Chaucer and Rape: Uncertainty’s Certainties

  • Christopher Cannon
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Gone are the days when conjoining Chaucer’s name to the crime of rape seemed repugnant even to those scholars who would address its possibility. In place of Plucknett’s insistence that the gravity of such a crime converts uncertain guilt into certain innocence—where the documents that raise the issue provide “no evidence”—we now have Carolyn Dinshaw’s demonstration that the conjunction makes us better readers: as it “invites us to consider causal relationships between gendered representation and actual social relations between men and women,” we may acknowledge that there are “real rapes” as well as “fictional rapes” and thereby learn to see what is and is not “figurative” in Chaucer’s “sexual poetics.”2 That on May 4, 1380 Cecily Chaumpaigne had enrolled in Chancery a document that released Chaucer of “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”] is a fact that few now would try to put by: it is, as Dinshaw also says, “perhaps the one biographical fact everyone remembers about Chaucer.”3 And the resilience of that memory, we have also learned to recognize, is not simply due to the gravity of the released crime. As Jill Mann has shown, the subject is one that Chaucer does not himself shrink from: throughout his writing “rape remains a constant touchstone for determining justice between the sexes.”4


Sexual Offence Fourteenth Century Emphasis Mine Modern Definition Meaningless Gesture 
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  1. 1.
    T. F. T. Plucknett, “Chaucer’s Escapade,” The Law Quarterly Review 64 (1948): 35. This epigraph has more than incidental status in framing an exploration of Chaumpaigne release. With the exception of the first sentence I quote, these words are also repeated for their authority in the standard source for the Chaumpaigne release, the Chaucer Life-Records, ed. Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966) p. 343 (for the release) and pp. 345–46 (for Plucknett’s words).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 11.Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Jill Mann, Geoffrey Chaucer (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991), p. 45.Google Scholar
  4. 9.
    See Susan Estrich, Real Rape (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), pp. 29–56.Google Scholar
  5. 14.
    For crucial examinations of the procedural ramifications of these statutes, see two articles by J. B. Post: “Ravishment of Women and the Statutes of Westminster,” in Legal Records and the Historian, ed. J. H. Baker (London: Royal Historical Society, 1978), pp. 150–64 and “Sir Thomas West and the Statute of Rapes, 1382,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 53 (1980): 24–30. See also Sue Sheridan Walker, “Punishing Convicted Ravishers: Statutory Strictures and Actual Practice in Thirteenth and Fourteenth-Century England,” Journal of Medieval History 13 (1987): 237–50.Google Scholar
  6. 26.
    Quotations from Chaucer here and throughout will be taken from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). All subsequent citations will be by line number in my text.Google Scholar
  7. 29.
    “Nisi libera voluntate nulla est copulanda alicui.” Gratian, Decretum in Corpus iuris canonici, ed. E. Friedberg (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1879–81), dictum post c. 4, cited and trans. in John T. Noonan, Jr., “Power to Choose,” Viator 4 (1983): 422 and 422 n. 6.Google Scholar
  8. 30.
    R. H. Helmholz, Marriage Litigation in Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), p. 90. On force and fear as impediments to consent in marriage generally, see that volume, pp. 90–94, 178–81, and 220–28.Google Scholar
  9. 35.
    Louise O. Fradenburg, “‘Our owen wo to drynke’: Loss, Gender, and Chivalry in Troilus and Criseyde” in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, “Subgit to alle Poesye”: Essays in Criticism, ed. R. A. Shoaf (Binghamton, NY: Medieval Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992), pp. 88–106 (for the phrase, see p. 99).Google Scholar
  10. 38.
    Jill Mann, “Troilus’ Swoon,” Chaucer Review 14 (1980): 319–35. In this article, Mann shows how the “developing relationship between Troilus and Criseyde is conceived and described in terms of power” so that “the shifts and transformations in the way each of them either exerts or refuses to exert power over the other lead to the achievement of a mature and complex relationship on which the consummation can be fittingly based” (p 320).Google Scholar
  11. 40.
    To my knowledge, this connection has only been proposed once, by George H. Cowling in Chaucer (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1927), p. xviii, cited in P. R. Watts, “The Strange Case of Geoffrey Chaucer and Cecilia Chaumpaigne,” The Law Quarterly Review 63 (1947): 491–515.Google Scholar

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© Elizabeth Robertson and Christine M. Rose 2001

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  • Christopher Cannon

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