What's Really Being Tested in "The Clerk's Tale"?
Susan K. Hagen
My students grimace at Griselda. And, quite frankly, why shouldn't they. By any
contemporary standards of behavior her actions are reprehensible; not only does she relinquish
all semblances of personal volition, she deserts all duties of maternal guardianship as she
forfeits her daughter and son to the--in so far as she knows--murderous intent of her husband.
Regardless of what we think of her personal subservience to Walter, the surrendering of her
children is a hard point to get around. Even the ever-testing Marquis himself, at his wife's
release of their second child says he would have suspected her of malice and hardness of her
heart had he not known for sure that she loved her children (IV 687-95). It is little wonder our
students, in whom we try to foster a sense of personal responsibility and human sensitivity,
initially find Griselda an insipid and morally reprehensible wimp.
But we retrieve patient Griselda for them. Or at least we try. We say "this tale is not
about a real woman: look, it is in rhyme royal. That meant something special to Chaucer. The
tale's stanzaic form signals a tale of high moral, even religious, sentence; its flat
characterization and formulaic epitaphs distance Griselda and Walter from real people." Then
bowing toward Petrarch and siding with the Clerk, we say this tale is not about wives' duties
to their husbands; it is about the duty of the human soul to God. As Griselda was to the tests
inflicted upon her by Walter, so should we be to the adversities visited upon us by God. And
so is Griselda redeemed for real women. But is she--really?
If we look very carefully at the language used as Walter frames the rationales for his
intent for testing Griselda, we find that it is not for the proving of her pre-marital vow per se
that he put her thorough his series of contemptible and humiliating ordeals. True to its title,
Petrarch's A Legend of Wifely Obedience and Faith (De Obedientia ac Fide Uxoria
Mythologia) clearly and consistantly pictures Walter testing his wife for her fidelity and
conjugal love promised before their marriage. Chaucer's Walter, however, more often frames
his designs as trials of "sadnesse," "corage," or, ultimately, "wommanheede" (IV 452, 787,
1075). The result is that in the Clerk's tale, Griselda is tested not so much for her marital
fidelity as she is for her womanly virtue. And the implications of this may be as frightening as
the thought of a mother adandoning her children to the hands of a murderer. A closer
comparison between Petrarch's version and Chaucer's will clarify what I mean.
Because the Clerk makes particular reference to Petrarch's moral application of the
Griselda story as a justification for his own, we can begin our examination of the differences
between the two accounts of her trials by acknowledging the context in which the Italian
laureate's translation of the Griselda story appears. Having been delighted and fascinated by
the story, which he read as the final tale in Boccaccio's Decameron, Petrarch, as he explains
in a letter to Boccaccio, decided to translate it into Latin so that others, not familiar with Italian
could, as he says, "be pleased with so charming a story" (138). It is clear that Petrarch's
audience is the learned men of his time (See Morse 74). He views Grisildis's behavior in no
way as a model for women. He comes to this conclusion, however, not so much because he
does not think women should or should have to behave as she does, but because he finds the
example of Grisildis nearly beyond imitation (138). Dismissing the issue of wives--with what is
more likely distain than sympathy, then,--Petrarch states his object in rewriting the tale to be to
lead his readers, that is men, to emulate this woman's courage in submitting herself to her
husband in submitting themselves to God (138).
The context of Chaucer's vernacular tale, though, puts Griselda's story squarely back in
the world of men and women. Even if it were not for the ever-lingering specter of Kittredge's
so-called Marriage Group, the Clerk's direct reference to the Wife of Bath and all her sect (IV
1170-72) makes it impossible for the reader to divorce herself from her suspicions that an
agenda less tropological than Petrarch's lies behind the telling of this tale. Perhaps in an
attempt to vitiate the tale's contextual implications with marriage within the context of his own
Canterbury Tales or perhaps to distance it from French traditions of the story's relevance,
which unabashedly held up Griselda as a mirror for married women (See Kirkpatrick 232), or
perhaps to imply something about the tale's narrator, Chaucer makes several changes in his
retelling that extend the nature of Griselda's virtue and more closely associate her humility with
Christ's, almost as through he were consciously distancing her from real-life wives and
preparing his audience for the Clerk's moral application at the end.
