Abducting women for pleasure and profit

I haven’t been blogging much about IHR seminars this term, partly because I haven’t got to many of them, and partly because some of them have already been blogged about. But I do want to blog about the two latest I’ve been to. First up is Sylvie Joye on “Abduction and elopement in the early medieval west”. She’s just finished writing a book on raptus in the 6th-10th century and was coming to talk about that.

The first half of her talk was about the meaning and significance of raptus. It’s complicated by the fact that the word changed its meaning in the early fourth century. Before that raptus normally meant rape (it’s the root of our English word). But the Emperor Constantine I created the crime of raptus, which was abduction of a woman for the purposes of marriage. The emphasis became on the ‘snatching/tearing away’ of the woman from her family as legitimate possessors, akin to theft.

So raptus has a wide field of reference. It can still sometimes be rape or close to rape: the raptor exploits the presumption that a woman who has been abducted is now less marriageable to anyone else because she has been ‘violated’. But raptus can also cover elopement – Sylvie pointed out that ‘seductio’ wasn’t used for elopement until the sixteenth century, before that it still just had the meaning of ‘taking far away’. There were also contradictory attitudes as to whether the woman’s consent was an aggravating or mitigating factor. Sometimes it was mitigating in laws, but sometimes persuasion to elopement was seen as exploiting female weakness and thus deserved extra punishment. Constantine’s law punished both the raptor and the abducted woman with extraordinary harshness (the death penalty in some unknown but particularly shameful form), on the presumption that a girl could not be abducted against her will (she should cry out and get protection).

We also got a brief discussion on how raptus was interpreted by nineteenth and early twentieth century historians (because these historiographical frameworks are often still influential, even when the original ideas have been discredited). One is that raptus is the survival of an older form of marriage, between a time when women were held communally and family control of women (an idea developed by Lewis Morgan and Engels). The other is that abduction was a practice giving women a choice, demonstrating love at all costs. The former gives you Raubehe, the latter Friedelehe, concepts of forms of marriage, which, as Sylvie pointed out sound more convincing in German. I think that Friedelehe, in particular, is now definitely dead, but it seems to be a zombie idea that is peculiarly difficult to keep down.

This first half of the paper was a good summary of the basics, but relatively familiar to me since I’ve worked on raptus myself. The second half was more revealing because it was contrasting specific cases from the Merovingian and Carolingian periods, which hasn’t been done in the literature before. There is a problem of uneven sources, and particularly that most of what we get from the Merovingian period is from Gregory of Tours, but even so there are some interesting patterns. One is that the focus in Merovingian texts tends to be on young girls, often in convents and particularly heiresses. For example Gregory tells the story (HF 6-16) of how Bishop Felix of Nantes shut his niece up in a convent, even though she was engaged, so her fiancé Pappolan had to abduct her. He also reports (HF 10-5) a failed attempt to abduct the daughter of the deceased bishop Badegisel of Le Mans, who was an heiress. The vita of St Rusticula of Arles claims there was an attempt to abduct her aged 5, when her father and brother died. In order to protect her, the abbess of Arles allegedly accepted her as a nun then (though it’s quite possible, that she actually became a nun long after the abduction attempt). Indeed, it’s arguable that the convent itself may have been ‘abducting’ Rusticula, in attempting to control a wealthy young woman.

Sylvie contrasted Merovingian evidence on raptus with a change from about 720/730. After that there is increasing papal and royal legislation about raptus, which now tends to be seen as sacrilegious: an improper way of marrying, at a time of increasing emphasis on correct forms of marriage (such as prohibitions on consanguineous marriages).

Cases of raptus also become more prominent, though it’s not clear whether actual numbers are increasing. In contrast to the emphasis in Merovingian cases on inheritance as a motive for abduction, with young heiresses being abducted, there are more widows abducted in the Carolingian period; there are also cases of raptus involving royal women for the first time. Three Carolingian princesses get abducted or elope: we don’t know of any Merovingian ones, and as Sylvie pointed out, it’s likely that if such cases had occurred they would have been reported. Raptus now looks to be a way not just to get a woman’s money, but prestige from her: for example, we start to get told about the children resulting from such marriages (such as those of Judith and Baldwin of Flanders). In the discussion afterwards, I suggested that Carolingian attempts at making marriage indissoluble was one possible cause for that: you could build a more secure political alliance on a marriage that couldn’t simply be repudiated.

There are few specific examples of abduction known from the tenth century (though that may be an effect of the sources), but it is increasingly seeing in a more positive light, not as the social problem it had been for Carolingian rulers and reformers. Instead, perhaps because of the increasing influence of theories of consent to marriage, Baldwin and others became seen as mythical heroes, whose boldness had won their fortune.

Abduction can thus form a useful way of exploring changing medieval ideas about marriage and its social role, highlighting both how marriage was supposed to work in theory and what influenced the practice of marriage.


4 thoughts on “Abducting women for pleasure and profit

  1. I’m glad you’ve tackled this, as I suspected you’d do so far better than I would. I can now refer to your write-up and make an entirely different set of points off the back the paper 🙂


  2. Taking the period of history out of the thinking, which I am, there are not so many differences in the way men think about women today, or even the manner in which women think about girls and women today. The issue of blame/fault creeps into this discussion all the way along, at different levels and in a range of forms.

    Convents are not so obviously used as lock-ups and reformatories to protect a family’s name from their teenage girls, (the evil Eve principle) in the 21st century, but it is not so long since they were, in countries like Ireland.

    We know something of similar behaviours in other cultures though, that are extant, where girls and women are definitely the chattels of their males, only to be ‘defiled’ legitimately. That is, by whom the men in the family choose with the tacit support of the older women in the grouping.

    Sounds most interesting.


    • Women being regarded as property is unfortunately far too common in many cultures, past and present. But I think in many ways the worst situation is when women are regarded predominantly as symbolic property, primarily for display, whether it’s the trophy wife or the virgin daughter. If these lose their value (whether it’s their looks or their virginity) they’re appallingly vulnerable to being discarded, locked up or even killed.

      In contrast, when daughters have more of an actual, practical value, for example in being married off to make political connections, there’s more of an incentive to try and make use of them even when they’re ‘damaged goods’. (I’m sorry, there’s no easy way of discussing this from the male relatives’ point of view without using such dehumanising concepts). I’ve talked before about the fact that Frankish women seem to be ‘ruined’ less easily than in some other societies. The elaborate concern in Carolingian texts for dealing with the aftermath of raptus only make sense in a world in which (unlike for Victorian maidens) being alone with a young man did not mean social death.


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