In 1425, Pieter Grootwouters paid a fine “for having taken with him” and “taken into marriage” a citizen's daughter against her father's will in Ghent.Footnote 1 Local authorities punished Pieter for trying to push through a marriage without parental consent, which the francophone account describes by combining the words emmener and prendre à mariage. Although medieval scholars have long shown interest in such partner choice disputes, they continue to struggle to understand them fully. This difficulty exists largely because many medieval texts recording this phenomenon employ words like raptus that are no longer in use today and that, moreover, lump together notions of offenses and practices that are perceived as fully separate in our present-day society.Footnote 2 Although the description of Pieter's undertaking is pretty straightforward, scholarship has used many different terms to talk about it, like rape, abduction, ravishment, seduction, and elopement. While these terms could all fall within the medieval interpretation of the commonly used term raptus, they have totally different and often irreconcilable meanings today. This presents researchers who want to study the behavior of Pieter Grootwouters with a major challenge: they seem to completely lack a clear vocabulary to talk about these seizures of women for marriage.
The varied terminology in modern scholarship mirrors the multivalence and ambiguity of some of the terms used to describe partner choice conflicts in medieval sources. Complex terms like raptus, rapt, and ravishment served as focal points in current scholarship, which mostly deals with medieval England.Footnote 3 It is unclear to what extent these ambiguous medieval words, which could have meant rape or abduction but also seduction, corresponded to an actual conflation of these offenses in the Middle Ages. Gwen Seabourne has suggested that rape and abduction overlapped for late medieval English people, while Caroline Dunn's work found that English ravishment descriptions distinguished more clearly between rape and abduction in the fifteenth century than in the thirteenth and especially fourteenth century.Footnote 4 Studies on late medieval England generally put more emphasis on the intertwining of abduction and rape than studies tackling the phenomenon on the continent, where scholars have mostly connected abduction to marriage making.Footnote 5, Footnote 6 Valentina Cesco has suggested that the overlap between rape and abduction, very persistent in late medieval English law and jurisdiction, was less of an issue in continental European regions.Footnote 7 Evidence supporting this claim is lacking, as the ways in which rape and abduction were described and intertwined outside of medieval England has received little attention in current research.
This article intends to bring clarity to the terminological and legal confusion regarding partner choice conflicts that persists in current scholarship. By examining the language used by lawmakers, judges, and authorities to describe such conflicts, this article sets aside the modern terms and preconceived categories of contemporary study to examine how Pieter's behavior was talked about in and out of the courtroom in the late medieval Low Countries. Focusing on legal texts (1218–1438) and fifteenth-century judicial records, this article shows that medieval Flemish had a specific word to describe an offense that was not captured by other available terms: schaec. This term can best be translated as “abduction with matrimonial intent,” a specific category of behavior that differed from other offenses that had their own terminology in the Low Countries (rape was referred to as vrouwencracht). By focusing on the phenomenon of schaec, this article shows that the Low Countries’ authorities distinguished between the seizure of women for sex and the seizure of women for marriage. Linguistic ambiguity still characterizes some Low Countries’ cases, but this only poses a problem in cases that were recorded in French or Latin, languages with no equivalent for the specific term schaec. Cases reported in Dutch are usually clear. If ambiguity does occur in the middle Dutch records, this is not because of the use of unclear language but because of the inclusion of both elements of abduction and rape without clarifying the perpetrator's primary goal.
This article focuses on different cities in the Low Countries; namely, the quarter of Ghent, including the city and the surrounding, less urbanized districts called Vier Ambachten, Oudburg, and Land van Waas in Flanders, along with the Brabantine cities of Antwerp and Leuven. The first section offers a general overview of what marriage making entailed in the Low Countries, briefly discussing the jurisdictions involved and the records they produced. Afterwards, an examination of schaec through many legal and judicial texts and records will unearth what this term legally meant. The next section explores the Low Countries’ multilingual legal landscape and its effects on the ways in which abductions were described and defined, showing that the lack of French and Latin counterparts for schaec was solved through code switching and the use of phonetic equivalents. This article ends with a discussion of other ambivalent terms that were used by lawmakers and judges, also discussing a few terms that carried information about the abductee's consent and were thus more specific than schaec.
This case study on the Low Countries shows that medieval people used a clear and straightforward terminology to talk about abductions with marital intent. At the same time, however, medieval legal culture's multilingual nature could cause confusion for judges and lawmakers in the past as well as for historians today.
Marriage and Jurisdiction
Medieval canon law identified two ways to contract marriage. Couples could marry by speaking words of consent or—and this way was more common in the late medieval Low Countries—by exchanging marital promises (words of future consent) followed by sexual intercourse.Footnote 8 The involvement of family was not required, but it was a deeply entrenched custom. Low Countries’ customary laws state that involvement in their offspring's choice of spouse was a parental right as long as the child was still a minor.Footnote 9 Traditionally, making marriage was thus a process that involved family interference and public concern. Because all it took to get legally married was speaking the right words, however, it was relatively easy to flout marriage's usual public, processual character. Men could try to “convince” or force women to say “yes, I do,” or young people could marry without informing their families.Footnote 10 Both ecclesiastical and secular authorities tried to deal with these issues.
