‘Escapades’ and Labour: Chaucer, Chaumpaigne and Legal History

Wills Memorial Building, Bristol, which may or may not be the location of our conference ... oh go on University of Bristol, be fair ...

In the first half of this academic year, a lot of interest was generated by discussion of newly-discovered documentary evidence relating to the life of medieval English poet and author, Geoffrey Chaucer. This was explored in a special edition of a literary journal, The Chaucer Review. Something new about Chaucer was of great interest to scholars of medieval literature, of course, but the subject-matter of the new evidence also drew in a wider audience, since it dealt with an episode in Chaucer’s life which was not primarily connected to his writing: an apparent accusation of rape. As somebody who has taken an interest in the issue of rape and sexual misconduct in medieval common law, I was keen to see the new evidence, and to think through its implications for Legal History, as well as the possible contributions which a legal historian could make to scholarship here. This post sets out some preliminary thoughts.

First of all, let me give a quick outline of the ‘Chaucer/Chaumpaigne episode’, for those who are not familiar with this, or with the heated debates which have surrounded it. In the 1870s, Frederick Furnivall, a Chaucer scholar, turned up a record from 1380 which seemed to suggest that Chaucer had been accused of rape by a woman called Cecily Chaumpaigne. This record was the release of Chaucer, by Chaumpaigne, from all proceedings de raptu meo, a Latin phrase which may – or may not – be translated ‘relating to my rape’. This led to much discussion, as to whether Chaucer should or should not be regarded as potentially having been a rapist, and to a number of literary scholars engaging with the issue of just what raptus meant in this context. Different views were possible, since the word was used to cover not only what we now understand ‘rape’ to include, but also other offences focusing on abduction or removal (often called ‘ravishment’) rather than sexual violation. Further connected material was found in the 1990s, stoking the fires of debate once again, and then we had the find in very recent times, which was ‘launched’ in late 2022.

The new material showed that Chaucer and Chaumpaigne had been on the same side in other legal action not long before the ‘Chaumpaigne release’, when they were defendants in an action relating to employment. A certain Thomas Staundon proceeded against both of them for an offence under the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers (1349 and 1351). The nub of the case was that Chaumpaigne was, and should, by law, have remained in, the employment of Staundon until the end of her contract, but had (by some means) moved from that employment to work for Chaucer. The word raptus could have been used here, whether the leaving of Staundon was in accordance with Cecily’s will, or against it. The reasonable deduction from the new material is that the ‘Chaumpaigne release’ was part of this ‘labourers’ case concerning  the removal of a contracted worker from the employer to whom she was bound.

It struck me at once that it was extremely fortunate that the new discoveries were announced in 2022, rather than some decades back. The Chaucer-Chaumpaigne case had prompted a strong tradition of misogynistic, rape-myth-fostering, comment, and, had the new material materialised earlier, it might well have been interpreted as some sort of ‘victory’ for those who, in their zeal to defend their ‘great man’, had minimised the likelihood, and the seriousness, of rape more generally. The story of the response to Furnivall’s discovery and its treatment in studies of Chaucer is extremely illuminating on attitudes and atmospheres in academia from the 1870s to very recent times. Some of the lowlights can be seen in recent blogposts (e.g. here). The release of the new material, was, fortunately, in the control of scholars with a sensitivity to the misuse which could be made of it, and a serious wish to avoid that. The participation of feminist literary scholars was secured, and it was made very clear that there is more work, more thinking, to be done on this case and its implications. There was some simplistic and questionable press coverage of the discoveries (e.g. a story in the Telegraph with a headline which framed the scholarship of the last 150 years as a manifestly false accusation of rape, resonating, of course, with the general myth of women’s frequent false accusations of rape) but, on the whole, the tone has been more measured.


Will nobody think of the legal historians?

That, then, is where things seem to stand at the moment, as far as the literary world is concerned. But what (as I am sure people everywhere will be asking) about the legal historians? Well, I do have a few thoughts …

The first is a historiographical point. Legal historians might do well to take note that, while the vast majority of commentary on the documents relating to the Chaucer-Chaumpaigne case has come from scholars outside legal, or legal historical, studies, one of the quotations which is used in descriptions of the unedifying rape-apologism of many past Chaucer scholars did come from a legal historical luminary, and Selden Society man, Theodore Plucknett.[i] Plucknett’s short article, in the 1948 Law Quarterly Review, starts off jarringly, with its title: ‘Chaucer’s Escapade’.[ii]  The choice of ‘escapade’ suggests that the whole thing is not being taken terribly seriously, a suggestion  reinforced by his explanation that what prompted him to tackle the topic was an ‘entertaining’ article in the previous year’s LQR.

In his commentary, Plucknett did, at times, fall into patterns and tropes in the description of rape which many of us will recognise, and did some speculative reconstruction of the case from what he presumably considered common sense:

‘That [Chaucer] seduced Cecilia we may well believe; that she was angry with him, and still more with herself, is extremely probable. She may have honestly thought that because it all happened against her better judgment, that therefore it was without her consent.’ (35-6).

The suggestion that women were not able to tell their feelings from the truth (and so made false accusations) would be familiar to modern scholars of misogyny in general, and rape myths in particular. Consider also Plucknett’s comment that:

‘Rape is a brutal crime and implies a degree of depravity which should make us cautious in fixing such a charge.’ (35-6)

This seems to single out rape as an accusation to be treated with special caution, again tending towards the territory of regarding women as likely to make false accusations of rape.

