Celebrating Rape

Who can I rape today, to make the angels rejoice?

This month I have, as one does, found myself singing a few carols. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re a seasonal fixture for any singer.  On the whole it’s not a bad thing: some pretty tunes, a lot of nostalgia, and occasionally something with musical interest. Though of course it becomes really nasty when muzaked through a sound system into a public place.

One of these was a new setting of the words of “the angel gabriel”. Unfortunately the setting is about as dreary as they come, and being slower than the well-known tune, I couldn’t help noticing those words. Glad tidings of …. well, of the Droit du Seigneur[1]. The right of the feudal lord to first claim on a new bride’s virginity. I can’t claim to know the history of such rights, beyond the fact that Enlightenment artists like Mozart and da Ponte took the p*** out of it wickedly, and their 18th century audiences would presumably have known what they were talking about – just as a modern audience understands about slavery or Harper Lee’s Mockingbird.

Is the Droit du Seigneur in fact a form of rape? By modern standards, there can be little doubt. Rape no longer implies violence or even coercion: rather the definition centres on a notion of consent. A notion fraught with such difficulties as to raise questions over whether consent can exist if a woman is too drunk to know what she’s doing, or is mentally disturbed[2]. But I think the Droit du Seigneur looks much more clear-cut: where there is compulsion, there cannot be valid consent. So when the carol says:

Then gentle Mary meekly bowed her head
To Him be as it pleaseth God she said

she is – in modern terms – merely paying her taxes with good grace.  The alternative of struggling vainly against the inevitable would be akin to mounting a legal challenge to your tax bill: futile and self-destructive.

OK, the Christmas story is a Droit du Seigneur, which is in turn a pretty clear case of rape in today’s terms. And we celebrate it unthinkingly. One silly carol may be negligible, but the whole culture surrounding it is not. We all know this story. We teach it to our children from infancy, so by the time they grow old enough to understand or question it, it’s become second nature to them: so deeply rooted that they wouldn’t think to examine it, regardless of whether they believe in christianity, or in any part of the christmas story as historical.

Much of the world is celebrating rape today, and the angels are rejoicing.

[1] Bear in mind that Virgin Birth was perfectly common in biblical times. It was only much later that the word Virgin took on its modern meaning precluding the sexual act.
[2] Could a man being similarly drunk or disturbed work as a defence?

Posted on December 25, 2013, in christmas. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. The historical idea of ‘droit du seigneur’, you’ll be pleased to learn, is widely suspected to be an invention of renaissance French social satirists (yes, they did exist). Later, Voltaire adopted it as gospel truth – because at that point, the French populace were willing to attribute any amount of evil to their noble classes – and it became well known, but without ever necessarily having been true. (Much like the well known ‘fact’ that the authorities in Columbus’s day believed the earth was flat.)

    Theologically, the conception of Christ is supposed to have involved no sexual act at all, so calling it ‘rape’ is problematic. Gabriel didn’t appear to Mary until well after the event – the angel in the carol is retroactively notifying her about it, not asking her “consent”.

    I can well imagine modern feminists arguing that point – but I can also imagine believers angrily rebutting it as evidence that their opponents ‘don’t even want to know what they’re talking about’. In other words, it would be a thoroughly typical internet argument, and not one I’d much enjoy watching.

  2. Hmm. If you think there’s anything feminist in this argument, just look at the trouble Ken Clarke got into when he floated the heretical idea that not all rapes are equal!

    As for the phrase Droit du Seigneur, yes of course it’s french! I used the phrase because I thought it served nicely to convey my meaning: the Lord having first claim (if he chose to pursue it) on his vassal’s bride’s virginity. Such a social system being recognised in the society would also explain why Joseph put up with it. The concept of a lord having his way is altogether more widespread among societies that accept social hierarchy: you can take it back to Zeus, for instance. The christian god, by virtue of his uniqueness, is a ‘bigger and better’ Zeus. The Enlightenment mocked it precisely because it was a society rejecting that kind of social hierarchy.

    As for no sexual act, that of course is much more recent than the original story (it started with Constantine’s taming of christianity, and only became the modern doctrine of the Immaculate conception as recently as 1854). But even if we were to accept it, it doesn’t really matter. Pregnancy is surely the (only legitimate) reason to treat rape as more serious than a regular beating up from which you (physically) recover in a few days or weeks (whoops, don’t tell the feminists I said that). And if you say she didn’t know ’til afterwards – this Lord is bigger and better than Zeus as swan – it just demonstrates the impossibility of consent.

  3. Not the phrase, the idea of “droit de seigneur” – there is, I am quasi-reliably advised, no credible evidence that it was ever a recognised law or custom anywhere in Christendom (basically, post-Roman Europe).

    It was “recognised in society” in the same way as we “recognise” the idea of a cat that craves lasagne: that “recognition” on our part is not, in itself, evidence that any real-life cat in the history of the world has ever eaten the stuff.

  4. Also, I must – must, I tell you – nitpick your theology again. The “immaculate conception” and “virgin birth” are two entirely separate doctrines, and the latter goes back to well before Constantine. Wikipedia gives a reasonable basic outline of the basic claim.

  5. I’m well aware of the distinction between virgin birth and immaculate conception. The former was nothing out of the ordinary until the word virgin took on its modern meaning. But once it had done that, and the christmas story had become ‘miraculous’ (that’s where Constantine comes in), the even-more-wacky ideas that take the humanity out of Mary are an evolution, through centuries of myth-building where the most bizarre fantasies sometimes prevailed. These are the sexual fantasies of men deprived of the real thing!

  6. Not so. The conflation between “virgin” and “unmarried woman” was present in ancient Hebrew, and hence in the original prophecies of Isaiah, but classical Greek was quite clear about the distinction, and Matthew and Luke – 1st century sources – both use Greek words that imply ‘virgin’ in the modern sense of the word.

    Again, I refer the hon gentleman to the Wikipedia entry linked above.

    I’m not saying I believe any of this tosh. Just that those who do believe it, are unlikely to be impressed by your characterisation of the event.

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