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WMU Medieval Institute reacts to Chaucer discovery that may vindicate "The Canterbury Tales" author

Marjorie Harrington, WMU Medieval Institute, is in her window filled office at WMU's Rawlinson Center.  She is wearing a black floral shirt and is holding a copy of the Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.  The book has a red cover and a medieval illustration on the cover.  On her desk is a paperback copy of Chaucer's Sexual Poetics by Carolyn Dinshaw.
Leona Larson
Marjorie Harrington holds a copy of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales in her office at the Richard Rawlinson Center for Anglo-Saxon Studies and Manuscript Research, part of the Medieval Institute at Western Michigan University. A copy of "Chaucer's Sexual Poetics" by Carolyn Dinshaw is on her desk.

Previously unknown court records stored in a salt mine rocked the world of medieval studies last week.

If only the lawyers had defined “raptus.” About 150 years ago scholars came across a court document that implied a servant of Canterbury Tales author Geoffrey Chaucer accused him of rape in 1380. The document used the term (pronounced rap-TOOSE) that can refer to rape, abduction or a number of other offenses.

Last week, newly discovered court records buried in the British National Archives “DeepStore,” a working salt mine in the north of England, flipped the narrative academics have been teaching since 1873.

Marjorie Harrington is the program manager of Medieval Studies at WMU.

“This was a red herring. We were wrong. The interpretation of raptus as rape, while it was the most plausible, while it was the most obvious, this is one of the cases where you hear hoof beats and it’s a zebra, not horses.”

The findings, published in a special issue of the scholarly journal The Chaucer Review provide new evidence that instead of a rape case, it was a labor dispute. And Chaucer’s servant, Cecily Chaumpaigne, didn’t sue him. Her old boss sued them both.

“We were all just off the deep end, pointed in a completely different direction that what the historical record is actually telling us,” Harrington said.

The uncovered documents were discovered by Sebastian Sobecki, a professor of English at the University of Toronto and his research partner, Euan Roger of the British National Archives.

“The moment the emails started going out on the Chaucer list serves that Sebastian Sobecki had discovered something new, we knew that it was going to be good,” said Harrington. “He’s made a major habit of going into the archives and discovering new materials about literary figures.”

Harrington said the newly uncovered court records provide evidence that Chaumpaigne’s former employer, Thomas Staundon, sued Chaucer and Chaumpaigne for violating the “Statute of Laborers.” She said that law arose from a problem that may sound familiar: a pandemic-driven labor shortage. The law's goal was to keep wages to pre-pandemic levels and prevent servants from being poached for higher wages.

“It was post-plague," she said, referring to the incredibly deadly bubonic plague. "A huge percentage of the labor force had died, there were not enough people to do all the jobs, and people were complaining, ‘well, people don’t want to work anymore for the amount of money we used to pay them.’”

In a blog post, Sobecki and Roger suggested that instead of rape, we should consider the word raptus "as representing the physical act of Chaumpaigne leaving Staundon’s service.”

Harrington said while the discovery changes the way we look at Chaucer’s life, it doesn’t invalidate feminist criticism of sexual violence in Chaucer works like “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “The Miller’s Tale.”

“I think what we do is we talk about Chaucer’s depictions of sexual violence and assault as reflecting his culture at large rather than his specific biographical details,” Harrington said.

Harrington said the news will be a hot topic at Western Michigan University’s annual International Congress on Medieval Studies. The congress, held each year in May, draws about 2,500 people from around the globe to Kalamazoo. You don't have to be an expert to go: Kalamazoo residents can register for a nominal fee.

Leona Larson (Gould-McElhone) was a complaint investigator with the Detroit Consumer Affairs Department when she started her media career producing and co-hosting Consumer Conversation with Esther Shapiro for WXYT-Radio in Detroit while freelancing at The Detroit News and other local newspapers. Leona joined WDIV-TV in Detroit as a special projects' producer and later, as an investigative producer. She spent several years teaching journalism for the School of Communications at Western Michigan University. Leona prefers to use her middle name on air because it's shorter and easier to pronounce.