The article which Plucknett found so ‘entertaining’, P.R. Watts, ‘The Strange Case of Geoffrey Chaucer and Cecilia Chaumpaigne’, Law Quarterly Review 63 (1947), 491-515, also has some lines which do not bear scrutiny. For example, it refers to rape as a ‘crime of passion’ (496), as well as trotting out well-known passages from the legal and literary past which suggest that false rape allegations are often made by women. It also engages in  speculative reconstruction of events which might have given Chaucer a defence to a rape prosecution. This involved an involved story that Cecily might have become pregnant and had a child called Lewis, to whom Chaucer dedicated a book about astrolabes. This was presented as, in some sense, making up for the rape of the mother:

‘[Were that the case] ‘we may be able to close our record of an unedifying chapter in Chaucer’s life with a scene not without some redeeming aspects of tenderness and grace – the poet devoting himself, in the full maturity of his powers, to the inditing of a scientific treatise for the instruction of Cecil[y]’s son’.

Not exactly a model of academic rigour, quite apart from its display of a deep disregard of the reality and seriousness of rape.


Connections, currents and a shameless plug

While Plucknett was ‘entertained’ by the matter, more recently, the classical legal history tradition has rather played down the study of crime, gender, rape. This is unfortunate, because there are clearly opportunities for productive engagement between legal historians and other scholars on these matters which are, after all, contained in legal documents. This brings me to the second thing I wanted to consider here: based on my own archival research into many less prominent cases, I think that there is scope for adding something to the consideration of the relationship between rape, ‘ravishment’,  and ‘Labourers’ offences.

There is informative discussion of this Venn diagram of legal classification in Sobecki and Roger’s chapter in The Chaucer Review of October 2022.[iii] It may also be worth considering the fact that there are numerous entries on plea rolls of the fifteenth century to an offence said to have been set out in a ‘statute de raptu ancille’ (that is, a statute ‘of the rape/ravishment of female servants’).[iv] It seems to be the case, however, that the statute being referred to was not one originally focused on servants, but the 1275 statute of Westminster I, c.13, which was enacted to deal with the raptus of wider categories of women.[v] My tentative deduction is that this was re-imagined as something especially connected to female servants. If I am right, what would such a deepening connection between raptus and female servants tell us about medieval attitudes and the position of the late medieval ancilla? One to ponder.[vi] I am not at a point of being able to date any such change, but it seems to be worth feeding into both the Chaumpaigne-Chaucer discussion, and also the discussions of the vulnerable position of female servants which is likely to arise – indeed it is beginning to arise already – following the re-contextualisation of the Chaucer-Chaumpaigne case as a ‘labourers case’.

[Yes, here it comes]

No doubt the hunt is on for more Chaucer ‘life records’ in relation to this case, and it is obviously something which will attract public interest and resources. Nevertheless, I hope that interest can be broadened beyond the deeds and misdeeds of a particular ‘great man’.  There remains a need to look both at those whose lives are well known to scholars, and also at the many, as yet unknown, individuals, glimpses of whom can be found in legal records, and who are no less deserving of study. In short, we need to pay heed both to ‘insiders’ and to ‘outsiders’ – and, as luck would have it (ready?) we have a conference coming up at Bristol (Call for Papers open as I write …) which will give those interested in Legal History a chance to do just that.

The conference theme (further details here) has been selected with a view to encouraging people to view the history of law in a wider way than only coming from the traditional ‘internal perspective’ of Classical Legal History. The doings of legal professionals and the development of doctrine are, of course, important, but Legal History does need to refresh its connections with scholarship and scholars in both Law and History (and beyond), if it is to avoid becoming a diminishing ox-bow lake of a sub-discipline . We want to take our part in the necessary work of bringing women into the mainstream of Legal History, to contribute to discussions such as that with which this post deals. But it is certainly not just women who could be classed as ‘outsiders’ in the History of Law, and we hope to hear about other groups, and other perspectives, which could enrich and renew Legal History. So do think about how your work might fit in with our theme, and keep those abstracts … flowing in (see picture).


Gwen Seabourne

6th May, 2023.



Gwen Seabourne is Professor of Legal History and co-director of the Bristol Centre for Law and History Research. She is one of the co-ordinators of the British Legal History Conference 2024 in Bristol, which will take as its theme ‘Insiders and Outsiders in the History of Law’.



[i] See: Samantha Katz Seal, ‘Whose Chaucer: on Cecily Chaumpaigne, Cancellation and the Literary Canon’ The Chaucer Review 57 (2022) 484-97, 493-4.

[ii] LQR 64 (1948) 33-36.

[iii] Euan Roger and Sebastian Sobecki, ‘Geoffrey Chaucer, Cecily Chaumpaigne and the Statute of Laborers: New Records and Old Evidence Reconsidered’, The Chaucer Review 57 (2022) 407-37.

[iv] (1450) KB 27/758 m. 17 (AALT IMG 210); (1460) KB 27/798 m. 18 (AALT IMG 257).

[v] Statutes of the Realm I, 29. KB 27/758 m. 3d (AALT IMG 413).

[vi] Note that some women, at least, did consider it worthwhile to bring up sexual mistreatment when justifying their departure from service before the end of a contract: see CP 40/416 m. 128d (AALT IMG 1247) and CP 40/448 m. 299 d (AALT IMG 1919) – though here a threat to the woman’s life was also mentioned.

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