Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Clerk's Tale"

Genre: a moral tale, like the "Man of Law's Tale," with many attributes of the "Saint's Legend" or "Saint's Life": heroine is tested by a character of dubious moral intent or outright evil nature; heroine's steadfastness is admired; heroine's steadfastness brings about a "miracle" (return of the children, unharmed). However, like other tales of this type that Chaucer adapts for CT, the moral importance of this tale is complicated by some extremely uncomfortable changes someone (Chaucer, narrator?) has made in the plot, characterization, and narration of the tale.

Form: Six narrative "parts" composed in rime royal, seven-line stanzas rhyming ababbcc. This is also the stanza of the "Man of Law's Tale" (Custance), the "Prioress's Tale" (a Miracle of the Virgin about a little martyred boy), and the "Second Nun's Tale" (Saint's Life of St. Cecelia). Since the sources and analogues of these tales occur in a wide variety of forms, but none of them is stanzaic, we must conclude that Chaucer considered this stanza particularly appropriate for tales of high moral importance.   Can we also conclude that the tales are meant to be read uncritically, as moral exempla?  This is one of the great interpretive cruces of Chaucer criticism for all of these tales.

        For a related stanza form devoted to short historical biographies told with moral intent (and outright lack of success!), see the "Monk's Tale," in the unique "Monk's Tale stanza": eight lines rhyming ababbcbc. For the inscribed audience's response, see the Knight's and Host's interruption of the tale at VII.2767 ff. (252).

Source: Petrarch's De obedientia ac fide uxoria mythologia (A Fable of Wifely Obedience and Faithfulness), a Latin translation of Boccaccio's Decameron's last tale (day 10. tale10). The tale type was widely distributed in European and Middle Eastern where it might circulate under titles like "The Monster Bridegoom," "The Patience of a Princess," or "East of the Sun and West of the Moon." Except for its happy ending, it also resembles the tale of Cupid's doomed affair with the mortal, Psyche, as told by the Hellenistic author, Apuleius, in The Golden Ass. For a study of how the CT version accentuates both the religious and the secular aspects of the story, increasing the difficulty of our interpretation, see Anne Middleton in Studies in the Age of Chaucer 2 (1980) 121-50.

Characters: Griselde, her father, Janicula, Walter the marquis, "the people," Griselde's daughter and son, the "ugly sergeant," and the Earl of Panico.

Summary: Walter, the monstrous "markys," is prevailed upon by his people to wed that his lineage might not die out, leaving them without a ruler. He chooses Griselde as his wife, though she is "povreliche yfostred up" as the daughter of old Janicula, "a man / Which that was holden povrest of hem alle" (IV.213, 205-6). Walter asks Janicula for her hand in marriage, and swears Griselde to an oath of absolute obedience (IV.351-7). Then he has his female servants strip her of her lowly clothing and they array her in the richest garments for the procession to the castle.

After the wedding and her first child's birth, Walter longs "To tempte his wyf, hir sadnesse for to knowe" (IV.451). Saying the people don't want the child of a low-born woman to rule them, he orders the child taken away in a fashion that implies the girl will be killed, but Griselde obeys and asks only that the child be properly buried. The girl is secretly sent to Bologna to be raised by Walter's sister, but soon he wants to test Griselde again. Her boy is sent away like her daughter was, and she once more obeys. Then he says "the people" demand he take a noble-born wife, and orders Griselde's daughter brought to marry him as if she were the new bride. Griselde obeys all, asking only to be allowed to return to her father in the poor smock in which she met Walter, and cautioning Walter not to tempt the new bride as he had her because "she is fostred . . . / Moore tendrely" and can't stand such "adversitee" (IV.1040-1, 1042).

Walter, amazed, reveals all and reunites her with her children. Griselde faints, weeps, and praises God and Walter for saving her children. The Clerk warns his listeners not to seek women like Griselde "now-a-dayes" for "the Wyves love of Bathe," and "Lenvoy de Chaucer" urges "archewyves" to treat their husbands badly.

Interpretive Issues:

1) This tale has inspired almost as much interpretive discussion as the Wife of Bath's Prologue, which it directly addresses (IV.1170). Because the narrator/Clerk directly addresses the Wife of Bath, this tale tends to be seen as a direct answer to the view of women's roles in marriage we see in her prologue. However, the scathing irony of "Lenvoy de Chaucer," which most scholars agree is mistitled by a scribe, destabilizes any claim of literal moral significance. What specific aspects of the Wife's character does the tale appear to "answer," and how might irony position the Clerk's "real" intentions somewhere between the Wife's version of women's behavior and Griselde's? Or, to ask the question another way, would you want either woman for a wife if you were a husband?

2) In the years since the "Marriage Group" critics had positioned the tale as described above, a major re-examination of the tale as a moral allegory has taken place. Common Christian doctrine held that soul was the "bride of Christ," and that at death the soul was transfigured in its wedding with the Divine (881). This is most obvious in the striking way Griselde anticipates her return to poverty: "'Naked out of my fadres hous,' quod she, / 'I cam, and naked moot I turne agayn'" (IV.871-2). The debate then turned on the many changes Chaucer (or the Clerk) made in the tale which both intensified the apparent maliciousness of Walter's ("God's"?) actions, and which increased Griselde's complete obedience. For instance, ll. 647-9, in which Griselde assures Walter she does not mind her children's slaying as long as it's Walter's command, are Chaucer's addition. Similarly, ll. 932-8, the speaker's aside comparing Griselde to Job (for those who didn't get all the previous borrowings, like 647-9) and praising women's capacity for humility and faithfulness also are Chaucer's addition. How does this affect our reading of the tale's intent? Especially, how will we read this if we decide it is the Clerk's rather than Chaucer's version of the tale? (See l. 935--"Though clerkes preise wommen but a lite, / The kan no man in humbleesse hym acquite As womman kan" etc.)

