The brave hero saving a virtuous woman from an evil villain has forever been a classic story, from ancient mythology to modern Hollywood movies. It sets up the woman as both victim and prize, weak but on a pedestal. The heyday of such stories is set in the medieval period, where chivalrous knights proved themselves by risking their lives for a woman's honor. Knights were real historical figures, and chivalry and honor were important to them, right? And considering we have contemporary accounts of actual events from that time, you'd think we'd find some real stories of knights rescuing damsels in distress. But as Daven Hiskey found in his research, the historical record is pretty dismal for damsels.
On that note, looking at various instances of kidnapped women, we figured surely at least one kidnapped woman of noble birth in history had some officially knighted individual dash off to save her, right? She’s literally surrounded by these sorts of men, some of whom would be relations and presumably interested in her safety and well-being.
Well, it turns out while woman of wealth and nobility were shockingly often abducted throughout Medieval times, it doesn’t seem as if they could rely on knights to come to their rescue, or often anyone at all. In cases where something was done, rather than rushing off swords drawn, it would seem, as would be more likely today, resolving the kidnappings was almost always done through negotiations with the kidnapper or through the court systems and the law, or both.
More specifically, during Medieval times in the Western world, women of means, whether of the nobility or otherwise in possession of not inconsiderable valuables, were in particular danger from a random guy coming along and kidnapping and forcibly marrying her. This might be done by simply raping her, and thus consummating the union, or in some cases to make it all more official, finding a willing priest to marry the couple against the woman’s wishes and then raping her to seal the deal.
You'll find quite a few documented examples of medieval women being treated shabbily, with no hope of rescue by a chivalrous knight, at Today I Found Out.
(Image credit: Andy Dolman)