Thursday, May 30, 2013

Chaucer's determined accuser

How could a woman in fourteenth-century England make an accusation? Appeals (accusations) covered only three crimes against a woman: the death of her husband, the death of her child in utero, and rape.
     In the case of rape, she must travel to the next town immediately and inform a trustworthy person. Next she must notify an official of the law. Then she had forty days to make her formal accusation. It took a woman of determination to accomplish all the law required. And if a pregnancy resulted from the rape, the man would be exonerated. Why? Because they believed conception occurred only with mutual cooperation.
     The record of Chaucer's release makes it a logical assumption that he had earlier been accused. Watts, a lawyer/researcher of the 1940s, states that both Chaucer and his accuser had to have agreed on the term raptus, in full knowledge of the word's primary meaning. Two things are certain: first, Chaucer had been threatened with prosecution for rape; second, the woman--Cecilia--had released him from further demands on her part. (We will say more about "Cecilia" after a bit.)
     The matter is significant. Cecilia executed "a formal release under seal duly enrolled in the Chancery," with five prominent friends of the poet as witnesses. Among them were the King's Chamberlain, Sir William Beauchamp and John Phillipott, who became Mayor of London.
     After finding the first legal record, two more pertinent entries came to light. A John Grove and Richard Goodchild transacted a general deed of release to Geoffrey Chaucer eight weeks later. A second release--by Cecilia--was given to Grove and Goodchild, which establishes a connection between the three men--Chaucer, Grove, and Goodchild. A subsequent document indicates that John Grove is to pay the sum of £10 to Cecilia. On July 2 the money is noted as paid. These entries indicate, to Watts, that the two men were uninformed agents on Chaucer's behalf, assisting without full knowledge.
     The lawyer reasons that Cecilia, having successfully obtained a settlement from Chaucer, in an afterthought, also made demands on Grove and Goodchild.
     If Chaucer conspired with the two men to trick or force Cecilia into a rendezvous, it looks bad. Chaucer did not have the option of marrying the lady. But a sufficient sum of money might resolve the situation. One more discovery by Watts demontrates this as possible when Cecilia dropped her appeal.
     Knowing the hazards of being accused, one can see how even an innocent man might make a settlement rather than risk a judgment. (See previous entry!) Settling out of court, as Chaucer did, though not actual proof, as the lawyer notes, it still provides "a strong presumption of guilt." Finding the additional transaction causes Watts to speculate: Chaucer relinquished the rights to his father's London house (June 19, 1380). This could be directly related to raising a generous settlement. The amount of cash involved is not known, but we can reasonably assume it to be substantial.
     (Want more details? See my Pilgrim Chaucer: Center Stage, pp. 36-42.)
Next time, we'll consider Geoffrey and Cecilia's relationship.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Chaucer's day in court

A document dated May 1, 1380 states that a woman had named Geoffrey Chaucer regarding raptus. That discovery has caused speculation for over 100 years. The subject is not often spoken of, but it still surprised me that the Chaucer entry for the 1968 Britannica refrained from a hint of it. The 1996 Britannica edition devotes two sentences to the topic and suggests Chaucer was not guilty.
     Chaucer scholars hesitate to admit that this brilliant poet could have had dark moments. Many have gone to great lengths to sidestep reality. A "vicious imagination," for example, is claimed necessary to see Chaucer causing a lady's ruination. A biographer declares our poet a "hero" of the affair. Some portray him merely as an accessory, or actually doing the lady a favor because her guardian mismanaged her affairs, or a friend of Chaucer wanted to marry her and couldn't get her guardian's permission.
     These scenarios are, according to P. R. Watts a lawyer/researcher in 1947, "entirely unsupported by evidence." To the contrary, he finds that none could be true because the lady was an adult, not someone's young ward. And, to have finances to mismanage would be unlikely because her brother was in prison for debt.
     Watts informs us about the medieval use of raptus, and the intention and substance of an appeal, along with how the fourteenth century dealt with felonious rape. Before a statute of 1285, raptus could mean either the abduction or deflowering of a woman. But afterward, raptus is always to be interpreted as rape (forced coitus), unless circumstances disallow it.
     The second term, appeal, is a problem because the meaning is at odds with what generally comes to our mind. Back then, to appeal meant to accuse, to bring a criminal charge against another person. It was an appeal for justice, for a wrongdoer to be punished.
     And did the punishment fit the crime? If unmarried, the man might take the lady as his spouse to satisfy the charges. Watts, however, cites a case from Chaucer's era to illustrate another possibility: A woman named Alice accused a man named John of having ravished her virginity. Although John claimed innocence, he was found guilty. John had a wife, so marriage could not resolve the problem. Fortunately for John, Alice withdrew her appeal, because, by the judgment handed down, Alice was to "tear out John's eyes and cut off his testicles."
     Chaucer's position at court (his favor with the king) would not protect him, because the king had no jurisdiction in cases between two citizens, rather than against the crown.
     Before DNA, many a man learned that defense against the charge of rape is difficult. As an additional difficulty, medieval law did not allow the accused to give evidence on his own behalf.
     It may look like the man is given a hard time in such a case. But wait. You haven't heard what's demanded of the woman to get recognition in a court of law.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Chaucer--Wedded bliss?

