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What a Fourteenth Century Legal Case Can Teach Us about Storytelling

A scandal has fractured the world of medieval historians, and it turns on the meaning of a single word of Medieval Latin. The word is “raptus” and it appears in a batch of late fourteenth century legal documents pertaining to Geoffrey Chaucer, famous author of The Canterbury Tales. In late 2022, two scholars announced a discovery: a few lines of medieval legalese, penned on narrow strips of parchment, completely transformed how they had understood “raptus”—and Chaucer’s life. More importantly, they gained a rare glimpse into the life of Chaucer’s servant Cecily Chaumpaigne, and the crap she had to deal with on the job.

To understand the scandal, however, we must follow the word “raptus” across the centuries, from an internecine court battle in 1379, to Chaucerian scholar’s parlors in 1873, a feminist outrage in 1993, and the completely unexpected archival discovery in 2022. Along the way, a story emerges—a story about the act of storytelling, and who gets to do it.

Schoolkids in English-speaking countries are taught about Geoffrey Chaucer as a great medieval poet. But he was also a high-ranking public official and diplomat who left behind a complicated paper trail in various archives of the court. There are over a thousand legal and business documents that detail his whereabouts, his jobs, and his personal affairs. These scraps of paper are of interest to Chaucer nerds, but also to historians generally. They offer us a portrait of middle-class life during a turbulent period that encompassed both the apocalyptic Black Plague and the subsequent Peasants’ Revolt.

Chaucer was about five years old when the bubonic plague hit London in 1348, killing at least half of its residents over the next four years. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for young Geoffrey, growing up among adults who obsessed constantly about an unimaginable horror he could barely remember. Still, he managed to lead a very privileged life. As the son of a winemaker who sold goods to the royal family, Chaucer was the rare example of a non-aristocrat who rubbed shoulders with London’s ruling class. Educated and well-trained in war and diplomacy, he rose through the ranks first as a foreign diplomat, then a customs official at the Port of London, and finally a justice of the peace.

Because of his social status, Chaucer wasn’t directly affected by one of the worst outcomes of the plague: a law called the Statute of Laborers, enacted by the landholding classes after the plague burned itself out in 1351. After half the nation’s labor force perished in the plague, the laborers remaining were suddenly much more valuable. They could reasonably demand more money for their work. To prevent this, the Statute of Laborers limited wages to their pre-pandemic levels. It also prevented employers from poaching laborers from their neighbors with the promise of higher wages. The existential crisis of the plague years had morphed into an economic one.

Frustrated with the unfair wage freeze and job restrictions, laborers organized a series of “Peasants’ Revolts” all across the country in 1381. In London, where Chaucer leased a set of modest but cozy rooms over Aldgate, the revolt became violent. Several of the poet’s wealthy neighbors were dragged from their houses and murdered for the ways they had treated their servants under the Statute of Laborers. Chaucer’s “raptus” legal case was brought in 1379 and concluded in 1380, just a few months before the Peasants’ Revolt. So we have to hold that in mind, to understand this case against a backdrop of brewing worker uprisings.

Now flash forward roughly half a millennium to 1873, when a Chaucer scholar named Frederick J. Furnivall discovered the first document in the raptus case—a quitclaim, or withdrawal of a legal claim, from May 4, 1380. In it, a baker’s daughter named Cecily Chaumpaigne said she released Chaucer from “all manner of actions related to my raptus.” Given that the word “raptus” is generally translated as “rape” or “abduction,” it appeared that Chaumpaigne had accused Chaucer of rape and then withdrawn the accusation for unknown reasons. The idea was an unwholesome blot on the life of a beloved poet, and many nineteenth and twentieth century scholars tried to downplay or deny it. One argued that such a great poet couldn’t possibly be a rapist. Another joked that Chaucer was just having a bit of sexy fun.

But then in 1993, a researcher found another quitclaim related to Chaucer’s raptus case, filed in a different court by Chaumpaigne, in which the word “raptus” had mysteriously been removed. This seemed a bit fishy, as if Chaucer had somehow used his legal acumen and connections at court to cover up a dark crime. And it led to some extremely acrimonious disagreements in English literature departments.

Spurred by advances in feminist studies at the turn of the twenty-first century, medieval scholars like Samantha Katz Seal and her colleagues began to explore what it meant for Chaucer to be both a great poet and a rapist. They argued that the patriarchy isn’t just a blunt hammer that oppresses women overtly—it is also a nuanced force, creating alloys of beauty and horror, poetry and violence. In a recent article, Seal argued that it is possible to teach Chaucer as an important figure, while also acknowledging that his work contains violent misogyny and racism. Other scholars raged at Seal’s work, claiming that she was trying to “cancel” a poet who died over 600 years ago.

This debate was essentially about historical worldbuilding. How should we recreate the social world of Geoffrey Chaucer, a wealthy medieval man, in modern-day classrooms? Obviously, the concept of patriarchy would have been foreign to the poet and his contemporaries. Does that mean we should dismiss rape accusations with the same indifference that Chaucer’s friends probably did? Or should we, as Seal urged, consider the rape a new key to understanding his work? It certainly added a layer of meaning to the many sexist assumptions and misogynistic jokes in his poetry. Whatever answer a scholar chose would profoundly affect the way they explained this fourteenth century celebrity to twenty-first century students.

Then, in the early 2020s, a researcher at The National Archives of the UK named Euan Roger discovered two new historical documents related to the raptus case that changed everything. Roger was working with Sebastian Sobecki, a medieval literature scholar at the University of Toronto, who was trying to figure out how Chaucer managed to get the word “raptus” taken out of the second quitclaim. He asked Roger to start looking further back in time, trying to find other documents that might be related to the case.