For example, when Griselda is first introduced, Chaucer's narrator states that God
sometimes sends "His grace into a litel oxes stalle," (IV 206), the implication, of course, being
that Griselda is particularly Christ-like. Similarly, the narrator praises her "vertuous beautee"
and the "rype and sad corage" within her breast (IV 211, 219-20). Petrarch simply notes that
the "grace of Heaven sometimes visits the hovels of the poor" and praises her broadly for the
beauty of her body, character, and spirit (142), thereby creating somewhat less specifically
Christian correlations to her goodness. Later when the sergeant in the Middle English version
takes Griselda's daughter from her, she suffers his actions meekly and still "as a lamb," marks
the baby with the sign of the cross and commends her soul to "thilke Fader. . .That for us
deyde upon a croys of tree" (IV 538, 556-59). In the Latin, there is no reference to a lamb to
remind us of the Agnus Dei and no words suggestive of Christ-like sacrifice spoken as Griselda
signs the infant with the cross (145).
A final deliberate Christianizing occurs when Chaucer's Walter's obsession with testing
Griselda is at last satiated and she is dressed in cloths of gold and crowned with "a coroune of
many a riche stoon" (IV 1118), foreshadowing the Clerk's reference to James 1:12, which
promises the crown of life to the one who endures trials for the sake of God. Petrarch's
Grisildis, however, receives no such crown; she is simply clothed in her "accustomed garments
and adorned" (151). Within the context of Petrarch's story, there is no suggestion that she is
rewarded for anything other than being true to her initial pre-marital vow; there are no scriptural
allusion to overlay the narrative with religious moral significance. There is no textual reason to
conclude that Grisildis is anything other than a most uncommonly obedient wife.
Most significant in terms of the deliberateness with which Chaucer prepares his
audience for the higher ground of interpretation, it should be remembered that Petrarch's moral
interpretation of the tale appears within his first preface letter to Boccaccio as part of his
explanation for having translated the story. Even though the translation appears framed within
this letter and immediately before this explanation it remains forever distanced from its
sentence as the Griselda story never can be separated from it moral application within The
Clerk's Tale as a discrete poetic work. In other words, Petrarch's story could travel without its
moral, as we assume it did when he showed it to his friends in Padua and Verona; The Clerk's
All of Chaucer's aboved mentioned scriptural allusions and the explicit interpretation
linking Griselda with Christian endurance take on a definite gender identity within the stanza
which develops an allusion to the trials suffered by Job. Of course, as it is often noted, this
detail is unique to Chaucer's telling of the story. The association it establishes between the
patience of Job and women is significant and the original lines worth reading.
Men speke of Job and most for his humblesse,
As clerkes, whan hem list, can wel endyte,
Namely of men; but as in soothfastnesse,
Thogh clerkes preyse wommen but a lyte,
Ther can no man in humblesse him acquyte
As womman can, ne can ben half so trewe
As wommen been, but is be falle of newe. (IV 932-38)
In these lines Chaucer not only associates Griselda with Christian patience but with a gender-
specific womanly humility that not only does not appear in Petrarch's story but in real ways
runs counter to his stated objective--which is to move men to courage and endurance by the
story of the trials this "mere peasant woman" endured at the hands of her mortal husband.
Note that in these lines the narrator says not that Grisilda as an individual female is as patient
as Job, but that while men speak of the patience of Job, no man can be so so humble or half
so true as a woman. Even if we care to read these line as ironic praise of women by the Clerk,
the point remains that the narrator positions patience and humility as virtues of the feminine.
This emphasis on patience and its connection with Griselda qua woman runs throughout the
Clerk's tale in ways which would never have occurred to Petrarch in his male-centered design.