In 1215, church authorities promulgated new overall rules that would guarantee a marriage's publicity, like the publication of banns and the presence of a priest and witnesses. Marriages not taking these stipulations into account were considered illegal, yet as long as consent had been exchanged, they were valid and could not be undone, a clause that led to frustration in lay society.Footnote 11 As a remedy, secular authorities drew up their own legal texts criminalizing the seizure of women for marriage against their or their families’ wishes. This article studies a body of ten legal texts issued between 1218 and 1438 by the city governors of the cities of Leuven and Ghent, counts of Flanders or dukes of Brabant.Footnote 12 While three seigneurial texts dealing with various issues were promulgated by the dukes of Brabant and covered the whole duchy, one ducal legal text targeted abduction in Leuven particularly. In 1396, the city governors of Leuven themselves issued a new legal text tackling the matter. Several comital texts deal with abduction for the city of Ghent, including one by Countess Marguerite around 1250, one by Guy of Flanders in 1297, and one by Philip the Good in 1438. In addition, the Ghent city government promulgated one law text in 1218 and one in 1438 tackling abductions with marital intent.
Jurisdiction regarding marriage conflicts in all three cities and the Ghent districts was shaped by different players. The local courts dealt with criminal and civil cases. The city governors were selected from both elite and craft guild families and acted as judges. These courts have left behind final sentences (records of how cases were resolved) in Antwerp, Ghent, and Leuven. In addition, bailiffs had an important judicial role as they served as public prosecutors and represented the dukes of Burgundy locally. Although a bailiff did not have the power to pass verdicts, he played a crucial role in local law enforcement. His job was to search for offenses or serve as the main point of contact for citizens who wanted to file a complaint. He gathered evidence, called the aldermen when a trial had to occur, and made sure that once convicted, offenders would serve their sentences. However, the bailiff did not have to pass all offenses through to the aldermen, as he had the authority to make settlements out of court and allow suspects and convicts to pay a monetary settlement.Footnote 13 These bailiffs’ activities were registered in biannual or, in the city and the districts of Ghent, triennial accounts, which include reports on punished offenses, among which were cases of rape, abduction, and adultery. Taken together, these judicial records contain reports on 308 abductions and 112 cases that were possibly abductions but could also have been cases of rape or abductions for purposes other than marriage, as will be explained further on. They shed light on different social groups, from laborers to craft guild members and people belonging to families who traditionally held political power within their communities. The aristocratic elites are not represented in this body of secular sources, as they generally used other means of conflict management and used courts at a seigneurial level that are not included in this analysis.Footnote 14
Finally, cases regarding a marriage's validity were dealt with in consistory courts of the diocese of Liège, to which Leuven belonged, and the diocese of Cambrai, to which Antwerp belonged.Footnote 15 Consistory records followed canon law and represented ecclesiastical ideas on marriage, sex, and morality. Although the episcopal judge's task was to decide if a marriage bond existed or not, abductions and rapes preceding the alleged exchange of consent occasionally pop up. The Cambrai records are extensive but only final sentences have been preserved, while the Liège records include final sentences as well as more detailed litigation proceedings, although only one Liège register dating from 1434–35 remains intact today.Footnote 16
This body of sources, consisting both of legal texts and judicial records, offers abduction descriptions in different languages, as the late medieval Low Countries knew a multilingual legal culture in which Middle Dutch, French, and Latin were used. Medieval Dutch was spoken by the majority of the inhabitants in Antwerp, Ghent, and Leuven.Footnote 17 These cities’ legal texts and records were also generally written in Dutch. In Ghent and by extension in the County of Flanders, however, the clerks recording the bailiff's decisions translated spoken Dutch statements and sentences into French, since the bailiff's records were drawn up in French throughout the fifteenth century except for a few years in the 1480s.Footnote 18 French remained the language of law in the County of Flanders, at least for comital records and institutions, such as the bailiff, who represented the count, and the central, higher courts. After all, the Flemish count was a vassal of the French king, and Flanders was therefore part of France, in contrast to the rest of the Low Countries. Some high medieval legal texts against abduction and rape were still drawn up in Latin. They are included because they shed light onto the emergence of schaec as a well-defined offense. In addition, the consistory courts’ records are in Latin, despite inclusions of litigant statements in the vernacular in the records of Liège. It is important to be aware of this difference in language between the records and the testimonies, interrogations, and discussions that the records summarized. Even the Dutch records might have deployed a legal language that differed from the ways in which people talked in their daily lives. Yet studying legal records is useful because the language of the law did not exist in a vacuum, as it shaped and was shaped by social attitudes toward abduction, marriage, and gender.Footnote 19 The term schaec was more than a legal term, as will be argued further on.
