Tag Archives: Chaucer

Legal historians and the Chaucer-Cecily Chaumpaigne Case

CW: rape

(A few short points arising from the recent developments in Chaucer studies: see the special edition of The Chaucer Review.)

It is striking that by far the greatest contribution – for good or ill – to scholarship and comment on the very legal matter of the Chaucer-Chaumpaigne case has been by those from outside the field of legal history, and particularly legal history of the ‘classical legal history’ tradition of Maitland-Milsom-Baker and the Selden Society. In general, the luminaries of this school have not considered women, and raptus, central to their mission, to their subject. To regret that lack of interest in this specific case is not, however, to assume that legal historians would have been likely to be any less influenced by the prejudices of the men of their age with regard to women and rape than were those working in literary studies. Those who did venture into this territory did not necessarily cover themselves with glory.

One of the quotations which is used in descriptions of the unedifying rape-apologism of many past Chaucer scholars is from a legal historical luminary, and Selden Society man, Theodore Plucknett.[i] Plucknett’s short article, in the 1948 volume of the Law Quarterly Review, starts off jarringly, with its title: ‘Chaucer’s Escapade’.  The overtones of ‘escapade’ surely do not need to be spelled out, and a general air of not taking the whole thing terribly seriously is reinforced by his explanation of why he is tackling the topic – it was prompted by an ‘entertaining article’ in the previous year’s LQR, by one P. R. Watts.

Plucknett reconstructs legal events in what was, overall, a not unreasonable way, given the evidence then available, but there is some falling into patterns and tropes which many of us will recognise, e,g, suggesting that Cecily ‘wanted money’ (34), and that she was ‘indignant (or repentant, or just hard-headed)’ and so refused to have dealings with Chaucer himself over the compensation. There is a bit of reconstruction from what he presumably considered common sense: ‘That he 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). Hmm. Women not able to tell their feelings from the truth? Then there is ‘Her scandalised family would naturally treat that as an irrebuttable presumption.’ Would they really? And what would modern criminal law scholars make of this: ‘Rape is a brutal crime and implies a degree of depravity which should make us cautious in fixing such a charge.’ (35-6).

I also had a look at the article which Plucknett found so ‘entertaining’ and stimulating, P.R. Watts, “The Strange Case of Geoffrey Chaucer and Cecilia Chaumpaigne,” Law Quarterly Review 63, no. 4 (October 1947): 491-515. This, too, has some lines which do not bear scrutiny, e.g. calling rape a ‘crime of passion’ (496). And Hale’s old fear about false accusations of rape lying too heavily on the innocent defendant is trotted out (496, citing 1. Hale P.C. 685, as is the very nasty passage from Don Quixote in which a woman is criticised for failing to defend her body sufficiently vigorously, when, on another occasion, she was vigorous in pursuing her financial interests (504, Don Quixote c. 45). Perhaps the part which would have seemed ‘entertaining’ was Watts’s speculative reconstruction of events which might have given Chaucer a defence to a felony prosecution. This involved a story that Cecily might have become pregnant following the rape, which would have been a defence (probably true that it would have been a defence, had it happened, but this really does get speculative. A flavour from p. 509: ‘So far as Cecilia Chaumpaigne is concerned, we have no evidence of pregnancy, and in the absence of evidence we are not justified in assuming it. Nevertheless … [yes we are going there]. And even more … ‘[If it becomes clear that Chaucer did impregnate Cecily through rape, and she had the child, and it was the Lewis to whom he dedicated a book on astrolabes – what every child wants – …] ‘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 Cecilia’s son’. [So, right, yeah, I raped your mother, but here – book about astrolabes – OK, bye!].

And now?

The world of legal history has, of course, moved on. Maybe not as quickly as other areas of scholarship, but there are glacial signs of change, of interest in perspectives other than that of the socially and economically fortunate white male, of openness to the insights of feminism and other critical fields. We should certainly note the questionable content in the past of our own discipline, but then we need to pick up the pace, and engage with other scholars, as we can see different groups coming together in this recent Chaucer project. There really is plenty which could be contributed to wider fields of study by legal historians.





