The case for the defense

A little more than a month ago, Euan Roger, principal medieval records specialist at the National Archives, announced on Twitter the discovery of two life records that would, he said, clarify the relationship between “Geoffrey Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne, including the *original legal charges* brought against the poet.” The discovery would be presented at an online forum on October 11. Last week excited medievalists around the world signed up to learn more.

If Cecily Chaumpaigne was not a household name before October 11, she may yet become one. For 150 years she has been at the heart of a disturbing mystery – the question of whether or not the “father of English poetry” committed rape. This question first arose in 1873, on publication of an unearthed quitclaim dated May 4, 1380 and held in the Public Record Office (which became part of the National Archives in 2003). The document declares that one “Ceciliam Chaumpaigne” released “Galfrido Chaucer” from all actions related to her raptus (“de raptu meo”). In a medieval legal context raptus is commonly understood as referring to either abduction or rape.

Ever since this document came to light, the double meaning of raptus and the possibility that it might refer to sexual assault have been a source of angst for Chaucerians. Frederick J. Furnivall (founder of the Chaucer Society and the man who made the 1873 discovery) even remarked: “I wish this record about Cecilia Chaumpaigne had not been on the Close Roll.” In the century and a half since, more documents have been unearthed, including a “memorandum” from May 7, 1380, found by Christopher Cannon in 1993, that repeats the language of the May 4 quitclaim, but omits the phrase “de raptu meo ” – and many Chaucer scholars and biographers with at least a share in Furnivall’s wishful thinking have risen to Chaucer’s defence.

As Samantha Katz Seal reminds us in her published response to the recently discovered documents, the results of that advocacy aren’t always pretty. Some scholars treat the case lightly (“into his busy schedule of 1379 or ’80 Chaucer managed to fit at least one pretty wench”). Others impugn the character of “the lady, if she was a lady”, who supposedly made the accusation. In his 1987 biography of the poet, Donald Howard offered a series of hedging explanations and excuses more or less typical of other Chaucerians at the time:

[Chaucer] may have had an intimate relationship with Cecily and she may, when things went wrong, have threatened to accuse him of rape. Or in the heat of passion or exasperation he may indeed have raped her. Whatever mitigating circumstances there were…

… but perhaps it is best to let the sentence end there. Many academics pushed back against such arguments, insisting that – at minimum – the possibility of rape should be taken seriously, not least because of the well-attested misogyny of late-medieval English culture, some of which features in Chaucer’s own work. Feminist scholarship and research in the field of gender studies have largely driven this response. Over the past thirty years these voices have grown stronger, but the debate has continued. (A year ago it led one scholar to resign from the editorial board of The Chaucer Review and prompted a heated exchange of letters in the TLS.)

If there is one thing on which all Chaucerians agree, however, it is that the Chaucer-Chaumpaigne case has always provoked strong reactions. How could it not? Chaucer is the “father” figure of English literary history, and any accusation of rape carries a powerful charge. That charge is why, on a daily basis, so many people refuse to countenance the possibility of rape accusations being true. It is also why others find rape entertaining: Sarah Baechle notes in her own response to the discovered life records that the accounts of rape survivors are often “repackaged for consumption by audiences as entertainment or erotic titillation”. This is a practice with which Chaucer himself seems to have been familiar – after all, as one colleague has put it, The Reeve’s Talean account of one student’s sexual assault of a sleeping girl and another’s deception and rape of her mother, is essentially “one big rape joke”.

Because the Chaucer-Chaumpaigne case has proved so incendiary, the unveiling of the fresh evidence needed careful handling. The online event was precision-choreographed by multiple institutions in the UK, the US and Canada, as a team of nine scholars sought to place the discovery in context. David Raybin and Susanna Fein, editors of The Chaucer Review, opened by remarking on the most important aspect of the life records: they “give us more facts to work with”. Sebastian Sobecki, who assisted in the discovery, then introduced Euan Roger, who explained what the documents (now available online) contain.

They consist of two records from the court of common law known as the Court of King’s Bench. To general astonishment Roger and Sobecki explained that these new records show that, rather than being on opposite sides of a legal case concerning rape or abduction, Chaucer and Chaumpaigne were co-defendants in a labor dispute in which one Thomas Staundon had brought charges against them both under the Statute and Ordinance of Laborers. The statute was enacted to regulate labor by preventing workers from demanding or seeking higher wages from new employers. Staundon claimed that, in violation of the statute, Chaumpaigne had left his service “before the end of the agreed term, without reasonable cause or license of Thomas himself, into the service of the said Geoffrey”. In this context, argue Roger and Sobecki, “a radically different reading of raptus becomes possible”: Chaumpaigne’s quitclaim was intended to protect Chaucer from any future charges connected with her “physical transfer” from Staundon’s household to Chaucer’s.

Like Fein and Raybin, Sobecki and Roger know that much more work remains to be done on this case, a point driven home by the five scholars who spoke after them. Andrew Prescott reminded the audience of how little we know about Chaumpaigne, and how much material lies unread in the National Archives. Christopher Cannon noted that the word raptus remains difficult to pin down. Samantha Katz Seal, Sarah Baechle and Carissa M. Harris stressed the continued importance of attention to the discourses of sexual violence in both Chaucer’s work and medieval culture. Harris noted, for example, that the presence of a labor dispute introduces an often-overlooked framework within which to examine these discourses. After a question-and-answer session, a special issue of The Chaucer Review on the discovery was launched online, featuring published versions of the presenters’ remarks. (They’ve been under embargo since January.)

Since the event anticipation has given way to agitation. Some scholar-observers have expressed “relief”; others have been angry. One internet headline crawed: “Chaucer wrongly accused of raped for 150 years, newly unearthed documents show”. And yet, as the discoverers themselves are careful to acknowledge, the new reading of raptus they have put forward is “possible” rather than proven. The precise significance of these documents in relation to the quitclaim, and the meaning and intent behind the use of raptus in that document, have yet to be determined. But the fact that so many have mistaken the possible for the proven in this instance demonstrates how much of our own perspectives and feelings shape the stories we tell about the past.

If there is anything with which we should take issue, it is the idea that discoveries such as the new life records tell a story. Fragments of the past can help us deduce things, but we turn those deductions into stories. Nothing proves that more conclusively than the attempts made by so many to clear Chaucer’s name by whatever narrative means necessary. Scholars have been right to take seriously the possibility of his guilt. Any present relief we feel does not relieve us of the responsibility to continue to ask difficult questions when confronted by the documentary evidence. And if we cannot set our own feelings aside, we should at least acknowledge how they might be influencing us. Tales say a lot about their tellers, after all, as Chaucer would be the first to agree.

Mary C. Flannery is a writer and medievalist based in Switzerland. Her most recent book is Practicing Shame: Female honor in later medieval England

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