Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Redefining Abduction: The Case of Octavian (Part 3 of 3)

A white unicorn rears inside a small circular fence surrounded by embroidered flowers
Tapestry detail of a captive unicorn (c.1500)

Following on from Part 1, and Part 2, this final post rounds off my exploration of the Middle English romance Octavian and its representation of abduction. In this post, I connect the reworking of the heroine’s abduction in Octavian with contemporary attitudes towards kidnap and captivity. I want to suggest that reworking abduction as rescue in Octavian is a reflection of medieval ideologies surrounding kidnap, extending the rewriting of abduction already evident in contemporary legal and social discourse. 

‘Voluntary abduction’ is defined as kidnap with the consent of the abductee: in other words, elopement. Dunn contends: ‘medieval authorities considered such departures prosecutable offenses, so such elopements or abandonments appear in judicial records’ (86). For example, in 1355 Maud Lenegor was ‘abducted by her own will’ from her husband by the skinner William Rothewell, and in 1394 Alice Grondon eloped from her husband with one Henry Londlake (Dunn, 102). 

Sue Sheridan Walker claims that ‘women allowed themselves to be abducted in order to affirm their own choice of a husband and force their families to accept the relationship and [that] they allowed themselves to be abducted in order to leave their husbands’ (237-8). There is thus scope for a reading of kidnap which offers agency to the female ‘victim’ and refigures it as rescue, potentially from an unwanted suitor (such as the giant in Octavian), or an abusive or undesired marriage. 

It appears that the recasting of kidnap as rescue or as voluntary was a source of concern in the later Middle Ages. Dunn suggests that ‘lawmakers became more concerned with preventing the voluntary departure of their wives and daughters over the course of the Middle Ages’ (109) and Cannon argues that such cases ‘produced a common anxiety throughout the fourteenth century, judging from the number of cases in both local and royal courts that concern this kind of “ravishment”’ (81). 

This concern seems to have been translated into legal statute: in 1382 a statute decreed that ‘when men ravish women (maids, wives, widows) who later consent to the ravishment […] both the men and the women lose their rights of inheritance’ (Kelly, 380). Furthermore, ‘the husband or closest male relative of the woman can sue the man and seek the death penalty’ (Kelly, 380). Voluntary abduction was thus a source of considerable concern at the time Octavian was translated into Middle English and the romance’s use of the discourse reflects this. 

However, recasting abduction as rescue does not liberate women from their position as a male possession, either in real life or in romance. Just as Florent’s attempted abduction of Marsabelle carried implications of women as prizes, so too were women in real life treated as male possessions, as I noted in Part 1. Goldberg considers that abduction was part of a long tradition of marriage by captivity, allowing a man to achieve marriage or effect control over a marriage and circumvent familial hostility or problems of dowry negotiation. 

What is clear about this tradition is that, as Goldberg argues, the consent of the abducted woman was not the primary issue; because a woman was legally the property of either her husband or her father, it was the lack of consent from the man owning her that was of primary concern. Hence the legal provision for the ‘husband or closest male relative’ to sue (Goldberg, 162). The classifying of abduction as theft from a man reveals the extent to which women were ‘owned’ by their male relatives. Even if consensual abduction offered women the possibility of choosing their own partners, abduction as rescue still carried implications of ownership and possession. 

Octavian deals interestingly with these themes of possession and ownership. Other kidnappings in the romance, themed around the trade and purchase of bodies, provide a context for the romance abduction of Marsabelle. The first of these is that of the two brothers, Florent and Octavian, who are banished from Rome along with their mother. One son, Octavian, is borne away by ‘a lioness’ (338), although he is eventually reunited with his mother.

The other son, Florent, has a more prolonged absence from his mother; abducted by ‘an ape’ (311), then liberated from the ape by ‘a knight’ (533) who himself ‘encountered ten outlaws’ (542) who ‘won the child from him’ (548). The ‘outlaws’ then sell Florent to Clement for ‘twenty pounds’ (587). Clement takes Florent to Paris where he raises him as his son. So from the very beginning of their lives the brothers’ fates are closely tied up with abduction and, Florent’s in particular, with ransom and the economic valuing of bodies.

Themes of captivity return towards the end of Octavian, as Florent and several others who have been involved in combat with the Saracen army, including the king of France and (unbeknownst to him) Florent’s real father, the Roman Emperor, are captured by the Saracen army. The text reveals that ‘the Saracens hastily made their preparations / To ride home in glory’ (1649-50), suggesting a hostage situation. Indeed the prisoners are poorly treated:
            With innumerable terrible wounds
            [They were] led […] in iron chains,
Their feet under the horse’s belly:
            It is a great pity to tell of it (1554, 1558-1560).

The group are prisoners of war, as is made clear in the details of their release.

Octavian the younger, who has been residing with his mother in Jerusalem, travels to free the prisoners.
            The first man whose bonds he loosened
            Was his father, it is true,
            Without any lie;
            And he loosened the bonds of his brother Florent
            Before he loosened those of the King of France
            Yet he did not know who he was (1633-38).

Although he is not aware of Florent’s true identity, Octavian here unwittingly follows the conventions of ransom at the time of the Crusades, freeing family members first (Friedman, 132). 

So the themes associated with abduction in these two examples are economic and combative; people are won either through purchase – Clement buys Florent – or physical prowess – the knight fights the ape, Octavian liberates the prisoners. Moreover, although Florent, a captive son, is eventually rescued, Marsabelle, a captive daughter, is not, which could be read as a comment on the trade in bodies which values, exchanges and owns both men and women as possessions and objects of exchange. 

Framing Marsabelle’s abduction within this context of trade in bodies shows how even as abduction is refigured as protection, Octavian too reveals the implications of possession, ownership and slavery which underlie abduction, even an abduction that is redefined as voluntary rescue.

Works Cited:
Cannon, Christopher. ‘Rapuits in the Chaumpaigne Release.’ Speculum 68.1 (1993): 74-94.
Dunn, Caroline. ‘The Language of Ravishment in Medieval England.’ Speculum 86.1 (2011): 79-116.
Friedman, Yvonne. ‘Captivity and Ransom: The Experience of Women.’ Gendering the Crusades. Ed. Susan B. Edgington and Sarah Lambert. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001. 121-139.
Goldberg, P. J. P. Communal Discord, Child Abduction and Rape in the Later Middle Ages. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
Kelly, Henry Ansgar. ‘Statutes of Rapes and Alleged Ravishers of Wives: A Context for the Charges against Thomas Malory, Knight.’ Viator 28 (1997): 361-419.
Walker, Sue Sheridan. ‘Punishing Convicted Ravishers: Statutory Strictures and Actual Practice in Thirteenth and Fourteenth-Century England.’ Journal of Medieval History 13 (1987): 237-50.

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