New York Times Cancels…Chaucer? Canterbury Tales ‘Embedded in Systematic Rape Culture’

October 18th, 2022 6:00 AM

The front page of Saturday’s New York Times carried a surprisingly arcane story regarding the settling of an old “rape” controversy concerning Geoffrey Chaucer, the renowned 14th century writer of The Canterbury Tales: “Chaucer the Rapist? Newly Discovered Documents Suggest Not.”   

But culture reporter Jennifer Schuessler still wedged the story into a #MeToo "systemic rape culture" framework as she reluctantly explained the apparent vindication of this Dead White Male.

For nearly 150 years, a cloud has hung over the reputation of Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of “The Canterbury Tales,” long seen as the founder of the English literary canon.

A court document discovered in 1873 suggested that around 1380, Chaucer had been charged with raping Cecily Chaumpaigne, the daughter of a London baker. In the document, Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from “all manner of actions related to my raptus”-- a word commonly translated as rape or abduction.

In recent decades, the suggestion that Chaucer had been accused of rape helped inspire a rich vein of feminist criticism looking at sex, power and consent in stories like “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “The Miller’s Tale"....

The tendency to indulge feminists explains Schuessler’s strange hesitation to let Chaucer off the centuries-old hook.

The researchers dug up “the original writ in the case, from 1379,” which showed it was a labor dispute, not a rape case, that brought Chaucer and Chaumpaigne to court.

It’s an explosive claim in the world of Chaucer studies. And in a telephone interview, Sebastian Sobecki, a professor of English at the University of Toronto, who did the research with Euan Roger of the British National Archives, summed it up carefully, while emphasizing that the discovery should not be seen as invalidating decades of important feminist scholarship.


Their findings arrive at a moment when medieval studies has been particularly fractious, with heated disputes about race, gender and diversity spilling out of scholarly journals and onto Twitter. And alongside the excitement about the new discovery, a number of scholars expressed unease that the findings would be weaponized against feminist scholars, who have sometimes been accused of trying to “cancel Chaucer.”

Literary scholar Holly Crocker, despite the evidence, said she “remain[ed] insistent that the questions feminists have raised about the intersection of rape culture and women’s labor should shape our collective approach to these documents.”

The researchers had to cover themselves by injecting the viewpoint of outside feminist scholars that had not participated in the research.

At the same time, Sobecki said he had been concerned that the discovery would be seen as simply “exonerating” a wrongly accused famous man, while also undermining valuable feminist scholarship.

To head off that possibility, he said, he and the journal’s editors sought commentary from three prominent feminist scholars…

This sad attempt to mollify left-wing feminists met the evident approval of Schuessler:

And even if Chaucer didn’t rape Chaumpaigne, Sobecki and Roger write in their article, it’s important to continue to discuss how he “participated in hegemonic discourses that shaped the lives of all women.”

Actual facts no longer matter, only the preservation of the narrative of “misogyny” in Chaucer scholarship. 

[Professor Samantha Katz Seal] said she found the new research persuasive and “brilliant.” But while it dispelled the rape charge, she said, it did not change the way the charge --and what she said was the often cavalier, misogynist discussion of it by male scholars --had shaped Chaucer scholarship….And the new evidence, Seal said, did not change the fact that Chaucer’s poetry was “embedded in a systematic rape culture.”

Recently, Schuessler has been much more forgiving to convicted cop killers.