It isn’t often that Chaucer appears in The New York Times, but he did last week after some brilliant archival research shook the world of Chaucer Studies to its core. The discovery cast a new light on Chaucer’s relationship with Cecily Chaumpaigne, the young woman who in 1380 released him from all charges “relating to my raptus.” Ever since the court document linking Chaucer with Cecily was discovered in 1873, scholars have interpreted the Latin word “raptus” as referring to either rape or kidnapping – and although the document shows Cecily dropping the charges, many have grappled with the possibility that Chaucer may have been guilty. This topic has been especially important in feminist discussions of Chaucer and his writings. Many feminist scholars have used the idea that Chaucer may have been a rapist to gain a provocative new perspective on the complex portrayals of women in his writings. It’s a very serious charge, and it has shaped the field of Chaucer Studies for decades.
It’s also shaped my teaching of Chaucer’s works since I first learned about it in graduate school. I’ve always struggled with the question of how to handle this material with students, so I’ve regularly asked friends and colleagues for advice. I never found the perfect strategy. We all agreed that, on the one hand, it was worthwhile to let our students know about it; glossing it over would feel like misleading them. On the other hand, given the impossibility of actually knowing the facts of what happened, we agreed that it was very difficult to introduce the topic into the classroom without inviting speculation and judgment that soon became unproductive. It’s hard to teach a topic that is both significant and uncertain – except perhaps as a case study in how scholars deal with having incomplete facts. I’ve taken different approaches in different semesters based on the dynamics of a particular class, but it’s always been a challenge.
Last week, however, new evidence was presented that radically re-frames our understanding of the situation. It began when scholar Sebastian Sobecki noticed an anomaly in the scribal handwriting of the court document, which led him and archivist Euan Roger on a quest through bundles of disorderly court notes from the Middle Ages, untouched for centuries and stored in a disused salt mine in England. What they found changed everything: Chaucer and Cecily were not on opposing sides of a court case. Rather, they were co-defendants in a case brought by Thomas Staundon. Cecily had worked for Staundon before leaving his service to take work in Chaucer’s household – but she left before her term of employment was up, so Staundon brought charges under the Statute of Labourers. (This statue was passed after the great plague, when labor was suddenly in very short supply, and it was expressly designed to limit the freedom of workers to move between jobs.) Staundon prosecuted both her, for leaving, and Chaucer, for taking her into service when she was supposed to be working elsewhere.
The new documents reveal that the term “raptus” is much broader than we realized: it can be used to refer to poaching servants from another household. When she released Chaucer from charges of “raptus,” Cecily was effectively saying that he didn’t poach her or coerce her to leave; she left her position with Staundon of her own free will. These documents contain no suggestion that violence, sexual or otherwise, was involved in this situation.
When I heard the news, I was delighted – first and foremost for Chaucer and Cecily themselves, since this discovery leaves us with no reason to think that he perpetrated this horrible crime or that she suffered it. That in itself is good news. But it’s also exciting to consider what this news might mean for Chaucer scholarship. One thing this discovery does is point scholars back to the central importance of Chaucer’s actual writings in our research and our teaching. There is very little we can know about his life events, but he did leave us a remarkable record of his mind and imagination. There is still so much to explore in his writings, including his rich and varied representations of women and their power dynamics with men, and I hope the conversation will move forward in exciting and innovative directions as Chaucer scholars absorb this news.
Learn more: You may wish to read the piece in The New York Times (paywall) or an open-access edition of The Chaucer Review with a full write-up of the archival research and responses by notable feminist scholars.