For nearly 150 years, a cloud has hung over the reputation of Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of “The Canterbury Tales,” long seen as the founder of the English literary canon.
A court document discovered in 1873 suggested that around 1380, Chaucer had been charged with raping Cecily Chaumpaigne, the daughter of a London baker. In the document, Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from “all manner of actions related to my raptus”— a word commonly translated as rape or abduction.
In recent decades, the suggestion that Chaucer had been accused of rape helped inspire a rich vein of feminist criticism looking at sex, power and consent in stories like “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “The Miller’s Tale,” which contain depictions of sexual assault (or what to modern readers appears like it).
But this week, two scholars stunned the world of Chaucer studies with previously unknown documents that they say show that the “raptus” document was not in fact related to an accusation of rape against Chaucer at all.
The new documents, the two scholars say, establish that the one that surfaced in the 1870s had been misinterpreted. Instead of stemming from a rape case, they argue, the document had been filed as part of a labor case, in which another man charged Chaumpaigne with leaving his household to work in Chaucer’s before her term of labor was over.
It’s an explosive claim in the world of Chaucer studies. And in a telephone interview, Sebastian Sobecki, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, who did the research with Euan Roger of the British National Archives, summed it up carefully, while emphasizing that the discovery should not be seen as invalidating decades of important feminist scholarship.