What Sansa Stark's Rape Tells Us About Our Culture

A medieval expert compares the rape culture in the controversial TV series with that in history and literature.

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May 22 2015, 5:15pm

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark and Iwan Rheon as Ramsay Bolton in 'Game of Thrones.' Photo by Helen Sloan. Courtesy of HBO

Warning: potential spoilers ahead.

We are, as a culture, tantalized by the past. Audiences today pore over historical dramas like Wolf Hall and fantasies like The Musketeers and Penny Dreadful eagerly seeking historical detail, a process with which historians are happy to assist, whether it's checking the accuracy of the architecture, execution styles, or size (and curvature) of the codpieces.

Viewers have been particularly interested in fact-checking, as it were, HBO's Game of Thrones. The most recent episode pushed the historical envelope once more, but this time in ways that have opened up a sharp debate. As this episode closed, a character cheered by fans for her increasing independence, Sansa Stark (played by Sophie Turner), was raped by her new husband, the sadistic Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), as her childhood friend Theon was forced to watch. The marital rape of such a sympathetic character appears to have been one assault too many for some devotees of a show (and series of novels) that makes much of its sensitivity to "reality of the times" of its medievalized setting.

But what times are these? After all, we're talking about a show with dragons, wargs, and white walkers. Beyond the fantastic in its setting however, neither Game of Thrones creator George R. R. Martin, the showrunners, nor the fans should pat themselves on the back for their historical savvy in depicting "realistic" medieval sex, for such an idea sweeps under the rug both the complexity of the European Middle Ages and of our own era. In short, the idea of the "reality of the times" lies to us about our past and our present.

We have no idea how frequent rape really was in the Middle Ages. What we do know is that nearly one out of every five American women will be raped in her lifetime. We also know that in medieval England, for example, according to statute law, rape of a virgin was legally equated with maiming, that is, losing a limb. One could not stitch Jaime Lannister's hand back on in medieval England, or replace Sansa Stark's lost virginity.

According to early English statutes, the penalty on conviction for rape and for maiming were identical: execution or exile. The penalties for rape or maiming in the US today vary, but look mild in comparison. In either case, the penalties don't seem to matter, as conviction rates for rape in the Middle Ages were even lower than our own (where only 2 percent of rapes will lead to any prison time), though not by much. No matter how frequently rape occurs, rapists are not normally now and never have been convicted and legally punished. In that, at least, Game of Thrones may say something about reality.

We also know that medieval people lapped up literature featuring rape, as we apparently still do today. In just one example, Geoffrey Chaucer's canonical 14th-century work, The Canterbury Tales, we find it full of sexual violence. The action of "The Wife of Bath's Tale" begins with the rape of a virgin: "He saw a maiden walking before him / Of which maiden straightway, despite all she could do / By utter force, he took away her maidenhead." In "The Physician's Tale," the main character is so afraid that his daughter, Virginia, is going to be raped that he kills her to prevent it: "There are two ways, either death or shame / That thou most suffer; alas, that I was born!"

Consent mattered in medieval culture just as it does in modern culture.

Sometimes medieval literature makes fun of rape victims, as Chaucer's " The Reeve's Tale" seems to do, when two college students take revenge against a "proud" miller by forcing sex on his unwitting wife and daughter, and the attacks are played up for bawdy laughs: "His wife is screwed, and his daughter also. / Lo, this is how it is when a miller is false!" In "The Franklin's Tale," a wife, Dorigen, may be threatened with rape when she jokingly agrees to sleep with another man if he can remove the dangerous rocks from the coastline: The man creates the illusion that the rocks are gone, and Dorigen feels forced to consent to have sex that she most definitely does not desire. This complex dilemma sometimes leads audiences to blame Dorigen for her hasty promise.

In 1382, the English parliament downgraded rape as an offense in the Statute of Rapes, but it proved a hard sell. Lesser sentences, similar to those rape carries today, were created, because a friend of the powerful house of Lancaster was under investigation for rape. While politics determining law mirrors Game of Thrones' "reality of the times" closely, what the historical record shows is that medieval lawyers continued attempting to prosecute rapists under the older, more stringent law.

Sometimes medieval literature, too, expresses compassion for raped women, and for women threatened with rape. The word rape comes from the Latin word raptus, or "to seize," the same word that gives us raptor today. For medieval people, a raped woman was as powerless against her attacker as a mouse against a hawk. She was carried away from her world and her life and control over her body. The Latin word itself is a powerful indication of cultures that sympathize with raped women.


Curious about medieval battle? Watch "Battle of the Nations."

In short, medieval people cared about the victims of rape. Take the story of Lucretia—retold by Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, and other medieval poets—which shows a sensitivity to the rape of wives even when the law was less clear. The story climaxes with Lucretia killing herself out of shame over her own rape, but in most medieval versions of the story, her husband and other family members do not blame her. Rather, they support her and want her to live. In Gower's version "her husband, a sorrowful man / comforted her as much as he could / as did her father too and together they swore / that they were not angry with her [because she had been raped]."

Medieval age of consent laws were intended to ensure that a wife-to-be was old enough to know what she was about to do before she went to the church door to be married. If a woman gave consent to be married and had consensual sex with her husband, then no one in medieval Europe but the Pope could part the couple.

The historical Paston family in 15th-century England faced this reality when one of their daughters, Margery, married a man the family had not approved of. The Church acknowledged the ceremony, and Margery upheld her vow and consummation, however, and so the family was forced to accept it. Both vow and consummation were necessary, and the lack of one or the other could invalidate the marriage. Back then, as now, people might marry for a variety of reasons, but then, as now, consummation was supposed to be consensual.

Consent mattered in medieval culture just as it does in modern culture. Yet modern rape statistics demand that we recognize that it still happens with alarming frequency. The debate on whether Sansa Stark's rape was worth showing hides both how modern medieval culture was and how medieval our own culture still is. As Sarah Mesle in the Los Angeles Review of Books wrote, "This episode of Game of Thrones does to viewers what the world so often does to women: It mistakes presence for consent." The sexual reality of Game of Thrones is, in fact, our own.

Game of Thrones airs on Sundays on HBO.

Kathleen E. Kennedy is an associate professor at Penn State-Brandywine, specializing in medieval and Early Modern English literature and history. Follow her on Twitter.

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