For example, Petrarch's marquis perceives a virtue in Grisildis "beyond her sex and
age," a virtue which the narrator has already characterized as "the vigor of manhood and the
wisdom of age" (142). Quite the contrary, in deciding upon Griselda as his wife, Chaucer's
Walter commends her in his heart for "hir wommanhede, / And eek hir vertu" (IV 239-40). The
difference in gender association here is telling; on the one hand the Latin poet's Grisildis is
praised for the ways in which she transcends her nature as as woman and approaches a
perfection more naturally within the provence of the men for whom he writes, on the other
hand Chaucer's Griselda is praised for the perfection of her womanhood.
Within his legend of wifely obedience, Petrarch never attempts to raise Griselda up as a
model of, or for, her gender. When Walter concocts his plan to feign the murder of their
daughter, the narrator states it is to test his wife's fidelity (144). The Middle English Walter
temps his wife "hir sadnesse for to knowe" (IV 452), a phrase which is less issue specific than
Petrarch's. Appropriately, the Latin Walter asks his wife "to accommodate [her] will to [his]
and to show that obedience which [she] promised at the outset of [their] married life" (145).
Clearly the test applies to the vow of obedience she swore before their marriage. In keeping
with the word saddnesse, Chaucer's Walter asks for patience from his wife as she keeps the
promise she made on their wedding day (IV 495-97). It is as through she must not simply
obey, she must obey humbly. Throughout the remainer of the narrative the emphasis on
When he tests her with the staged disposal of their second child he again calls for her
to be patient (IV 644), then when he hears her reply wonders that she can "In pacience suffre
al this array" (IV 670). Again he wonders at her "pacience" as he learns that she was, in fact,
"pacient" at the surrender of her son to the sergeant (IV 688, 677). Apparently he equates her
virtue more with patience or forbearance with the lot her marital vow may thrust upon her than
with sheer obedience to that vow per se. This same patience follows Griselda back to her
father's house when she is ostensibly no longer the wife of Walter, although the narrator
praises her now as the "flour of wyfly pacience" (IV 919, 929). Petrarch simply says Grisildis
did not complain.
The point here is that increasingly she is being tested for more than marital obedience;
the narrator himself comments upon the cruelty of repetitive attempts to "preve hir wyfhod and
hir stedfastnesse" (IV 699). The compound object--wifehood and steadfastness--implies a test
of more than just her pledge to oppose Walter in no way; it implies, as well, a test of
fundamental character quite apart from loyalty to one's word; it implies a test of forbearance
which is equated with her womanhood. The Clerk's tale seeks in Griselda more than mere
obedience, more than even cheerful obedience; it seeks a inherent trait of character that is
perfectly in tune with, yet stands apart from, obedience. It seeks the abilty to withstand
complete submission and view it as a fulfillment of character rather than as a fulfillment of a
promise. Quite the contrary, all of Grislidis trials in Petrarch can be viewed as tests of her
ability to keep her word, obedience to Walter being predicated upon her pledge to him prior to
The difference in character that emerges in these two stories can be represented by the
rationale each husband provides for the testing of his wife near the story's end. Having
reunited Grisildis with her daughter and her son, Petrarch's Walter plainly claims to have
devised all his trials to test his wife not to condemn her (151), the simple implication being that
he sought to prove that she would do what she said she would. In the Clerk's tale, Walter
explains to Griselda that he fashioned all his trials not out of malice or cruelty, "But for t'assaye
in thee thy wommanhede" (IV 1075). What was wifely obedience in Petrarch become
quintessential womanhood in the Clerk's tale.
