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 since the founder of the Chaucer Society, Frederick J. Furnivall, announced the discovery of a suggestive legal document in 1873. In the text, dated May 4, 1380, Cecily Chaumpaigne released one “Galfridus Chaucer” of all legal consequences “de meo raptu.” Or, as the Latin phrase translates in English, she released him of charges “concerning my rape.” A similar document, discovered by Christopher Cannon in 1993, seemed to solidify the case, for, while this text omitted the word raptus, it referred to a felony (as rape would have been) in connection to Chaucer and Chaumpaigne.
Chaucerian scholars—and you will perhaps be unsurprised that we are talking largely of male scholars, with a few female exceptions—have argued passionately in defense of their poet since the first document came to light, from the pages of Victorian newsletters to the digital scroll of the 21st-century Times Literary Supplement. Some scholars (including Furnivall himself) simply wished the “discovery to be unmade,” to put the rabbit back in the hat, so to speak, and pretend they’d never seen it. Others disbelieved the charges. “Anyone who can believe the man who wrote the poems we know could possibly have been guilty of committing rape under any circumstances must be capable of accommodating far more complicated and contradictory notions of human character than I can,” wrote Edmund Wagenknecht in 1968. Or perhaps, as was one of the leading scholarly theories for decades, “raptus” wasn’t sexual at all but merely some form of (slightly) naughty kidnapping? Perhaps Chaucer had merely been trying to abduct Cecily Chaumpaigne, and the humorless girl hadn’t quite appreciated it?
This week, two scholars, Sebastian Sobecki and Euan Roger, announced in a publicly livestreamed presentation that they had discovered a new document in the British National Archives that sheds significant light on the Chaucer-Chaumpaigne tangle. A year before the Chaumpaigne “raptus” release was filed with the courts, Sobecki and Roger learned, Chaucer and Chaumpaigne had served as co-defendants in a lawsuit brought against them by one Thomas Staundon under the Statute of Labourers, a post–Black Death piece of legislation that restricted the free circulation and bargaining power of English workers, in the midst of the acute labor shortage brought about by the plague. Moreover, the lawyers whom Chaucer had hired to represent him in that case were the same lawyers who represented Chaumpaigne in the release. In other words, Roger and Sobecki suggest, Chaucer and Chaumpaigne should be seen as legal allies rather than antagonists, and the word raptus likely referred not to sexual assault, but to the unlicensed transfer of Chaumpaigne as a servant, from Staundon’s household to that of Chaucer.
Sobecki and Roger collaborated on the release (and concurrent special issue of the Chaucer Review) with three feminist Chaucerians: Sarah Baechle, Carissa Harris, and myself. We spoke at the livestreamed presentation, as well. All three of us tried to contextualize the new possibility that Chaucer hadn’t raped Chaumpaigne with what we do know about Chaucer’s investment in what we now call “rape culture.” Baechle noted how frequently Chaucer’s poetry exploits stories of female violation, while Harris commented on the sexual vulnerability and limited legal recourse of medieval servant women (like, perhaps, Chaumpaigne) in the households of their employers. Since the presentation on Tuesday, other feminist scholars, like Holly Crocker and Anna F. Waymack, have also pointed out that the two documents might not necessarily clear the writer’s name—that Chaumpaigne might have been Chaucer’s servant, and that he might have raped her and been charged with that crime.
But if we cannot make a definitive statement, even now, on precisely the relationship between the historical Geoffrey Chaucer and his apparent servant woman Cecily Chaumpaigne, we can say quite a bit about the role that the idea of Chaucer as rapist has played in developing the modern versions of our mythological “Father Chaucer.” If Chaucer scholars have been, over the years, unwilling to commit to the idea of their poet as a violent felon (for only in such limited terms were they willing to conceptualize rape), they were disturbingly eager to imagine the progenitor of English poetry engaged in the sexual exploitation of a young woman. For, as one biographer of Chaucer, Derek Brewer, wrote in 1978, “Inside many a fat middle-aged man is a randy little thin one trying to get out. Perhaps [Chaucer] sometimes did.” Or, look to another of his slyly winking biographers, John Fisher, who wrote in 1991 that while Chaucer’s wife was absent at court, “Geoffrey may have found solace elsewhere [with Chaumpaigne].”