Schaec: Abductions with Matrimonial Intent
Apart from a few general terms meaning “to lead” or “to take away,” Tables 1 and 2 record the abduction terms used in ten legal texts and the secular judicial records under scrutiny and show that the most used terms for abduction were the middle Dutch noun schaec and its related verb ontschaken. Therefore, this term shall be explored first before we turn to the other prevalent words. Schaec was a medieval Flemish word that described a category of behavior and could have two meanings in Flanders and Brabant. On the one hand, it was used more generally to describe abductions of women, with or without the consent of the individuals positioned to give consent (the woman herself or her family/guardians), for the purpose of entering into a marriage or some other sexual/romantic relationship. On the other hand, the term was defined more strictly in law, especially in the law texts issued by secular seigneurial and local authorities and by judges in secular courts. According to this strict legal definition, schaec meant either the abduction with marital intent of a minor, regardless her consent, against her families’ wishes, or the non-consensual marital abduction of an adult woman. The bailiffs’ accounts and consistory court records, however, used a freer and broader definition of the term in their documents than the strict legal definition used by legislators and city governors, as this section will show.
Schaec is derived from the Germanic word skâk, which meant “robbery,” and was specifically employed to denote the abduction of women in the late medieval Low Countries.Footnote 20 The modern Dutch noun for the abduction of women, schaking, derives directly from the medieval word and has no exact translation in other languages as far as I am aware.Footnote 21 Therefore, for lack of a proper translation, I translate it as “abduction with marital intent” or simply “abduction” throughout this article. The records under scrutiny employ the term schaec for the first time in 1218, in a Latin city ordinance issued in Ghent. In later law texts, the category of behavior that would be seen as the offense schaec was increasingly delineated and shaped into a rather distinct legal category. The social meaning of the term, however, extended beyond the interpretation of schaec stipulated in law.
The 1218 charter promulgated by the city governors of Ghent includes the term for the first time as a conjugated verb. This bilingual record in Latin and Dutch states that: Si vero ancilla vel puella vel famulus vel leno mulierem vel puellam vel domicellam ad hoc allexerit ut cum alisquo viro abiret: scilicet “ontscaket,” nasus ei abscindetur.Footnote 22 This stipulation thus punished “servants, women and procurers who lured girls into going away with men, which is called ontscaket,” by cutting off their noses. Here the verb ontschaken means the act of encouraging or inciting a girl to go away with a man. The stipulation envisions the act as not only executed by the man with whom the girl ran away, but by people, in the act identified as female, who facilitated the abduction. The inclusion of a vernacular term in a Latin legal text is remarkable but not unparalleled. Scholars have found several similar examples and have explained this form of code switching as emerging from the fact that some vernacular terms were simply untranslatable.Footnote 23 The 1218 ordinance uses ontschaken specifically for consensual abductions in which the abductee “went away” (abiret) with the abductor. A mid-thirteenth-century comital text on the abduction of women in Ghent targets people qui domicellam abducit, id est “onscaket,” punishing them with banishment for 3 years and a fine.Footnote 24 This text only blamed the person who actually took the woman. Whereas the 1218 stipulation seems to have targeted consensual abductions—since it dealt with non-consensual abduction and rape in another stipulation—the later text does not specify whether ontschaken means that the abduction it envisioned was consensual or not.
The 1297 charter issued by Count Guy of Flanders is the first one to delineate the offense of schaec more clearly. The later Ghent legal texts, as well as the Brabantine texts, all employed the interpretation of the term that is put forward in Guy's text. It contains two articles under the heading “About women who are abducted” (Van wive die ontscaect). The first article states that those who “abduct a woman who has a mother or father or is an orphan under guardianship with her consent” but against the will of her father, mother, or guardians will be banished from Flanders for 3 years, while the targeted woman would be disinherited.Footnote 25 The second stipulation states that women who were abducted against their will but nevertheless stayed with their abductor “either in marriage or in a similar arrangement” will be disinherited. This text again targets both abductors and abductees, and here schaec means both the abduction of minors against the will of their parents, regardless of their consent, and the non-consensual abduction of adult women for the purpose of marriage. Minors “who still had a mother and a father or were orphans under guardianship” marrying against their family's wishes were disinherited, while it seems that for adult women the abduction—at least initially—had to be non-consensual in order for them to be punished for it. There was no fixed age of majority in the Low Countries, although customary law stipulations generally set it at 25 years old in the cities under scrutiny.Footnote 26 While minors needed their parents’ approval according to customary law, adults were fully legally capable and could—at least in theory—marry whomever they wanted. The criminalization of consensual abductions of women under 25 years of age in the 1297 text is remarkable, as similar legal texts only emerged in the sixteenth century in many other European regions.Footnote 27 In the 1297 text, abduction is explicitly connected to marriage or marriage-like relationships and the importance of parental consent.Footnote 28 Moreover, this text includes an additional article that again shows that the crime of schaec could be charged not just against the man but also against people who participated in the abduction. Here, the 1297 legal text uses the verb ontspaenen to denote the luring of a woman, an act that was penalized by cutting off the nose or by banishment.
