- The Robberies of Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer’s assault on a Friar in Fleet Street—often treated as evidence of legal qualification on the poet’s part (Rickert; Hornsby)—would do nicely to sum up his position in the several class-and class-deriving struggles current in England late in the fourteenth century. As a bit of Langlandian personification allegory, the episode would represent wealth’s assault on indigence, the starker since the victim of the assault was a Grey Friar, espousing the radical Franciscan abjuration of property, based on the example of Christ and the apostles, for which William Ockham suffered, faced with papal insistence that, by scholastic ratiocination, it was strictly a logical impossible, something unnatural and so contrary to God’s purpose, to be without property (a view Ockham characterized as “heretical, erroneous, silly, ridiculous, fantastic, insane, and defamatory” ). Or it might also represent orthodoxy’s assault on religious deviance, since friars by definition undid ecclesiastical categories, being neither secular nor regular clergy nor even always clearly clerical or lay but something of all of these categories and so finally none; or the straight world’s assault on the queer, friars being notorious sodomites, when not chaste or otherwise set athwart the dominant construction of sexual normalcy. [End Page 29]
The only truth in the episode may be poetic, for it is poorly evidenced; most to the point, “[E]veryone who has written a biography of Chaucer,” as Derek Pearsall put it, has found him “to be a decent sort of fellow” (Life 3).1 If not quite the “wide-eyed, jolly, roly-poly little man” with “an immense enthusiasm for life” (and “no hint of unsteadiness”), who “loved his fellow-men” all alike, “both good and bad,” then at the least, certainly, he was “very good company—a good fellow” (Donaldson 2 and 10; Kittredge 32–33 and 218).
The evidence belies. Chaucer’s career in violence was extensive, no matter the veracity of the roadway anti-fraternal beating. The “Father of English Poetry” committed rape—rape, not kidnap, although he knew kidnapping otherwise. He practised extortion. And an episode of “trespass and contempt” is on record (clr 343–47, 504–06, 340–42; Cannon).2 Of course the evidence is labile; also, it was a violent age, and things happened. On the other hand, they seem not to have happened to everyone, in equal distribution. In the reasonably extensive life records of the contemporary poets John Gower, for example, and John Lydgate, there are no such episodes, although each too had his faults (Macaulay IV, vii–xxx; Pearsall Lydgate). A propensity for violent crime was not in them, evidently, but was in Chaucer. The violence entailed in this poet accomplishing what he did—physical force applied for doing bodily injury—was persistent.
Assault, rape, extortion, trespass, all documented in the published Chaucer life records, are violent and criminal. Recognition that other [End Page 30] doings of Chaucer’s, as a Justice of the Peace, for example, or as a functionary in the state’s revenue extraction apparatus, may also have been violent in some sense or criminal would depend on how one defined terms. The genitive phrase in the title of Walford D. Selby’s excellent 1875 documentary collection The Robberies of Chaucer might go either way, strictly speaking, either subjective or objective. As it happens, the Selby collection ignores the subjective possibilities. It does not supply documentary evidence for study of Chaucer’s robberies of others, except obliquely, nor is the present paper, named after Selby’s work, so broadly concerned.
There was an occasion (or a series of concatenate occasions) on which Chaucer was also a victim of violent crime: apparently, he was assaulted and robbed by highwaymen in the autumn of 1390. In the documentary evidence about the episode, there are problems: Chaucer may have been robbed once, or he may have been robbed once and then again a few days later and possibly a third time by the same persons, for example; the robbery for which Chaucer was compensated, taking place on the road between Canterbury and London, was not the same robbery of Chaucer, taking...