Let's look in on Mr. and Mrs. Chaucer--Geoffrey and Philippa.
     Derek Brewer, the Chaucer expert, wrote the Chaucer entry in the Britannica. He gives facts without speculation.

     By 1366 Chaucer had married Philippa, a lady-in-waiting to the queen. When the queen died, Philippa became lady-in-waiting to the second wife of John of Gaunt. Her sister, Katherine Swynford, was a mistress of John of Gaunt.
     Chaucer probably had two sons, and that is all that is known of his family.

Later sleuthing and comparisons add considerable interest.
     The biographer Peter Ackroyd, for example, takes the limited number of statements in official records and augments them with the circumstances of the times. The Chaucer union, he says, is a "career marriage" like that of many young folks in royal service. They are a "professional couple"; as their first duty, they did what the job called for. If Geoffrey traveled to Italy for six months, his wife accepted it. If the queen sojourned in Ireland, Philippa abided there and Geoffrey understood. Peasants might have had a cozy little cottage, but not those serving royalty. Other benefits, however, like being supplied with expensive garments for all occasions, a lifetime annuity, gifts of various sorts, and prestige, were balanced against a life of one's own.

Young Chaucer spent time in the military and rose to the diplomatic corps, associating with the world of wealth and power. No doubt he would have been treated well by hosts who desired a favorable outcome. Do you get a picture of Chaucer the youthful soldier and then the envoy surrounded by those eager to please? Hold on to that picture. We'll examine it with a different point of view later.

And what of Philippa, Mrs. Chaucer, serving the queen and later in service to John of Gaunt's household? Philippa, most likely, had two children. An Elizabeth Chaucy entered a local convent. We know this from a record telling that John of Gaunt covered the expenses of her admission to the nunnery; no more is known about her. And a Thomas Chaucer, who served the household of John of Gaunt from an early age, went on to become rich and successful. John repeatedly assisted Thomas' advancement in his career and marriage arrangement.
     Over the years, John had many mistresses. (As a matter of fact, Philippa's sister, Katherine, upon the death of John's second wife, advanced in position from his mistress to his wife.) Speculation says that Elizabeth and Thomas were two of John of Gaunt's many illegitimate children--made legitimate because Philippa was married to Geoffrey.
     I'll interject a twentieth-century comparison to illustrate the royal perspective. Edward VII of Britain, in the early 1900s, had numerous mistresses, but they say he was "discreet." They were attractive married women, a practical plan. Edward never acknowledged any illegitimate children.

     One more son is mentioned by the poet himself--little Lewis. Some scholars barely speak of his existence, but . . . The boy was probably born in 1381, because in 1391 Chaucer refers to the boy's tenth birthday. Ten years before, as a persistent lawyer and researcher concluded, "Chaucer and his wife were not living together during this legal action." Geoffrey kept house in London, while his wife served John of Gaunt's needs elsewhere. And what kind of legal action are we referring to? Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Chaucer--"Mr. Know-it-all"

Chaucer traveled England and the Continent for decades as a trusted ambassador. What did he see? What did he learn?
     He saw grand churches. The Cathedral of Rheims associated with his first venture into war. Notre Dame de Paris, completed when he was a boy, had been Parisian background.
     In Florence, Chaucer would see the Basilica di Santa Maria rising on the site of the ruins of the old Santa Reparata. And, while in Milan, he would have seen the Archbishop's Palace later to be demolished to prepare for the famed Duomo.
     He knew beauty, but he also knew the grim features of the dead and dying, in war and in the plague. When he was nine, the Black Plague swept the Continent in what has been called the "greatest disaster in western European history." For example, 50,000 died in London within four months. There was no safe refuge. Along with common folk, notable persons were also struck down: kings, queens, archbishops--even a princess traveling to her wedding--succumbed.
     All in all, Chaucer survived six onslaughts. The result of these pandemics brought the population of Europe in 1400 to only half the number of those alive in 1300.

