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Moralizing the Rape of Philomela in Late Medieval Commentary

This dissertation examines the reception of the Philomela narrative from Ovid’s Metamorphoses 6.424-674 by medieval commentators and authors, and how European academics during the 12th-14th centuries interpreted its central theme of rape. Through their engagement with the story of Philomela’s rape and her ingenuity in expressing her experience, medieval commentators and writers constructed a space in which they could propose diverse approaches to sexual violence, justice, and victimhood and survival. The commentaries, translations, and adaptions of Philomela’s narrative produced by medieval writers found their precedent in the episode from Ovid’s text, in which he dismantled the erotic structures of sexual violence and at the same time used the narrative to critique the rise of Augustus’ authoritarian regime on the Roman political stage. Medieval moralizations and retellings of Philomela’s story echo Ovid’s use of legal terminology, and they highlight the communal, institutional difficulties faced by survivors of rape in the cultures of late medieval Europe. Raped women during this period had little recourse to justice through their own testimony, and rape cases were usually brought forward on their behalf by male relatives. Victims of rape would be subjected to shame imposed on them by their communities and by themselves, reinforced by popular narratives that often made the lines between love and rape ambiguous and that questioned the reliability of the rape victim’s experience. Philomela’s persistence in communicating her experience and her rage, joined with that of her sister Procne, provide a counter-narrative to the typical silencing that occurs in classical and medieval stories of rape, albeit one that ends in violence and destruction. The medieval reception and reiteration of Philomela’s story utilized the narrative of survival and revenge as a space in which to express and discuss new perceptions of the complex relationships between marriage, consent, victimization, and political agency. The result of these new understandings was an increasingly nuanced approach to the representation of women who survived sexual assault and the necessity of addressing the resulting trauma.
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