traveler1116/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images
In 1870, poet and critic James Russell Lowell asked the following question in the North American Review:
Will it do to say anything more about Chaucer? Can any one hope to say anything, not new, but even fresh, on a topic so well worn? It may well be doubted; and yet one is always the better for a walk in the morning air—a medicine which may be taken over and over again without any sense of sameness, or any failure of its invigorating quality.
Lowell could have written another essay on Chaucer after 1873, when Frederick James Furnivall, founder of the Chaucer Society, revealed a 1380 legal record that named “Galfridus Chaucer” as released from charges “de meo raptu” (“concerning my rape”) by one Cecily Chaumpaigne. Lowell never wrote that essay, enamored as he was with Chaucer’s “invigorating” poetry. He considered him his earliest precursor, the father of English poetry and creator of literary English, powerful mythographies that have enjoyed a longue durée despite nuanced later scholarship.
For about a century, this iconic status protected the medieval poet from being publicly impugned. When scholars did speak, they would gentlemanly gloss over the accusation as an “experience,” “escapade,” “strange case,” “case” and mere “incident.” Some mounted a feeble defense: in medieval Latin, raptus refers to “abduction” as well as “rape.”
Then, in 1993, medievalist Christopher Cannon revealed a document that corroborated Furnivall’s find. While the document does not mention rape, it confirms Chaucer’s involvement in a felony case regarding Cecily Chaumpaigne. More than 120 years after Furnivall’s discovery, the response to the combined force of both documents turned out differently: feminist voices were deconstructing prevailing male readings of female characters in medieval texts; they created a richer and more inclusive canon of medieval texts; they were questioning why the men in charge of the Medieval Academy of America decided to name their flagship journal Speculum at a time (1926) when the term was associated exclusively with the medical vaginal speculum, not the medieval literary genre; and they broke the silence surrounding the rape charges, offering a re-evaluation of Chaucerian and other medieval narratives describing violence against women.
Initially, the adherents of this new wave of criticism avoided accusing Chaucer of rape. Gradually, however, the legal evidence, the depictions of rape in his works and the cavalier responses by modern male medievalists took its toll. If James Russell Lowell had praised Chaucer for his poetic excellence, and if liberal scholars in the 1960s and 1970s defended Chaucer against being banned for being too bawdy, he was now becoming a representative of a culture of rape extending from the medieval past into the present. By 2019, in the aftermath of the Me Too movement, an essay in The Chaucer Review concluded,
Chaucer does not share our beliefs, we know. His historical persona, his ill-hidden prejudices, drift to the surface again and again within his works. He is a rapist, a racist, an anti-Semite; he speaks for a world in which the privileges of the male, the Christian, the wealthy, and the white are perceived to be an inalienable aspect of human existence. Many feminist scholars now ask … whether the time has come for feminists to move past Chaucer, to demand a new object of study less burdened by the weight of moral insufficiency.
Based on such observations, students now read Chaucerian narratives on rape in the context of Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tape and Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. And the legal records on Cecily Chaumpaigne and Chaucer’s stories about rape find themselves conjoined in undergraduate and graduate theses with the stories told by Christine Blasey Ford and the numerous women accusing Trump of rape or sexual assault. The few scholars and writers who object publicly to such readings assert that it is false to assume that Chaucer’s characters reflect his own attitude. In one scholar’s view, Chaucer remains “one of the strongest and earliest writers in English literature to speak out against rape and support women and the downtrodden.” Another even argues there is “something American” about his “giving voice to individuals in defiance of social stereotypes, ironically challenging your audience to dig for meaning while you tell them to sit back and have fun.”