The legal definition of schaec centered on the abductee's age and consent and her family's consent appears in all fourteenth and fifteenth-century texts that include the term. This categorization based on age and consent is particularly well laid out in the Brabantine ducal charters. As with the 1297 charter, the 1356, 1406, and 1427 charters contain different articles on the punishment of a myriad of offenses, including two separate articles on schaec: one dealing with children and one dealing with adult women. For example, the 1406 text states that “if someone abducts or leads away a child, he will lose his property and his life.” When minors were affected, their own consent thus did not matter and was not considered by the law, as it was their parents’ or guardians’ consent that was relevant. Regarding adult women, the text reads: “if a woman or lady is abducted who cried out, or if we find out that it happened against her will […] the man who perpetrated the abduction will lose his life and his property.”Footnote 29 The 1438 text issued by the Ghent city governors penalizes adult abductees who were abducted against their will but nevertheless married their abductor: “If an onscake happened with cries for help” and if a “steadfast marriage” nevertheless happened between the crying abductee and the abductor, the former would be disinherited.Footnote 30 The consent of adult women thus did matter and affected the legal outcome, as adult women could contract marriage regardless of their families’ approval.
It is not surprising that the verb ontschaken and the corresponding noun schaec appear often in records of judicial practice as well, since the language people used and the idioms available to describe the offense of abduction were related to “a broader textual environment,” McIntosh's term for the legal framework in which people embedded their narratives.Footnote 31 Similarly, in her study on the language of anger and hatred in felony cases in medieval England, Elizabeth Papp Kamali argued that scribes transferred “complicated fact patterns” into the language available to them, trying to fit patterns to the most similar phrases and idioms.Footnote 32 Appearing in the fifteenth-century records of all three cities, schaec applied to both consensual and non-consensual abductions, as information on the women's consent usually appears in the records. For example, the Ghent city governors banished a man for abducting a girl with her consent (ontscaket bij haren wille) in 1473.Footnote 33 Three years later, the aldermen punished a man for a violent schaec “with force and cries for help,” the latter serving as essential evidence of the victim's lack of consent. An unusual Antwerp record about a woman's abduction of a man offers further insight into the meaning of schaec and shows that in legal practice, the definition of schaec as stated by the law texts cited prevailed. The bailiff made a woman named Liesbeth Recmast pay a fine for abducting Jan Peters. The act justified this out-of-court settlement by stating that Jan consented to his own seizure and that both Jan and Liesbeth were adults. Because of these elements, the record concluded, this was not a case of schaec: “good men came to the bailiff and told him that Jan and Liesbeth had promised each other to marry and that he had gone with her with his consent, and it would be impossible to make schaec out of this because they were both of age.” The bailiff cited abduction's legal definition, the seizure of minors regardless of their consent or of adult women (and apparently men too) without their consent. Taking away consenting adults was not a legally punishable offense and thus did not fall into the legal category of abduction.
However, the record also notes that Jan's father filed a complaint that “his son had been ontschaect.”Footnote 34 For Jan's father, Liesbeth's action was an infringement that he wanted to see labelled as schaec even though his son was not a minor and Liesbeth's behavior did not fall within the term's legal definition. The analysis of a few additional acts allows a more nuanced understanding of this important term and shows that the way in which schaec was understood by the broader community could extend beyond the clearly defined legal interpretation of that concept. In Antwerp, Merten Heynen helped to abduct Lijsbet, the widow of the late Jan Mees. Initially, Merten was freed of charges by an unspecified local court, probably because the widow had agreed to the seizure, and the case did not fall within the legal definition of schaec.Footnote 35 However, the case had taken place in the territory of the Antwerp bailiff who felt entitled to demand that Merten pay a fine for abduction anyway. Legally, the consensual “abduction” of an adult did not qualify as the punishable offense of schaec. However, these examples show that the term schaec could still be applied to these cases, suggesting that how the term was understood outside of the courtroom extended beyond its legal definition.
The bailiff played an ambiguous role here, since he was not a judge but did have the authority to make out-of-court settlements. Therefore, he did not have to connect his decisions as rigorously to the law as the city governors did. This possibility is supported by the telling abduction example in the Leuven bailiff's accounts, which illustrates the difference between the bailiff and the city governors. After the abduction of Elisabeth Lyedens by Jan Uter Helcht, which she declared had been consensual, the bailiff tried to find witnesses who had heard her scream as proof that the abduction was forced. However, the bailiff failed and was therefore instructed by the city governors of Leuven to release the abductor. No infraction of the law had been committed.Footnote 36 While the Antwerp bailiff referred to the law on abduction to explain not taking Jan's father's plea to court—probably knowing that the case would not hold up—he jumped at the opportunity to make a financial settlement with a man who had been freed of an abduction claim in a local court (mentioned previously). These examples show the ambiguous position of the bailiff who made monetary settlements (part of which would end up directly in his pockets) but they also show that the behaviors of Jan's unwanted daughter-in-law and of Marten Heynen were labeled improper by society. The bailiffs’ accounts include multiple examples in which the presence of the abductee's consent was used as a motivation to settle the case via a fine instead of taking it to court. When Lodewijck Zeghers abducted and married widow Margriet Vanderhallen “with her will” in Leuven, the bailiff nevertheless had Lodewijck pay a fine.Footnote 37 The practice of punishing these cases informally must thus have been accepted, and reveals schaec's broader meaning. It shows that the consensual abduction of adults could also be referred to as schaec. It goes without saying that there might have been a gray zone here, as there was no fixed age of majority. Also, whether a woman had initially consented or not was not always as clear, as many women consented to marry their abductor after their initial forcible abduction.Footnote 38 The bailiff therefore had some room to maneuver. He could apply the concept of schaec more loosely than it was framed by the law, and the fact that bailiffs often did so suggests that this broader, more flexible interpretation of schaec conformed to society's interpretation of the term.
