Rape: The World’s Most Neglected War Crime

Content Warning: This article contains discussion of sexual violence and rape, as well as historical images of sexualised violence.

After decades of work in conflict zones, the journalist Christina Lamb concluded in 2020 that rape is ‘the world’s most neglected war crime’. The international community has made concerted efforts over recent years to counter sexual violence in armed conflict. The Rome Statute (1997) made rape a ‘crime against humanity’, and resulted in notable convictions, for example, in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The United Nations Security Council committed itself to ‘eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls … during and after armed conflicts’. Yet from Afghanistan to Ukraine, the problem of sexual violence and war remains as important as ever in the twenty-first century.

It might seem as though preventing sexual violence in war is as difficult as stopping war itself. According to the path-breaking feminist activist Susan Brownmiler in 1975, ‘wherever armed conflicts have been fought on the land, women have been raped’. But more recently historians and political scientists have shown that sexual violence is not an inevitable consequence of armed conflict. Its incidence in warfare varies over time and by place; it depends on social relations among soldiers in a regiment, and between the military and civilians. Recognising the different forms that sexual violence might take is a crucial part of developing appropriate responses in law and policy.

Most discussions about sexual violence in war are limited by their relatively recent timeframe. Commentators often assume that if the international community struggles to tackle the problem of sexual violence as a weapon of war today, then surely survivors of rape before the modern period had little chance of finding justice. But if we privilege recent history, we ignore long-term patterns of continuity and change, and neglect the deep wells of resilience that earlier precedents can offer. Recent research into sexual violence in the early modern period is starting to overturn our modern assumption that most perpetrators of sexual violence inevitably escaped prosecution. Garthine Walker has argued that people in eighteenth-century England did not simply tolerate sexual violence as a consequence of men’s patriarchal authority, and could also denounce rapists’ brutish aggression before the law and in the court of public opinion. Likewise, my own research on sixteenth-century France shows how determined plaintiffs prosecuted perpetrators of sexual abuse against men and boys, despite the entrenched opposition of religious and judicial elites.

Sixteenth-century France witnessed extreme violence during the Wars of Religion (1562–1598), when Catholics fought against Protestants, known as Huguenots, over matters of authority and belief that would determine who won power on this earth and salvation in the next. During the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572, Catholics killed thousands of Protestants in Paris and elsewhere in a matter of weeks, and effectively defeated the Protestant cause as a major political movement. Acts of religious violence in this period were often depicted in highly sexualized ways that supported confessional agendas. For example, Protestant engravings showed how Catholic militia stripped and killed women, and threw their violated bodies into rivers, where they floated downstream tied to a mast.

Frans Hogenberg, after the engraving by Jean Tortorel and Jacques Perrisin, The Massacre of the Protestants in Sens, 1562 (1570), Rijksmuseum.

Yet most French subjects in the sixteenth century did not consider sexual violence as an inevitable consequence of war. People throughout the society of the Old Regime denounced sexual violence when they were given the chance. This point became clear to me when I was transcribing and editing a previously unknown trial for war crimes held in Paris in 1599–1600, which has recently been published with the open-access journal Criminocorpus. This trial led to the execution of the soldier Mathurin Delacanche for the multiple acts of rape, homicide, and pillage he had committed a decade earlier, during his occupation of the village of Chaumot, near the cathedral city of Sens in central France. Delacanche and his soldiers descended on Chaumot in the winter of 1590–1, seeking food and shelter in a break from campaigning, and taking advantage of the fact that its overlord Renée Chevalier was an unmarried widow lacking military protection. They did not reckon with the opposition they would face in the village then, and which Delacanche would face again in the courtroom a decade later.

The interrogation of Jeanne Gerbaut, Archives Nationales.

Among the villagers who spoke out against Mathurin Delacanche, I found Jeanne Gerbaut, who told the magistrates in Paris that she witnessed him commit two rapes on All Saints Day 1590, one ‘among the vines’ and another, she insisted, which ‘took place in the courtyard of the chateau, which is where you led her, monsieur’. I also came across Jeanne Guichard, who confronted Delacanche in the criminal chamber and explained that ‘he is the one she has spoken about and he raped her’. He attacked her at the nearby village of Chéroy, she said, ‘in the hostelry where she lodged, during the middle of the day’.

