Chaucer: The Clerk’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE CLERK’S TALE
In the General Prologue, the Clerk seemed quiet, controlled, humble, and instructive. So, says Lumiansky, the Clerk does not immediately follow the Wife of Bath, but bides his time. Group E is a separate fragment, not linked with D until the very end with the mistitled “Envoy.”
The Host says to the Clerk, “Ye ryde as coy and stille as doth a mayde” (2) and for a tale expects the worst: “But precheth nat, as freres doon in Lente” (12). He requests that the Clerk avoid rhetorical high style and speak plainly so as not to put the pilgrims to sleep. The Clerk answers “benignely” (21) and promises “obeisance” (a key theme now) to the Host.
The Clerk first cites his “now deed” (29) Paduan authority, Petrarch, praises his poetic style, and laments his death. At some length the Clerk notes the irrelevance of the Petrarchan prologue, so he is going to skip that part.
The genre here is the moral apologue = novella plus a moral. (The Manciple’s Tale and Melibee are the other examples.) It’s similar to an exemplum except there’s no larger framework.
This one is in rime royal.
The story was probably a folktale originally: the mating of a mortal woman with an immortal lover whose actions are controlled by incomprehensible forces. Boccaccio rationalized this for the Middle Ages: it’s the last of the Decameron’s 100 tales. Petrarch was impressed and translated it into Latin (and when two of his friends read it, one wept and the other said he would have too but insisted it was an invention). Then Chaucer gives the story this treatment. So the tale appealed to the three greatest writers of the 14th century!
A marquis in western Italy, Walter, is “Biloved and drad” (69) like a good machivellian prince. His main fault is that he does not consider the future (78-80). A spokesperson for the people requests that Walter “Boweth youre nekke under that blisful yok / Of soveraynetee, nought of servyse, / Which that men clepe spousaille or wedlok” (113-115). He tries a carpe diem approach with the emphasis on the death hereafter (116ff). Walter agrees to this but insists, perhaps peevishly, that he pick his own wife and that there be no grouching about it afterwards (169f).
The poorest man in the village has a daughter named Griselda, virtuous and industrious, whom Walter checks out when he is hunting. The day of the supposed wedding approaches and the people are nervous. Griselda plans to attend the event. Walter arrives at her house and perfunctorily asks to see her father, from whom he asks that hand of Griselda in marriage. His announcement of all this to her is overshadowed by his demand that she agree to her abject submission in their marriage. She does and is treated like Cinderella in preparation for the wedding. Subsequently, she is well loved by the populace and a good diplomat. Walter gets public credit for detecting virtue beneath poverty. She gives birth to a girl, which is a bit of a disappointment, but maybe a son will follow.
For unknown reasons that the Clerk seems baffled by too, Walter decides he must test Griselda. He blames the people for a general disgruntlement concerning her poor origins and says that their infant daughter is involved. He sends his sergeant to take away the child and, supposedly, kill it. But Griselda bears up patiently. She just asks that it be buried where animals and birds cannot pick at the corpse. The sergeant reports to Walter who has a pang of pity but sticks to his plan; the sergeant must place the infant in the care of his sister in Bologna. Griselda shows no signs of change in her attitude.
Within four years Griselda gives birth to a boy. Walter irrationally goes into his suspicious fit again and tells Griselda that the people are growing dangerous with their outrage that the lineage of her father is tainting their political future. Griselda vows obedience in all things again, and the infant is secretly placed with Walter’s sister. The Clerk is assertive in his narration but perhaps struggling with material difficult to swallow. Walter meanwhile is being suspected of murder among the people. When the daughter would be twelve years old, Walter fakes a papal dispensation to get rid of Griselda and marry another woman. He sends to his brother-in-law to have him send the children and to claim that the girl will be marrying the marquis — him!
Walter gives Griselda the boot and she takes it, asking only that she be sent out of the castle in at least a smock. Griselda’s father knew this day would come and curses the day he was born. The Clerk adds a note that “Though clerkes preise wommen but a lite” (935), here was a woman to rival Job in patience. Of course, the Clerk knows only of old authorities and tales of ancient times, not any experience.
Walter sends for Griselda since there are not enough servants to clean up the castle for the arrival of his new bride. The people see the arrival of the children and privately commend Walter for his new choice. The Clerk interrupts his narration for an apostrophe of outrage against the fickle people. Walter makes Griselda compliment his choice for new wife before declaring the test over with. He now trusts her patience and good nature. She, swooning and weeping, is amazed to have her children “restored” to her. The people are moved, and a feast is held. They lived happily ever after until they died and the kids married well.
The Clerk adds that this story in not told as a model for wives to follow Griselda in humility (1142f) but that everyone ought to be “constant in adversitee” (1146). So the moral does not fit the “exemplum” well. The Clerk laments the state of things nowadays comparatively. Out of supposed consideration of the Wife of Bath, whom he mentions openly, he offers a “song,” erroneously labeled “Lenvoy de Chaucer.”
The Clerk seems to break out of control and become almost viciously ironical. This song reasserts what the tale held in subordination in favor of old ideals: the worst of female stereotypes, which the Clerk sarcastically advises wives to uphold and demonstrate. The Host wishes his wife had heard the tale.
As a moral tale, it’s simply patience in adversity. It’s supposedly a realistic novella, but it’s troubling on this level. It doesn’t work like The Book of Job. The allegorical is in conflict with, or incompatible with, the realistic. Fairy tale elements remain (the location near the forest which is always the gateway to the other world, the fountain, the sudden riches, etc.). There may be scriptural allegory involved since there are echoes of the story of Mary with annunciation, nativity, etc. But if Griselda is Mary, does that make Walter God? That seems untenable. Walter is an abnormal psychological case study.
See The Four Levels of Scriptural Exegesis. Is the tropological level here a prescription for female conduct (vs. 1142ff)?
Something is wrong. Either Chaucer fails in his attempt to reform or restructure the peculiar story and is not in control finally, or he’s up to something else which has not been successfully discovered. Has the tale been designed to touch off male guilt over the position of dominance? Over tenderness as a response to submission? To enrage women concerning the system of submission? The master/slave dynamics are worth some study. (Eventually the slave is always not worth being master over. Ralph Kramden’s “I’m the king; you’re nothin'” rant.)
I believe this tale influenced Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale and the Host’s final words inspired the lost ending of The Taming of the Shrew with Christopher Sly (still part of the ending in The Taming of A Shrew).