Recent articles and op-ed pieces in The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have noted that Rep. Todd Akin's (R-MO) comments about the medical implausibility of a woman becoming pregnant from a forced sexual encounter are based in medieval ideas about female sexuality and anatomy. Vanessa Heggie, in The Guardian, points to a 13th century English legal text, Fleta (in which I am not expert), which states "If, however, the woman should have conceived at the time alleged in the appeal, it abates, for without a woman's consent she could not conceive." Heggie goes on to cite a late 18th century text on medical jurisprudence and further asserts that both texts were grounded in a biological understanding of human sexuality called the one-sex body. Jennifer Wheeler's article, appearing in the HuffPo a day after Heggie's piece appeared in The Guardian, repeated Heggie's claims about Fleta and Dr. Samuel Farr's book on medical jurisprudence. James Taranto, in the WSJ, wrote a piece titled "Middle Ages Man," but none of the sources he mentions or quotes are from the medieval period (one piece, an op-ed in the LA Times, refers only to examples from colonial America).
The initially striking thing about these pieces is that they assert a medieval world-view by relying on evidence from outside the medieval period. With the exception of Fletus, none of the examples are medieval. Heggie, by invoking
the idea of the one-sex body and genital homology, mistakenly ascribes
an idea that was present in late 16th and 17th centuries to the medieval
period. Yet, several scholars have demonstrated that the one-sex body was not a commonly held belief among medical authorities in the medieval period. This reliance on non-medieval sources to reveal a "medieval" set of ideas is a long-standing trope of medievalism: that anything that is backward, or unscientific, or cruel can be termed "medieval." It also betrays a misunderstanding of the historical period called the Middle Ages. It does not extend into the 18th century (or the 17th, or even the 16th in some places).
Perhaps more relevant to Todd Akin's ideas about rape and conception are 12th century theologians. William of Conches, a theologian and philosopher, puzzled over the reason why forced intercourse could result in a pregnancy. "Although raped women dislike the act in the beginning, in the end,
however, from the weakness of the flesh, they like it. Furthermore,
there are two wills in humans, the rational and natural, which we often
feel are warring within us: for often what pleases the flesh displeases
reason. Although, therefore, a raped woman does not assent with her
rational will, she does have carnal pleasure" (Dragmaticon philosophiae 6.8.10). This seems to be more in line with Akin's beliefs. If a woman conceives after being raped, then she must have liked it, which means that it wasn't really rape at all. Akin privileges theology over science
(after all, many acts of unprotected consensual sex do not result in
pregnancy, and plenty of embryos are created in vitro).
I am sometimes asked what a person from the Middle Ages would be most surprised by if they time-traveled to our world (no lie). One of things that I think would be most shocking for a medieval person to discover is that autonomy, economic opportunity, education, and participation in public life have been extended to many more kinds of people than in the medieval period. Akin's views are medieval, but not in the way Heggie, Wheeler, Taranto, and others have asserted. They are based on his ideas of who should hold authority over women's bodies and whence that authority derives (from theology, not science or personal autonomy). I love the Middle Ages, but I don't want to live there.