Chaucer and the Enforcement of the Labor Statutes

  • Kellie Robertson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


On October 12, 1385, Chaucer was appointed to the commission of the peace in Kent. He served as a justice of the peace (JP) for the next four years until he was appointed Clerk of the King’s Works in 1389. These years have always posed a problem for Chaucer’s biographers: they are the middle of his poetic career, seemingly transitional years between his courtly dream vision poetry and the later frame tales. They are some of the best-documented years in terms of official records, yet they have provoked divergent interpretations in terms of their import for Chaucer both as a poet and as a Ricardian servant. For Donald Howard, the late 1380s were “the worst of times” when the poet traded a relatively secure urban existence for debt-ridden rustication. For Derek Pearsall, on the other hand, the Kent years provided a well-deserved respite from the poet’s “arduous and thankless” activities as controller of customs as well as a necessary (and presumably welcome) distance from a court about to be thrown into disarray by the Appellant crisis.1 Both biographies imply that Chaucer, politically astute as ever, chose to ride out these turbulent years in a Kent backwater rather than brave them in a neighborhood nearer Westminster. Both biographies also describe these years as dominated by Chaucer’s single documented return to London in the fall of 1386, when he sat in the so-called “Wonderful Parliament” and testified at the Scrope-Grosvenor trial.


Fourteenth Century Good Woman Legal Fiction Poetic Work Canterbury Tale 
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  1. 1.
    Donald Howard, Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1987), pp. 383–400;Google Scholar
  2. Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992), pp. 202–209.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    I borrow the term “social imaginary” from Paul Strohm, Hochon’s Arrow: The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), esp. pp. 1–9.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    All citations from Chaucer refer to Larry D. Benson, gen. ed., The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed. (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    For the documents relating to Chaucer’s service on the peace commission, see Chaucer Life-Records, ed. Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 348–63. Chaucer served from October 1385 until, at the latest, July 15, 1389, as he is not named on the commission of the peace for Kent issued on that date; this change is most probably attributable to his appointment three days earlier as Clerk of the King’s Works. Chaucer’s name is omitted from the commission dated May 24, 1386 but then included again in the commission dated June 28, 1386. It is unclear whether or not this omission was accidental or whether it indicates a short break in Chaucer’s service.Google Scholar
  6. 5.
    The argument of the next few paragraphs draws primarily on Putnam, Enforcement, pp. 57–92; Putnam, Proceedings, esp. p. cxxx; and Rosamond Sillem, “Commissions of the Peace, 1380–1485,” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 10 (1932–33): 81–104.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Also useful is Thomas Skyrme, History of the Justices of the Peace (Chichester: Countrywise Press, 1994), esp. pp. 81–97.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    The only substantive consideration of Chaucer’s time spent as a JP is Margaret Galway’s “Geoffrey Chaucer, J.P. and M.P,” MLR 36 (1941): 1–36. The article is less interested in Chaucer’s duties as a JP than in Galway’s contention that Chaucer acted as the king’s steward in Eltham and Sheen during the time he was a JP in Kent.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 8.
    For example, 170 out of the 275 trespass indictments that appear on the Essex peace rolls for the years 1377 to 1379 are breaches of the labor statutes; see Elizabeth Furber, Essex Sessions of the Peace, 1351, 1377–1379, Essex Archaeological Society, Occasional Publications, no. 3 (Colchester: Essex Archaeological Society, 1953).Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    For an example of this trial, see E.G. Kimball, Rolls of the Gloucestershire Sessions of the Peace, 1361–98, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society 62 (1947), p. 12.Google Scholar
  11. See also Bertha Putnam, “Maximum wage-laws for priests after the black death, 1348–81,” American Historical Review 21 (1915–16): 12–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For a helpful overview of Chaucer’s fellow justices, see Galway, “Geoffrey Chaucer,” pp. 7–12. James Hulbert, Chaucer’s Official Life (New York: Phaeton Press, 1912), expresses skepticism about whether or not Chaucer would actually have met some of his fellow justices (particularly those of higher rank). Hulbert seems to imply that the office would have been merely “honorary” for them (p. 53). This skepticism seems unwarranted on several counts: first, during Chaucer’s appointment as a JP, Simon Burley was part of the quorum of justices necessary for convening the peace commission; without Burley’s presence, the commission could not do its work. Second, the Kent commission for the peace in 1386 appoints “the said Robert” either Robert Belknap or Robert Tresilian (head of the court of Common Pleas and head of the King’s Bench, respectively) to be custodian of the rolls; presumably, they would have had to attend the sessions to attain the rolls. Finally, negative (though convincing) evidence, which I discuss in more detail below, appears in the form of the articles of impeachment against Burley, which accuse him of mishandling his duties on the commission and his followers of disrupting the commission’s proceedings.