Sunday, May 6, 2018

You Probably Haven't Heard . . .

In the 1870s, a scholar discovered a legal entry that said Chaucer was released from an appeal of “raptus.” If you’re asking if that means “rape,” it surely can. But the general scholarly attitude was that the poet is above human failings.
     The charge was often explained as "abduction." Perhaps the abduction was necessary for the lady's protection, or he was really doing her a favor because one of Chaucer's friends wanted to marry her and couldn't get her guardian's permission. Only a "vicious imagination," it was claimed, would be needed to see Chaucer as the cause of a lady's ruination. In 1926, a Chaucer biographer even claimed our poet "figured as the hero" of the action.
     In 1947, however, an enterprising lawyer surveyed the 19th- and 20th-century interpretations and concluded that the scenarios created to achieve a "not guilty" point of view were "entirely unsupported by evidence." Then he gave an analysis of the intent of 14thcentury legal terms and procedures. To appeal meant to accuse. It was an appeal for justice to be done. To release meant to remove the demands of the appeal.
     Many a man, upon being accused of rape, has learned that defense against the charge is difficult. If the man was unmarried, taking the lady as his spouse could satisfy the charges. But here’s the judgment in a case from Chaucer's era: A woman named Alice accused a man named John of having ravished her virginity. He was found guilty. John had a wife, so marriage could not resolve the problem. Fortunately for John, Alice withdrew her appeal, because the judgment handed down was that Alice was to "tear out John's eyes and cut off his testicles."
     How likely does it seem that Chaucer, a mature, well-respected servant of the king, would risk such punitive measures in order to abduct the woman a friend wanted to marry? 
     Chaucer's position at court (his favor with the king) could not protect him, if he were found guilty, because the king had no jurisdiction in cases between two citizens. The woman executed "a formal release under seal duly enrolled in the Chancery," and five prominent friends of Chaucer witnessed the action.
     Chaucer chose to settle out of court, which demonstrates "a strong presumption of guilt," though it’s not actual proof. The amount of cash given over is not known, but we can reasonably assume the amount must have been substantial. Generosity would be good for the poet's reputation at court.

Thanks to the 1940s legal work, lay folk—average readers as well as literary critics—were now in possession of accurate information to guide their assumptions. But the outcome surprises me. First, because the case is rarely mentioned. For example, in the authoritative Chaucer entry for the Encyclop√¶dia Britannica (1968), it gave not a hint of it. Second, because scholars defend the poet’s reputation. In the 1996 Britannica, only two sentences refer to the incident and it suggests that Chaucer was not guilty as charged.
     Though the 1940s efforts have been mainly ignored over the years, another reference to the raptus case was published in 1993. It not only confirmed the original analysis as an "important study," but added yet another bit of documentation.
     Somewhat confusing, legally, was the fact that Chaucer, after being found guilty of a felony, was not indicted subsequently by the King's court: such an indictment was “almost as a matter of course."
     How could that be? The Chancery release was transcribed differently a few days later for the King's Court: "Whether by coercion, persuasion or some more complicated manipulation" the wording was modified. Raptus was "quietly, but emphatically, retracted," and the number of witnesses named reduced from five to three. The seriousness of the charge was undeniably minimized. It may be that this record at the Court of King's Bench "was meant to withhold the very information the original release was designed to disclose." This memorandum was the one "most likely to be read [referred to] than any other version of the release."
     Even with this new evidence, and although "raptus in 14th-century English law meant forced coitus," many scholars "have repeatedly tried to protect Chaucer's reputation." With proper interpretation of legal terms as they were used in Chaucer’s day, we ought to be able to recognize that Chaucer was not the hero of the case, nor was he a fool, risking all to be a romantic go-between. It is possible that he had a flaw, a moment (an evening?) of weakness.

The lady’s name BTW is Cecilia.

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