Virginia Burrus and Thomas Laqueur on “Akin, Rape, and the Early Church”

I want to draw your attention to Prof. Sarah Morice-Brubaker‘s very interesting interview with Profs. Virginia Burrus and Thomas Laqueur, two brilliant historians, which was spurred by Rep. Todd Akin’s recent asinine remarks about “legitimate rape.” As Republican politicians scramble to distance themselves from Akin’s views, it’s worth remembering that the concept of “legitimate rape” is deeply ingrained in our culture and historically is by no means foreign to Christian theology.

Since my field is early Christianity and Augustine’s thought has left me sick to my stomach plenty of times, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Burrus, who is one of my favorite scholars:

As soon as I began hearing the news reports of Akin’s remarks, I was haunted by similarities with the thought of the late Roman theologian Augustine. I hasten to say that I would not want to compare Akin in any general way to Augustine, who was a brilliant theologian and writer, accolades I would not by any means assign to Akin! The comparison I have in mind is quite specific, and that is Augustine’s discussion at the very beginning of his famous work City of God of the rape of Lucretia, a traditional Roman tale that he revisits in the context of real or anticipated wartime rapes of women of the Christian community.

Do go read the whole thing. It’s well worth it.

5 thoughts on “Virginia Burrus and Thomas Laqueur on “Akin, Rape, and the Early Church”

  1. This kind of misrepresentation is infuriating. Augustine never accused Lucretia on conceding to rape. Part 19 of book one is an argument against the Roman Pagan cult who Augustine is, in the first half of the City of God, attempting to discredit by pointing out their contradictions. Augustine is basically saying, “look, either Lucretia killed an innocent woman (herself) and is therefore guilty of murder, or she killed a guilty woman, thus proving she was guilty in the first place. Therefore, stop venerating Lucretia like she’s some kind of sinless saint.”

    The part where he mentions the possibility of Lucretia consenting is simply one of two hypotheticals he gives in an attempt to argue against the logical inconstancies of Roman Paganism.

    In fact, Augustine actually defends Lucretia and demands justice for her because Sextus, the guy who raped her, ended up getting away with banishment while Lucretia paid the “ultimate penalty.” Moreover, Augustine defends her purity and maintains that “There were two, but the adultery was committed only by one.”

    I hate the fact that people can just pick some random text in a magnificent piece of work, ignore any and all context, and misconstrue what the author’s original intent was. Man alive.

    • Aric, no shit Book 1.19 is an argument against Roman religion. (And I think we can assume that Virginia Burrus has read City of God many times.) That’s not the point of Burrus’s remarks. Her point is about the incredibly problematic way that rape, women, honor, sexuality, and violence haunt that first book. And in fact, Augustine DOES accuse Lucretia of conceding to rape, although he does it in a veiled sort of way: “Maybe she actually wanted to be raped. I’m not saying she DID, but hey, it could happen! But only she would know. But anyway, back to my main point, suicide is never OK and reverencing Lucretia or any Roman heros is stupid.”

      As for Augustine’s original intent, did it occur to you before your decision to enlighten us on the content of City of God (a book so popular that it’s been a Penguin paperback for forty years) that the topic of this blog, of the article linked to in this post, and the entire field of late ancient gender studies is concerned precisely with what authors did not intend to say but said anyway?

  2. Pingback: Akin, Rape and the Early Church | winged keel and crumpet

  3. Sonja, as you know, Book 1 deals with rape and all those other nasty things because it has to do with the collapse of Rome after a barbarian invasion. If it seems to you that a barbarian invasion seems “problematic” and “haunting”, we are in full accord. But saying that Augustine is to blame for the way that he “deals” with these issues is ridiculous. He has one primary goal here: to rebut the pagan complaints against the Christian religion, one that they claimed was responsible for the Roman invasion in the first place.

    If this is such a “no shit” historical observation then I can’t understand for the life of me why Burrus construes Augustine’s remarks as being linked to the bigoted, idiotic, dishonorable remarks made by the great ass-hat Todd Akin, as if there is some kind of “cold-hearted sexist impulse” in Augustine’s thought here and in Christian thought in general. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are great cases to be made for the paternalistic/sexist nature of Christianity in general, but misconstruing Augustine in this interview is not a great way to do it.

    Augustine’s first statement on this matter aims to demonstrably prove her innocence:

    “When King Tarquin’s son had violated her body, she made known the wickedness of this young profligate to her husband… Then, heart-sick, and unable to bear the shame, she put an end to her life. What shall we call her? An adulteress, or chaste? There is no question which she was.”

    He of course goes on to say she is undeniably chaste. This isn’t about sex. This isn’t about gender. It’s about who’s religion right and which religious paradigm engenders righteous responses in the face of suffering.

    Augustine was not blaming her for anything save suicide, which, he points out, the Christian women did not commit after they were systematically raped by barbarians. (As we recall, this portion of the book is primarily polemical.)

    The whole idea of X studies being concerned with “what was actually said” instead of “what they meant to say” is often used as a great excuse for reading into primary sources whatever one wants. Anyone in any historical field wants to claim they are presenting “what is said”; the test of merit lies in the amount of supporting evidence for a certain claim a scholar presents… Which in this case was none.

    Granted, this was just some email interview probably conducted on the fly; it’s still frustrating to constantly run into the academic habit of uncritically disseminating partial information just to make a point.

    • Yeah, I think the evidence that you understand Burrus’s point, or anybody’s point who studies gender in the ancient world, in this case is none. But thanks for reading our blog!

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