Chaucer’s Resurrection

(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.

Artificial Intelligence and the Novel

A couple of years ago, I began writing a piece for my blog about Amazon and self-publishing. I thought I had a clear idea until I started writing it. Finally, I put it aside because it seemed unclear.

Yesterday, my son Edward, a writer himself (though of music) sent me an interesting article about artificial intelligence and writing, The Great Fiction of AI by Josh Dzieza, in theverge.com

The article discusses how artificial intelligence is approaching the point at which it can write fiction. It quotes Mark McGurl in his book Everything and Less, who captured in perfect economy of words what I had been trying to say in my earlier attempt: “the Kindle platform transformed the author-reader relationship into one of service provider and customer.”

In the opening, the article shows a writer who writes a book every four months, following a project management approach. She explains that she “allots herself precisely 49 days to write and self-edit a book. This pace, she said, is just on the cusp of being unsustainably slow. She once surveyed her mailing list to ask how long readers would wait between books before abandoning her for another writer. The average was four months.”

This is dramatically different from the writer telling the story in his head and heart and (if it is good enough) giving it to the world through a publishing industry the begins with an agent, passes through editors residing in comfortable offices in New York publishing houses, through distribution, to independent booksellers (or the only big one left, Barnes and Noble), on whom the reader depends to suggest a good book.

The article details the latest efforts of Sudowrite, an AI designed for writing. Sudowrite accomplishes fiction by massive statistical analysis. Such fiction would be what that comfortably ensconced editor might look down her patrician nose at and pronounce to be “formula fiction.”

Then there’s that other stuff. The story that takes a half-year to draft and a year or more to revise. It’s often formula, too, simply because the natural progression of a story is a formula: beginning, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement. Aristotle codified it (along with so much else in western thought), but it holds through many cultures and a great deal of music and poetry as well as writing.

Presumably, AI will get better and better. After all, Deep Blue, the chess Deep Blue Chess Computersupercomputer, did finally beat a grand master. But will statistical observation allow Sudowrite to write good fiction? Hard to tell. The bluesman says, “You gotta suffer if you want to sing the blues.” If you want to write deep emotions, don’t you have to have felt them? Or can you rely on the descriptions of others to do it for you, as sampled by AI?

Not sure of the answer, but the transformation wrought by Amazon, in my mind, establishes a bifurcated world of fiction. Right now, there’s a creative wall between the fast written, formula driven novel that is being reeled in by Sudowrite and the traditional writer-in-a-garret novel.

Next problem for me: I’m on the Indie/Amazon side of distribution world and the writer-in-a-garret side of the creative wall. And that wall I mentioned may be a chasm.

But I write for passion and pleasure, and to enjoy the infinite complexity of the mother tongue, so I ain’t quittin’.