Newly-discovered medieval court documents suggest that "father of English literature" Geoffrey Chaucer likely did not commit a crime often attributed to him.
For years it has been debated what took place between Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, and Cecily Chaumpaigne, the daughter of a London baker. The debate centered around medieval administrative records known as Close Rolls of the English Chancery, particularly one from May 4, 1380, in which the royal government’s secretariat released Chaucer from “all manner of actions related to my raptus” (“omnimodas acciones, tam de raptu meo”).
Raptus, as a new analysis of old and new evidence published in The Chaucer Review notes, has been used in legal terms to denote rape, abduction, and everything in between. The note, relating to Chaumpaigne, has been the subject of debate since it was first discovered by Frederick J. Furnivall in 1873. A second legal note from a few days later, but not discovered until 1993, references the same case but omits the word "raptus". Taken together, the documents have been seen as evidence that Chaucer was guilty of raping Chaumpaigne.
Newly discovered records in The National Archives have cast doubt on this view, suggesting Chaucer and Chaumpaigne were actually co-defendants.
The first piece of evidence, the paper's co-writers Euan Roger and Sebastian Sobecki write in a blog post on the finds, was a warrant dated April 9 1380. It shows that Chaumpaigne appointed two attorneys in a case against one Thomas Staundon. The document shows that Chaumpaigne was not a plaintiff in the case, but was defending herself against charges brought under the Statute and Ordinance of Labourers (1349/51).
This rather unusual bit of legislation, brought in by King Edward III, came about following a particularly brutal wave of the plague in 1348 which wiped out between an eighth and a third of the European population. To try and control inflation, the legislation prevented laborers from accepting wages above those set in 1346, despite the rather diminished supply of labor which would push up its value.
The statute also decreed "that every person, able in body and under the age of 60 years, not having enough to live upon, being required, shall be bound to serve him that doth require him, or else be committed to gaol until he shall find surety to serve", essentially forcing anybody who dislikes jail time to take work for pre-Black Death wages. Anyone looking to move to another, better-paid job would also find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
It was this latter situation that saw Chaucer and Chaumpaigne on the wrong side of the law. A further legal document discovered by the team named the two as co-defendants against Staundon's claim that "the aforesaid Geoffrey admitted and retained Cecily Champayn, formerly the servant of the aforesaid Thomas, in his service at London, who has departed from the same service before the end of the agreed term, without reasonable cause or licence of Thomas himself, into the service of the said Geoffrey".
The authors write that the word raptus, previously thought to mean rape, could have referred to abduction in the context of the charges being brought by Staundon: that of Chaumpaigne being poached by Chaucer.
It is possible that the servant had been abducted, rather than merely offered better wages or conditions, by Chaucer. It was common at the time to charge both abductor and abductee under the Statute of Labourers for this. However, there is not much in the way of evidence to back this interpretation up either, with no evidence of trespass actions found against Chaucer, nor any course of action taken against him for physical abduction.
"It is, of course, impossible to rule out an act of physical or sexual violence in the events that took place around Chaumpaigne’s move from Staundon’s service to Chaucer’s, or the possibility that she was coerced into agreeing to a release against her will," the team write in their blog post for the National Archives.
"However, the new evidence presented in our article indicates that the specific legal accusations brought against Chaucer in 1379-80 in the court of King’s Bench were not charges of rape, and they probably did not refer to a physical abduction (or at least there is no evidence for this among the court’s records), but rather related to a labour dispute."
The findings are published in The Chaucer Review.