In southwest England in 1292, Isabella Plomet brings a legal complaint against Ralph de Worgan, a local physician. She alleges that he abused his medical position to drug and rape her.
Drug- or alcohol-facilitated sexual assault is perceived by many as a recent concept, with campuses and anti-rape activists mobilizing to raise awareness. But this remarkable case, recently discovered by medieval historian Gwen Seabourne — with its distant echoes of the Bill Cosby trial — shows how a 13th-century jury recognized sex with an intoxicated person as assault and punished the perpetrator accordingly.
The records suggest that de Worgan was something of a predator. Isabella had originally gone to Ralph complaining of pain in her lower leg. De Worgan was apparently told her that he could cure her, but only if she traveled with him to the neighboring town of Ross-on-Wye. Like a good patient, she obeyed her doctor’s orders — “stuck to his advice” (adhesit consilio, in the original Latin) — and agreed to the trip.
Once they arrived, he gave her a narcotic drink commonly used to anesthetize patients before surgery and told her to drink it. And when Isabella was incapacitated from the drink, Ralph raped her. According to her testimony, recorded in the court record’s summary of the jury’s findings regarding her lawsuit, “Ralph gave her a beverage which he called ‘dwoledreng’ (dwale-drink) to drink. Afterwards he had sex with her against her will.”
It is important to note that Isabella seems to have been unmarried, and the case record contains no mention a husband, father, or brother. Rather, it focuses on the harm done to Isabella herself, “against her will.” And the case hinged on the jury believing her testimony over that of a learned doctor and landowner, even though she was not from a noble or prominent family.
The jury finds Ralph legally responsible for threatening and assaulting her. They order him to pay a hefty fine, the equivalent of one cow or 66 days of work, and they imprison him until he is able to scrounge up the funds to pay it. As Seabourne, a professor of legal history at the University of Bristol, argues in a 2016 article published in Social History of Medicine, the case is extraordinarily significant because it demonstrates that medieval society recognized that sexual assault could be facilitated through intoxication and understood that not all rapes require a weapon or overt physical violence.
How could a 13th-century jury understand what some Americans today fail to grasp?
The jury’s decision shows that intoxication-facilitated sexual assault — central to numerous prominent assault cases in recent years including the Steubenville rape case; the Vanderbilt football team gang rape case; Stanford swimmer Brock Turner’s assault of an unconscious woman; and 14-year-old Daisy Coleman’s rape in Missouri, the subject of the recent Netflix documentary Audrie and Daisy — is not a recent concept spawned by a feminist campaign to police everyone’s drunken fun. Rather, Plomet v. Worgan shows that drugging someone in order to have sex with them has long been viewed as a serious crime. The record does not include whatever argument de Worgan might have made in his defense.
This week, over 700 years after Isabella Plomet’s successful suit against Ralph de Worgan, Bill Cosby goes on trial at Montgomery County Courthouse in Pennsylvania for drugging and assaulting Andrea Constand. Thirteen years ago, in January 2004, Cosby invited Constand to his home to dinner, according to her complaint. He knows Constand through her job as director of women’s basketball operations at Temple University. He is the university’s most famous and generous alumnus, speaking at commencement nearly every year and serving on Temple’s board of trustees, and he considers himself to be Constand’s professional mentor.
That night, Constand voices her mounting stress over the demands of her job; she feels “drained” and “emotionally occupied,” she tells him. Cosby offers her three blue pills with a glass of wine. He tells her that the pills are an herbal supplement to help her relax, and Constand swallows them. Shortly thereafter, in Constand’s words, “I was unable to speak or move; I was paralyzed.” “I can’t even talk, Mr. Cosby,” she tells him. Cosby guides her to a couch, insisting he is helping her lie down and relax, and sexually assaults her instead. When she wakes up, disoriented and half-dressed at four o’clock in the morning, he offers her a blueberry muffin. (Cosby says that the sex was consensual, and has disputed numerous aspects of Constand’s account. He has said the “three pills” were three half-pills of Benadryl, for instance.)
For some reason, I cannot stop thinking about that blueberry muffin, about how and why one would casually give someone a blueberry muffin hours after assaulting them, how someone could be expected to choke down a whole blueberry muffin after waking up groggy with her sweater “bunched up” around her neck and her bra undone. One day I see a trampled blueberry muffin lying on the sidewalk and I think of Bill Cosby and Andrea Constand.