3) The tale's echoes of the Wife of Bath's Tale are numerous, including 71-2, 155-8, 326-9, etc. However, that presupposes that the "Clerk's Tale" was written to oppose the current WoBT with its rapist knight and the loathly lady. What if our conjecture about "Shipman's Tale" is correct? Compare ShipT's twinned usages of "ynough" in a sexual/monetary sense (VII.219, 380) with these lines in ClT: 365 and 1051. What kind of "sufficiency" is being attested to by Walter in these lines, and how might it be answering the Merchant's wife in ShipT?

4) After the first temptation of the three, Walter is said to have "assayed hire ynogh bifore" and the narrator (Clerk? Chaucer?) objects to those who praise the uncanny thoroughness with which Walter "tests" his wife: "what neded it / Hire for to tempte, and alwey moore and moore, / Though som men preise it for a subtil wit? / But as for me, I seye that yvele it sit / To assaye a wyf whan that it is no nede, / And putten hire in angwyssh and in drede" (IV.458-62). The common-sense objection to this tale's literal sense jams the reader into the need for another explanation (allegory?) while not offering any assistance in the form of explicit interpretation or even further similarities between the tale's situation and the soul's refinement in God's testing. This issue really extends #2, above, but it also complicates the situation because the speaker has specifically judged Walter's behavior "yvele," seeming to foreclose the allegorical identification of Walter with God. See the note in RC on page 881 regarding the Nominalist doctrine of "potentia dei absoluta et ordinata" (God's absolute power and his power to actualize possibilities and to leave others forever unactualized). The point the Occamists are making involves the problem of knowing God's purposes, or "privytee" in the Miller's words, once one considers that the very notion of "purpose" would be, itself, a creation of God. Could God have been more like Walter?  Could God, in fact, actually be a good deal worse than Walter, since God is (by Nominalist doctrine) unknowable to mortal minds?

 5) The tale's denouement, with the false marriage and the revelation of the children's survival, will be strangely familiar to those who know either the French or Middle English versions of "Lay le Freyn." Do the tale's folktale elements increase or decrease the sense of tension between its potential for sacred allegory and its critique of male behavior vs. female endurance? How many other elements of the tale might you find comparable to material from the folk tales collected by the Grimm collection, for instance? How do the folk tale versions in the Sources and Analogues differ most strikingly from this version?

6) The virtue represented by Griselde seems strongly identified with gender politics when the tale is not interpreted allegorically, so strongly, in fact, that it may be impossible for modern readers to arrive at a satisfactory sense of the model of disinterested caritas she might represent. If you are interested in a Zen koan which casts a male in Griselde's situation, click here.

7) The tale's date of composition might tell us something about Chaucer's intentions, since (unlike the fictional Clerk) he is on a definite historical path from youth to age and that clearly has something to do with the prologue's repeated references to time and aging. Since the writer of the prologue knows that both Petrarch and Giovanni da Lignano have died, this means the prologue must have been written after 1383 when the second of the two died (see 879-80).  What would a Chaucer in his forties think about Walter's activities, and Griselde's response, and how might Chaucer's intentions differ if this was the product of his youth, before he married and had children but while he was interested in philosophy and the imitation of his Italian and French poetic masters?

        Scholars call a date arrived at by the process above a "terminus a quo" or boundary after which the tale-composition must have started. What would be the "terminus ad quem," the boundary in time before which the tale must have been finished? Do any details of the prologue or tale (or other tales which might be datable) correlate to this terminus? Compare, for instance, the attitudes of the speakers in the Reeve's and Merchant's tales' prologues.

8) The stanza following the Envoy in most manuscripts contains the Host's praise of the Clerk's tale and his wish that his own wife might hear it. He then says "That is a gentil tale for the nones, / As for my purpos, wiste ye my wille; / But thyng that wol nat be, lat it be stille" (IV.1212e-g). This mysterious, rueful and resigned statement seems to suggest Harry has much on his mind concerning his wife. The "Epilogue to the Merchant's Tale" continues the Host's concern for his disagreements with his wife (IV.2419-2440). After Chaucer's "Tale of Melibee," which specifically concerns patience in seeking vengeance and a wife's calming advice, the Host breaks out with a specific explanation of his worries about his wife (VII.1889-1923). How does this "cut-up" "Host's Tale" work to focus the concerns of the audience over the larger course of the tale-telling? How might it relate to Harry's desire to sponsor this contest of stories and his responses to the incidents of violence which occasionally threaten to break out, especially his own involving the Pardoner? With what kind of awareness do Chaucer's readers' have to read in order to detect this pattern in the tale-telling cycle?

Click here for some recent scholarship on "Clerk's Tale" and "Merchant's Tale"

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