In the era of #MeToo, how can university teachers responsibly teach texts that feature sexual violence? That is the question that lies at the heart of this collection of 14 essays by educators working in the field of medieval literature. At first glance, the reader might be tempted to think that a 200-page collection about the methodology and morality of teaching stories from the Middle Ages is an example of left-wing academic handwringing. If universities are experiencing a sexual violence crisis, wouldn’t it make sense to pay attention to clear and present danger, rather than focusing on how and why we dissect historical fictions?
But medieval values are not firmly a thing of the past, and the way we read ancient texts in the classroom today shapes not only our students’ understanding of the past but can also validate – or call into question – their most deeply held values and cultural expectations. Alan Baragona’s contribution, “Teaching Rape to the He-Man Woman Haters Club: Chrétien de Troyes at a Military School”, describes arriving in 1986 to teach literature at Virginia Military Institute. He found an educational system that supported “The Code of a Gentleman”, a charter of values for the – unquestionably male – student that deliberately harked back to an imagined medieval past. (Ten years later, the Supreme Court would force VMI to admit women for the first time.) In this context, asking students to deconstruct the sexual violence in Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian romances could become a radical act.
The other contributors have similarly vital points to make, as well as practical suggestions for teaching sensitive material in classrooms of different types, from community colleges to elite universities. Wendy Perkins and Christina di Gangi’s use of victimology (the study of the victims of crime and the psychological effects of their experience) and David Grubbs’ interpretation of the positive consent model – basically that, without explicit positive consent from both parties, a sexual act must be considered assault – offer methodological approaches transferable to the reading of texts from other periods.
Given the global turn in humanities scholarship, as well as recent energetic discussion among medievalists about the value of looking outside the literary canon and beyond the West, it is a shame that there is a heavy focus on canonical texts. While I appreciate the inclusion of more obscure romances such as Sir Gowther, the volume might have been better served by sacrificing one of the three chapters on Chaucer and looking at medieval texts that originated outside Western Europe. Rape culture is, after all, a global phenomenon.
The collection is also very North American in focus – all its contributors teach at US institutions – and so teachers in other parts of the world may find that this limits the practical use of the volume in their own classrooms. Nonetheless, this is a timely and important contribution; as Suzanne M. Edwards concludes in her chapter on saints’ lives, “teaching rape and its representations in the Middle Ages can help students to think more deeply about their own views and – one hopes – ultimately to foster more substantive and nuanced political conversations about rape today”.
Rachel Moss is a visiting researcher at the University of Surrey and an editorial fellow for History Workshop Online.
Teaching Rape in the Medieval Literature Classroom: Approaches to Difficult Texts
Edited by Alison Gulley
Arc Humanities, 260pp, £85.00
Published 30 June 2018