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    See David Wallace, Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), p. xiv. Chaucer’s appointment was “associational” in the medieval sense of this term insofar as he was appointed to an existing commission “de associacione” to fill a place made vacant by the death of Thomas Shardelowe, the king’s chief steward in Kent. This appointment by association circumvented the usual (and slightly more public) system of appointment, thus Chaucer’s appointment, it can be inferred, was solely at royal discretion. For the form of Chaucer’s association as a justice, see Crow, Chaucer’s Life-Records, pp. 348–49. For complaints against appointment by association, see Putnam, Proceedings, pp. lxxvi-lxxx. There were sporadic attempts on the part of the Commons to see that the make-up of peace commissions was determined either through local election or was to be overseen by Parliament; these attempts were, in general, short-lived.Google Scholar
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    G.O. Sayles, ed., Select Cases in the Court of the King’s Bench under Edward III, vol. 6, Seiden Society 82 (London: Bernard Quaritch, 1965), pp. 110—11. On the physical dangers faced by the JPs, see Putnam, Proceedings, pp. cxi-cxii.Google Scholar
  15. 19.
    On Archbishop Courtenay’s labor troubles with the Wingham carters in 1390, see chapter 1 above. Earlier in the fourteenth century, rents and services were refused on properties at Otford belonging to the Cathedral Priory of Canterbury in 1356 and then again in 1388. In 1367 at Northfleet (one of the principal demesne manors of the see’s north coast), the archbishop’s agents were unable to compel reaping services from all the tenants’ holdings. For details of these instances, see F.R.H. Du Boulay, The Lordship of Canterbury: An Essay on Medieval Society (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1966), pp. 175, 189. Labor services in Kent, while generally light, were heavier on ecclesiastical properties; see R.A.L. Smith, Canterbury Cathedral Priory: A Study in Monastic Administration (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1943), pp. 119–27. On labor unrest in Kent more generally,Google Scholar
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  17. 20.
    Alan Harding, “The Revolt against the Justices,” in R.H. Hilton and T.H. Aston, eds., The English Rising of 1381 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 165–93. On the positions of the justices more generally,Google Scholar
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  19. 22.
    Nicholas Brooks, “The Organization and Achievements of the Peasants of Kent and Essex in 1381,” in H. Mayr-Harting and R.I. Moore, eds., Studies in Medieval History Presented to R.H.C. Davis (London: Hambledon Press, 1985), pp. 252–55.Google Scholar
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  23. 23.
    For a discussion of Belknap’s involvement as reported by the Anonimalle chronicler, see Nigel Saul, Richard II (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 57–58.Google Scholar
  24. 25.
    The most thorough discussion of Chaucer’s relation to the court factionalism during this time is Paul Strohm, “Politics and Poetics: Usk and Chaucer in the 1380s,” in Lee Patterson, ed., Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 1380–1530 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 83–112. Strohm’s argument differs from mine, however, in that he sees the Kent years as the culmination of a “series of prudent adjustments” (p. 96) on Chaucer’s part that insulated him from the worst of the Appellant Crisis that was to hit Westminster.Google Scholar
  25. 26.
    Knighton, an avowedly Lancastrian chronicler, remarks cuttingly that Burley, a man worth only twenty marks through his own inheritance, came to be worth more than three thousand marks in just a few years of Richard’s service; see Knighton, pp. 500–501. This remark is echoed by Thomas Walsingham who further justifies Burley’s beheading on account of his bad character: “fueratque intolerabiliter superbus et arrogans, oppressor paupe-rum, osor Ecclesiae, moechus et adulter”; see his Historia Anglicana, ed. Henry Thomas Riley, 2 vols. (London: Longman, 1864), vol. 2, p. 174.Google Scholar
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    On the Legend’s possible debt to literary “courts of love,” see, for example, James I. Wimsatt, Chaucer and the French Poets (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968), pp. 94–96.Google Scholar
  28. The only full-length monograph devoted to reading Chaucer’s narratives in the context of fourteenth-century judicial practice, Joseph Allen Hornsby, Chaucer and the Law (Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1988), gives Chaucer’s time as a JP only two pages (pp. 24–25) and doesn’t discuss the legal language in the Prologue to the Legend at all.Google Scholar
  29. 34.
    Like the Legend’s recent editors, Janet Cowen and George Kane, The Legend Of Good Women (East Lansing, MI: Colleagues Press, 1995), p. 140, I believe that the G-Prologue bears marks of authorial (as opposed to scribal) revision. While the arguments for dating the earlier version to the late 1380s and the later to ca. 1394–96 put forward by John Lowes are not all equally convincing, several differences between the two Prologues witness the aptness of this time frame: for example, Gomits Alceste’s order to present the poem to Queen Anne found at F 496–97 (a reference that would no longer be appreciated after her death in 1394); additionally, unlike F, G refers to the poet’s aging (G 261–63, 315, and 400–401) and adds a translation of a sermon by Innocent III to the list of the poet’s works (G 414–15).Google Scholar
  30. See John Lowes, “The Prologue to the Legend of Good Women considered in its Chronological Relations,” PMLA 20 (1905): 745–864, and “The Two Prologues to the Legend of Good Women: A New Test,” in Anniversary Papers by Colleagues and Pupils of George Lyman Kittredge (Boston and London: Ginn and Co., 1913), pp. 95–104. While few critics have argued for the priority of the F-version,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. see Sheila Delaney, The Naked Text: Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), pp. 34–43, for a recent instance.Google Scholar
  32. 35.
    See Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 19–20.Google Scholar
  33. 36.
    The passage on the flower and the leaf also appears in the F-version, but there it is unconnected with the poet’s work (F 188–96). For details on the debate between the parties of the flower and the leaf as May day ritual, see the introduction to D.A. Pearsall, ed., The Floure and the Leafe and the Assembly of Ladies (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962). The followers of the leaf are usually the “chaste faithful and valorous” lead by Diana, while the followers of the flower are the “idle and pleasure loving” lead by Flora. The qualities assigned to leaf and flower vary from poet to poet, but the dominant allegory is clear enough: the party of the leaf represents “serious achievement and steadfastness,” while the flower is associated with “idleness and frivolity.”Google Scholar
  34. 37.
    On this new legal use of intention and imagination, see J.G. Bellamy, The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970). For examples of how the 1388 articles of impeachment use this wording, see RP, vol. 3, pp. 228–45. Burly and Tresilian (among others) “conspireront & ymagineront traiterousement la Mort et Destruction de ceux que feuront affentantz a la fesance de la Commission et estatut faitz a darrein parlement” (article 8); they are similarly accused on account of “lour ditz tresons traiterousement ymaginez” (article 10).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Richard Firth Green, A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), pp. 299–305, argues that an accused’s intention was not generally considered in fourteenth-and fifteenth-century criminal and civil law. For the legal definitions of the term, see the MED, s.v. entente (n.) 7. Law. (a) A legal claim, a demand; (b) the provisions, substance, or essence of a contract, a law, a will; the meaning or purport of a document in the eyes of the law; s.v. entencioun (n.) 6. Law. The substance or provisions (of a document).Google Scholar
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    On the frequency of this charge, see Anne Hudson, The Premature Reformation: Wyclijfite Texts and Lollard History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 314–17.Google Scholar
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    Readings of the Prologue in relation to the antifeminist tradition include Sheila Delany, “Rewriting Good Women: Gender and the Anxiety of Influence in Two Late-Medieval Texts,” in Julian Wasserman and Robert J. Blanch, eds., Chaucer in the Eighties (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986), pp. 75–92;Google Scholar
  38. Elaine Hansen Tuttle, “Irony and the Antifeminist Narrator in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 82 (1983): 11–31;Google Scholar
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  40. 46.
    For a discussion of master-servant relations as governed by the labor ordinances, see Madonna J. Hettinger, “Defining the Servant: Legal and Extra-Legal Terms of Employment in Fifteenth-century England,” in The Work of Work: Servitude, Slavery, and Labor in Medieval England, ed. Allen Frantzen and Douglas Moffat (Glasgow: Cruithne Press, 1994), pp. 206–28.Google Scholar
  41. 48.