Roger stumbled across the original court filings, which blew his mind. In a blog post about the discovery, Roger and Sobecki wrote:

The first of the two newly discovered records is a warrant dated 9 April 1380 (the first day of the Easter law term), in which Cecily Chaumpaigne appointed two attorneys, Edmund Herryng and Stephen Falle, to act on her behalf. They were appointed, not against Chaucer, however, but against a man named Thomas Staundon. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, they were not appointed to act for Chaumpaigne as a plaintiff in the case brought before the court, but as a defendant, against charges brought under the Statute and Ordinance of Labourers… Chaucer also appointed the attorney Stephen (del) Falle to answer charges brought against him by Thomas Staundon.

This was a truly unexpected left turn. First of all, it turned out that Chaucer and his servant Chaumpaigne were both being sued by this guy Thomas Staundon—and they shared at least some of the same legal team. Plus, it wasn’t a suit related to “raptus” at all, but instead a dispute triggered by the controversial Statute of Laborers. So who was Staundon and why were Chaucer and Chaumpaigne hiring lawyers to defend themselves against his claims?

The answer came in the second document Roger discovered, which was the original writ, from October 1379. In it, Staundon claimed [sic]:

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.

Staundon added that he asked Chaucer to return Chaumpaigne to his service, but Chaucer had refused, causing a “grievous loss” to Staundon. It appears that Staundon was trying to force Chaumpaigne back into his service by invoking the Statute of Laborers, which forbade employers from poaching servants. Suddenly, we have an entirely new view of the situation. Staundon was trying to prevent his employee from taking a job for higher pay, and was using every method and every law at his disposal.

Returning to the original quitclaims—both with and without the word “raptus,”—Roger and Sobecki were able to recontextualize what had happened. The word raptus was being used metaphorically, in this legal context, to refer to “the physical act of Chaumpaigne leaving Staundon’s service—using the language of ‘abduction’ to represent a physical transfer from one household to another.” It would seem that Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from the “raptus” accusation so that Staundon could no longer claim she had been abducted. This would have prevented Staundon from forcing Chaumpaigne back into his employ.

Given how many court filings it required to get Chaumpaigne out of a job she didn’t want, it’s easy to imagine how hard it would have been for someone who didn’t have the means (or powerful friends like Chaucer) to help them. Chaumpaigne’s lawsuit—for it is truly her lawsuit—is one of the few surviving examples of the everyday conditions that led to the Peasants’ Revolt.

Scholars had misunderstood what happened—and the word “raptus”—because they had an incomplete context, both legally and historically. This was a case about labor abuse, not sexual assault. The discovery was so explosive that it was even covered in the mainstream media. Inevitably, many headlines trumpeted gleefully that Chaucer had been “wrongly accused of rape for 150 years.” But Chaucer’s innocence or lack thereof was never the point.

As Sobecki and Rogers pointed out in a special issue of The Chaucer Review, the raptus debate isn’t about canceling Chaucer. It’s about how to tell stories about Chaucer’s world from more perspectives than, well, Chaucer’s. It means asking what Chaumpaigne wanted, and what kind of legal recourse she could use to get it.

There is no pure, unfettered access to true history—but there is the hope of understanding how complex people’s relationships were in the past. Even as the raptus case was unfolding in 1379, it’s obvious that Chaumpaigne and Staunton had very different ideas about what was going on. Chaucer probably had yet another idea. We don’t even know who first decided to use the word “raptus” in the case. Was it Staunton? The lawyers? The bureaucrats who ran the various courts where the case was heard? On top of that, there are intriguing new scenarios we might spin up about why Chaucer was breaking labor laws to help Chaumpaigne. Perhaps he was sympathetic to the demands of laborers? Or maybe his desires were actually predatory.

It’s frustrating that we’ll never be sure what Cicely Chaumpaigne experienced in Staunton’s employ, and why she was willing to go to court to get a different job. But we do know what happens when modern male scholars are presented with evidence of rape. They hide it. They laugh it off. They claim that good poets can’t be rapists.

Put another way, the raptus case lets us think critically about the way Chaucerians have traditionally told stories about the poet’s life. Feminist scholar Seal pointed out that male Chaucerians spent decades shutting down feminist colleagues who wanted to discuss what seemed at the time a credible rape accusation. For Seal, the raptus scandal is about nineteenth and twentieth century debates over female autonomy, not what Chaucer did in 1379. She writes:

It is a story not about Chaucer’s attitudes to women, but about the attitudes of Chaucerian critics to the female creatures who, by claiming their own humanity, by asserting their rights to vote, attend college, and even, by the 1970s, start competing for English department jobs, seemed to be undermining the very edifices of race and class and gender that had seemed as if they would always be there to lift men of (somewhat variable) genius up.

We always look at history through the tinted lenses of the present. But the act of trying to find connections with people in the past, of pushing our empathy backwards into the 1300s, helps us to know ourselves. This is not about erasing history; it’s about understanding that history belongs to us. By telling new stories about the past, we broaden the canvas to see what was actually going on outside the narrow corridors of wealth and power.

There will always be more interpretations and more perspectives to consider, many of them contradictory. That’s how history works, and that’s how storytelling works. Put another way, good worldbuilding is never finished.

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Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz writes science fiction and nonfiction. They are the author of Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age and Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize in science. They’re also the author of the novels The Terraformers (forthcoming in January 2023), The Future of Another Timeline, and Autonomous, which won the Lambda Literary Award. As a journalist, they are a writer for the New York Times and elsewhere, and have a monthly column in New Scientist. They have published in The Washington Post, Slate, Popular Science, Ars Technica, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic, among others. They are the co-host of the Hugo Award-winning podcast Our Opinions Are Correct. Previously, they were the founder of io9, and served as the editor-in-chief of Gizmodo.

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