact that the man was not prosecuted for rape (a woman who was accused of arranging the encounter was sentenced to the pillory for bawdry) is an indication of the level of sexual availability assumed in late medieval society, at least when the man was of high rank and the woman was not.
The problem of underreporting complicates the use of judicial evidence for the incidence of rape at different social levels. It is precisely those women who were the most vulnerable—the poor, the servants raped by aristocrats—who were the least likely to have reported it, because they knew how slim were the chances of conviction. Thus, rape of poor or dependent women is likely to have been even more common than the sources indicate. Of course, according to scholars who have studied rape in medieval France, the rape even of a well-off widow, when committed by clients of a powerful man, could also go very lightly punished, and such rapes may sometimes have been a prelude to forced marriage. (Walkowitz 1980) Rape could also be used as a tool of social control, a way for groups of men to punish women who had done something they thought was inappropriate: priests’ partners, servants who had sex with their masters, wives separated from their husbands. (Bloch 1991) Women had several incentives not to report such rapes: not only might the chances of conviction be slim but publicizing the crime would create a stain upon the woman’s honor.