Chaucer the rapist? Newly discovered documents suggest not.
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Chaucer the rapist? Newly discovered documents suggest not.
An image provided by the British National Archives shows the 1380 document releasing Geoffrey Chaucer from all actions concerning the “raptus” of Cecily Chaumpaigne. That the author of “The Canterbury Tales” had been accused of rape was long a staple of Chaucer studies. But scholars now suggest it was based on a misreading of court papers from 1380. Crown Copyright/The National Archives of the United Kingdom via The New York Times.

by Jennifer Schuessler

NEW YORK, NY.- For nearly 150 years, a cloud has hung over the reputation of Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of “The Canterbury Tales” long seen as the founder of the English literary canon.

A court document discovered in 1873 suggested that around 1380, Chaucer had been charged with raping Cecily Chaumpaigne, daughter of a London baker. In the document, Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from “all manner of actions related to my raptus”— a word commonly translated as rape or abduction.

In recent decades, the suggestion that Chaucer had been accused of rape helped inspire a rich vein of feminist criticism looking at sex, power and consent in stories such as “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “The Miller’s Tale,” which contain depictions of sexual assault (or what to modern readers appears like it).

But this week, two scholars stunned the world of Chaucer studies with previously unknown documents that they say show that the “raptus” document was not in fact related to an accusation of rape against Chaucer at all.

The new documents, the two scholars say, establish that the one that surfaced in the 1870s had been misinterpreted. Instead of stemming from a rape case, they argue, the document had been filed as part of a labor case, in which another man charged Chaumpaigne with leaving his household to work in Chaucer’s before her term of labor was over.

It’s an explosive claim in the world of Chaucer studies. And in a telephone interview, Sebastian Sobecki, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, who did the research with Euan Roger of the British National Archives, summed it up carefully, while emphasizing that the discovery should not be seen as invalidating decades of important feminist scholarship.

“Chaucer and Chaumpaigne are not on different sides” in the legal case, he said. “They are both defendants. And that changes everything.”

The findings, published in a special issue of The Chaucer Review, a scholarly journal, were publicly unveiled in a livestreamed presentation organized by the British National Archives on Monday, watched by more than 700 people.

The presentation, which included commentary from three prominent feminist Chaucer scholars, caused a stunned reaction among medievalists — including amazement that the researchers, who had given only the barest hint of the discovery in advance, had pulled off a publicity coup akin, as literary scholar Jonathan Hsy put it on Twitter, to “a Beyoncé album drop.”

Their findings arrive at a moment when medieval studies has been particularly fractious, with heated disputes about race, gender and diversity spilling out of scholarly journals and onto Twitter. And alongside the excitement about the new discovery, a number of scholars expressed unease that the findings would be weaponized against feminist scholars, who have sometimes been accused of trying to “cancel Chaucer.”

Holly Crocker, a medieval literature scholar at the University of South Carolina, called the new documents “very exciting” but said the “exoneration narrative” some saw in them was overplayed.

“I am eager to see how the conversation unfolds,” she wrote in an email, “but I remain insistent that the questions feminists have raised about the intersection of rape culture and women’s labor should shape our collective approach to these documents.”

The Chaucer case may touch on highly charged, up-to-the-minute issues of sex, power and consent. But the discovery was the fruit of old-fashioned archival shoe leather.

Sobecki said that for the past six years, he had been talking on and off with Roger, chief medieval-records specialist at the National Archives in Britain, about where they might uncover new material relating to Chaucer’s life buried in the miles and miles of documents that the archive preserves.

In 1993, scholar Christopher Cannon had caused a stir with the discovery of a second copy of Chaumpaigne’s “raptus” document. In it, the reference to “raptus” had been removed, raising the suspicion that there had been some effort to clean the story up.

Sobecki said that, looking closely, he noticed something else: The handwriting seemed to change midway through the document. Had Chaucer hired a lawyer or fixer to help him with his story?

“We began with the suspicion that he did try to cover something up,” Sobecki said.

After consulting with Roger, he realized that was a red herring. But while looking for the original document, Roger came across something else: a warrant, from a month earlier, that shows Chaumpaigne hiring two lawyers not to prosecute Chaucer but to defend herself against a labor charge brought by a man named Thomas Staundon, who accused her of leaving his employment without authorization.

“It jumped out at me right away,” Roger said. “It was entirely different from what we thought we knew.”

Next, he and Sobecki wondered if they could find the original writ that had started the case in motion, which was presumably in the records of the King’s Bench, the most senior criminal court in England from the 13th to the 18th century, which are currently held in deep storage in a salt mine in Cheshire. (In the 1950s and 1960s, when scholars compiled all known life records relating to Chaucer, these records were mostly inaccessible.)

