What's Really Being Tested in "The Clerk's Tale"?

Susan K. Hagen
shagen@bsc.edu


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 Tale cannot.
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 patience intensifies.
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 their wedding.
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 their faith.
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." (161)
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?



Works Cited


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.