Damsels in distress or partners in crime? The abduction of women in medieval England

Caroline S Dunn, Fordham University


This study of raptus (ravishment) explores the links between gender and sex, law and disorder, property, and power in medieval England by examining under-utilized and largely unpublished legal documents recording female abductions. It explores abductors' motivations, legislation introduced to combat the offense, methods and rates of prosecution, and those women who cooperated with their kidnappers. I uncovered 767 abductions from royal administrative and judicial sources, including King's Bench files, Gaol Delivery Rolls, Chancery Petitions, and the Patent Rolls. My geographical focus on four counties (Bedfordshire, Devon, Northumberland, and London/Middlesex) and sampling of records from between 1150 and 1500 enabled me to explore local differences and variations over the longue durée. Some medieval Englishwomen endured abduction for rape or coerced marriage, yet other charges reveal consensual elopements. Increasing concern about elopement led late-thirteenth-century lawmakers to adapt a definition of raptus which conflated rape and abduction, in order to target elopement. Contrary to earlier assertions that female options were diminished, lawmakers did not remove options for genuine rape victims as women prosecuted rape appeals throughout the middle ages. The thirteenth- and fourteenth-century statutes did, however, fail women forced into profitable marriages, especially wealthy widows, because married victims could not appeal their husband for ravishment once coercive nuptials had been solemnized. The majority of abductees were married. Many "wife-thefts" were not forced abductions, but cases of adultery fictitiously framed as abduction by wives trying to avoid adultery charges or by husbands suing to receive financial compensation for their losses. 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 prosecution, contributing to a six-fold increase of wife-theft allegations. After a 1382 statute legislated 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 maneuver around such controls.

Subject Area

Middle Ages

Recommended Citation

Dunn, Caroline S, "Damsels in distress or partners in crime? The abduction of women in medieval England" (2007). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3286418.