Most cases of rape by individuals (as opposed to gangs) in the Middle Ages seem not to have been deliberate attempts at social control or at the demonstration of masculine power over women, but rather served these functions as by-products of an assumed, unquestioned gender and status privilege. Thus rape was directed especially against women of low social status. To the man the rape was not violence but sex; the consent of the woman, at least one whose family was not important, simply did not matter one way or the other. (Walkowitz 1980) Echoes of this attitude may still be seen today.
A rape case from fourteenth-century London provides a good example of the pervasive attitude stemming from social privilege. Joan Seler, the eleven-year-old daughter of a saddler, claimed that she was raped by Reymund de Limoges, a foreign merchant, who saw her outside her house, grabbed her by the arm and dragged her to his dwelling. Reymund was eventually acquitted on technical legal grounds. (Karras 1996) If one assumes that the accusation was a true one, the question arises of Reymund’s psychology. Perhaps we might call him a pedophile, but an eleven-year-old would not be considered a child as would a girl of the same age today; girls were able to marry legally at twelve and occasionally married younger.
John Marshall Carter suggests that this was, in modern psychological terms, an “anger rape, ” because of the violence involved. (Walkowitz 1980) However, the language of violence is highly formulaic. “Force and arms” had to be alleged to bring the matter into the court. “Vilely and cruelly handled her limbs” is vague; Barbara Hanawalt suggests that this referred to injuries “that are often encountered when an adult male has forced intercourse with a young girl.” (Bloch 1991) The only reference to physical violence that mentions specific injury to a specific part of the girl’s body is to the penetration itself. With no evidence of pain for the sake of inflicting pain, the most likely scenario seems to be that the rapist saw the young woman, desired her, didn’t care whether or not she desired him, and based on their relative social standing (a member of a family of a not particularly prosperous craftsman, versus a wealthy merchant) thought he could get away with rape. In the course of events this turned out to be a fair assessment of the situation.