A quick look at the use of the term schaec in non-judicial records further reveals the term's familiarity to a medieval audience beyond the legal sphere. Indeed, the term occurs in multiple well-known literary texts. For example, the popular story of Floris and Blancefloer, which was translated into Middle Dutch by Diederic van Assenede and circulated widely in the late Middle Ages, tells the tragic love story of a king's son and a servant woman.Footnote 39 This middle Dutch text refers to the Trojan prince Paris who ontscoec Helen of Troy. In Dirc Potter's fourteenth-century treatise about love called Der minnen loep, he mentions how young virgins were sometimes ontschaect and quickly fell in love, staying with their abductors.Footnote 40 A 1475 Dutch translation of Christine de Pizan's Livre de la cité des dames from 1405 used the term when discussing the abduction of the Sabine women and, in another section, of a Greek woman who was ontschaect by pirates against her will. Once ontschaect, the latter woman jumped overboard, as she would “rather die than be raped.”Footnote 41 The inclusion of the Dutch word schaec in these literary sources suggests that the term was well known outside of the context of the law and evoked associations with ideas of courtship and impossible love. De Pizan's translator's use of schaec, however, shows that the term was equally known and used to describe non-consensual abductions that went hand in hand with rape, while the use of the term for the abduction of the already-married Helen of Troy indicates that not only marital relationships but also romantic relationships more generally might have been the goal of abductors in popular conceptions of schaec. An extensive analysis of schaec in literary sources falls outside the scope of this article, but the inclusion of this term in such texts does reveal its significance beyond its legal meaning.
The Search for an Equivalent in French and Latin
The Dutch word schaec had a special legal and social meaning that was difficult to translate. This posed a problem in the multilingual legal system that prevailed in the Low Countries, especially in Flanders. This friction is evidenced by the code switching and odd descriptive terms that appear in Ghent's French records (see esquaquer in Table 2). Although the records were written in French, the Ghent bailiff's accounts often refer to the 1297 Dutch legal text by including the Dutch word schaec. This fascinating bilingualism in the Ghent accounts also occurred in the Latin legal texts discussed that incorporated the Dutch term ontschaken. In Vier Ambachten, a man paid a fine for abducting Soete Cruwel, whom he had “taken away and married without the consent of her father, which is called ‘abduction’ in Flemish” (amené et expousé sans le consentement de son père, ce qu'on appelle ‘scaecq’ en flament).Footnote 42 Pierre Deyen was punished “for having abducted, taken and married in secret” Betkin Caulben (pour avoir emmenée et espousé couvertement). The deed also states that this act was called “scaec” en flamen.Footnote 43 The French explanations of how the Flemish legal term schaec was understood make these records valuable evidence. The texts clearly refer to the term's legal meaning, as it is defined explicitly within these reports as the seizure of a woman specifically for marriage.
The French records also refer to Dutch law texts on abduction with the verb esquaquer. Although this French derivative and phonetic equivalent of the Dutch verb ontschaken never appears in Ghent legal texts, clerks used it to connect their verdicts, registered in French, to the well-known Flemish legal stipulations. The word esquaquer enabled clerks to describe the case with a term that conveyed the specific meaning of the word ontscaken. This odd French phonetic rendering of ontschaken occurs relatively often (23 times, see Table 2), but it was rarely used on its own. In most cases, it accompanied the verb emmener. Margriete Huughs was esquaquier et emmener de force; the widow of the late Gheerolf Mergaert was esquaquée et emenée; Gheerkin Kerse had emmené et esquaquié Kateline Coppens; and Lieven le Dame had esquaquié et emmené de force Beatrijsse de Neelle.Footnote 44 The pair esquaquer-emmener corresponds to a similar association of terms in the Dutch records. Ontschaken was usually joined to different verbs that meant “leading away.” This combination even appears in some legal texts, such as a few charters issued by the dukes of Brabant (ontschaecte ocht ontleyde). In these cases, there is supplementary information on the abductee's consent (like the addition of de force in the cases mentioned), further confirmation that schaec covered both consensual and non-consensual abductions for the purpose of marriage. The language in these records makes clear that French had no definitive equivalent for the Dutch word meaning abduction for marriage, so scribes writing in French had to adapt the unique term ontschaken.Footnote 45 Medieval people were remarkably aware of the precise meaning of this term and its distinction from related but slightly less-specific words in other languages.
