A Nest of Troubles - Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd

Chaucer (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) - Peter Ackroyd (2005)

Chapter 7. A Nest of Troubles


It was difficult, even for a royal diplomat, to avoid the depredations of medieval law. In the autumn of 1379 Chaucer was obliged to hire a lawyer, Stephen Fall, to defend him before the King’s Bench in a case of “trespass and contempt”; the action against him had been brought by Thomas Stondon, but the identity of that plaintiff has been thoroughly obscured by time and circumstance. The nature of the case is also unclear, but the fact that it was to be heard before the King’s Bench suggests that it was of some significance. Nothing further is known of the matter, however, and no doubt it was settled “out of court.” This was a highly litigious age, and it has been estimated that in each law term there were more than 1,000 pleas or bills being conveyed through the various courts. No one as eminent as Chaucer could have avoided being caught in its machinations.

There was one case, however, which seems to have had more serious implications. On 1 May 1380, Cecily Champain—identified in the Chancery document as Cecilia Chaumpaigne—released Chaucer from all actions “de raptumeo, ” concerning my rape. It can be presumed that she, too, had settled “out of court.”


The Court of King’s Bench, Westminster Hall

The charge of “raptus” was a serious one which until the beginning of the fourteenth century had merited the punishment of castration; by Chaucer’s time, it had been commuted to one of simple hanging. It was also a rare offence, generally accounting for 2 per cent of all possible felonies. Its seriousness must have prompted Chaucer into bringing forward as witnesses for the document some of the most powerful men in the kingdom—among them Sir William Beauchamp, chamberlain of the king’s household, Sir John Clanvowe and Sir William Nevill, two knights of the king’s chamber and close associates of Chaucer, as well as his immediate superior as collector of the customs, John Philipot. Two years before, Philipot had been elected as lord mayor of London. This is testimony, strong enough to be used in any court of law, that Chaucer was very well connected indeed. He was not an amused observer of events from afar; he was at the heart of court and administrative affairs. And these men had now become Chaucer’s representatives, prepared to testify on his behalf that there should be no prosecution. They were indeed eminently successful, since Cecily Champain did not press her case.

That indispensable collection of documents and materials relating to Chaucer, Chaucer Life-Records, prints three other documents which are relevant to Cecily Champain’s “release” of Chaucer. Two months later, in the court of the mayor and aldermen of London, Richard Goodchild and John Grove released Chaucer from any actions or suits at law; Goodchild was a cutlerer, and Grove an armourer, of London. They were prominent citizens of the merchant class, with whom Chaucer was of course very familiar. On the same day Cecily Champain released Goodchild and Grove from any similar suits or actions. Four days later, in the same London court, Grove recognised that he owed Cecily Champain the not inconsiderable sum of ten pounds. It is all a very tangled web.

The medieval courts had proceeded no further with Chaucer’s prosecution and, before we commit Chaucer to the sentence of posterity for rape, it might be as well to examine the evidence. Apologists for the poet have suggested that “raptus,” in the official document, signalled not rape as such but some kind of forcible kidnapping which was not uncommon in the period. It would have been usual, in that instance, for a phrase such as “abduxit” or “asportavit” to be included with “rapuit”; no such addition was made. On the other hand if “raptus” meant in the modern sense rape—that is, forcible copulation and coerced sexual intercourse—then it was usual for words such as “violavit” or “defloravit” to be employed. There was also a phrase of the same import, “a forciavit contra voluntatem. ” None of these words or phrases is included in the document. What, then, is the meaning of “raptus”?

The moral and social confusion is compounded by Chaucer’s friendship with Alice Perrers, who, after the death of the queen, Philippa, had become official mistress to the king himself, Edward III. A powerful figure at court and in the city, Alice Perrers has generally been regarded by historians as an avaricious and unscrupulous female who alternately cajoled and compromised the ailing king. But she had at least one saving grace: she was closely acquainted with Geoffrey Chaucer.

