Was Chaucer a Rapist?

**Spoiler alert: No, probably not.**

Probably the most troubling event described in Chaucer’s biography is the case of Cecilia Chaumpaigne’s ‘raptus’. Though documentary evidence is somewhat confusing, it is quite clear that at some point preceding May 1380 Chaucer was accused of the rape of Cecilia Chaumpaigne. Chaumpaigne was the daughter of William, a London baker, and his wife Agnes.

This is indicated by a formal release, and a series of connected legal documents. On 4th May 1380 Cecilia Chaumpaigne released Chaucer of all kinds of actions in respect of her ‘raptus’ and any other matter. On 30th June the same year, John Grove (an armorer) and Robert Goodchild (a cutler) similarly released Chaucer from action of the law, and on the same day Chaumpaigne issued a release to them as they had to Chaucer. On 2nd July 1380 the aforementioned John Grove promised a debt of £10 (about half of Chaucer’s annual salary at the time) to be paid to Chaumpaigne at Michaelmas.* Though these documents cast serious doubt on the moral conduct of the ‘Father of English Poetry’, the issue of Chaucer’s guilt is uncertain.

Defining the ambiguous term, ‘raptus’, is essential to the discussion of this release.  Many scholars are quick to recognise that in medieval legal documents, the term is used to describe not only ‘forced coitus’, but also the abduction of an individual (usually a minor), often for financial gain. This latter sense of the word applies to the circumstances of Chaucer’s father’s abduction; as a child he was abducted by his aunt, who intended to marry him to her daughter. However, it does seem that the use of ‘raptus’ in Chaumpaigne’s release is referring to rape. In cases of abduction, the term was usually clarified with the phrase ‘rapuerunt et abduxerunt’. It is also difficult to see what Chaucer, a married man, would have to gain financially from abducting Chaumpaigne. Furthermore, we can be sure that Chaumpaigne was at least twenty-one at the time of the release, so she cannot really qualify as a minor. Though other releases occasionally freed individuals from accusations of rape, this was usually in a general sense and the crime would be listed among many others. It is unusual for the charge of ‘raptus’ to be mentioned specifically, when other charges are dismissed in general terms. After extensive cross-comparison with similar documents of the period, Christopher Cannon suggests that the use of ‘raptus’ in this case was indeed referring to an accusation of ‘forced coitus’.

Though it seems that Chaucer was indeed accused of the rape of Cecilia Chaumpaigne, the matter of his actual guilt is much more complex. The first, and probably most significant, fact to consider is that he was not found guilty of the rape, or even charged with it. The fact that Cecilia herself released him from the charge can also be taken as a good sign. Secondly, the document does not mention any specific details about the rape, other documents concerning the ‘raptus’ in the sense of ‘forced coitus’ are more specific. It also seems unlikely that a man of Chaucer’s character would commit a crime of sexual violence. Chaucer’s contemporaries recognised his sympathy for women (Gavin Douglas described him as ‘evir […] all womanis frend’), and he is still held as a man before his time by many modern critics. Derek Pearsall recognises Chaucer’s preoccupation with women and their role in relationships with men, indeed whole books have been dedicated to analysing this. Jill Mann, an author of one of these texts, praises Chaucer for ‘how [Woman] was to be represented for herself, rather than endlessly evaluated from the male standpoint’. He often included female perspectives in his writing and clearly enjoyed writing his female characters (his reference to the Wife of Bath in ‘Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton’ reveals an obvious fondness for her). It seems very unlikely that a man who so clearly respected and empathised with women in this way would have committed a crime of this nature.

Many explanations have been offered for the accusation; Pearsall raises the point that the ‘actual offence for which [Chaumpaigne] sought compensation is not necessarily the offence named in the charge’, and the fact that the actual charge of rape was ‘quietly, but emphatically, retracted’ gives some weight to this. A memorandum made regarding the release makes no reference to rape or ‘raptus’, and five of Chaucer’s more influential friends witnessed the release. Though these efforts could be interpreted as a sign of guilt, they are equally a sign of the fact that the accusation was not intended to linger. The most popular theory regarding the accusation is that it was a means for Chaumpaigne to obtain compensation after an affair with Chaucer. It was not unknown for women to bring charges of ‘raptus’ against their intended in order to negotiate a marriage of their own choosing, so it is clear that the law regarding this crime was something that could be exploited for personal reasons. There are numerous variations upon this theory, including the idea that Chaucer’s ‘Lyte Lowys’ was his son by Chaumpaigne. Haldeen Braddy makes the (somewhat unconvincing) argument that Dame Alice Perrers, mistress to Edward III and potential patron of Chaucer, was the step-mother of Chaumpaigne and a potential means of their introduction.

Given what is known about Chaucer’s attitude towards women, the fact he was never even charged with the ‘raptus’ of Chaumpaigne and the nature of the release within the context of the legal documents of the period, it does seem very unlikely that he committed this crime.

*Between July and Michaelmas it seems that Chaucer was attempting to gather money, largely by gathering outstanding debts. He also received his half-yearly payments of his annuities during this period, as well as £14 for expenses on a visit to Lombardy. He sold his father’s house the following year. This gives credence to the theory that Grove was a go-between for Chaucer and Chaumpaigne, and that the accusation was made in order to gain some form of compensation.

***

Braddy, Haldeen, ‘Chaucer, Alice Perrers, and Cecily Chaumpaigne’, Speculum, 52.4 (1977), 906-911

Cannon, Christopher, ‘Raptus in the Chaumpaigne Release and a Newly Discovered Document Concerning the Life of Geoffrey Chaucer’, Speculum, 68.1 (1993), 74-94

Crow, Martin M. and Virginia E. Leland, ‘Chaucer’s Life’ in The Riverside Chaucer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987) pp.xi-xxi

Mann, Jill, Feminizing Chaucer, (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2002)

Pearsall, Derek, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988)

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