This finding becomes all the more remarkable when the consistory courts’ records, drawn up in Latin (Table 3) are included. As in secular records, the consistory court clerks employed more than one word to describe the act of abduction for marriage. The Low Countries consistory courts have generally left behind only the short final sentences that do not discuss many abductions. Most Latin terms like abducere and abire are easy to translate and interpret, as they also occur in ecclesiastical registers elsewhere. However, the records include one notable term, namely the obscure verb descacare. The register from the consistory court of Liège is the only source that contains this term. Liège clerks used it seven times in the records of five cases of abduction. Descacare is likely a medieval Latin word deriving from Germanic origin: schachare, which means “to rob.”Footnote 46 Significantly, the ultimate origin is the Germanic word skâk, which also formed the basis of the Dutch words schaec and ontschaken, the noun and verb used by late medieval secular lawmakers and judges to describe the abduction of women for marriage, with or without their consent. In the Liège register—Dutch was the working language in a large part of this diocese—descacare always appears as an ablative gerundive, descacando, in a sentence with the abductee as the subject. For example, one record from 1435 states that ipsa Margareta descacando abivit cum Gerardo, filio Johannis Spoerkens, which can be best translated as “the same Margareta has let herself be abducted by the aforementioned Gerard, son of Johan Spoerkens, and has gone away with him.”Footnote 47 All phrases containing descacando are used in this particular way, to describe consensual abductions, which differs from the use of the word schaec in secular sources. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that only in Dutch did a specific term for abductions for marriage exist, and that the scribes writing in French and Latin also needed this specific language, which is the reason that they adopted the (variants of) the Dutch term for lack of a good translation. Yet not all records in French used these particular words to denote abductions with marital intent. The records and even one legal text from Ghent (discussed below) contain a variety of French terms used to describe abductions that are characterised by more ambiguity.
Ambiguous Terms or Ambiguous Offenses?
Of the 1213 cases that Dunn found for late medieval England, she labelled 43% as “ambiguous,” which means that the terminology used, mostly the Latin term raptus, the English ravishment, or the French ravir, did not allow her to ascertain whether the cases involved rape, abduction, or both.Footnote 48 The terminology in the Low Countries is more straightforward, especially in the Dutch records, facilitating the differentiation of abductions from rapes. Nevertheless, many cases were recorded in French or use terms other than schaec to describe what happened. While some of these other terms are rather straightforward, the events in a significant portion of the cases studied remain unclear. I have labelled them “possible abductions” in Table 4. In addition to the vague category of “possible abductions” containing possible rape cases, other cases featured unspecified forms of abuse. For example, when Gillis de Coe, a carpenter from Ghent, harassed a woman to go with him in 1506, she refused and started shouting loudly.Footnote 49 Also in Ghent, Pieter den Meyer was banished from Flanders in 1486 for taking (leiden) a respectable lady to a tavern against her will.Footnote 50 Even though these cases employ the same terminology as abduction cases, they use literal descriptions of the act rather than using a specific term revealing the true nature of the offense at stake. As a consequence, the perpetrators’ goals—sex, marriage, or something else—are uncertain in these cases.Footnote 51
Despite the clarity of the term schaec, a large number of cases were described through other terms and therefore cannot easily be categorized. While some terms clearly meant “to abduct,” other words like enforcer, ravir and aanveerden are less straightforward. While ravir could mean both rape and abduct, the other verbs were even more general and meant “to assault” or “to attack.”Footnote 52 Many records employ several words or give additional context to clarify what these words meant in a specific case, but often such cases are nevertheless challenging to categorize. Seventy-three per cent of all cases in the bailiff's accounts and sentence books were abductions, whereas the terminology in 27% of the cases is ambiguous. However, there are considerable differences between cities and regions. While the records of the city of Ghent clearly labelled 62% of all cases as abductions, the Leuven records did this for 88% of cases and Antwerp did this for 80%. The difference between Ghent (Flanders) and Leuven and Antwerp (Brabant) is not a coincidence; it results from the language difference, with French used in Flanders and Dutch used in Brabant. Ghent scribes often employed highly ambiguous French words, such as enforcer or prendre par force (see Table 2). These verbs could specifically mean “rape” and indeed often carried this meaning in the records under scrutiny.Footnote 53 In 1431, for example, the Ghent authorities sentenced a man to death for having efforchié plusieurs femmes, which presumably meant that he raped them rather than abducted them.Footnote 54 Also, the Ghent records often pair the words violer and enforcer, which could mean that they were used as synonyms. Still, there are clues that many of these vague terms were also used to talk specifically about cases of abduction with marital intent.
There is one legal text regarding abduction written in French, namely a charter promulgated by Philip the Good in 1438 for the city of Ghent.Footnote 55 This charter uses many of these words, such as enforcer and ravir, which may seem vague in the initial reading. However, this one charter intentionally deployed these terms to indicate abductions for marriage, rather than rape, for two reasons. The first is that the city governors of Ghent issued a Dutch-language ordinance on abduction on April 24, 1438, 1 month and 10 days before the promulgation of the French-language ducal ordinance on June 5, 1438 (see both charters in Table 1).Footnote 56 The content of the charters is virtually identical, which indicates that the promulgation of the second ordinance was a direct consequence of the publication of the first. In addition, the ducal charter states that it was drafted at the request of the city government of Ghent. Whereas the 1438 city ordinance in Dutch uses the word ontschaken and thus specifically targets the abduction of women for marriage, its ducal counterpart in French uses the aforementioned ambiguous French words, likely because there is no French word that carries the exact meaning of ontschaken, as suggested by incorporation of the Dutch word schaec and the phonetic gallicisation esquaquer in many French legal records.
