Stones Left Unturned (Psst! More New Chaucer Life Records)

It has become increasingly clear to me that in recent years the gap between how I teach literature in the classroom and how I approach it in my own research had widened to the extent that I often assumed contradictory positions in my almost binary academic roles. My teaching has been shaped by the formative training I received at Cambridge’s English Faculty in the late 1990s, where manuscript studies peacefully coexisted with a dual devotion to, on the one hand, an institutionally sanctioned, rigorous practical criticism and its attendant exercises in close reading and, on the other, to the determined pursuit of a text’s intellectual context.

An early fifteenth-century plea roll from the Court of Common Pleas (CP 40), accessed at

In my case, the critical position that resulted from this twinning of two often antagonistic schools of reading, with manuscript studies hovering in a neutral zone, led to an excision of the writer qua author or agent altogether. A medieval text, however unstable, however much exposed to mouvance, always took centre stage—on this focal point both manuscript studies and practical criticism seemed to converge. The text, or the incarnated text in a manuscript instance, was always central and therefore its own self-sustaining subject. A text did not exist in a vacuum of course, but with its author long dead and buried by both time and Roland Barthes, the social configuration surrounding it could certainly be deployed, if studied and observed carefully enough, to extract more meaning from the text, to let it speak for itself, bypassing the author along the way. (This is why, I believe, New Historicism has been particularly appealing to those trained in practical criticism, since texts often appear to resist their contexts, of which the author was a part.) Critics of this method see in a text’s resistance to its historical context often an anachronistic projection of the modern reader’s own standpoint: we thus believe that we see our contemporary concerns foregrounded in historical texts.

This is how I found myself approaching texts in the classroom. By contrast, my research on manuscripts and archival material brought a pragmatic dilemma into sharp relief. With time, I came to the persuasion that medieval manuscripts, and therefore the texts they articulate, are essentially deictic artefacts. The further they are removed from their author and their originating context, the more fragmented and less satisfactory their meaning becomes. This holds true on a textual level as much as on a material level. Through variant textual readings each written-out text refers to those copies it is not: to understand the significance of a variant reading or scribal change, we need to see at least two divergent instances. Similarly, to understand how a text was read, or was meant to be read, we need to examine what is often referred to as the ‘manuscript context’, that is, its physical proximity to the other texts with which it has been paired or bound. This is not just a question of subsequent compilation: every medieval text, each copy of a work, was crafted by a scribe or scribal author for a particular manuscript instance or, as I prefer to call it given the author’s deictic presence, incarnation.

The upshot of this practice of reconstructing authors through manuscript study has reinvented the author not as a textual or para-textual phenomenon but as a contextual one, allowing the writer to exercise indirect intentionalism over the text from the inscrutable position of being outside the medieval manuscript. But in practice this aspect of manuscript studies often amounts to reverse-engineered authorial intentionalism: if we can recover the purpose, occasion, or reception of textual witnesses that were overseen by the author or produced in their lifetime, then we can infer their original or first meaning, particularly if a text was subsequently revised or rededicated. As medievalists we tend to get away with this intentionalism because it lies buried deep beneath our outwardly arcane practices of codicology and palaeography, and because our texts are profoundly unstable, porous, and semantically tampered with by all who handled or owned them. Even if a medieval writer could be said to be an author and intellectual proprietor of a text, then what is it exactly that he or she is an owner of? For all the difficulties we have with defining medieval authors, delineating the boundaries of a medieval text—even one that has reached us only in a single autograph copy—is intellectually frustrating. We are not afforded any textual stability; not by manuscript mouvance, not by scribal interference, and certainly not by a seemingly wilful rejection of auctoritas on the part of the writer.

Given the medieval text’s unwanted semantic instability, the paucity of corroborating information on the purpose, occasion, or reception of a text invariably led me to the sifting through records and other archival materials. Such work, certainly in my own practice, often follows a pattern of concentric circles, starting from the known biological originator of a text, its author. Gradually these circles become wider, extending to a writer’s known contacts, persons, or events mentioned in the text, and so on. My desire to pursue textual or authorial references in archival contexts is not rooted in historicism but in my formalist commitment to practical criticism and the primacy of the text as text. To my mind, the study of manuscripts and other written records is as much a part of close reading as is the attention we pay to the lineation of a poem. (I’m developing this theory further in my new book.)

As with the practice of close reading, finding archival traces of such social authors sometimes requires us simply to look again at familiar material but from an unfamiliar angle. And while there are a number of unknown life records on Gower, Lydgate, Skelton, and Hoccleve that I will be publishing in the coming months, here I would like to introduce two new life records for Chaucer that are not my discoveries, but that have escaped our notice for various reasons.

The first item is a record introduced by Helen Killick in her impressive doctoral dissertation, ‘Thomas Hoccleve as Clerk and Poet’ (York, 2010). Killick has added hundreds of new documents in Hoccleve’s hand, among them a grant made to Chaucer, dated 9 February 1400 (National Archives C 81/596/1351; the document has been transcribed and translated by Killick on pp. 30-31). Killick’s objective was not to find new Chaucer life records but to identify documents written by Hoccleve, and she correctly and persuasively shows that this record has indeed been written by him, yet without realising that the Chaucer life record she found hadn’t been spotted before. This record is not in listed in Martin Crow and Clair Olson’s Chaucer Life-Records; as such, it constitutes a new archival trace of the poet. Following the Cecily Chaumpaigne quitclaim found by Christopher Cannon and the brevia dicta baronibus record I located recently, this record, C 81/596/1351, raises the count of known Chaucer life records to 496

But the second item, now the 497th life record for the poet, potentially holds implications for theories of what Chaucer may have been up to in the spring of 1400. Unbeknownst to literary scholars, the genealogical researcher Douglas Richardson discovered a new plea for debt against Chaucer submitted to the Court of Common Pleas in the Easter term of 1400. Richardson posted this announcement in a forum for medieval genealogy.

I am transcribing and translating this find in full for the benefit of all Chaucerians:

© The National Archives The National Archives. This record is licensed under the Open Government Licence 3.0. Image credits: Anglo-American Legal Tradition,


1. Common Pleas, CP40/557, m. 78f. Robert Shirwynd and his wife Isabel, administrator of the estate of Walter Buckholt, sue Geoffrey Chaucer for debt. Easter term 1400.

(Margin: [London]ium) Robertus Shirwynd armiger et Isabella vxor suis administratrix bonorum et catallorum que fuerunt Walteri Bukholt, Armigeri, qui obiit intestatus, vt dicitur, in propriis personis suis optulent de iiijto die versus Galfridum Chaucer, Armigerum, de placito quod reddat eis vndecim libras vndecim solidos et vndecim denarios quos eis inuste detinet etc. Et ipse non venit Et preceptum fuit vicecomiti quod caperent eum etc. Et vicecomes modo mandat quod non est inventus etc. Ideo sicut prius capiat quod sit hic a die Pasche in vnum mensem pro Iustitiae etc.

(Margin: [London]) Robert Shirwynd, Esq., and his wife Isabella, administrator of the goods and chatells of Walter Bukholt, Esq., who died intestate, so called, in their own persons offered themselves on the fourth day against Geoffrey Chaucer, Esq., in a plea that he render to them 11 pound, 11 shillings, and 11 pence that he unjustly withholds etc. And he did not come. And the sheriff was ordered to summon him etc. And the sheriff reports that he is not found etc. Therefore, as before, the sheriff is commanded that he arrests him so that he be here within one month of Easter[1] for justice etc.

The record itself deals with an outstanding debt incurred by Chaucer while he was clerk of the king’s works. The plaintiff is the widow of Walter Buckholt, acting as the administrator for her late husband’s estate. Edith Rickert believed that this matter had been settled in 1398, but the new record indicates that only £3 9s of the original debt of £14 1s 11d had been paid, provided that this plea record concerns the same dispute

This find is intriguing because the formula used by the sheriff to report that the defendant has not responded is not the common phrase that the sheriff  ‘didn’t have the body of the defendant’, but, in this case, the formula reads non est inventus, ‘[he] is not found’. This particular turn of phrase is generally used in instances where the defendant is either in hiding or travelling. The county in the left-hand margin is illegible, except for the ending, which actually agrees with the same scribe’s wording for ‘Londonium’. During Easter term 1400, that is, 3 to 27 May, Chaucer was residing in Westminster Abbey, which was almost next door to the Court of Common Pleas: finding him should not have been a difficulty for the authorities. But since the court requires Chaucer to appear before 18 May, this document must date from the start of the law term. In other words, this record appears to suggest that at the start of May 1400 Chaucer was not in Westminster or London but was travelling somewhere.

So why do we keep finding these new records now after decades of archival silence? To my mind, the answer comes down to something as banal as shifting assumptions. Twenty years ago or so, there was talk of having exhausted the archive, of believing, perhaps with a sense of resignation, that we had found, filed, and evaluated every record there was to be found. After all, how many documents can have possibly survived from that period? One answer is, quite simply: many, many more than we, as literary scholars, have assumed. And some of the biggest archives have barely been touched. Just consider this prospect: in 1400, about 40,000 Londoners lived inside the city walls, including infants and persons of no means, yet there are about 10,000 legal pleas submitted every year in the wider London region alone. What are the chances that our social authors do not appear in these archives?

[1] 18 May. Easter fell on 18 April in 1400, and the Easter law term ran from 3 to 27 May.

Sebastian Sobecki is Professor of Medieval English Literature and Culture at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. His latest book, Last Words: The Public Self and the Social Author in Late Medieval England, will be published later this year by Oxford University Press.