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Chaucer Was Cleared of Rape, but What He May Have Done Instead Remains Illegal Today

They can’t prosecute you for hiring away somebody else’s employee, but it’s a breach of contract for the employee if she violates a noncompete clause.

"Geoffrey Chaucer" (1882) by Sir George J. Frampton
Stephen Chung/LNP/Shutterstock
A staff member at London’s Guildhall Art Gallery views “Geoffrey Chaucer” (1882) by Sir George J. Frampton prior to an exhibition earlier this year.

The Western canon dodged a bullet last week when Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400), author of The Canterbury Tales, was cleared of raping a woman named Cecily Chaumpaigne. Suspicion had been cast by a 1380 legal document, discovered in the late nineteenth century, in which Chaumpaigne said (translated here from the original Latin):

Let all know that I, Cecily Chaumpaigne, daughter of the late William Chaumpaigne and his wife Agnes, have remitted, released, and for myself and my heirs in perpetuity wholly quitclaimed to Geoffrey Chaucer, esq., all manner of actions related to my rape.

In the original Latin, “my rape” is the more ambiguous “de raptu meo,” which can mean rape or, more vaguely, abduction. But the document still caused a stir. Had the man sometimes described as “the father of English poetry” committed sexual assault? Chaumpaigne was not available for comment (she’d been dead five centuries), but it didn’t look good. Chaucer’s reputation grew shakier still after 1993, when Christopher Cannon, Bloomberg distinguished professor of English and classics at Johns Hopkins, disclosed a second copy of Chaumpaigne’s deed of release from which the reference to de raptu meo had been removed. To Sebastian Sobecki, professor of later medieval English literature at the University of Toronto, it was hard not to suspect Chaucer evaded punishment for an act of sexual violence, assisted perhaps by some fourteenth-century Roy Cohn. By the 1990s, a biographical detail like that threatened Chaucer’s continued presence in English literature classes.

But further investigation by Sobecki, working in collaboration with Euan Roger, principal records specialist for the medieval team at the United Kingdom’s National Archives, established that Chaumpaigne’s quitclaim did not concern an alleged violation of Chaumpaigne’s maidenhead. Rather, it concerned what today we’d call a noncompete agreement. The “abduction” indicated by the phrase de raptu meo wasn’t the Sabine-women sort. Chaucer and Chaumpaigne were co-defendants in a labor dispute concerning Chaucer’s apparent hiring of Chaumpaigne away from her previous employer, one Thomas Staundon. Roger and Sobecki fished a legal writ out of storage in a salt mine in Cheshire showing that Chaucer and Chaumpaigne were, in 1379, accused by Staundon of depriving him of Chaumpaigne’s continued labor. The documents discovered previously, but dated the following year, represented some sort of settlement of this labor dispute between the three parties.

The Chaucer findings are of great interest to my wife, who is a Middle English scholar, and to Cannon, a family friend, because the quality of Chaucer’s personal character matters a lot to anybody who teaches his work. Myself, I’m more interested in the Statute of Laborers, the law that Staundon accused Chaumpaigne and Chaucer of violating. For all the advances we claim to have acquired over the past 643 years in labor-management relations, a modified version of the Statute of Laborers lingers to this day.

Management doesn’t like disease outbreaks pushing up the price of labor. During the past couple of years, it’s been a Covid-driven “great resignation.” In England during the 1350s, it was the Black Death of 1347–9. Where the relationship between Covid and the great resignation is complex and indirect, the relationship between the bubonic plague epidemic and the availability of labor was not. The plague killed off perhaps one-quarter of England’s population, maybe more. The resulting labor shortage baffled and infuriated Britain’s ruling class because a labor shortage was not something it had ever seen before. Centuries would pass, and wages would stay the same. The preindustrial economy yielded no productivity increases sufficient to boost real wages, and even nominal wages scarcely rose because there wasn’t much inflation in the preindustrial economy. Adam Smith wasn’t around to explain how the Black Death had affected the supply of and demand for labor because he wouldn’t be born for another four centuries.

By 1351, King Edward III had had enough. He issued the Statute of Laborers, which deplored “excessive wages” being demanded and decreed that if any workman or servant retained in service “do depart from the said service before the end of the term agreed, without permission or reasonable cause, he shall undergo the penalty of imprisonment.” You quit your job, you go to jail. The king also threatened with imprisonment anyone who would employ such a disloyal worker. This prospective employer was forbidden to lure the workman or servant away by offering more compensation “than was customary.”

As you might guess, the Statute of Laborers didn’t work very well. Six and a half centuries later, though, management worked the kinks out. Instead of prosecuting people for hiring away labor, it now restricts lower-wage employees from bidding up their price by going to work for a competitor through noncompete clauses shoehorned into employment contracts. Noncompete clauses made some sense perhaps for high-level employees privy to company secrets. But companies during the past few decades have imposed them on hourly workers too. This was made easier by the decline in union representation that began in the 1950s and accelerated in the 1970s. Businesses didn’t especially need lower-wage workers to pledge not to work for a competitor. But the asymmetrical relationship between labor and management became so great that they did it anyway. They did it because they could. Today, about 15 percent of workers lacking college degrees and about 14 percent earning $40,000 or less are subject to noncompete agreements. Nearly one-third of all noncompete agreements are imposed on workers making less than $13 per hour.

Until it was sued in 2014 by the New York attorney general, Jimmy John’s barred the people who slapped together sandwiches in its fast-food restaurants from working for a competitor within two years after leaving the company. Starbucks imposes noncompete agreements on its baristas. Dunkin’ Donuts does the same with its employees. This is insane. Starbucks baristas don’t have trade secrets to give away. So why do these companies do it? Because noncompete clauses put downward pressure on wages. A worker’s option to go work for another coffee shop or fast food chain compels the boss to pay slightly more than would otherwise be the case. Workers in states where noncompete clauses aren’t enforced vigorously earn more than workers in states where they are.

Under President Barack Obama, the White House Council of Economic Advisers issued a report in 2016 on the harm done by noncompete agreements, and in response states started moving to ban their imposition on low-wage workers. In 2019 Maine banned them for any worker making 400 percent or less of the federal poverty level (currently $26,500 for a family of four); Rhode Island banned them for any worker making less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level; and New Hampshire banned them for workers making 200 percent or less of the federal hourly minimum wage (currently $7.25). Similar laws were also passed in Massachusetts (2018), Maryland (2019), Washington state (2019), Virginia (2020), Oregon (2021), Nevada (2021), and the District of Columbia (2021).

In July 2021 President Joe Biden issued an executive order promoting competition in the economy that encouraged the Federal Trade Commission to impose a national ban or limit on noncompete agreements. The FTC held a workshop on noncompetes the following year. It isn’t clear how any FTC-imposed ban would be enforced. California has a law barring enforcement of noncompete agreements, but a 2019 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that 45 percent of the state’s businesses maintained them anyway. Lower-wage workers are easy to intimidate even when the law isn’t on management’s side. Another problem is that an FTC ban would face a likely legal challenge from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which maintains the agency lacks jurisdiction over the matter. “Non-competes have a legitimate place in contract law,” the Chamber’s Sean Heather, senior vice president of antitrust policy, told The Wall Street Journal in June. Republican FTC Commissioner Noah Phillips agrees. But as FTC chair Lina Khan pointed out to the Journal, the rationale for noncompetes “really falls apart” when they’re imposed on low-wage workers.

One way or another, courts, state legislatures, and federal agencies will in the coming years eliminate noncompete agreements for today’s Cecily Chaumpaignes. But it’s amazing and appalling to me that this perverse definition of raptus continues, in the meantime, to enjoy legal sanction.