He could not have been unaware of crises within the Church. A gray atmosphere enveloped the late 1300s. When Chaucer arrived in Italy in 1378, a new pope--Urban VI--had just been elected. Urban immediately began preaching changes to traditional practices. His actions caused the Cardinals, who elected him, to flee to Naples and elect another pope, Clement VII. The Great Schism of the Church resulted. Chaucer would not live to see it resolved.
     The Inquisition also colored daily life. It operated ubiquitously on the Continent. Informers were nowhere yet everywhere. When it reached England, religious dissenters met harsh treatment.

What did he learn from his observations? As Controller of Customs he knew imported goods. His duties entailed collecting taxes on the commodities.
     He had skill with languages. Italy enriched him. Dante, who greatly influenced Italian literature had already died, but had written forcefully about using the vernacular. Because Barnabo, tyrant of Milan, had the greatest library in Europe, it is speculated that the successful outcome of Chaucer's dealings with him brought a gift of the Divine Comedy from this wealthy Italian. In any event, after the Milan sojourn, Chaucer's works reflected the Italian style.
     Latin, too, served him well. He tells of considerable Latin literature he translated: saint's legends, homilies, and devotions. They have not survived. But we do have his rendering of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy.
     Chaucer had access to books, his own and others. He refers to numerous classic works: the Bible, mythology, Augustine, Ptolemy, Seneca, Ovid, and more.
     His mastery of things celestial is well known. He produced instructions for the astrolabe, an instrument for calculations. Written for "little Lewis," that's another story (with interesting possibilities) we'll get to later.

When Chaucer entered royal service, Edward III's court was French in language and custom. The poet's wife came from a French family. And, not surprisingly, he translated the most famous medieval allegory--Roman de la Rose--from French to English.
     Change came to the court in 1377, when Edward's grandson Richard II ascended the throne at age eleven. The prevalent language became English. Chaucer's many works in the vernacular were right in step.
     Next we'll add domestic interest, concerned with marital relations, to this portrait.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Chaucer: Man of the world

During peace negotiations in 1360, a twenty-year-old Chaucer carried official letters from England to Calais. He would continue with a career of representing the English crown all across Europe. A close relationship existed between the wealthy mercantile class and royalty. It is not difficult to imagine that an energetic, young emissary would be well-treated, catered to, in luxurious households and foreign courts wishing to gain favor with the English. And consider that there would be an advantage for Chaucer in not being of noble birth: He could comfortably mingle with foreign servants and tradesmen. He'd get the whole picture.

We first see an entry denoting "safe conduct." Chaucer made an official visit in 1366 to the King of Navarre, probably regarding the threat of an invasion by his neighbor, Pedro of Castile.
     A few years later, in the on-again-off-again Hundred Years War, he served with John of Gaunt's forces in France.
     In 1371, he set out for the coastal town of Dartmouth to settle a touchy matter involving a ship owned by a Genoese. Subsequently, he had a "warrant to negotiate" with merchants of Genoa to construct a dedicated seaport for them in England.
     Soon after, he made a winter journey with two high-ranking Genoese, their servants and bodyguards. It makes me shudder to picture the hazards from both weather and terrain in crossing the Alps in December. His many dealings with Italians make it a safe assumption that he had a fluent acquaintance with their language.
     His competence as a diplomat is attested to when given the delicate mission to Florence of facilitating a loan. The delicacy had to do with Edward's having defaulted on the banker's previous loan.
     In 1377, within the space of a few months, he completed four missions to France. One led to  Paris. The other destinations are unknown. Following that, he traveled to Lombardy on a long assignment about the ever present topic of "war" and a search for reliable allies.
     In what must have been an especially demanding undertaking, he accompanied six officials with bodyguards to talk business with Barnabo Visconti, known as the "cruel tyrant of Milan." Barnabo possessed massive wealth; and his son-in-law could muster countless mercenaries. Barnabo also had a daughter, Caterina, he hoped to align with the English crown.

Chaucer had been valued as a diplomat and government official, not as a poet. Even his very responsible position as Controller of Customs in London did not rank in importance with his diplomatic reputation. A "deputy" served in his place when he traveled for the king.
     An entry recorded in 1387 shows an apparently small assignment for him to Calais. That destination brings Chaucer full circle, concluding his service as ambassador (for both Edward III and Richard II) of more than twenty years, where it had begun.
     He had been trusted to negotiate in matters of war, money, marriage, and commerce. Next, we will add more details to our image of Chaucer the poet.