If a man find a damsel that is a virgin,
which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie
with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with
her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels
of silver, and she shall be his wife ...
This biblical passage clearly countenanced the rape of virgins,
and Christians were generally prepared to follow God's guidance
on the matter. If a Christian man wanted to marry an unwilling
nubile woman one of the best ways to do it was to rape her and
pay up. The idea held through the Dark and Middle Ages and into
modern times. This happened not just among the lower classes.
Eleanor of Aquitaine escaped two attempted rapes by ambitious
Christian nobles in the short time between her divorce from
the king of France and her marriage to the future king of England.
Fifty shekels was not a bad price for the rich lands of Aquitaine.
Isabelle, the twelve year old daughter of the Count of Angouleme,
was abducted by King John in 1200 so that he could marry her,
even though she was already betrothed. Mary Queen of Scots was
obliged to marry James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, after being
raped by him a month earlier in 1567.
The idea was explicitly recognised in Church Law, as one of
the three circumstances in which marriage was lawful.
One reads of three lawful marriages in scripture [cf. Deut.
The second is when a virgin is seized by a man in the city
and joined with him through force. If her father wishes, the
man must endow her with as much as the father decides, and
then give him the price of her modesty.
(Decretum gratiani, Case 36, q II, C8)
The price is specified later in the chapter as fifty silver
drachmas, rather than the fifty shekels specified by the bible.
Sometimes theologians ignored the words of Deuteronomy 22:23-27,
which prescribed punishments for other categories of rape. Pope
Gregory I confirmed explicitly that rape was not a defilement.
On the other hand, women who invited rape by their looks were
defiled, and thus sinful. In support he cited Matthew 15:11,
which said that people are defiled by what goes out not by what
goes in. Inviting looks went out, so that is where the sin lay,
not with the rape itself*.
As in many non-Christian religious countries today, it was
accepted that a women on her own out of doors was fair game
for any man. Even knightly proponents of courtly love found
"a little compulsion" acceptable. As Andrew the Chaplain
(Andreas Capellanus), at the court of Alienor of Aquitaine put
it around 1186, in the Third Dialogue of De amore
If you should, by some chance, fall in love with a peasant
woman, be careful to puff her up with lots of praise and then,
when you find a convenient opportunity, do not hold back but
take your pleasure and embrace her by force. For you can hardly
soften their outward inflexibility so far that they will grant
you their embraces quietly or permit you to have the solaces
you desire unless you first use a little compulsion as a convenient
cure for their shyness..
There would be no expectation of marriage, even if the peasant
woman was a virgin. The biblical passage only seems to have
been applied to social equals. Calvinist Geneva permitted a
single woman's father to consent to her marriage to her rapist.
The victim had no separate right to refuse the marriage, and
the perpetrater had no right to divorce.
The practice of raping virgins in order to marry them was popular
well into the twentieth century in conservative Christian countries.
Until the 1980s it was common practice for Sicilian youths to
rape girls in order to force them to marry. There was thought
to be little wrong with this technique, after all it is sanctioned
by the passage from Deuteronomy cited above and had by then
enjoyed centuries of sanctification by the Church. The girl
had virtually no rights in the matter. If she declined to marry
the man concerned she could expect little sympathy, after all
she was no longer a virgin. No other respectable Christian man
would want her. For the rest of her life she would be considered
little better than a common prostitute, even though she was
blameless. The practice may not yet be obsolete in Roman Catholic
countries, nor in Orthodox ones, though it is no longer as universally
acceptable as it once was, and it tends to make the newspaper
headlines nowadays*. Being
justified in scripture one can see why the Church should have
difficulty in condemning premeditated rape like this. Yet the
modern mind might marvel that men who regard themselves as the
highest moral authority on earth can have accepted this practice
while condemning masturbation as a heinous sin.
Old Testament refers many times to rape, or what we now regard
as rape. According to God's own infallible scripture rape is
encouraged by God. He threatens it and on occasion he abets
it. If the victim is a virgin she may be obliged to marry her
rapist. If the victim is already married then she is to be stoned
Many books called penitentials have survived from the early
Middle Ages. They list various sexual sins and for each a recommended
penance, from which it is possible to establish the various
rankings of seriousness in different places and at different
times. The crime of rape did not feature at all.
It became a crime only as the Church tightened its grip on all
matters sexual. Gratian seems to have redefined an existing
term raptus to cover what we would now call rape, adopting
the idea from the Code of Justinian. Rape was still not necessarily
a serious crime. Like other crimes against property, its seriousness
depended on the value of the property. There was also a question
of family honour. The greater the family honour, the greater
the crime. Ordinary people had no great family honour to cite,
so their daughters could not hope for the protection of the
law. Where rapists were fined, the penalty was sometimes halved
if the victim was a servant. There are still remnants of such
views. For example rape is unusually difficult to prove in Chile
because the penal code for sexual crimes from 1874 describes
it as a "crime against the honour of families and good
customs". No family honour: no crime.
In some towns gang rape seems to have been common, and the
perpetrators were punished if they were punished at all
by a fine or a short spell in prison*.
The Church still did not regard certain types of rape as punishable
offences. For example a man could still rape his wife. So too,
he could rape as many prostitutes as he desired. In Europe,
this changed only after the crime had been taken over by the
Sir Matthew Hale, in his 1736 legal treatise, Historia
Placitorum Coronæ or History of the Pleas of the Crown,
wrote that rape within marriage could not be recognized since
the wife "hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband,
which she cannot retract." The law was revised in England
and Wales in 1991 by the Appellate Committee of the House of
Lords, in the case of R v R (1991 All ER 481)
In the USA the rape statutes in many states precluded the prosecution
of spouses, including estranged or even legally separated couples.
In 1993, North Carolina became the last state to remove the
spousal exemption. But this did not mean that rape within marriage
was treated as seriously as other rape. Some states regard rape
within marriage, spousal rape, as a lesser crime than
Feminists have workedsince the 1960s to criminalize marital
rape as part of a worldwide reclassification of sexual crimes
from offenses against morality, the family, good customs, honor,
or chastity to offenses against liberty, self-determination,
or physical integrity. Heavily Catholic countries still retain
vestiges of the biblical law. For example criminal prosecution
for rape still terminates in some South American countries if
victim and perpetrattor marry.
Views among conservative Christians in the USA appear not to
have moved very far from the traditional Christian position.
In the run-up to the 2012 elections in the USA, a right wing
Christian U.S. Senate candidate, Todd Akin, attempted to justify
his position that abortion should not be permitted in cases
where rape has led to pregnancy. He said on television that
in cases of "legitimate rape" women's bodies have
ways of avoiding pregnancy (which he was unable to explain or
justify). Another candidate, Richard Mourdock in Indiana also
defended the view that abortion should not be permitted when
pregnancy is caused by rape, During a debate with Democrat Joe
Donnelly, he said: " I came to realize that life is a gift
from God - that I think even if life begins in that horrible
situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to
happen." In saying that it was "something God intended"
he was simply stating the traditional Church justification for
opposing abortion, but articulating it was enough for modern
Christian voters to abandon him in droves.
Characteristicly Christian views on rapein
the Republican party in the USA, ("God's Own Party")
based in traditional Christian teachings, is the butt
of bitter humour for secularists and liberal Churches
The quotations below are all genuine.