Late last year, Roger ordered the bundles that he suspected fit the time frame. They arrived still in their original wrappers and speared by the catgut filament clerks used to hold piles of pages together — a sign, Roger said, that few people, if anyone, had looked at them in hundreds of years.

There, they found the original writ in the case, from 1379. It showed that Staundon had brought an action against both Chaucer and Chaumpaigne, under a law known as the Statute of Laborers, which had been enacted after outbreaks of the plague had restricted the labor market. It was intended “to combat rising wages, and to prevent the poaching of servants” with the promise of better terms, the scholars write in their blog post.

Chaucer, the writ stated, had hired her unlawfully and then declined to return her to Staundon’s service as requested, causing him “grievous loss.”

Those two documents, Sobecki and Roger wrote in a blog post summarizing the discovery, opened up “a radically different reading of ‘raptus.’” Instead of rape, they argue, it can be read as “the physical act of Chaumpaigne leaving Staundon’s service.”

“It is clear from the newly discovered evidence,” they write, “that the release was produced in response to an accusation made by Staundon against the co-defendants, not by Chaumpaigne against Chaucer.”

Since the discovery was announced, some have asked if there could still have been a rape or physical abduction involved in the labor case. But if there had been, Sobecki said, one would expect to find a writ of trespass in the undisturbed records. And there wasn’t one.

We can’t rule out that Chaucer physically abducted her, he said. “But it becomes more and more unlikely,” he said. “You have to build on so many more assumptions just to keep up that suspicion.”

At the same time, Sobecki said he had been concerned that the discovery would be seen as simply “exonerating” a wrongly accused famous man, while also undermining valuable feminist scholarship.

To head off that possibility, he said, he and the journal’s editors sought commentary from three prominent feminist scholars — Sarah Baechle, Samantha Katz Seal and Carissa M. Harris. Their responses, he said, will also be published in the journal and explicitly addressed in his and Roger’s article, so they will “travel with” any citation of their discovery.

And even if Chaucer didn’t rape Chaumpaigne, Sobecki and Roger write in their article, it’s important to continue to discuss how he “participated in hegemonic discourses that shaped the lives of all women.”

Seal, an associate professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, said she was taken aback when Sobecki first showed her the research this year. In 2019, in a special issue of The Chaucer Review on feminist criticism, she had described Chaucer as “a rapist, a racist, an anti-Semite.”

“I thought, ‘Oh, shoot, I went to press calling Chaucer a rapist,’” she said.

She said she found the new research persuasive and “brilliant.” But while it dispelled the rape charge, she said, it did not change the way the charge — and what she said was the often cavalier, misogynist discussion of it by male scholars — had shaped Chaucer scholarship.

Over the years, she said, scholars have used the rape story to add “sexual titillation” and manly color to his biography, while dismissing Chaumpaigne as a “pretty wench” or “a lady if she was a lady.”

“Inside many a fat middle-aged man is a randy little thin one trying to get out,” scholar Derek Brewer wrote in his 1978 book, “Chaucer and His World,” referring to what he called the “strange case” of Chaumpaigne. “Perhaps he” — Chaucer — “sometimes did.”

And the new evidence, Seal said, did not change the fact that Chaucer’s poetry was “embedded in a systematic rape culture.”

Some other experts also expressed caution. Cannon, the scholar who discovered the second “raptus” document (and who also appeared in the online presentation), said in an email that he was convinced the case was a labor dispute, not a rape case.

But Cannon, a professor at Johns Hopkins, questioned why the term “raptus” — which in the other instances he had tracked down, he said, was clearly defined as “lay with her carnally against her will” — would have been used in a labor dispute.

“It’s a significant use of a loaded term,” he said.

At the same time, Cannon also questioned scholars’ quickness to embrace what he called the “Chaucer was a rapist” idea, given the uncertainty of the record. “I don’t think Chaucer scholars as a group have been good with this particular ambiguity,” he said.

Seal, for her part, said she would continue to discuss the “raptus” document in her classes, incorporating the new material. Whatever really happened around 1380, she said, Chaumpaigne’s story has been “a pedagogically useful tool” for introducing questions of sex and power.

The historical Chaucer, she said, ultimately matters less than how our image of “Father Chaucer,” the venerated progenitor of English literature, was created.

“My classroom is still going to be talking about rape, violation and consent, because that’s what’s in the poetry,” she said. “But we’ll also be thinking about the author as a construct, as something we buy into and make together.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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