The Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools
2009 Annual Dissertation Award
Caroline Dunn, PhD., History
Damsels in Distress or Partners in Crime? The Abduction of Women in Medieval England
Dissertation Director: Dr. Mary Kowaleski
This study explores the links between gender and sex, law and disorder, property, and power in medieval England by examining largely unpublished legal documents recording female abductions. It explores abductors' goals, legislation introduced to combat the offense, methods and rates of prosecution, and the motives of women who cooperated with their kidnappers.
In total, 768 abduction allegations were uncovered from royal administrative and judicial sources. A geographical focus on four diverse counties, and sampling of records from between 1150 and 1500, enabled exploration of local differences and variations over the longue durée
. Some medieval English women endured abduction for rape of coerced marriage; yet other charges reveal consensual elopements. Increasing concern about elopement led late-thirteenth century lawmakers to adapt a definition of ravishment that conflated rape and abduction, to target voluntary departures.
However, contrary to earlier assertions that female options were diminished, lawmakers did not remove rights for genuine victims as women prosecuted rape throughout the middle ages. The thirteenth and fourteenth-century statutes did fail wealthy widows, however, who were stolen and forced into marriage. Married victims could not prosecute their husbands once coercive nuptials had been solemnized.
Most abductees were married, and many "wife-thefts' were not forced kidnappings, but cases of adultery fictitiously framed as abduction by husbands suing to receive financial compensation. After a 1285 statute penalized adulterous wives by denying their inheritance, the cuckold could gain revenge and protect his children's legacies by publicizing the affair via an abduction prosection, and such allegations skyrocketed. After a 1382 statute legalized that husbands had recourse to enact the wives' forfeitures during their own lifetimes, prosecutions declined sharply. This investigation broadens the understanding of the role of women in the legal system, provides a means for analyzing male control over female bodies, sexuality, and access to the courts, and reveals ways in which female agency could, on occasion, maneuver around such controls.