For ten years she had been a lady of the queen’s chamber. Philippa Chaucer, wife of the poet, also served in the queen’s household. Alice Perrers was by marriage part of a prosperous London family. One of her closest friends, Richard Lyons, had been an intimate of Chaucer’s father and happened to be Chaucer’s immediate superior at the petty custom. She was also friendly with Adam de Bury, the mayor who had granted the lease of Aldgate to Chaucer. She owned much property in the vicinity of Aldgate. Wherever we look in the affairs of daily life we observe, in characteristic medieval fashion, a pattern of associations and affiliations.

On this occasion two of the figures in the pattern, their relationship now almost obscured by time and forgetfulness, are Geoffrey Chaucer and Alice Perrers. He was deeply compromised by the world in which he worked. And, as it happens, she was the step-mother of Cecily Champain. There are, as it were, wheels within wheels.

We can presume, then, that through his friendship with Alice Perrers Chaucer had a long acquaintance with Cecily Champain. He was in his late thirties; Cecily was, at the best calculation, in her very early twenties.

At this point presumption must end, and speculation take its place. Chaucer’s wife, as a member of a distant and peripatetic court, was absent for much of the time; and the association between Chaucer and Cecily Champain may have led to a deeper and stronger relationship. If Cecily Champain believed that she was being neglected or otherwise misused—that she had in some sense been betrayed or compromised—there was open to her one legal remedy which would force Chaucer into acknowledging his direct role in her life. She could accuse him of “raptus” and then wait for him to negotiate a settlement with her.

The three later documents are of even more obscurity. It is possible that Cecily Champain found herself with child in the intervening months. This would have thrown an interesting legal light on the claim of “raptus,” since it was believed that no woman could conceive if she had not previously consented to intercourse. A payment of ten pounds might then have been considered suitable recompense. Any other theory must also be placed in the realm of speculation.

There may, however, have been a child. In a later production, entitled A Treatise on the Astrolabe, Chaucer addresses “Lyte Lowys my sone” who has reached “thy tendir age of ten yeer”; the text itself uses the year 1391 as the year for its complex astronomical and astrological calculations, and there is no reason to doubt that this was also the year of its composition. So little Lewis was born in 1381, just a few months after the legal complications with Cecily Champain. It is an intriguing if inconclusive story, and one which lends an interesting perspective to Chaucer’s poetical claims that he was a stranger in the court of Venus and unskilled in the arts of love. He may have been more artful than the world has previously recognised. The truest poetry may be the most feigning.

It may also be the most plausible and significant way of dealing with public events. The negotiations for the marriage of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia were progressing but the daughter of the latest Holy Roman Emperor was also being pursued by Charles of France and Friedrich of Messien. In this period Chaucer wrote a poem about three competing marriage proposals, the difference being that his narrative concerns marital disputes among birds. It is a favourite medieval device—to offer a comic alternative world which acts as a commentary upon the human one. It is not necessarily conceived in a spirit of parody or satire, but rather of joy at the multifarious nature of creation.

The Parliament of Fowls opens in a familiar fashion; the narrator is absorbed in the reading of a book “write with lettres olde,” but he is so thoroughly tired that he retreats to his bed. There he dreams and is met in vision by a guide who leads him to the temple of Venus. This must have been so familiar to Chaucer’s listeners or readers that it had become the equivalent of his private seal—a token of his personal style, albeit one conceived in a spirit of irony and self-mockery. Here once again Chaucer represents himself as a man who celebrates fine amour without in any sense having experienced it. As his guide puts it to him,

For thow of love hast lost thy tast, I gesse,
As sek man hath of swete and bytternesse.
But natheles, although that thow be dul,
Yit that thow canst not do, yit mayst thow se.
For many a man that may nat stonde a pul
Yet liketh hym at wrastlyng for to be …

It is the medieval equivalent of an old apothegm. Those that can, do; those that cannot, write. Since these lines were probably composed a little after the time of Cecily Champain’s “raptus,” about which everyone would have known, they contain more than a trace of irony. It is also somewhat ironic that this is the first poem in the English language which celebrates “Seynt Valentynes day,” and there is some justification for the argument that Chaucer initiated this festival in England in imitation of the Italian (and, specifically Genoese) holy day. It is one of his greatest, if least known, benefactions to the English. It is also likely that the poem was read at some kind of festive court ceremonial in honour of love’s “maistrie”; that would account for its relative brevity, and its general tone of intimate comedy relating to the rituals of love-longing and love-lament.