[i] Samantha Katz Seal; Whose Chaucer? On Cecily Chaumpaigne, Cancellation, and the English Literary Canon. The Chaucer Review 1 October 2022; 57 (4): 484–497, at 493-4, noted as ‘One of the most frequently quoted statements on the matter’; Theodore F. T. Plucknett, “Chaucer’s Escapade,” Law Quarterly Review 64 (1948): 33–36

Swords, shields and female servants

I note from the statistics update from this blog that there have been a fair few consultations of my old post on a 14th C employment/harassment case (this one). I presume that this is a result of the recent publicity around new discoveries relating to the Chaucer-Cecily Chaumpaigne case, and the new spin on the case which brings to the fore its labour law context. I thought I would just repeat the key points on ‘my’ case, and make a few additional comments on the whole area of law, labour and sexual misconduct in the medieval period, for anyone who is interested in this area, as a result of the general excitement over the new evidence, set out in the special edition of The Chaucer Review.

So, here is the relevant text from that old post:

Thomas de Queldale v. William de Ramkill and Elena de Hustwayt (1363) CP 40/416 m. 128d is a case brought by the former employer of Elena de Hustwayt against Elena and a chaplain, William de Ramkill. Thomas claimed that Elena was his servant, employed under a contract for one year, but left his employ before that time was up, without permission and without reasonable cause, and was thus guilty of an offence under the Ordinance of Labourers. William de Ramkill was accused of having committed another offence against the same legislation, by hiring Elena while she was under contract to another employer. Rather than the usual denial of having been employed by Thomas on the terms which he had stated, however, Elena argued that she had had reasonable cause to leave.

It was certainly possible to argue ‘reasonable cause’ on the basis of excessive beating or failure to provide for a servant, and Putnam’s book has examples of both. Elena’s objection, however, was different: Thomas, who was, she stated ‘a married man’, had often pestered her for sex. (The Latin of the text is ‘frequenter solicitavit ipsam ad cognoscend’ ipsam carnaliter contra voluntatem suam’ – which is rather intriguing in terms of ideas about gender, will and sexual consent, and I plan to consider it at greater length elsewhere). Thomas denied that she had left for this reason. It appears as if he was more concerned to question causation of her departure, rather than with denying that there was such lecherous behaviour on his part, but this could be a result of common law pleading rules. In any case, he managed to convince a jury that she had left without cause, and that the pestering had not happened. So Elena’s defence failed, and she and William were held both to have damaged Thomas and also to have acted in contempt of the King (because of the breach of royal legislation). It is not very surprising that this was the outcome – juries, made up of local men of some property, were not at all inclined to find in favour of employees in these Labourers cases. It may, however, be rather unexpected – bearing in mind the general difficulty in securing any kind of redress for or recognition of sexual offences – to see pestering which apparently fell short of rape or attempted rape being acknowledged to be a possible ‘reasonable cause’ for a female servant to leave her position, which could absolve her from liability under the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers.  Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a Year Book report of this case, so there is no evidence of the sort of conversations which lawyers might have had about the acceptability of the plea. Nevertheless, it is another piece in the very complex puzzles of (a) the attitudes of medieval men towards medieval women and (b) the ‘position of medieval women’ (e.g. should we choose to play up Elena’s ‘agency’ or her claimed victimisation?).

Here is a free translation of the case:

