The Medieval Roots of Bro Culture

Our cavalier approach to sexual consent goes back more than 500 years

England, 1472: Edmond Paston writes a letter to his older brother John. Edmond, a twenty-something younger son of a prominent gentry family living unhappily at home, complains that their widowed mother has unfairly fired his favorite servant Gregory. He relates the shocking story behind Gregory’s firing:

It happened by chance that he had a knave’s lust, in plain terms to fuck a whore, and he did so in the rabbit-warren-yard. By chance he was spied by two plowmen of my mother’s, who were as delighted as he was by the situation, and they asked him if they could have a share in it, and as company required, he did not say no, so that the plowmen had her all night in their stable and Gregory was completely rid of her and, as he swears, did not have sex with her inside my mother’s house. Notwithstanding my mother thinks that he is the originator of the incident; as a result, there is no option but for him to leave.

Edmond spares no detail in narrating his employee’s actions to his brother. His point in telling this sordid tale is to emphasize the unfairness of Gregory’s firing: Gregory swears he did not have sex with anyone under Margaret Paston’s roof — he had sex with her outdoors in the rabbit-warren-yard, not indoors like the plowmen — but Margaret, ever unreasonable and overbearing, blames him anyway for instigating the whole thing. Edmond begs his brother to hire Gregory, whom he insists is “as true as any man alive.”

It seems a bit odd that Edmond would tell this story as justification for why John should hire Gregory: He’s the best servant ever! Yeah, sometimes he gets carried away with lust and fucks whores and maybe facilitated something that sounds like it might have been a gang rape, but he only commits his sexual indiscretions outdoors! But despite the 546-year difference, there’s nothing about Edmond’s letter—excusing sexual misconduct, treating women as tradable commodities without agency, valuing a man’s reputation more than the harm he’s caused—that should feel unfamiliar to us in the present day.

This tale shared between brothers sheds light on the long history of our current views of consent, the social power of the term “whore,” and the role of exchanging obscene material — photos, videos, stories — in shaping bonds among men. By casting Gregory’s crime as merely “fuck[ing] a whore” (he would have written the Middle English “quene”), Edmond implies that the woman has consented to everything. It is not clear whether she is a professional sex worker or if Edmond simply uses the term to remove blame from his servant, as “quene” could designate a prostitute, a lower-status woman, a woman with a bad reputation, or any woman you wanted to insult. Edmond’s choice to call the woman a “quene” removes both the possibility for her to say no, and the necessity of her saying yes. By calling her a “quene,” Edmond ensures that the exchange between Gregory and the plowmen can always potentially be read as three men haggling over the price of a hire for the night. His word choice erases the possibility of sexual violence, shifts responsibility away from Gregory, and allows the woman to be blamed for what happens to her.

It wasn’t me, bro, he seems to say.

Edmond’s depiction of consent here illustrates how the label of “whore” operates. He claims that the plowmen, aroused by the sight of their colleague having sex, ask Gregory if they can go next. They do not ask the woman. Her consent is bypassed altogether, as the label of “quene” nullifies her right to say no. We do not know if she consented or objected, and Edmond makes it clear that it would not have mattered either way. Furthermore, Edmond claims that Gregory is unable to refuse his co-workers’ request by framing it as a “require[ment]” of “company,” part of the code of relations among a close-knit community of men. His depiction of Gregory granting sexual access to his partner because his bond with his co-workers “require[s]” him to do so both minimizes Gregory’s actions and excuses his choice to hand the woman over to the plowmen for the rest of the night. It wasn’t me, bro, he seems to say.

This story has chilling contemporary parallels, illustrating how little has changed when it comes to consent, slut-shaming, and obscene sexual storytelling among groups of men. Since March 2016, nine federal Title IX lawsuits have been filed against Baylor University, alleging that the university mishandled scores of rapes committed by members of its football team. One of these lawsuits, filed in May 2017 by a former member of Baylor’s volleyball team, contains disturbing links to Edmond Paston’s tale of the three servants and the “quene.” In the suit, the woman alleges that that the school’s football players regularly participated in gang rapes of freshman women, including her, as a “team bonding” activity. She recounts how she was drugged and raped by as few as four and as many as eight Baylor football players at an off-campus party in February of her freshman year. She “remembers lying on her back, unable to move and staring at glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling as the football players took turns raping her.” She claims that the men later bragged of “running train” on her; they minimized her rape by referring to it as “a little bit of playtime” and “fooling around”; and they blamed her for the assault, dismissing her as “easy.”

The plaintiff in the Baylor case alleges that the football players circulated photos and videos of themselves assaulting semi-conscious women after drugging them. While their use of technology to re-perpetrate sexual assault is new, their sharing of women’s exploitation for the purposes of male bonding is decidedly medieval. In this alleged trafficking of women’s trauma so that all the team’s members can participate collectively in their violation and relive the assault together, the Baylor players echo Edmond Paston’s choice to write down his employees’ sexual deeds in lurid detail to convince his brother John to hire Gregory, using the tale to illustrate the unfairness of Gregory’s firing by their overbearing buzzkill of a mother. The circulation of the story from servant to master, and then from younger brother to elder brother, illustrates how sexual storytelling can serve as a means of bonding and entertainment among men, whether it be in a 15th-century wax-sealed letter or a 21st-century group text.

Sexual storytelling can serve as a means of bonding and entertainment among men, whether in the 15th century or the 21st.

By painting the women they exploit as “easy,” as “whores,” both medieval and modern men are able to recast rape as consensual and to avoid all blame by using the woman’s alleged previous sexual activity as an excuse for her violation. And by minimizing their actions — as “playtime,” as an attack of “lust” — they refuse to acknowledge any harm they cause.

The dynamics among the Paston employees as well as the Baylor football teammates demonstrate the workings of sexual pressure and violence among men: Gregory is unable to “say no” to his co-workers due to the requirements of shared “company,” just as the Baylor football team’s freshman players were allegedly hazed by their older teammates, who required them to bring female guests with them to off-campus team parties so that the older teammates could drug and rape them. In each case, men are “required” by the code of their all-male community — whether a group of employees or teammates — to become complicit in the assault and exploitation of their female partners and friends. Women’s consent is viewed as a non-issue, as belonging instead to the man who turns her over to the wolves and claims he has no choice.

My research focuses on sexual violence in the Middle Ages and today. I read a lot of awful things. And I am always struck by how similar those awful things are in spite of the differences in time, in space, in technology. Sometimes the details stick in my head like splinters: the glow-in-the-dark ceiling stars in the Baylor lawsuit, Gregory’s insistence that he was “completely rid of” the woman after he handed her off to his co-workers.

I cannot stop thinking about the Baylor freshman staring up at an artificial starry sky, a false heaven; the “quene” trapped in a stable all night by two plowmen with nowhere to go, surrounded by livestock and animal shit. And I think about how much the two women might share in spite of the five and a half centuries separating them: that feeling when your heart goes numb with fear, the sickening realization that your consent does not matter and never did, the glint in their eyes and the smirk on their faces once they’ve decided among themselves what they are going to do to you. As we grapple with issues of consent and power in our own culture, medieval texts like the Paston letters can help us see the hideous taproot of the problem, reaching down deep and straight and sure through the centuries. You cannot eradicate a plant unless you destroy at least part of its taproot. I imagine pulling it up whole and marveling at how at how very long it is; how ugly, how gnarled, how covered in sticky earth.

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