Despite the relative familiarity of Chaucer’s theme, however, his means of expression have undergone a sea-change. The octosyllabic metre has given way to a more spacious decasyllabic, and the insistent beat of the couplet has been replaced by the more resplendent cadence of the rime royal based upon the Italian ottava rima which the English poet has appropriated from the works of Boccaccio. It provides a more plangent and commodious note:

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne,
Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conqueryng.

There has been nothing quite like it before in English poetry, at once majestic and easy, fluent and capacious. Chaucer was a great experimenter with poetic form. He introduced this rime royal into English literature, and as a result it was employed for three hundred years by poets who aspired to the “high style.” We have also noticed how he fashioned the Dantesque terza rima into English shape, thus anticipating the “experiments” of Thomas Wyatt by almost two centuries. It was a period when the language was at its most flexible and unpredictable; there were so many elements entering it for the first time that it was capable of the utmost change. It was rich and unfixed, altering with each generation of speakers. Chaucer, like Shakespeare, was stirred into life by a clamant and absorbent medium.

The rime royal of The Parliament of Fowls is a comprehensive form, also, since within it Chaucer can introduce the most blatant demotic:

The goos, the cokkow, and the doke also
So cryede, “Kek kek!” “Kokkow!” “Quek quek!!” hye …

The plot of the poem is a simple one. Chaucer is introduced into the temple of love, and wanders into a glade close by where the birds of the earth meet on each Valentine’s day to choose their respective mates. The formel or female eagle is pursued by three suitors, a royal eagle and two tersel or male eagles; they make their speeches of fidelity and truth, which are succeeded by the rude clamours of the lowlier birds tired of the protracted ritual. “Have don, and let us wende! … Com of ! … Al this nys not worth a flye!” The female eagle then asks for a year in which to consider her position, to which inconclusive judgement Dame Nature accedes. The poem ends with a roundel in praise of summer:

Now welcome, somer, with thy sonne softe,
That has thes wintres wedres overshake,
And driven away the longe nyghtes blake!

The narrator takes his leave, and returns to the reading of his old books. Thus a public matter, of the king’s marriage suit, becomes the occasion for a humorous and charming poetic diversion.

The Parliament of Fowls is also significant in terms of Chaucer’s own poetic development. It has already been suggested that his metre is established upon the ottava rima of Boccaccio, and indeed the description of the temple in the poem is similarly derived from passages in the Italian poet’s Il Teseida. If it had not been for Chaucer’s encounter with the manuscripts of Boccaccio’s work in Milan, the English poem would not have been written. There are other resemblances between the two poets. Boccaccio was the natural son of a minor Italian banker, and the bank’s connection with King Robert of Naples eased the young man’s entrance into the Angevin court there at the age of fifteen. In the same trajectory as that of Chaucer, he went from the professional urban class towards the nobility. Boccaccio soon found his poetic vocation at the Neapolitan court, and became a professional story-teller or entertainer for an audience of sophisticated courtiers. He composed dream visions and romances concerned with fine amour; more importantly, he composed them in the vernacular. The affinities, then, become clear. Even though neither poet could have observed it at the time, Chaucer and Boccaccio were part of a broad movement of taste and feeling.

It is all the more significant, therefore, that Boccaccio was the one writer with whom Chaucer set himself up in unacknowledged competition. Or would it be better to say that he entered into a dialogue with him, so that he might test the strength of his own English verse? He reduced Boccaccio’s tendency towards libertinism, and generally moderated the excesses of the Italian poet’s style. He shortened the sentiment and concentrated upon event and character; he introduced a prevailing ironic humour and engineered deliberate changes of mood and tone so that the tragedy and comedy were thoroughly mingled. By concentrating upon character, too, he introduced strong elements of drama. Once again Chaucer seems to be the progenitor of a national style.