As a spin-off from preparing a lecture on Lucrece, I found myself looking at Thomas Edgar’s The law’s resolutions of women’s rights: or, The law’s provision for women. A methodical collection of such statutes and customs, with the cases, opinions, arguments and points of learning in the law, as doe properly concern women (1632), to look at rape law in the period for myself. Edgar seems complacent about the state of the law, especially crediting Queen Elizabeth for tightening up the law to the effect that convicted rapists could not, on a first offence, escape punishment for their felony by pleading ‘benefit of clergy’ (and so have the noose taken from round your neck after your recitation of Psalm 51).
The hideous misprision enshrined in the law at this time that any pregnancy after an alleged rape indicated that the sex had been consensual drew groans of disbelief in the lecture audience. Edgar merely cites this without comment: he expounds the law as it stands, and regards the state of the law as good. He’s a stodgy read, unable to escape his legalese even though he is trying to explain the state of the law to a female readership who would not be legally trained. I was also struck by his book being black letter. By 1632, that’s a real sign of a text produced in a low-grade printing house, to sell cheaply.
But a passage that struck me was the one cited in full below (I have modernized the text). What seems to be going on here is that Edgar is generally concerned to show his readers that he is on their side (as well as how much the law has been improved, etc, as it appertains to women). He’s indicating that he is aware that the moral behaviour of English women is generally far superior to how it sometimes gets represented.
So he dredges up from somewhere a reference to Laonicus Chalcondyles, (c. 1423 – 1490) a Byzantine Greek scholar, whose Proofs of Histories apparently ‘sketches other manners and civilization of England, France and Germany’. ‘Chalcondylus’ just pops up occasionally in other works on EEBO’s full text database: his work was evidently fairly recondite.
However, his sketch of England and the English was evidently a lively one, representing England pretty much as Margaret Mead represented Samoa:
“These are the Laws, whereby rapes and ravishments of women are repressed, which if they be well looked unto, will prove that there is now no cause, why lying Laonicus Chalcondilus should be believed, who writing of Englishmen, affirmeth that we have no care what becomes of our wives and children; That in our peregrinations and travels we interchange and use one the others wives mutually: That we count it no reproach by whomsoever our wives or daughters be got with child; That (with us) if a man come to his friends house, he must lye with his wife the first thing that he doth, ut deinde benigne hospitio accipiatur. And though some of the last recited Laws were unmade, when Chalcondilus did write, above one hundred years since, yet there were then Laws enough to prove him a deep liar; and had he been in England, to have trussed him up too perhaps for lechery, had his learning steaded him no better than his honesty; this is no less cause, why I should be thus bitter against Chalcondilus a dead man, for that it may seem he wrote by hearsay, nullo odio gentis: and in other matters he reporteth honourably of us.
Edgar, rather conscious of having dragged Chalcondilus up from a hundred years before, next seems to express his detestation of a more current satirist (I can’t think who he means, anyone writing after the manner of Juvenal seems likely):
“But it is strange that a man writing, not a great while since, but even the other day, not at Athens, neither at Rome, or Reams, where they use to belie us head and foot, but here at London should be bold to write and put in print matter to this effect, That beggers and the poorest sort of our women, we doe use to punish and to whip them, when they are taken for lechers and dishonest livers, But Gentlewomen and Ladies of honour and worship, they are never punished for incontinency, but rather for their amorous wantonness, and lubricity the more esteemed and magnified.”
“This fellow deserveth plainly better to be hanged, than to be believed. For neither is it true that any woman with us can better her reputation by dissolute life and manners; Neither can any woman learn a more devilish lesson, than so to be persuaded. And seeing the Laws themselves declare what detestation they have of brutish concupiscence, by punishing consent, with loss of inheritance; I would I could persuade all women to eschew, not only these gulfs, but also the ecclesiastical Censures, (which I meddle not with) together with the infamy, which they purchase sometime with outward lasciviousness, from the report of them, which judge a careless liberty in behaviour, an infallible argument of sensuality whereby some men have been emboldened to offer force, because they thought it was expected.”