News – Chaucer Cleared of Rape!

Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales, has been hailed as the father of English literature. Not just a poet of genius though, he was also a philosopher, bureaucrat, astronomer, soldier, politician. And rapist.

That last title has hung over his reputation for nearly 150 years and is based on a legal document uncovered in 1873 by one of the founders of The New English Dictionary, Frederick Furnivall. Furnivall found a document dated 4th May, 1380, known as a quitclaim – an agreement not to pursue charges – signed by one Cecily Chaumpaigne. In this she released ‘Galfridus Chaucer [from] all manner of actions relating to my raptus.

Making the obvious translation of raptus as rape, subsequent historians have assumed that Chaucer had bought himself out of a serious charge, and the theory gained extra traction when a second quitclaim by Chaumpaigne was discovered in 1993, in which the word raptus was removed.

By the end of the twentieth century, Chaucer’s own writing was under increased scrutiny by feminist critics for its sexual imagery which was sometimes violent and misogynistic. Though the Wife of Bath probably gave back as good as she got, there were plenty of other tales in which sexual assault is normalised as part of an undoubtedly patriarchal society. Together with evidence based on the quitclaims, a picture grew of the author himself as a sexual aggressor.

However, two scholars have recently written in Chaucer’s defence. Sebastian Sobecki and Euan Roger have found a third document, a warrant, dated a year before the 1380 quitclaim. In this a Thomas Staundon accuses Chaumpaigne of leaving his household to go and work for Chaucer without completing her agreed term of service. He wanted her back, or for Chaucer to pay compensation. He cites the Statute of Labourers – a piece of legislation passed, after the Black Death had created acute labour shortages, to try to stop labourers being ‘poached’ by new employers offering better wages.

Raptus means unlawful seizure as well as rape, and wives and servants in those days were seen as the property of the male householder.  The relationship between Chaucer, as master, and his new servant, Chaumpaigne, therefore, was perfectly proper – apart from the little matter of her leaving her old master without his permission. And Chaucer, in the eyes of the offended Staundon at least, unlawfully seizing another man’s property.

So, Chaucer was not a rapist. Indeed, far from this episode being a medieval version of #MeToo, the Chaucer – Chaumpaigne case could be interpreted as a case of co-operation between the sexes in defence of a woman’s right to work for whomever she pleases. And in an era when servants were hard to come by, that suited Chaucer (now restored in the eyes of the literary world to the status of a ‘perfect gentleman’) just fine!

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