Document casts new light on Chaucer 'rape' case

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The Guardian / Book News 17 Views comments

A document from the 14th century has emerged that sheds new light on the charge of “rape” brought against The Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer in 1380.

A cloud of suspicion has hung over the writer since 1870, after the discovery of a legal document declaring that Cecily Chaumpaigne had agreed to release Chaucer from all actions concerning her rape: “De raptu meo”. Debate has raged over the case ever since because of the term “raptus”, which could mean either rape or abduction.

The document examined by Sebastian Sobecki.
The document examined by Sebastian Sobecki

Now Sebastian Sobecki, a professor of medieval English literature at the University of Groningen and editor of the journal Studies in the Age of Chaucer, has discovered a document that points towards an interpretation of abduction, rather than rape. The legal document, the first new record of Chaucer’s life found in more than 20 years, shows that he continued to be the guardian of one Edmund Staplegate until 1382 – six years later than was previously believed. As guardian, Chaucer would still have been looking to arrange a suitable marriage for his ward until 1382 – two years after he was accused of raptus by Chaumpaigne.

“When we look at the wardship context, the term raptus in a wardship context almost always means abduction,” Sobecki said. “In fact Chaucer’s father was abducted to be married to somebody else when he was a young boy; that didn’t work out. It was actually quite common.”

The document establishes that Chaucer was still actively seeking a wife for his ward during the Chaumpaigne case, he added. “It looks to me that one possibility is that she was abducted, and the marriage didn’t work out because Edmund didn’t want it, so she then claimed damages and those damages were then paid by one of Chaucer’s associates.”

In an article that has just been published in the journal ELH (English Literary History), Sobecki lays out how Chaumpaigne, the daughter of a London baker and citizen, would have been “socially the peer” of Staplegate, the son of a Canterbury merchant, and thus an appropriate match.

But Sobecki insists the new discovery is certainly not exonerating Chaucer of rape. “There’s a tendency of (especially) male academics to find all sorts of reasons to lift the spectre of rape from Chaucer.” The term raptus could indeed mean rape in this case, he continued, “I’m not denying that. But if we look at this case against the background of Chaucer’s role as guardian and factor in the new material, then another interpretation is possible and, perhaps, equally plausible.”

Marion Turner, author of Chaucer: A European Life and associate professor of English at Jesus College, Oxford, was intrigued by Sobecki’s argument.

“He is right to point out that raptus is often associated with wards and that people haven’t before made a connection between Cecily’s accusation and Chaucer’s ward,” she said. “I think it certainly is plausible that there could be a connection. We still have to accept uncertainty. We don’t know what happened, and this puts another possibility into the mix, rather than closing others down – as Sebastian himself fully acknowledges.”

Sobecki said he was initially unable to believe that he had found a new document relating to Chaucer’s life. A copy of it is referred to in The Life-Records, a collection of all the known documents that relate to Chaucer’s life which was put together in 1966, but no one had looked at the original, which shows Staplegate trying to clear his name in the Court of the Exchequer for having arranged his own marriage, rather than having his guardian Chaucer do so.

Chaucer’s wardships are often overlooked, Sobecki explained, “because we thought they were trivial, that they lasted two years”. He said the new discovery shows the importance of more research: “There are so many more of these life records”.