From Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (1990), pp. 135-8.


On 1 May 1380 there was enrolled in the court of Chancery a formal document in which Cecily Champain ('Cecilia Chaumpaigne') agreed unconditionally to release Geoffrey Chaucer from all actions concerning her rape or anything else, 'omnimodas acciones tam de raptu meo tam [sic] de aliqua alia re vel causa' (Life-Records, p. 343). Cecily herself came to the court on 4 May to acknowledge the document which was witnessed by some of Chaucer's most influential friends: Sir William Beauchamp, the chamberlain of the king's household, for whom Chaucer had performed some service in 1378; Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Nevill, two knights of the king's chamber; John Philipot, collector of customs (1377-83) during Chaucer's controllership; and Richard Morel, a modestly well-off London grocer and member of the Grocers' Company.


Quite commonly in legal documents of the time, raptus means 'abduction', the seizing and holding of a young person against his or her will with the purpose of gaining some financial advantage: Chaucer's own father, John Chaucer, was abducted by his aunt in 1324 when she was trying to force the boy into a marriage with her daughter, and Chaucer himself was a member of a commission investigating a similar case in 1387. In both these cases, however, the nature of the offence is made clear by the use of the two words 'rapuerunt et abduxerunt' (Life-Records, pp. 3, 375). When raptus or forms of the verb rapere are used alone, it seems they must mean rape (enforced and completed sexual intercourse), for which no other word is used in law without qualification. Furthermore, 'abduction' would normally refer to the forcible appropriation of the powers of guardianship over a minor; and Cecily would barely qualify as a minor in 1380, her father William, a baker, having died in 1360. The fact that she acknowledges the release in her own recognizance would argue, too, that there was no parent, husband or other legal guardian to do it for her, and that she was a woman of at least 21.


The document has been something of a problem for Chaucer biographers since it was first discovered by Furnivall in 1873. Some have accepted the charge as true and dismissed it in a man-of-the-world way as an escapade; some have found the idea that the charge might be true unimaginable; others are coming to regard the charge as the most important event in the Chaucer biography. It is certainly enigmatic, and nothing is made much clearer by three further documents which are evidently associated with the original release, even though enrolled in the court of the mayor and aldermen of London rather than in Chancery. In the first, dated 28 June 1380, Richard Goodchild, cutler, and John Grove, armourer, both of them citizens of London, release Geoffrey Chaucer from all actions of law they might have against him; in the second, of the same date, Cecily similarly releases Goodchild and Grove; and in the third, 2 July 1380, Grove acknowledges a debt of 10 to Cecily, which was to be paid (and was duly paid) at Michaelmas. The first two documents might possibly be interpreted as the preparation for the third, being legal agreements between the two parties, Chaucer and Cecily, through the agency of a third, confirming that a settlement that has been reached out of court is acknowledged as final. This clears the way for the payment of the sum agreed in settlement, or at least the acknowledgement of the debt; the acknowledgement is made by one of the intermediaries, presumably because Chaucer did not want his name directly associated with the payment. It is not surprising that Grove needed three months to put the 10 together, since it was a large sum of money, the equivalent of well over half of Chaucer's annual salary at the customs. There is some evidence that Chaucer was exerting himself to raise money, principally by gathering in outstanding debts, in the following months: on 28 November 1380, on the same day that he received the half-yearly instalments on his two annuities (6. 13s. 4d. on each), he was also paid 14 in expenses for the Lombardy visit of 1378 (Life-Records, pp. 319-20, 59-60); on 6 March 1381 he obtained 22 as a gift in compensation for his expenses on journeys to France in 1377 and the following years (Life-Records, p, 49); and on 19 June 1381 he sold his father's house (Life-Records, pp. 1-2). Some of this activity may have been coincidental, but the weight of evidence suggests an attempt to meet an unexpected increase in expenditure, which may have been more considerable than that accounted for by the immediate need to repay Grove for shouldering the payment of the settlement. There may, that is, have been other payments to Cecily.


It has been argued that Chaucer was not the principal in the matter, and it remains possible that he was being released from his responsibilities as surety or mainpernor for Goodchild or Grove; but the nature of the four documents argues strongly that he was the principal and tried to conceal the fact. It has been argued that the five men he got to witness the release were very respectable people; but their respectability was of course the authority of the witness for the release, not the guarantee of Chaucer's innocence. They secured for him immunity from prosecution, but they did not declare that he had not done what he had been or might be charged with. Their presence is a mark of the importance Chaucer attached to having the charges dropped or not brought. The charges may have been false and it may have been that Chaucer was being blackmailed by a team of criminals, but it is difficult to understand in that case why he did not allow the action to come to law.


It is not out of the question that raptus is a technical term for some offence such as abduction, but the more obvious conclusion seems the more likely one: the charge referred to in the document of release is indeed one of rape. Beyond that, all is speculation. That Chaucer was guilty of something is clear from the care he took to secure immunity from prosecution, but it need not have been rape. The charge, after all, was neither brought nor its truth tested. The safest conclusion would be that there is not enough evidence to come to a conclusion, but the temptation to offer an explanation is too strong to resist. The strongest likelihood, in my opinion, is that Cecily threatened to bring a charge of rape in order to force Chaucer into some compensatory settlement and that she then cooperated in the legal release. The actual offence for which she sought compensation is not necessarily the offence named in the charge that she used for leverage and did not press: there are many things that it might more probably have been than violent physical, rape, including neglect and the betrayal of promises by the man or some unilateral decision on his part to terminate an affair that he regarded as over but which the woman, in retrospect, regard as a physical violation. Some violence of passion is hidden away somewhere behind the legal documents, which reveal only the manipulation of the resources of the law necessary to achieve a settlement. It has often been conjectured that there may be a child hidden away too, and that 'little Lewis', the 10-year-old son to whom Chaucer dedicated the Treatise on the Astrolabe in 1391, was the product of the union with Cecily, but the evidence is merely circumstantial.


The incident, though enigmatic and the focus of many questions, provokes some possibly pertinent speculation on Chaucer's attitude to women. He was ever woman's friend, says Gavin Douglas, who, though critical of Chaucer for having misrepresented Virgil--'My mastir Chauser gretly Virgill offendit'--in speaking ill of Aeneas for abandoning Dido, neverthelesss excuses Chaucer on the grounds of his well-known (and, in Douglas's view, probably excessively indulgent) sympathy for women:

But sikkyrly of resson me behufis

Excuss Chauser fra all maner repruffis

In lovyng of thir ladeis lylly quhite

He set on Virgill and Eneas this wyte

For he was evir (God wait) all womanis frend.

Douglas thus joined the band of male' comrades always ready to compliment Chaucer on his sympathetic portrayal of women. Chaucer made strenuous efforts to engage this sympathy and did much to deserve the admiration. Yet there are noticeable limitations to his sympathetic understanding of women, limitations imposed by his sex and by the age in which he lived.