In Chaucerian biographies, the poet is not always fat, but Chaumpaigne is always young and beautiful, a “pretty wench,” as John Gardner wrote in 1977. Even Chaumpaigne’s name (so “delightfully fizzy,” as Gardner continued) becomes a matter of erotic titillation, a way for male author and (presumedly male) reader to gather together to ogle and lust over an entirely fictitious creation, a woman whose only role in the historical record is to let you know that even after he turned 40, Geoffrey Chaucer was still sexually desirable. Chaumpaigne, whatever she may have looked like in actuality, cannot have been violently raped by the poet, because that would make Chaucer a violent rapist. But seduced? Absolutely. And what man among us, Chaucer’s biographers have asked over the years, has not wanted, indeed felt entitled, to sleep with a beautiful young woman?
The history of Cecily Chaumpaigne in Chaucer studies is a filthy one, a record of sniggering men passing among themselves the literary version of a Playboy spread. It is also something even worse. For while many biographers used the Chaumpaigne story as a way to introduce a sexy “human-interest” angle to their work, others used modern disbelief of women’s rape claims to solidify their arguments in favor of Chaucer’s innocence—a move that heavily implied the assumed maleness of their reading audience, and of the scholarly community around the poet. Brewer cited “the usual modern male lawyer’s view that the lady was probably seduced and after regretted it”; another, Donald Howard, wrote in 1987, “this is essentially the same notion of accusations of rape that many current police officers and lawyers have, namely that the woman consented and regretted it later.” What was important, T.F.T. Plucknett wrote in 1948, was that “there is nothing to suggest that she could have convicted him of a felony.” Chaucer did not need to be actually innocent of raping Chaumpaigne, for these critics; he only needed to be innocent in the eyes of the law. These scholars treated Chaucer as they would have treated their fellow man, accused of something similar: Perhaps he had made mistakes, but nothing criminal. Certainly nothing some girl could prove. Imagine reading such biographies as a female colleague, student, or administrative assistant, or as a wife? The message was clear.
And women lie, Chaucer’s biographers and scholars tell us. They consent to sex and then regret it, using a change of heart to ruin men’s lives. Such critics cite “current police officers and lawyers” not as a critique of the patriarchal systems within which they live but rather to extend the privileges of those systems to their medieval brother. Just because Chaucer did not benefit in his own lifetime from the modern male advantage in a court of law, they argue, does not mean that he cannot now be offered the same courtesy, the same deference, which any of us would expect as our due right if we found ourselves similarly charged. Indeed, the biographer Howard made this point quite explicitly when he noted the supposed inferiority of medieval legal systems to the contemporary one: “Whatever mitigating circumstances there were, Chaucer did not want the matter to go further: in the law of his day, the accused was not allowed to testify in his own behalf, so there was a grave risk that the whole truth, whatever it was, would not emerge.”
And just what were those “mitigating circumstances”? Howard continued, “[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.” Chaumpaigne’s experience (whether of physical or emotional violation) is beyond the scope of his biography, and, it seems, his care. It is only Chaucer who is of value here, Chaucer whose reputational integrity counts. For Chaucer’s male critics, to mention, and dismiss, Cecily Chaumpaigne’s potential rape charges against Chaucer was also to remind the reader of how little importance such accusations would be given in the present moment, to remind them of how very little power women have.
So perhaps the historical Geoffrey Chaucer was not a rapist; perhaps, according to this new discovery, he simply made some unwise hiring decisions that landed him in legal jeopardy. Or perhaps (reading the poems closely suggests) he was a rapist—if not of Chaumpaigne, then of some other woman. I am comfortable allowing some ambiguity to a man dead 600 years. But to his critics—no. For while Geoffrey Chaucer might not have been a rapist, “Father Chaucer” was made into one in the imaginations of his literary sons. This history will not be unmade, whatever Chaucer scholars might have wished, whatever discoveries still await us in the archives. For it is not the story of medieval men but of modern ones, not of medieval privilege and entitlement but of their modern descendants. Chaucer is past accountability now, but Chaucer studies is not. And it will change.