(Note: The economist Paul Krugman warns readers of a technical piece coming by sub-titling it “Wonking Out.” In the context of the normal content of this blog, this piece is Wonking Out. Or maybe I shouldn’t dignify what is just a personal indulgence.)
Geoffrey Chaucer is, more than any other person, the reason we write in English. That’s reason enough to read his poetry and prose. But what inspires me is his genius as a story-teller. Canterbury Tales describes the times he lived in through the delectably drawn characters on that famous pilgrimage.
There has been, however, a stain on Chaucer’s character: In 1873, a 1380 court record was discovered in which a woman named Cecily Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from liability for raptus. (At the time, court records were written in Latin.) The discoverer sought to cover it up, and it was generally ignored by (white, male, stuffy) critics until the 1960’s. From then on, there has been considerable feminist criticism of Chaucer the man, and it hasn’t been pretty. Lost in translation has been the meaning of ‘raptus’, which in Latin has a much broader meaning than in English … almost any illegal taking is raptus.
Now, a discovery of a related court record seems to flip the meaning of the original record, and the flip turns on the meaning of raptus. The earlier record suggests Chaucer had raped the woman and was being released from claims related to the rape. The newer document seems to show that “(i)nstead of stemming from a rape case …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.” (New York Times, October 15, 2022) ( An interesting but further wonkish side note is that the 1348 bubonic plague caused massive labor upheaval, with workers leaving what amounted to indenture for better jobs. Parliament passed a law restricting laborers from doing that, and it was this law under which the former employer brought the charge of raptus against Chaucer and Chaumpaigne.)
At least three recent articles cover this finding: the scholarly original work in the Chaucer Review, a straightforward rendering of the conclusions in the New York Times “Chaucer the Rapist? Newly Discovered Documents Suggest Not.” (cited above) and an article in Slate, which stamps “Innocent—(probably?)” on its picture of him.
The Slate article begins: “As any reader of The Canterbury Tales is well aware, Geoffrey Chaucer, the famous medieval English poet, wrote prolifically about sexual violence. But the question of whether Chaucer himself was a rapist, and, more specifically, whether he raped a woman named Cecily Chaumpaigne, has clouded the poet’s reputation …” (October 15, 2022)
The Slate lead is the sort of provocative statement that seems more and more common in this day of click bait and strongly held but ill-founded opinions. It is tempting to wonder whether the Slate author has read Chaucer. Yes, there is plenty of sex, candidly described. But he “writes prolifically about sexual violence”? Nah. Any reader who picks up The Canterbury Tales will encounter strong and interesting women: The Wyf of Bath, who has buried five husbands and rails against a rape in the Athurian legend. This is a strong woman, perhaps the first liberated woman in the English canon. Then there’s Alisoun of the Miller’s tale, a willing participant in a cuckolding, who holds the male characters in thrall to her youthful sexuality. Or Madame Eglantine, the Prioresse, who speaks bad French ‘after the school of Stratford atte Bowe,’ has perfect table manners, and is apparently blithely unaware that a person in a religious order should not wear a pendant inscribed “Amor Vincit Omnia” (Love Conquers All).
Both Slate and New York Times make it clear that the authors of the game-changing article are tiptoeing around the seemingly fragile egos of the critics who have made a meal out of Chaucer’s supposedly willing participation in the misogynistic, brutal treatment of women 700 years ago and their excoriation of the more recent critics who did not call this supposed behavior out. That really has not much to do with literary criticism and a great deal to do with the different and important subject of social and political thinking in the modern day. But mixing ideology with criticism leads to bad thinking and poor scholarship. Good to see Chaucer (possibly) exonerated, not because he needed it, but because it will free fine medievalist minds to think about more important things.