Steve King is wrong about rape in medieval Europe the same way he's wrong about rape in modern America

The historical evidence suggests that, then as now, women had as much if not more to fear from powerful men around them than from any stranger danger.
Nordic Raid Under Olaf Tryggveson Engraving
A Viking raid under Olaf Tryggveson, king of Norway from 995 to 1000.Hermann Vogel / Getty Images
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By Dr. Erik Wade, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, is facing criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for his latest in a years-long series of sexist and racist comments. This time, on Wednesday, he defended the lack of exemptions for incest and rape in his recently defeated anti-abortion legislation by claiming that rape and incest had been historically necessary for the furtherance of humanity.

"What if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled those people out that were products of rape and incest? Would there be any population of the world left if we did that?” he asked rhetorically. “Considering all the wars and all the rape and pillage that has taken place? And whatever happened to culture after society, I know that I can't certify that I am not a part of the product of that.”

King’s reprehensible comments reflect what Danielle Christmas, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, calls “heritage politics,” or white people using nostalgia for “Western civilization” to push white supremacist views — in this case, a white supremacist trope about marauding Vikings and white heritage.

King, like the white supremacists he parrots, gets his history wrong, however.

When he refers to “all the rape and pillage that has taken place,” King is implicitly referring to popular myths about the Vikings and other European marauders, invoking some of white supremacists’ favorite myths about their supposed past and about an image of medieval gender roles that they wish to return to.

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Medievalisms like this one about medieval men pillaging and raping (and thus bringing about the rise of modern society) are part of the rape culture that lets white men think they have the right to women’s bodies, and especially the bodies of women of color. As Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of medieval literature at Brandeis, describes, white supremacists from the 1800s onward sought to claim and shape an image of a violent white Viking masculinity toward which they could reach back.

Neo-pagan groups like the Odinists today celebrate this kind of toxic white “warrior masculinity,” its mythology cemented in our culture despite its dubious historical origins. And this imagined Middle Ages has authorized white supremacist violence now and in the past. Think of the KKK, whose members call themselves “Knights,” or the crowd of torch-carrying white supremacists at Charlottesville, Virginia, who carried numerous symbols from the European Middle Ages, including runes and images of the Crusades. Then there are the Viking symbols on the gun of the Christchurch, New Zealand, shooter, and the invocation of “Vinland” (the imagined Viking colonization of North America) by the man who attacked two women of color in Portland, Oregon, in 2017.

Invoking rape as a necessary and intrinsic part of a medieval heritage allows King to pretend that, once upon a time, culture was more violent but that it was a necessary step on the way to civilization and society. But rape is not just a problem of the past: Rape culture in America means that powerful white men like Jeffrey Epstein and even Donald Trump can be accused of sexual assault and harassment by many women with few consequences. Young white men convicted of rape, like Brock Turner, can receive minimal sentences because of their bright futures, and the vast majority of rapists receive no repercussions at all. Meanwhile, rape accusations are made to stick to people of color, especially black men. Emmett Till was lynched based on a fabricated rape accusation. The racist image of the black rapist has been used for decades to justify extrajudicial violence, a vastly expanded criminal justice system and unchecked police brutality.

King’s argument also replays a tired trope that rape generally means a violent assault by a stranger. The image of Vikings pouring out of their longships to attack innocent English women reinforces this idea of rape as something done by strangers, by foreigners and by invaders. (This same myth appears in Trump’s claim at his campaign launch that Mexican immigrants to the U.S. were bringing rape: “They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”)

This is not to say that the Vikings were not rapists, as they certainly were at times. Yet medieval history is not a history solely of violent invaders committing rape, but of more subtle coercive rapists, suggesting that then, as today, many rapes were not stranger rapes but acquaintance rapes.

The story of Abelard and Heloise, for instance, has long been held up as the great love story of the Middle Ages, but it is actually a tale of coercion and violence. The famed writer Abelard decided he wished to have a sexual relationship with a teenage woman, Heloise. He obtained a position as her tutor, one that he freely admitted gave him the right to bend her to his will, with violence when needed.

Similarly, Chaucer, the supposed Father of English Letters himself, was taken to court for the rape of a young woman named Cecily Champaign. Chaucer settled this case and paid Cecily Champaign’s family. Carissa Harris, an associate English professor at Temple, additionally shows that Chaucer’s own “Canterbury Tales” is filled with stories of men raping women in order to gain social capital with other men — a kind of bro culture that Harris reminds us remains all too current.

There are further historical inaccuracies in King’s statement, most obviously that he assumes a past where family planning was inaccessible though widespread rape was normalized. But women have had access to family planning methods throughout history, and there are recorded references to women using herbs or “potions” to end pregnancies in medieval Europe. The seventh-century English theological document “The Penitential of Theodore,” for instance, advised that women who aborted fetuses should do penance twice weekly for three years. Such a penance was much milder than for infractions like murder (7-10 years), divorce and remarriage (seven years), or repeated theft (seven years). Secular laws at the time did not discuss abortion at all. They did, however, penalize rape — which was regarded as a serious crime throughout the Middle Ages.

In a way, King is not wrong that the history of Western civilization includes rape. It’s simply not the image of violent pillaging raiders that he wants. As today, rape more often involved men exerting power over the people, mostly particularly the women, around them. And, as today, rape often involved powerful men avoiding judgment because of their positions.

Even now, many medieval scholars insist Chaucer could not have been a rapist, insisting — with no evidence — that Cecily Champaign must have made up her story for money or revenge, a reminder of how rape culture and rape apologia transcend time.

Ideas like King’s are not confined to the fringes of extremist white supremacists: White supremacy and rape culture are perpetuated by scholars, by teachers and by popular culture. We must recognize the dangers of the stories we tell about the past — not just to correct a “wrong” narrative of the past, but to recognize the dangerous, violent use that people today make of those narratives, especially when they aren’t true to begin with. History can be a blood sport, deadlier than any Viking raider.