When Constand brings a civil case against Cosby the next year, he settles the case for an undisclosed sum of money, while denying guilt. It is only now, well over a decade after the assault, that the case will finally see a criminal trial.
I am struck by the links between Andrea Constand and Isabella Plomet, separated as they are by 700 years and an ocean, because they demonstrate the long historical sweep of this particular kind of violence, and shed valuable light on how drug-facilitated sexual assault is (or was) handled by two different, but linked, legal systems.
Both Constand and Plomet sought legal action against their assailants despite the uphill battle they faced because they were incapacitated and assaulted, in cultures where intoxicated women are routinely held responsible for the things that men do to them while they are under the influence. (And in cultures where male victims of drug-related sexual assault are often erased from the narrative altogether.)
In the Middle Ages as today, women’s drunkenness was associated with the removal of their capacity to say “no” to sex: As one very popular medieval proverb puts it, “A drunken cunt has no door bar.” And as Chaucer’s Wife of Bath observes, “In wine-filled women is no resistance/ And lechers know this by experience” [In wommen vinolent is no defence—/ This knowen lecchours by experience].
Our own culture is not so very different: Until September 2016, California law stated that assaults in which the victim was intoxicated or unconscious could be given lesser sentences than ones where more overt force or weapons were used. And in April 2016, an Oklahoma court ruled that state law failed to criminalize oral sex with an individual who is unconscious from drinking.
Both Isabella Plomet and Andrea Constand — allegedly, in the latter case — were targeted by men who took advantage of them at particularly vulnerable moments: Constand was drained and suffering from job stress, Plomet in pain from her injured leg. Both were assaulted, or allegedly assaulted, by men close to them who abused their power deliberately to hurt them — Cosby apparently wielding his immense fame as an entertainer as well as his high-ranking role with Constand’s employer, and Worgan misusing his professional position as a healer.
Both women were drugged (or allegedly drugged) by men they trusted, and both were assaulted (or allegedly assaulted) after they had been rendered physically incapable of refusal. And that is one of the cruelest things about intoxication-facilitated assault: Victims are attacked only after the possibility of resisting has been entirely removed from their grasp. It is like moving all the knives just out of reach. The substance is the tight cord used to bind them, the thief that steals the keys to the car that they would have used to escape.
I am also struck by the differences between then and now — which do not conform to the narrative of unbroken progress since the 13th century. Isabella Plomet was awarded monetary compensation by a jury in June 1292 while Andrea Constand’s case took years and years to find its way to a jury. Plomet’s story disrupts our narratives about sexual violence and historical progress.
Nowadays we like to use the term “medieval” to name spectacularly brutal violence, as shorthand for wildly unequal gender relations, for extreme restrictions on women’s sexuality. We imagine that “medieval” means rampant and indiscriminate sexual violence like that on display on Game of Thrones (which is set in a fantasy world, but one with clear roots in European history), peasant women being raped by their feudal overlords in a “first night” ritual, as in Braveheart. We imagine it means women being stoned for adultery, forced to wear chastity belts, unable to prosecute their rapists in court.
We do not think about how the medieval might show us what justice can look like for victims of intoxication-facilitated sexual assault, or how it can teach us strategies by which survivors can seek reparation, or how it can shine harsh floodlights on our own repeated failures to hold perpetrators responsible for their actions. Even members of a long-ago society knew it was a grievous wrong to exploit an individual’s intoxication in order to override their consent and take sexual advantage of them. The medieval is not only a map of where we have been as a culture, showing us the genealogy of our current laws and social attitudes; it is also a mirror that shows us how much we have not yet learned, how very far we still have to go. In this case, I am interested in how the medieval can challenge us to do better, to be more just.
I look forward to justice for Andrea Constand. I await the age-old victim-blaming arguments that Cosby’s lawyers will use to smear and disparage and defame her — she wanted it, she’s a liar, it was consensual, she’s only after his money, she chose to go to his house, she chose to take the pills, she should have known what he was going to do, it’s all her fault.
I hope fiercely that a modern jury will have the discernment that a medieval jury did, that it will recognize that the workings of power and force and violence do not always require a knife or a gun. And I hope even more fiercely that we can do better by the survivors of sexual violence — recognizing, as that 13th-century jury did, that intoxication is no justification for assault. Let us honor Andrea Constand’s bravery — and, before that, Isabella Plomet’s — with righteous action.
Carissa Harris is an assistant professor of English at Temple University specializing in medieval literature.
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