Academic Know Nothings

Matthew G. Saroff
6 min readOct 17, 2022

That is a quote from Ben Bova, the sometimes curmudgeonly journalist, editor, and science fiction writer at an SF literary symposium held at UMass a few years before I went there.

He was on a panel discussing SF with two members of the faculty, and he called out what he felt was pseudo-intellectual bullsh%$.

He was not invited to another symposium.

Well, there is a similar to do regarding Geoffrey Chaucer author of Canterbury Tales, and a giant in English literature.

It has for some time been asserted that Chaucer was accused of raping Cecily Chaumpaigne.

In the mid 1800s, a document from his time was found where, “Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from “all manner of actions related to my raptus” — a word commonly translated as rape or abduction.”

Some scholars went deeper into this research, literally examining 800 year old documents that had been stored in salt mines, and found the original court documents and these documents fairly clearly state that Chaucer had not been accused of rape by Chaumpaigne, but that both of them were accused by a third party, one Thomas Staundon, of unlawfully poaching Chaumpaigne from his employ.

This violated one of the many laws passed in the aftermath of the Black Death to reduce labor mobility and to keep wages down.

At this point, I am reading this, and seriously getting my history geek on, and then came the academic know-nothings showed up.

There is a lot of feminist analysis of medieval history, and a major part of this analysis is Chaucer as rapist.

While (at least by today’s standards) much of Chaucer’s work is clearly misogynistic, the Millers Tale comes to mind, much of the feminist analysis of Chaucer, and of old English literature is driven not by the content of his work, but by the assertion that he was a rapist.

So now the people who have built careers on this, and published many articles (actually the same article published many times with minor tweaks), and written many course syllabi, based on this would actually have to develop a new approach to their life’s work are engaged in hypocritical intellectual back-flips to avoid addressing the new data.

To (loosely) paraphrase John Maynard Keynes, when the f%$#ing facts f%$#ing change, you f%$#ing need to f%$#ing change your f%$#ing theory.*

It really is remarkable how intellectually dishonest the response has been among some elements of the Medieval literature community.

It’s one thing to say, “This is significant and needs more analysis, and another thing entirely to say that this has no meaning because ……… Something that translates to I want to keep my phony baloney job:

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,” which contain depictions of sexual assault (or what to modern readers appears like it).

But this week, two scholars stunned the world of Chaucer studies with previously unknown documents that they say show that the “raptus” document was not in fact related to an accusation of rape against Chaucer at all.

The new documents, the two scholars say, establish that the one that surfaced in the 1870s had been misinterpreted. Instead of stemming from a rape case, they argue, the document had been filed as part of a labor case, in which another man charged Chaumpaigne with leaving his household to work in Chaucer’s before her term of labor was over.

………

Next, he and Sobecki wondered if they could find the original writ that had started the case in motion, which was presumably in the records of the King’s Bench, the most senior criminal court in England from the 13th to the 18th century, which are currently held in deep storage in a salt mine in Cheshire. (In the 1950s and 1960s, when scholars compiled all known life records relating to Chaucer, these records were mostly inaccessible.)

Late last year, Roger ordered the bundles that he suspected fit the time frame. They arrived still in their original wrappers, and speared by the catgut filament clerks used to hold piles of pages together — a sign, Roger said, that few people, if anyone, had looked at them in hundreds of years.

There, they found the original writ in the case, from 1379. It showed that Staundon had brought an action against both Chaucer and Chaumpaigne, under a law known as the Statute of Laborers, which had been enacted after outbreaks of the plague had restricted the labor market. It was intended “to combat rising wages, and to prevent the poaching of servants” with the promise of better terms, the scholars write in their blog post.

At this point, I’m looking at this and thinking, “Wow, they just historied the sh%$ out of this.”

Then I read further down, and the comments from some of the leaders in feminist medieval history have their say, and it reflects poorly on their intellectual rigor:

………

Holly Crocker, a medieval literature scholar at the University of South Carolina, called the new documents “very exciting” but said the “exoneration narrative” some saw in them was overplayed.

“I am eager to see how the conversation unfolds,” she wrote in an email, “but I remain 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.”

This is intellectually bankrupt. On the other hand there are some responses that go meta:

………

[Samantha Katz] Seal, an associate professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, said she was taken aback when Sobecki first showed her the research this year. In 2019, in a special issue of The Chaucer Review on feminist criticism, she had described Chaucer as “a rapist, a racist, an anti-Semite.”

“I thought, ‘Oh shoot, I went to press calling Chaucer a rapist,’” she said.

She 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.

What Seal is saying here is not a denial of the apparent exoneration of Chaucer of rape charges, unlike what Crocker is saying, but rather that the how this has been approached by modern medieval literature scholars was flawed.

This is an entirely valid point. It’s also not the study medieval literature, it’s the study of the modern study medieval literature. It’s so meta that it resembles the philosophical equivalent of a Klein Bottle†.

What’s more, Seal is suggesting that nothing will fundamentally change with their curriculum:

………

Seal, for her part, said she would continue to discuss the “raptus” document in her classes, incorporating the new material. Whatever really happened around 1380, she said, Chaumpaigne’s story has been “a pedagogically useful tool” for introducing questions of sex and power.

Chaucer’s work is steeped in the sexism of its day. One can study this without relying on what now appears to be inaccurate analysis of historical documents.

This is just someone who doesn’t want to rewrite their syllabus. As an associate professor, Seal has tenure, so it’s not like these revelations threaten her continued employment.

It’s yet more proof of the old adage (authorship unknown) that academic conflict is so vicious because the stakes are so small.

*Keynes actually said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” I am slightly more profane than the British economist though.

†A Klein bottle is a hollow 3 (or more) dimensional object which folds in upon itself that it only has one surface. If one’s head is far enough up their own ass, they will resemble this object.

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