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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Chaucer rapist? New Documents Say No

Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of “The Canterbury Tales” and the long-considered founder of the English literary canon, has had a shadow over his reputation for over 150 years.

In 1380, according to a court record found in 1873, Chaucer was accused with raping Cecily Chaumpaigne, the daughter of a London baker. In the paper, Chaumpaigne absolved Chaucer of “any manner of deeds pertaining to my raptus” – a term generally interpreted as rape or kidnapping.

This week, however, two academics shocked the world of Chaucer studies by revealing previously undisclosed materials indicating that the “raptus” letter was not linked to a rape charge against Chaucer.

The additional records, according to the two researchers, demonstrate that the 1870s document was misread. They say that the document was submitted as part of a labour dispute, in which another man accused Chaumpaigne of abandoning his home to work in Chaucer’s before the end of her period of service.

It is a controversial assertion within the field of Chaucer studies. And in a telephone interview, Sebastian Sobecki, an English professor at the University of Toronto who conducted the research with Euan Roger of the British National Archives, carefully summed it up, emphasising that the discovery should not be interpreted as invalidating decades of significant feminist scholarship.

The results, which were published in a special edition of The Chaucer Review, an academic publication, were disclosed to the public in a livestreamed presentation hosted by the British National Archives on Monday and seen by more than 700 individuals.

The presentation, which included commentary from three prominent feminist Chaucer scholars, elicited a stunned response from medievalists, including amazement that the researchers, who had given only the barest hint of the discovery in advance, had pulled off a publicity coup comparable to “a Beyoncé album drop,” as literary scholar Jonathan Hsy put it on Twitter.

Their results come at a time when mediaeval studies has been especially contentious, with passionate debates over race, gender, and diversity spilling over into Twitter from academic publications. Alongside the joy over the new discovery, a number of academics voiced concern that the discoveries will be used as a weapon against feminist researchers, who have been accused of attempting to “cancel Chaucer.”

Holly Crocker, a professor of mediaeval literature at the University of South Carolina, described the new manuscripts as “quite thrilling” but said that the “exoneration narrative” that some have attributed to them is exaggerated.

The Chaucer case may include highly heated, contemporary questions of sex, power, and consent. However, the finding was the result of historical shoe leather from the 19th century.

Sobecki said that over the last six years, he has had intermittent conversations with Roger, the top mediaeval records expert at the British National Archives, regarding where they may find fresh information on Chaucer’s life buried in the archive’s vast collection of papers.

Christopher Cannon created a sensation in 1993 when he discovered a second copy of Chaumpaigne’s “raptus” paper. In it, the word “raptus” had been omitted, creating suspicions that an attempt had been made to clean up the tale.

Other specialists have echoed this sentiment. Cannon, the researcher who uncovered the second “raptus” document (and who also featured in the online presentation), said through email that he was persuaded the case did not involve rape but rather a labour conflict.

But Cannon, a professor at Johns Hopkins, questioned why the phrase “raptus,” which in previous cases he had seen was clearly defined as “lie with her carnally against her will,” was employed in a labour dispute.

In addition, Cannon questioned the readiness of academics to accept the “Chaucer was a rapist” theory, given the ambiguity of the evidence.

Seal said that she will continue discussing the “raptus” paper in her lessons while adding the new information. She said that regardless of what really occurred in the year 1380, Chaumpaigne’s narrative has been a “pedagogically helpful weapon” for presenting problems of sex and power.

She said that the real Chaucer is less significant than how our image of “Father Chaucer,” the revered founder of English literature, was formed.

Jonathan James
Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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