A second indicator is that Philip the Good's French legal text explicitly connected the vague verbs it employed with marriage. These abductions are prinses, ravissements, efforcemens et violences de pucelles et autres femmes soubz umbre de mariage. Through this addition, “under the guise of marriage,” it becomes clear that the real goal of this text was to prevent men and women from contracting coerced marriages or marriages without parental consent.Footnote 57 Because the French words did not convey the same meaning as the word schaec, a reference to marriage was needed. Since clerks constructed formulaic phrases in legal records to reference terms used in legal texts, the clerks’ use of words such as enforcer and ravir in French abduction records is not surprising. Undoubtedly, these terms often meant abduction for marriage, but since these verbs were also used in descriptions of rape, their meaning remains unclear.
Sometimes contextual information indicates that abduction was the offense not rape. For example, a record from 1431 states that Willeken Stalm took a woman from Doornzele, a village north of Ghent, “by force to have her in marriage” (pris par force pour l'avoir en marriage).Footnote 58 In another case, documented in two separate texts in successive bailiff's accounts, enforcer clearly meant abduction. Although one report used only the verb enforcer, the other document relating to the same case deployed the words esquaquer and emmener de force. This second act therefore clarifies that this was a case of an abductor who took a woman to force her to marry him, not a case of rape.Footnote 59 However, the exact nature of the offense is unclear in most acts that use enforcer. For example, Gilles Deploix was decapitated because he had enforchié et ravie Macheline Boons, whereas Jaques Meynkin had enforchiée et fourmenée (tormented) Mariken de Eendenarre. Because the additional verbs ravir (the French counterpart of the ambiguous Latin verb rapere) and fourmener were paired with terms that unmistakably meant abduction in other acts, determining their precise meaning is complicated. Therefore, cases and deeds that only use the word enforcer without clarifying context have been placed in the “possible abduction” category.Footnote 60
Dutch records can also make clear categorization difficult, although different terms were used for abduction (schaec) and rape (vrouwencracht) in legal texts. While in the French records confusion is due to the use of ambiguous language, ambiguity in Dutch records stems not from the terminology, but from the fact that the record mentions both abduction and rape without clarifying the perpetrator's primary goal. For example, Jan Mappe was banished from Flanders for “leading a woman away” and for “doing his will with her” in 1481.Footnote 61 In Leuven, Loeden van Let abducted the widow of Willem Van Brussel at night. He tried to “get his will from her” and hurt her badly, yet she managed to escape.Footnote 62 The aldermen of Ghent banished another man from Flanders because he had “carnally known” and “took and led away” an anonymous woman.Footnote 63 In Antwerp, Lijse Vanden Walle was taken away “very far” by Lemmen Dansaert, who also “had his will with her.”Footnote 64 As abduction and rape were closely intertwined, whether the primary goal was one or the other is really a question of intention. Did the perpetrator intend marriage or sex? Was this always clear to the medieval judge? After all, rape, abduction, and marriage often occurred in combination. Research has shown that rapists sometimes married their victims.Footnote 65 Even though marriage might not have been the perpetrator's intention, marriage was an accepted way of dealing with the conflict.Footnote 66 In addition, abductors often raped abducted women, since this might increase the chances that the women would agree to exchange words of consent. Rumors about a woman's sexual behavior had negative effects on her and her family's reputation, even if the intercourse had happened against her will.Footnote 67 Moreover, in the Low Countries, where marriage through words of future consent and sexual intercourse were the norm, sex constituted an important factor of marriage making. Therefore, I have placed all these cases with mixed terminology and no clear signal whether sexual intercourse or marriage was the perpetrator's motivation in the “possible abduction” category.
Despite the rather large number of cases in the category of “possible abductions,” especially in the Ghent records, rape and abduction were perceived as different offenses in the late medieval Low Countries. Bailiffs sometimes pointed out that the abductor had not raped the abductee. For example, Jehan Van Overtvelt violently abducted Lisbette van der Vinen, but did not rape her (esquaqua et prist de force sans violer).Footnote 68 In 1423, Liven Vaselin abducted Zoeten Hauwen in Ghent without raping her, included again as an extenuating circumstance.Footnote 69 In Vier Ambachten, Mergriet Ysmans was esquaquiée and emmmenée by Pierre Martin, but she was not raped and did not file a complaint, which motivated the bailiff to settle the case out of court.Footnote 70 In Waasland, the bailiff punished Henry Baerd who had apprenhendi, emmené et esquaquié Amelberghe Martins. The deed specifies that he did not rape the woman but wanted to marry her.Footnote 71 The Antwerp bailiff too mentioned that a woman had been abducted and had not been raped in his 1454 account.Footnote 72 By contrasting rape and abduction, these records confirm that the two offenses were not viewed as one and the same. These examples show that in the minds of medieval people, rape and abduction could occur during the same incident, but did not always happen together. The judges’ and scribes’ choice to use specific and straightforward language by referring to the word schaec or including its phonetic gallicization shows that the difference between seizures for sex and those for marriage mattered.
