The Host prods the Clerk on to his tale, but gives a list of cautionary advice for his telling of it: cheer up, don’t be boring, be entertaining, but for heaven’s sake don’t be too clever rhetorically. It’s interesting that the Clerk receives instructions which no one else has needed.
The Clerk of Oxford mollifies the Host, and then announces that his tale will come from a Paduan, in fact Francis Petrarca (Petrarch), who related it to him personally. This tale is also included in Boccaccio’s The Decameron on the tenth day.
|The Clerk of Oxenford (Oxford)|
source Wikimedia Commons
The Clerk’s Tale
On the western shores of Italy lived a marquis who ruled his vassals with fair hand and therefore was loved by all. Handsome and strong, he took delight in pleasure and shunned serious cares. Yet the lack of his inclination to marry, worried his subjects and they appealed to him wed to secure his line and therefore, safety for his kingdom. The marquis agreed on the condition that he was allowed to choose his future bride. His subjects, a little worried about this demand and thinking that he would delay, requested that he name a date for his wedding. He agreed and they were placated.
|The Proposal (The Marquis & Griselda) (1850)|
Frederic George Stephens
Adding to the people’s consternation, the marquis, Walter, chose a poor girl to be his bride, gaining a promise from her to obey him with joy in all things. Her name was Griselda and she was steeped in virtue, benevolence, and forbearance. All admired her, and in her manner, so carefully crafted, she had the bearings of royalty. The Marquis was admired for his ability to see virtue within her, despite her trappings of poverty, and by her virtuous character, she was beloved of all the people. She was eventually delivered of a girl and, although a boy would have been preferred, the kingdom rejoiced.
Obsessed by his wife, the Marquis decided to test her constancy and, in an act of extreme cruelty (yes, I’m inserting my opinion here, which I normally don’t like to do, but I was quite appalled by this story), had the dear child ripped from his wife’s arms, making her believe that the girl was being taken to be killed because the people disliked the thought of the child’s heritage of poverty. Griselda, as she had promised submission to her husband, showed no emotion, only asking that the child be buried where wild animals were unable to tear it asunder. The Marquis clandestinely had the child taken to his sister’s house in Bologna, and then watched for any enmity or disquiet from his wife, yet still she treated him with kindness and reverence.
|A Parental Kidnapping – Griselda|
source Wikimedia Commons
|Episode of the Story of Griselda (1445-1450)|
Francesco di Stefano Pesellino
source Wikimedia Commons
Chaucer’s Envoy to the Clerk’s Tale
In an astonishing reversal, the Clerk took another tact for the envoy. Claiming that both Griselda and patience are now dead, he ironically entreated wives not to behave like Griselda, nor husbands to behave like Walter. In fact, he seemed to encourage rather undesirable female stereotypes: wives who berate or have little respect for their husbands.
In the fourteenth century, a French soldier and author, Phillipe de Mézières, translated Petrarch’s tale into French, adding a prologue that represents Griselda’s story as an allegory for the soul’s love for Christ, echoing many Biblical scriptures, such as:
|The Story of Patient Griselda|
I haven’t read Petrarch’s original tale, but Mézières’ supposition encounters some difficulties when applied to The Clerk’s Tale. In Scripture, the sufferings are a result of a fallen world and it is God’s love and grace that sustains his people. Conversely, in The Clerk’s Tale, it’s the Marquis who is testing his wife due to obsessive insecurities. I don’t see a parallel between them.
So what is Chaucer doing with this tale? He likens Griselda’s story to Job so it appears as though he’s advocating for strength and perseverance in adversity. While Griselda’s mild responses to her husband’s torture are rather appalling, what would have happened if she had given a different response and stood up to his tyrannical machinations? At the least, her husband most likely would have disposed of her and at the worst, perhaps her children, as well. By her measured responses, but most of all, by keeping her initial promise to him, she eventually receives a life of happiness and contentment and love.
Also, the contradictions between the tale and envoy suggest a playfulness that is customary in Chaucer’s tales. Perhaps he wants us to get tied up in conjectures, exhausted by ambiguity, teased by the tales’ quick turns and bawdy wit, and finally lost in a forest of comedic and somber rhetoric. And then he laughs at us. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised …….