In 1873, Frederick Furnivall, a pioneer of Middle English scholarship, discovered a deed in which Cecily Chaumpaigne released Chaucer “from all manner of actions such as they relate to my rape or any other thing or cause” (omnimodas acciones tam de raptu meo tam de aliqua alia re vel causa). Furnivall announced this discovery under the headline “literary gossip” and made a suggestion, all too familiar even now, that, without other evidence the charge must be ‘unfounded’.
Furnivall’s account of the medieval law here is nonsense, although it began a pattern of such explanations (see Seal). As they became more grounded in fourteenth-century legal procedure, these attempts to dismiss the worst implications of the release tended to focus on the word ‘raptus’ and the other meanings it might have. Since it is very easy to find the phrase ‘rapuit and abduxit’ (seized and took) in what have been called “writs of ravishment” in the fourteenth century law, where the issue seems regularly to be one of marriage choice, it has been easy to say that “raptus” in the Chaumpaigne release probably referred to abduction.
All of the cases of “abduction” referred to in such arguments are, however, instances of the amercement of marriage choice (the transforming of an action into something that must be paid for). That is, the women in these cases seem to have married someone other than the person her father or family intended, and these writs of ravishment were used to ensure that the woman’s chosen husband or his family paid her family for the marriage they had “lost” (this construction was necessary because marriage had a monetary value for a woman’s family, at least among those with money for such a purpose). The sheer volume of such cases using these writs does make it right to say that ‘rapuit’ often referred to abduction in the period. The problem is that none of these cases use the noun “raptus” (related to the verb form “rapuit” but also distinct from it) and so have no bearing on the Chaumpaigne release.
Rape belonged to a distinct category of what we must call “wrong” in the fourteenth century law to avoid collapsing meaningful categories. “Abduction” was a trespass, and a lesser wrong that could be punished with a fine. “Rape” was a crime or what we would call a “felony,” a more serious wrong in which punishment would be sought against the person who committed it. In the set of records in which the Chaumpaigne release is found are a host of cases which use the word ‘raptus’ to refer to cases which are unambiguously rape. These records define “raptus” as the act in which a man ‘laid carnally’ with a woman ‘against her will’ (concubuit carnaliter contra voluntatem suam) (see Cannon). And no counterevidence to such cases has yet been discovered (in which a case that is clearly abduction uses the noun “raptus”). It has been hard for Chaucer scholarship to take in the implications of these legal facts until very recently. It is only in the last few years, in fact, that Chaucer scholarship has tried to reckon with the consequences of the real possibility that Chaucer was a rapist (see Seal and Sidhu).
Most of the mysteries surrounding the Chaumpaigne release were, however, recently solved by the discovery of two more documents that refer to Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne (see Sobecki and Rogers and a very good summary of the issues in the New York Times). In one, Chaumpaigne appoints attorneys to defend herself against accusation from her former employer for having left his service to work for Chaucer. In another, that employer, Thomas Staundon, is seen making this accusation in a writ. The Chaumpaigne release relates, then, not to some accusation of a crime, but to a dispute about labor. Staundon and Chaucer could argue over who had the right to employ Chaumpaigne because the dearth of workers in Britain at that time (after a severe famine and the bubonic plague had decimated the population) meant that workers’ movements were heavily regulated. Staundon was seeking redress under what is now called the Statute of Laborers not through the criminal law.
The mystery of the use of the term “raptus” in the Chaumpaigne release remains, however. It is important that Chaumpaigne was an agent in these disputes: that she was issuing releases and that releases were issued to her suggests that she had legal standing and it is still worth asking why this was the case if she was a servant who was in legal jeopardy. Although we now know everything about the context in which the term “raptus” was used by Chaumpaigne, we still do not know why she used such a loaded term. There is still, in short, an uncomfortable ambiguity. That ambiguity itself tells us a lot about the effects Chaumpaigne sought to produce. And it is in the light of these effects that the Chaumpaigne release must still be understood: it will always be a troubling description of a forever-unknowable event.