Time and again, I noticed how often the villagers recalled to the magistrates the most extreme example of Delacanche’s sexual violence in pursuit of a military objective. This was the rape of Barbe Gautier, who Delacanche accused of conspiring against him, because ‘he had found a rope ladder and a trestle concealed in her house so as to take the chateau by surprise’. The labourer Jacques Moré explained during his testimony how most of the villagers watched through a ‘little hole looking into the great hall’, where they saw how Gautier was ‘stripped and then whipped by Delacanche in the presence of the soldiers, their lackeys, and all the inhabitants of Chaumot’. Nicolas Cossey did not see Gautier in the great hall because he stood outside on night watch duty, but he ‘very well heard her cries when they beat her’, and repeated in the criminal chamber how ‘he heard it cried everywhere that Delacanche had whipped and raped her’. In this appalling incident, Delacanche aimed to terrify the villagers into submission at a moment when he feared they might rise up against his authority.

A farm in Chaumot, Yonne, 2022. Photograph: Tom Hamilton.

The villagers’ testimony is precious for the detail and conviction it conveys, but also for its rarity: it provides the most substantial testimony concerning sexual violence I have come across in the Parlement’s criminal archives during the entire period of the religious wars. It gives insight into the kinds of violent acts which early modern historians otherwise typically read about in accounts written by elite men, and not through the depositions of women and men who worked the land and could barely sign their names.

How then did these villagers come to leave such rich testimony about the sexual violence Delacanche committed during the religious wars, when other incidents were not pursued before criminal justice? This is a complex question, because the peace settlement published in the Edict of Nantes (1598) ordered that French subjects should forget the troubles ‘as things that had never been’, and not try to settle old scores. Buried in a later article of the edict is a crucial passage that clarified how ‘execrable crimes’ were exempt from this order to forget, including ‘the kidnapping and rape of women and girls … along with murders and pillage without orders from the generals and commanders’.

But it is one thing to legislate against sexual violence in warfare, and another to put the law into practice.

Criminal justice in sixteenth-century France typically depended on plaintiffs who brought cases before the courts on their private initiative, and funded the costs of proceedings. In this case, the plaintiff was the noble widow Renée Chevalier, the seigneur of Chaumot. She fled her chateau soon after Delacanche and his troops arrived in November 1590, but returned to prosecute him with a vengeance a decade later.

By the time these events took place in Chaumot, Chevalier had lived through three decades of religious wars, and triumphed in litigation that secured the inheritances due from her parents and first husband. When Delacache’s trial took place in Paris, Chevalier had recently been widowed for the second time. She went on to marry an extraordinary five times in total and lived until the age of 89. Delacanche was but one of the men who stood against her and lost. The magistrates in Paris found him guilty of ‘execrable crimes’ and condemned him to death: they had him hanged in Paris on 24 April 1600.

Letter signed by Renée Chevalier (1593), Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Chevalier’s prosecution of Delacanche is an extraordinary and well-documented case, but I have found dozens more rape cases in the criminal archives in Paris, recorded in short interrogations or summary records of incarceration. These cases suggest that the failure to prosecute sexual violence systematically did not mean that all communities accepted rape as an inevitable consequence of patriarchy. We should not underestimate the capacity and resilience of people in the sixteenth century to find justice for survivors of sexual violence.

This history also reminds us not to underestimate the chance of finding justice following incidents of sexual violence in warfare today either. If people in the sixteenth century could successfully prosecute sexual violence committed during armed conflict, perhaps both international and national courts could challenge themselves to do so with greater success in the twenty-first century. Current prosecution rates for rape and sexual abuse in the UK are so low that some campaigners allege these offences have been effectively decriminalised.

Historical perspectives suggest that it is important to empower survivors of sexual violence not only with legal mechanisms such as the Rome Statute and the International Criminal Court, which echo the Edict of Nantes’ article on ‘execrable crimes’ over 400 years earlier. Material resources and political will are vital to put those mechanisms into action.

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