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..
Lancelot, as portrayed by Chrétien de Troyes in his the
Knight of the Cart, expressed another view the contemporary
code of knightly honour. He maintained that a knight should
not rape a woman travelling alone, but a knight who fights and
defeats a womans male escort would then be able
to have his will of her without incurring any shame or reproach.
Medieval women were possessions of a man. They were listed as
the daughter, wife, or widow of their closest male kin. If the
male guardian could not protect a womans chastity, then
it was taken for granted that it would be taken, much like any
other possession he might have dropped in the road.
The words of Deuteronomy 22 and Decretum gratiani
were often used to justify the rape of virgins. If a man wanted
to marry a woman - whether she wanted him or not - a standard
,method was to abduct her and have sex with her. As "soiled
goods", she would be unlikely to find another husband,
so her choice was to marry her abductor or live out the rest
of her life as a spinster. The biblical passage only seems to
have been applied to social equals. There would be no expectation
of marriage between a lord and peasant woman.
The idea was not confined to Catholics. 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 perpetrator 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.
Abducted women were safe if rescued by
their own family,
but "rescue" by anyone else might well be worse
The Rescue, by Vereker Monteith Hamilton
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
Legal cases reflected Christian mores, and in particular that
women were property. In 1707, English Lord Chief Justice John
Holt described the act of a man having sexual relations with
another man's wife as "the highest invasion of property".
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 recognised
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).
Traditional rape laws in the US defined rape as forced sexual
intercourse by a male with a "female not his wife",
making it clear that the statutes did not apply to married couples.
For example the 1962 Model Penal Code stated that "A male
who has sexual intercourse with a female not his wife is guilty
of rape if: ..." 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 rape. Spousal rape was treated
like other cases of rape only where "excessive" force
or violence was used. When Tennessee changed its law in 2005,
it left South Carolina the only US state with a law requiring
excessive force or violence for spousal rape to be considered
like other cases of rape.
Feminists have worked since the 1960s to criminalised marital
rape as part of a world-wide reclassification of sexual crimes
from offences against morality, the family, good customs, honor,
or chastity to offences 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 perpetrator 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 realise 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 many modern
Christian voters to abandon him.
Characteristically Christian views on
rape in the Republican party in the USA, ("God's
Own Party") based on traditional Christian teachings,
is the butt of bitter humour for secularists and liberal
The quotations below are all genuine.