Tuesday 1 September 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Clerk's Prologue and Tale

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

Part I

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

Part II

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.

Part III

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

Part IV

Another four years passed and Griselda gave birth to a boy.  Walter, once again, decided to test his wife, performing the same actions as with his infant daughter.  Is this shocking?  Wait!  There's more.  In addition to his sadistic actions, he fraudulently produced a Papal Bull of annulment, which allowed him to divorce Griselda and marry another.  He announced the arrival of his new wife-to-be, but in fact, secretly called for his two children's return from Bologna.  His new bride would, in fact, be his twelve-year-old daughter. Murmurs begin among the people, however, that Walter was the true murderer of his children.

Part V

Again, Griselda supported her husband's choices since he believed that they would bring him happiness, and returned to her father's house dressed in only a simple smock.

Part VI  

Walter enlisted Griselda to prepare his new bride-to-be for marriage and she complied.  Once the people viewed his new bride-to-be, they quickly changed their allegiance and supported the marquis' choice, whereupon the Clerk expresses outrage against these fickle people.  However, Walter was now unable to bear his own inhumane actions towards his wife any longer; he confessed all, Griselda was reunited with her children and all lived in harmony hereafter.  

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.

The Clerk
source Wikipedia

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:

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.  James 1:12

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  1 Thess. 5:16-18

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Matt 5:10-12

The Story of Patient Griselda
source Wikipedia
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 .......


  1. I loved this one (I know I always say that!). And thanks for including those Bible references - very helpful :)

    Would love to see how the Wife of Bath would have reacted to Walter... :)

    1. Wouldn't The Wife of Bath and Walter be hilarious together?!! Who would win? I'd vote for the Wife. Someone should write a book about it.

      I certainly understand how you could say that you love all of Chaucer's tales; it would be easier to pick a "least favourite" than a "most favourite"!

  2. I have the book next to me and getting myself ready to start the book. I see you have been studying the table of contents and see you went from The Man of Law's Tale -- to The Wife of Bath. Must I read the tales following the table of contents ....are may i just choose a tale at random?

    1. There are different manuscripts and different fragments existing for the tales. Our reading schedule is based on the Thomas Tyrwhitt manuscript. You can find a further explanation here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Order_of_The_Canterbury_Tales I don't think that it really matters. In this case, I'm just following O's lead. :-D

  3. As you are off on your Chaucer pilgrimage, I invite you also to consider a different kind of pilgrimage discussion at Beyond Eastrod: