Geoffrey Chaucer is innocent! The fourteenth-century diplomat, customs collector and sometime poet has long been dogged by unsubstantiated sexual assault allegations. The suspicion arose, quite naturally, when a women testified that Chaucer had not raped her. After all, if he hadn’t raped her, why would she bother repudiating the claim? The only logical explanation (to a certain kind of mind) was that a voiceless, victimised woman had been paid to withdraw sexual harassment charges levelled against a prominent, powerful … poet?
As it turns out, the young Cecilia Chaumpaigne, a servant in the Chaucer household, had been the co-defendant with Chaucer in a charge of unlawful employment recruitment. In the wake of the Black Death (and the absence of a working holiday visa program), labour had become scarce in fourteenth-century London, and employers were hard-pressed to fill staffing needs. Chaumpaigne’s former employer, one Thomas Staundon, accused Chaucer of “raping” Chaumpaigne, alleging that Chaucer had poached her with an offer of better wages. Chaumpaigne countered that she had definitely left Staundon’s service before going to work for Chaucer. Case closed. The lady, it turned out, did protest too little.
Salvatore Babones appears in every Quadrant.
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Regular readers of this column will remember that the Latin word raptus, from which our word rape is derived, had its origins in the idea of carrying away, whether for worse or for better: “a raptor is a bird that carries away its prey; the rapture is the moment following the second coming of Christ when the saved will be carried away to heaven”. But memories are short, knowledge of etymology is limited, and accusations of sexual assault are pure feminist gold. And so the fourteenth-century court document in which a young woman certified that Chaucer had not raped her, first uncovered in 1873, was milked by feminist scholars for the next 149 years. Now that we know the full story, Chaucer can only be cancelled for his poetry.
The rehabilitation of the father of English poetry, however, is far from final. The two (male) historians who only this year uncovered the key documents clearing Chaucer emphasised that their findings “will not undo the countless advances feminist colleagues have made in our field”. Before publishing their work, they “invited three leading feminist Chaucerians to think through some of the implications of the new evidence for our field”. They concluded that (thank Gaia) “the new documents will not change the course charted by feminist scholarship to expose the shortcomings of the late medieval hegemonic order”. And they dutifully lamented the “often invisible fate of medieval servant women”.
Oh, and they reassured the BBC’s History Extra magazine that “we cannot rule anything out … there is a strong likelihood that this one case was not about rape, and that obviously doesn’t mean that Chaucer wasn’t a rapist”. Since, you know, he could still have been a rapist. Or a pedophile. Or a sodomite (though these days that would count in his favour). Yes, there’s still hope—more hope, at least, that Chaucer might have been a rapist than that he was a slave trader, an anti-vaxxer, or a climate change denier. Who knows what foul historical misdeeds may lurk unread in the Chaucer files? About the only thing we do know for certain is that two very nervous male medievalists are desperate to avoid being cancelled themselves.
The two timid historians are not the only people who are anxious that the mob they have worked so hard to placate might turn around and hoist them on their own petards. Some Quadrant readers may be young enough to remember Scooby Doo, the mystery-of-the-week children’s cartoon series that debuted in 1969. A new Halloween-themed movie featuring the eponymous dog, Trick or Treat Scooby-Doo!, has revealed that one of the lead characters in the long-running property is … a lesbian. There’s no word about the dog, but the human Velma Dinkley—the smart-but-ugly counterpart to cute-but-dumb Daphne Blake—has been outed. A scene in the direct-to-video production portrays the virginal Velma feeling a strong same-sex attraction for the villainous fashion designer Coco Diablo. Cue rainbow confetti special effects and a mix of lesbian and “solidarity” flags (just one flag just won’t do) appearing on Google searches relating to Velma.
But the party was over almost before it began. Just as the progressive producers at the Warner Bros children’s entertainment division were confirming Velma’s long-suspected homosexuality (in a children’s movie, of course), the progressive producers at the Warner Bros adult entertainment division released a trailer for a new Velma-themed television series that shows the nerdy good-girl having a very adult crush on … the white male Scooby Doo lead character Fred Jones. This, on International Lesbian Day. Oh, the humanity.
Fred, some may recall, is the attractive, successful man in the mystery-solving gang. Even worse: he’s blond. And no, he is not non-binary. The new adult-oriented Scooby Doo series isn’t fighting for social justice by virtue-signalling its gender inclusiveness. It is fighting for social justice by virtue-signalling its racial inclusiveness. All of the main characters except for Fred (and the dog) have been race-swapped. Velma, the title character of the new series, will be drawn as Indian-American and voiced by the Indian-American actor (only the barbaric Academy Awards still use the sexist term “actress”) Mindy Kaling. Daphne will be drawn as Chinese-American and voiced by the Chinese-American Constance Wu. Shaggy, the unattractive, unsuccessful hippie, will be drawn as an attractive, successful African-American, to be voiced by the attractive, successful African-American Sam Richardson. As to why voice actors should match the racial profiles of the animated characters whose words they speak … don’t think so hard.
The attractive, successful Fred from the original Scooby Doo will be portrayed as unattractive and unsuccessful in the new Velma series, and thus still allowed to be white. He will be voiced by the (oppressively white) Glenn Howerton. To justify the decision to race-swap only three out of the four main characters (instead of all four, as postmodern sensibilities would ordinarily require), Velma star and executive producer Mindy Kaling explained that “in no way is the gang defined by their whiteness, except for Fred”. When the news broke that Kaling’s Desi Velma would fall in love with the (now we know) definitively white Fred, gay Twitter (it’s the same as straight Twitter, but with more rainbows) exploded with rage. Kaling was personally insulted for her internalised colonial mindset and her regressive immigrant heteronormativity. If only she had been born white, she might have known how to virtue-signal properly.
The extraordinary naivety of Kaling’s would-be wokeness was amply illustrated one week later. Apparently browsing Twitter on her own, without her publicist’s permission, Kaling made the amateur error of “liking” a Tweet from “notorious TERF” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist; trust me, that’s an insult) J.K. Rowling, billionaire author of the Harry Potter books and infamous promoter of the dangerous libel that women born with male genitalia are not indistinguishable from women born without. Facing a hailstorm of trans hatred to compound her previous hailstorm of lesbian hatred, Kaling quickly unliked the Rowling Tweet. Then, in the Twitter equivalent of a Maoist self-criticism session, she even liked several of the accusatory Tweets condemning her own bad behaviour. The Philistine wishes her luck.
The Twitter tempest over the cultural heritage of Scooby Doo must surely be a sign of impending civilisational collapse. First comes the retreat into cultish beliefs, then the decline in fertility rates, and finally the barbarian invasions. The last of the ancients, Boethius, must have had the same inkling as he watched civilisation crumble all around him in sixth-century Italy. He sought consolation in philosophy, translating Aristotle into Latin—and writing The Consolation of Philosophy. A favourite of English monarchs, the Consolation was translated into Old English by Alfred the Great (the thirty-third great-grandfather of King Charles III) and into modern English by Queen Elizabeth I (a double first cousin to Charles III, fourteen and fifteen times removed). In between, it was translated into Middle English by … Geoffrey Chaucer.
The wheel of fortune (later to be made into a television game show) figures prominently in The Consolation of Philosophy, with Lady Philosophy herself reminding Boethius:
O thou fool of alle mortel fooles, if fortune
bygan to dwelle stable, she cesed than to ben fortune.
Chaucer picked up the theme in the first of his Canterbury Tales. The Knight’s Tale is a meditation on the wheel of fortune (the metaphor, not the game show). If anyone would appreciate his own hasty indictment (after 500 years) and conditional acquittal (after 650 years) on a capital offence, it’s Chaucer. The wheel of fortune may turn slow, but it grinds exceedingly rich.