In "The Clerk's Tale," then, Griselda is tested for more than the plan fact of her
submission to Walter's will or even for her fidelity to her initial promise, rather she is tested for
the very character of her womanhood. And the ethos of that character emerges through the
narrative as an increasingly gender-defined humility, patience, and forbearance. Now, it is true
that the allusions to Christ through the references to the ox's stall and lamb, and the allusion to
the crown of life made even before the Clerk's explicit moral reading of the story all link
Griselda and the qualities of her "wommanhede" with Christian virtue, thereby validating what
would otherwise traditionally be considered traits appropriate to a passive and weaker sex. So
powerful is this validation that some critics have actually found this female gender identity with
Christian virtue to be the basis for a strong Chaucerian feminism. I suppose this would be the
ultimate attempt to retrieve Griselda for contemporary students. But does this really work?
Can we really save Griselda this way?
In a recent book Geoffrey Chaucer part of the Feminist Reading series from
Humanities Press, Jill Mann makes just such an argument for a brand of Chaucerian feminism.
Let's examine it closely for a moment. In one passage concerning Griselda from a chapter
titled "Suffering Woman, Suffering God" Mann argues
In Griselda, human suffering and divine patience are united in one person, as
Christ united manhood and Godhead. And it is her 'wommanhede' that is the
ground of the union. Patience, like pity, is a womanly quality.. . .Griselda's
patience, like Job's, mirrors the divine in human experience, and mirrors it in
female form (160-61).
While this line of reasoning may seem to honor woman as a reflection of the divine, it also
forever predicates her as a passive figure. Any failure of a woman to live up to this "womanly
virtue" denies to the non-passive woman the identity of her own gender. It places a terrible
religious imperative and emotional threat over her. Be patient or be not a woman. Moreover
such a rationale implicitly justifies all hardships perpetuated upon women--for they are by their
very essence designed to be suffering and patient--for so may they prove their womanhood and
Anticipating some object akin to the first one I raise above, Mann further argues
"To object to the identification of woman's sexual role as 'passivity' is
paradoxically, to endorse the masculine ideology that defines activity as
superior. Chaucer himself is free of any such ideology. For him, it is the
'passive' role that is superior; we must never forget that patience conquers."
What Mann fails to acknowledge is that the literal condition women find themselves in is not
free of that ideology. To link Griselda's patience with female identity itself is to put Griselda
back into the world of real men and women shackled and subdued before she even gets the
chance to decide whether she wishes to accept Walter's conditions of marriage in the first
place. It is also to fail to acknowledge that women cannot trust men as they can trust God.
Faced with tribulations placed before them by God, women know they have the strength to
forebear because they trust that God has purpose and God is loving. Faced with hardships
placed before them by men--or even by other women--women (and men) have no such
assurance. If we accept that "The Clerk's Tale" feminizes the quality of patience and holds it up
as admirable, then we cannot deny that it has gender implications for women unshared by
men. Petrarch gives his audience an exemplum; the Clerk's tale gives its audience a model of
womenly behavior to follow, a model that emerges as an analogous example for men but a
self-definging imperative for women.
The phrase keeps going through my mind "I come not to praise Griselda but to bury
her." Can we really so link Chaucer with the narrator of "The Clerk's Tale" that we hear him
saying that the essence of womanhood is patience? Do we have to retrieve a Griselda so
defined? Making her the model of womanhood is a very dangerous thing for real women.
Making her a model of human fortitude in trials of faith is inspiring for men and women alike.
There is a difference, although the tale's narrator certainly doesn't see it. I suppose the
question we must ask before we redeem Griselda for our students is, did Chaucer?
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Clerk's Tale," The Riverside Chaucer. Gen. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Third Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. 137-53.
Kirkpatrick, Robin. "The Griselda Story in Boccaccio, Petrarch and Chaucer." Chaucer and the Italian Trecento. Ed. Piero Boitani. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1983. 231-47.
Mann, Jill. Geoffrey Chaucer. Feminist Readings Series. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press International, 1991.
Morse, Charlotte C. "The Exemplary Griselda." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 7 (1985): 51-86.
Petrarch, Francis. "Letters of Old Age, XVII, 3, 'To Giovanni Boccaccio'." Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds. Ed. Robert P. Miller. New York: Oxford UP, 1977. 136-52.
SEMA Conference, New Orleans, 1993.