‘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.