    S.F.C. Milšom, Historical Foundations of the Common Law, 2nd ed. (London: Butterworths, 1981), p. 287, notes that it was a stretch to consider economic transgression as trespass—that is, direct and forcible breaches of the king’s peace—but that is precisely the direction that juridical development took over the course of the fourteenth century.Google Scholar
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    Morris S. Arnold, ed., Select Cases of Trespass from the King’s Courts, 1307–1399, vol. 2, Seiden Society (London: Seiden Society, 1987), p. 293.Google Scholar
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    Green, Crisis of Truth, p. 148. Legal historian S.F.C. Milšom, Studies in the History of the Common Law (London: Hambledon Press, 1985), p. 85, notes that the second half of the fourteenth century saw a growing number of trespass cases that employed “fictitious” elements in their writs “which in truth contained no element of breach of the peace.”Google Scholar
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    For the most extensive discussion of the development of the Latin dream vision tradition from its inception to its reception by medieval writers, see Steven F. Kruger, Dreaming in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. A.C. Spearing, Medieval Dream-Poetry (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976) concisely summarizes the Latin and French traditions and then shows how this tradition was adapted by English dream-writers.Google Scholar
  46. For other recent treatments of the form, see J. Stephen Russell, The English Dream Vision: Anatomy of a Form (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988)Google Scholar
  47. and Kathryn L. Lynch, The High Medieval Dream Vision: Poetry, Philosophy, and Literary Form (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988).Google Scholar
  48. Other considerations oí Piers in relation to labor are found in Lawrence M. Clopper, “Need Men and Women Labor? Langland’s Wanderer and the Labor Ordinances,” in Chaucer’s England, ed. Barbara Hannawalt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), pp. 110–29; and Derek Pearsall, “Piers Plowman and the Problem of Labour,” in The Problem of Labour in Fourteenth-Century England, ed. James Bothwell et al. (York: York Medieval Press, 2000), pp. 123–32.Google Scholar
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    On the connection between Lollardy and the vernacular, see Anne Hudson, “Wyclif and the English Language,” in A. Kenny, ed., Wyclif in his Times (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), pp. 85–103;Google Scholar
  50. and Margaret Aston, “Wyclif and the Vernacular,” in Anne Hudson and Michael Wilks, eds., From Ockham to Wyclif, Studies in Church History Subsidia 5 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), pp. 281–330. Like Sheila Delaney, Naked Text, pp. 115–23, I find Chaucer’s language in the Prologue to be resonant with the debate over Lollard Bible translation. For another consideration of the phrase “naked text,” see Andrew Cole, “Chaucer’s English Lesson,” Speculum (2002): 1141–48 [1128–67].Google Scholar
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    See Wendy Scase, Piers Plowman and the New Anti-clericalism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), pp. 125–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    For the text of Usk’s appeal of Northhampton, see A Book of London English, ed. R.W. Chambers and M. Daunt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1931).Google Scholar
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    For the chronology of Northampton’s condemnations and the queen’s intercessions on his behalf, see Ruth Bird, The Turbulent London of Richard II (London: Longmans, 1949). It is perhaps telling that the death threats are omitted in the later G-version; after all, where Alceste successfully intervenes on Geoffrey’s behalf, Richard was to petition unsuccessfully for the lives of Chaucer’s fellow justices Burley and Tresilian in 1388.Google Scholar
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    On this strain of the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century reception of Chaucer, see Derek Brewer, Chaucer: The Critical Heritage, 1385–1933, 2 vols. (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), esp. vol. 1, pp. 107–109.Google Scholar
  55. On Chaucer in the early modern period more generally, see Alice Miskimin, The Renaissance Chaucer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975).Google Scholar
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    William Morris, The Life and Death of Jason, in The Collected Works of Willliam Morris, ed. May Morris, 24 vols. (London: Longmans, 1910–15), vol. 2, pp. 259–60.Google Scholar
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    Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Leslie Stephen, 63 vols. (London, 1885–1900), vol. 10, p. 164.Google Scholar
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    Quoted in Caroline Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion, 3 vols. (New York: Russell and Russell, 1960), vol. 2, part III, p. 117. For a list of references to Chaucer as a Victorian “child poet,” see Carolyn P. Collette, “Chaucer and Victorian Medievalism: Culture and Society,” Poetka 29–30 (1989): 115–25.Google Scholar
  61. For another view of Chaucer’s nineteenth-century reception, see Stephanie Trigg, Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).Google Scholar

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© Kellie Robertson 2006

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