April Harper publishes article on domestic violence, sex crimes in the Middle Ages

April Harper, Associate Professor in History, published the peer-reviewed article “Punishing Adultery: Private Violence, Public Honor, Literature, and the Law,” in Haskins Society Journal 28 (Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2017), 167-184.

This research was made possible by a grant from the SUNY Research Foundation, discretionary funds and departmental support.

In the article, Dr. Harper connects the rising rates of domestic violence in etiquette texts, literature and legal records in 11th century England with the changes in English law after the Norman Conquest (1066). Her article follows the changes as Norman law replaced Anglo-Saxon law and legal language in England, and conflated all sex crimes, including adultery, under a single legal term – raptus. Raptus was a crime against a woman’s body and therefore a felony under Norman law that called for the death penalty.

While scholars have hailed this change in law as a distinct movement in the legal position of a woman from property to person, Dr. Harper shows the reality was far different. Her research shows that legal frustrations created by this grouping, and the need to prosecute any sexually criminous act as rape, resulted in rising rates of domestic violence.

Under Roman law, which formed the basis of Norman law, rape was considered a crime against a virgin and therefore negated the ability to legally prosecute the rape or any consensual, extra-marital sexual acts of a wife in which she may have engaged. The article examines the cultural and legal role of men’s honor and why many men chose to punish their wives in the heterosexual environment of the home, when denied the ability to punish their wives’ abductors, lovers, or attackers in the homosocial realm of the court.

The article charts a wide variety of sources to show the correlation between legal frustration and domestic violence that only begins to abate with the Statutes of Westminster in 1285 – a legal revision of Norman law that once again separated the individual crimes grouped under raptus (abduction, incest, fornication, adultery, and rape) allowing men to prosecute men for their crimes against a husband’s honour, rather than against the bodies and/or the persons of women.