This brings us to Oct. 11, when scholars Euan Roger and Sebastian Sobecki, in concert with The Chaucer Review, orchestrated a public livestream reveal of new evidence unearthed in the United Kingdom’s National Archives. This third document seems to clear Chaucer’s name, suggesting that the word “raptus” in the first document referred not to sexual assault, but to the unlicensed transfer of Cecily Chaumpaigne as a servant to the author’s household. Mindful of the explosive nature of their find, Roger and Sobecki included three feminist scholars among the respondents to the reveal. They concluded that the new document did not indisputably exonerate Chaucer—Roger and Sobecki note in their open-access paper that it is impossible to rule out an act of physical or sexual violence in the events that took place around Chaumpaigne’s move from service in one household to Chaucer’s—and changed nothing about his active participation in rape culture as a storyteller.
Two kinds of cultural and textual criticism confronted at the reveal: the historicist/pastist position offers an original document to explicate the legal terminology as understood in its own time and context; the feminist/presentist position contends that such medieval evidence must be seen not only in its own historical context, but in continuity with our contemporary selves. The pastist view involves the danger of an uncritical replication of potentially biased medieval source material; the presentist view implies we functionalize medieval people to affirm our own identities and ideologies.
Which of these positions we prefer may not matter as much as the media attention surrounding the reveal suggests. While there was coverage from The New York Times, The Guardian and Slate through Times of India, the reason for the attention is that innumerable college students around the world (many now journalists and media executives) have mostly fond memories of encountering Chaucer as part of their education.
However, these encounters are becoming more rare. Student groups and universities have been challenging and removing not only Chaucer, but all medieval literature from their curricula. For the U.K., a 2005 survey had already found a decline in Chaucer’s curricular presence. A 2021 survey diagnosed a continued reduction in the teaching of Chaucer and other medieval literature. Most recently, the University of Leicester’s proposal to replace Chaucer from the English curriculum with “modules on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity, a decolonised curriculum, and new employability modules” became part of the international culture wars.
A survey published in connection with the 2005 Chaucer: An Oxford Guide could still claim that “in American colleges and universities, Chaucer is secure.” Since then, we’ve seen a movement away from traditional literary survey courses in Chaucer, premodern English and other Anglocentric topics in favor of thematic courses focused on topics of gender, race, ethnicity, disability, transnational and postcolonial studies (much of this has happened silently and incrementally, but at times it has attracted media attention; see, for example, changes in 2011 at the University of California, Los Angeles, which were covered in The Wall Street Journal’s opinion page). This development flies into the face of the vast number of medievalists who, throughout their careers, have taught well-enrolled medieval literature and culture classes with a focus on gender, diversity, social justice, race and, most recently, the global Middle Ages.
Chaucer studies will continue to have a place in academe. The New Chaucer Society stands strong at about 700 members and hosts well-attended conferences. Two top journals, Studies in the Ages of Chaucer and The Chaucer Review, focus on Chaucer and late medieval England. But jobs mentioning Chaucer as a desired specialization have become scarce (his name is absent from this year’s position descriptions in the Modern Language Association and Inside Higher Ed). His name appeared more than twice as often in the 2002 program of the International Congress on Medieval Studies than in its 2022 iteration, and the number of students majoring in English generally fell by one-third between 2009 and 2020. Perhaps because historically in the U.S. the popularity of Chaucer as a British cultural export has depended on the college classroom, some Chaucerians recently founded a new journal, New Chaucer Studies: Pedagogy and Profession. But even these highly motivated colleagues fear that, while “we still have classes to teach, albeit much smaller ones,” there is no doubt that “there is a widespread feeling that English Literature [including medieval literature] just does not matter anymore, to our students, to their parents, to American culture as a whole.”
My own work on Chaucer once provided me great intellectual joy and just enough cultural capital to get a Ph.D. and find gainful employment. That’s why I am excited for the colleagues who, in an impressive feat of interdisciplinary medieval research, made a truly unique find. However, when viewing the presentation-cum-responses within the wider context of the academy and English (medieval) studies, the event suddenly feels a little like a belated hurrah for an academic field heading inexorably toward the niche habitat to which our colleagues studying Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Lucian and Statius have preceded us. Perhaps, at this point, it simply won’t do to say anything more about Chaucer.