William de Ramkill, chaplain, and Elena de Hustwayt, recently servant of Thomas de Queldale of York, cutler, are attached to respond both to the King and also to Thomas, in a plea of why, whereas the same King and his council, for the common utility of the King’s realm, ordained that if any servant of whatever status or condition, retained in anyone’s service, should leave the same service before the end of the contracted term, without reasonable cause, or permission, s/he should be punished with imprisonment, and that, under the same penalty, nobody should receive into their service or hire such a person, William retained Elena, who was in the service of Thomas, at York, and who had left the same service before the end of the contracted term, and without reasonable cause or permission, to go into the service of William, despite William having been asked to restore her to Thomas, in contempt of the King and to the great damage of Thomas, and contrary to the form of the Ordinance. And of a plea why Elena left the service of Thomas before the end of the term contracted between them, without reasonable cause and his licence, to the contempt of the lord King and the great damage of Thomas, and contrary to the form of the Ordinance etc. And, in connection with this, Thomas complains that whereas Elena, was retained at York on the eighth October, [1362], to serve Thomas from [11th November 1362] for the whole year following that, taking for her salary 12 shillings, and, before the end of the term, i.e. on [2nd June, 1363], without cause etc, left for the service of William, who took her on and retained her, in contempt of the lord King, and to the great damage of Thomas, and contrary to the form of the Ordinance etc.

And William and Elena come in person, and deny all force and wrong etc. And William says that he did not take in and retain Elena contrary to the form of the Ordinance etc., as is supposed above, and puts himself on the country as to this. Thomas does the same. And  Elena says that she accepts that she was retained to serve Thomas for the aforesaid term, but she says that Thomas is a married man and often tried to persuade her to let him have sex with her against her will (frequenter solicitavit ipsam ad cognoscend’ ipsam carnaliter contra voluntatem suam) so, for this [good] reason, Elena left the service of Thomas. And she asks for judgment as to whether Thomas can maintain this action against her, in this case etc. And Thomas says that Elena left his service before the end of the contracted term, going into the service of William as counted above etc., and that she did not leave his service for the reason she alleges above. And he asks that it be enquired of by the country. And Elena does the same. So the sheriff is ordered to cause 12 [men] … [On we go through the process – pledges for Wiliiam and Elena’s appearance, the case goes off to York, to be heard at Easter time,  … we get to the jury] And the jury found that William had taken in and retained Elena contrary to the form of the Ordinance, as supposed above, and that Elena left her service before the end of the contracted term, entering William’s service, without reasonable cause, and without the cause alleged by her, as Thomas complained above. And they assess Thomas’s damages caused by William’s admission and retention of Elena at 60s. Elena is amerced a mark for her [illegal] departure. Therefore it is decided that Thomas shall recover the aforesaid 60s damages against William, and 1 mark from Elena. [More process – we learn that William and Elena are to be arrested, and that William does pay Thomas the 60 s – in autumn 1369, via Thomas’s attorney, Robert de Acaster – and is acquitted. No word on Elena though.]


How does it relate to the new work on Chaucer and Chaumpaigne?

Only in rather general terms. It is evidence that:

  1. It was plausible that an medieval male employer might pester a woman for sex (not exactly a massive revelation …)
  2. Such pestering would not be seen as entirely acceptable, and might be raised at law.

It highlights the range of potential routes to bringing up sexual misconduct in common law. The literature surrounding Chaucer-Chaumpaigne does, of course, have to engage with the vexed issue of what raptus means, and generally it is grasped that this is a broad concept, with meanings which can be tilted towards rape (modern sense) or abduction, towards an idea of harm/offence to the person said to have sustained the raptus or towards a focus on the damage/offence perceived to have been done to others (husband, wider family, guardian, employer) by the alleged act. One thing which is added by this case is the idea that an allegation of sexual misconduct may have been accommodated within the common law as a shield rather than a sword – i.e. as a ‘defence’ as opposed to a cause of action in itself: medieval women, including servants with abusive masters, had a number of possible routes to bring the matter up in a court. Not all of them used the word raptus. So it is worth saying that raptus includes more than sexual offences, but allegations of sexual offences are not only to be seen in raptus allegations.



[Image, some clouds, because … well … what do you use here? And, general overtones of uncertainty … Photo by Barry Simon on Unsplash )

[On the Chaucer-Chaumpaigne issue, I am just thinking through its connection to a trend in legal history scholarship – a return to the use of biography – which, by chance, was the topic of my recent round of seminars with the Bristol undergraduate LH students. So I may be back to that shortly, if the current mental swirling resolves itself into anything useful … No doubt the world is waiting for my thoughts on this. (Disappears into own delusion)].