Apart from these vaguer descriptions complicating efforts to distinguish cases of schaec from cases of rape, there are records using a terminology even more specific than schaec. Indeed, some terms were only used for consensual forms of abduction. They describe the abduction as an act of seduction. The most striking word that implies consent, ontspanen, was only used in Ghent, but in both law and legal records (see Tables 1 and 2). The abovementioned 1297 text by Guy of Flanders uses this term to describe the action of third parties who encouraged a woman to run away with a man. According to the historical dictionary, ontspanen means to lure or entice someone away.Footnote 73 Fifteenth-century records of legal practice reveal that clerks applied ontspanen not only to third parties who facilitated the woman's seizure but also to the perpetrators themselves. For example, the record of Anthone le Wint's abduction of Calleken Crels states that the girl went away with him (s'en ala avec lui) and married him (expousa), which in Flemish was called ontspanen (en flamment van ontspeenen).Footnote 74 Other words or phrases that imply the abducted woman's consent are words that can be translated as “to seduce.” Records generally use the verb leiden or even the derivative verb verleiden, which meant “to seduce” as it still does in modern Dutch. While schaec was a fairly particular term already, it covered different categories of abduction with marital intent, and a few records used even more specific terminology, but these cases constitute a minority.
“In Flanders, they differentiate between rape and abduction, but in the law it is named the same, namely raptus.”Footnote 75
In one of his legal commentaries, fifteenth-century Ghent legalist Philips Wielant explicates that rape and abduction were considered separate phenomena, although they were both referred to as raptus. Yet late medieval law and jurisdiction was recorded mostly in the vernacular in the Low Countries, and in these languages, the term schaec and related odd neologisms in French (and in Latin in the Liège consistory court) could mean abduction with the intent of marriage, with or without force, with or without consent and with or without sex. Therefore, medieval abduction descriptions in the Low Countries clearly differed from terms used in modern Anglophone scholarship, which range from rape to elopement. Words for abduction were ontschaken, esquaquer or leiden, all meaning “to abduct” or some form of “to lead away.” Stipulations on rape, on the contrary, use the straightforward and unambiguous words vercrachten in Dutch or violer in French, still the words for “rape” today. This distinct terminology strongly suggest that medieval lawmakers perceived rape and abduction as separate offenses. Still, abductions with marital intent were complex phenomena that both challenged and reified communal norms surrounding marriage and in which contradictory narratives of violence, rape, consent, love, and female emancipation and victimhood come together.Footnote 76 It is therefore not surprising that the strict legal categorization of abductions depending on age and consent could not always easily be applied to each case. Judges and bailiffs struggled to label each case that they encountered, especially if they had to report in French. Whether the intense and early criminalization of this type of marital conflict in the late medieval Low Countries can explain the fact that its authorities used a particular term to describe it, is an interesting question that requires more comparative research.Footnote 77 The term schaec appeared for the first time in 1218 to describe the practice of luring girls into marriage, but its meaning gradually expanded to include abduction with marital intent, an offense that does not seem to have been fully captured by terminology used in other late medieval languages.
To a certain extent, this legal confusion continues to exist today. The modern Dutch noun schaking translates as the seizure of a woman against her will or for romantic reasons.Footnote 78 An equivalent of this particular term in other languages seems not to exist. In German, only the word Schächer remains, an obsolete term for robber or murderer, exclusively used in a biblical context. German scholarship uses the terms Frauenraub or Entführing for abduction for marriage.Footnote 79 In other languages, especially in English, it is considered odd to combine “abduction” with an adjective such as “consensual.” English scholars mostly use the term “abduction” to indicate the removal of someone from one place to another against their will. Because a “consensual abduction” thus seems like a contradiction in terms, Anglophone scholars generally refer to these consensual abductions with a specific noun, namely “elopement” or “seduction.” However, we should be careful when applying these terms to medieval cases, as even cases that were reported as consensual could be far from a lovers’ escapade. Terms like “ravishment” or “rapt” could include both abduction and rape, and modern Dutch lacks an equivalent for these more general terms. The problem of ambiguity thus persists in modern terminology, leading to researchers’ working on different geographical areas, approaching and framing these marital abductions very differently. It is hoped that this article stimulates further consideration of the role played by the language of schaec in defining the sociocultural reality of these partner choice disputes.
The author wishes to thank Jelle Haemers, Luc De Grauwe, Jackson Armstrong, Martha Howell and the reviewers of the journal for their suggestions, encouragement and advice on ways to improve this article. This paper was written with the support of the Research Foundation Flanders and of the Belgium American Educational Foundation.