The Canterbury Tales Summary and Analysis

The Clerk's Tale

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Prologue to the Clerk's Tale

The Host remarks that the Clerk of Oxford sits as coyly and quietly as a new-married bride, and tells him to be more cheerful: “Telle us som myrie tale!” (“tell us a merry tale”). The Host continues to argue that, when someone is entered into a game, they have to play by the rules of that game; and adds that he doesn’t want a tale told in “heigh style”, but spoken “pleyn”.

The Clerk replies kindly that the Host has the “governance” over the company (is “in charge” of the company) and says that he will tell a tale which he learned from a worthy clerk, Francis Petrarch, who is now dead and nailed into his coffin. He then praises the renowned Petrarch for his sweet rhetoric and poetry; though warns the company, before he begins, that Petrarch wrote a poem in a “high style” exalting the Italian landscape.

The Clerk's Tale

(I)

The tale begins with the description of Saluzzo, a region at the base of Mount Viso in Italy. There was once a marquis of this region named Walter. He was wise, noble and honorable, but his mind was always on seeking immediate pleasures – turning aside more worthy pastime, and even refusing to marry.

The people of his realm confronted him about his steadfast refusal, pleading with him to take a wife, so that his lineage could continue (and so that his son could continue his work in the event of his death). They offer to choose for him the most noble woman in the realm for his wife. He agrees to marry, but makes this one condition: he will marry whomever he chooses, regardless of birth, and his wife shall be treated with the respect accorded to an emperor's daughter, no matter her origin.

He set the day on which he would be married; his people thanked him on their knees, and returned home.

(II)

Not far from the marquis’ honorable palace, among the poor people, lived a man named Janicula, who had a daughter Griselde, who was exceedingly virtuous, courageous and charitable. While hunting, the marquis caught sight of Griselde and, recognizing her virtue, immediately decided that this exemplary woman should be his wife.

On the day of the wedding, Walter had not revealed to the public the woman he would marry, and the populace wondered whether he might, in fact, not marry at all. Walter had, however, already prepared rich garments and jewelery in Griselde’s size. That morning, the marquis came to Janicula’s home and asked him for his permission to marry his daughter. Janicula was so astonished, he turned red, and could not speak – but did manage eventually to assent to the marriage.

Walter, however, wanted Griselde herself to assent before he married her, and, the two men went into her chamber. Walter asked her hand in marriage, and asked her to to be ready to do whatever he said, whenever he said it, but never to resent him; if she agreed to this, he said, he would swear to marry her. Griselde swore never to disobey him – and he took her outside to introduce her to his populace as his new wife.

The marquis' servants took Griselde and dressed her in all new, expensive clothes for the wedding; she appeared as if she had been born as nobility, not from her actual humble origin. Her virtue and excellence became renowned throughout Saluzzo, and in many other regions, for she was essentially a perfect wife – she appeared as “from hevene sent”. Soon she gave birth to a baby girl, although she would have preferred a son to be his father's heir.

(III)

Soon after his daughter was born, the marquis decided to test his wife. The narrator, at this stage, explicitly expresses doubt about why the marquis would test his wife: “as for me” he says, I think it sits “yvele” (“evilly”) “to assaye a wyf whan that it is no need” (“to test a wife when there is no need to”).

The marquis told her that although she was dear to him, to the rest of the nobility she was not. They, he said, objected to her new daughter, and wanted her to be taken away from Griselde and put to death. Griselde received this news without grievance, and answered that she and her child would do anything that pleased her husband. Rather than putting the child to death (though allowing Griselde to believe her child was dead), the marquis instead sent the child away with one of his sergeants to be raised by his sister, the husband of the Earl of Panago, in Bologna. Walter did pity his wife, who remained steadfast and dedicated to him, silently accepting her fate and that of her child whom she believed dead. Griselde never spoke of her daughter, nor even mentioned her name.

(IV)

Four years passed, and Griselde had another child, a boy, and, when it was two years old, Walter repeated the same test. The people, Walter argued, did not want the low blood of Janicula to succeed him as marquis. She accepted this, and told Walter that she realized she was of low birth and would consent to die if it pleased him. However, she did point out that she had had no benefits of motherhood, only the pain of childbirth and a continued pain of losing her children. The same sergeant came to take away her son, and Griselde kissed her child goodbye.

The people came to loathe Walter, thinking that he had murdered his children. Walter, unruffled by their disapproval, devised his next test: organizing the court of Rome to send a counterfeit papal bull which ordered Walter to divorce Griselde and take another wife. Upon hearing this, Griselde remained steadfast.

However, the marquis had written a secret letter to Bologna, ordering the Earl of Panago to return home his children with huge pomp and circumstance, but without telling them whose children they were. Indeed, the Earl was to pretend that the daughter was to marry the marquis himself.

(V)

Walter told Griselde of the papal bull, returned her dowry to her, and sent her back to her father’s house. She was stoic upon hearing this, and, though she reiterated her love for Walter, she did not repent for loving him. She only asks that she not be sent naked from the palace, but will be given the simple smock, just the like the ones she used to wear in poverty, to wear to spare her from suffering the indignity of returning home completely unclothed. Walter granted this request, and in, stripping herself of all of her riches, Griselde returned home to her father in her poor clothes once more.

The people followed her home, weeping for her bad fortune, but Griselde herself did not shed a tear, and, as she approached the house, her father ran out to cover her with his old coat. The narrator, at the end of this part, compares the suffering Griselde has endured to that of the biblical Job.

(VI)

The Countess of Panago arrived at Saluzzo from Bologna with Griselde's two children. Walter sent a message to Griselde that he would be married soon and wished for Griselde to plan the ceremony; patiently, Griselde agreed and began to make the arrangements. When the people saw the new wife, they thought, for the first time, seeing her riches and the stately procession, that Walter was right to change his wife.

As the party sat down to dinner, Walter called Griselde into the hall. When he introduced Griselde to his new wife, she pleaded with him not to treat the new wife as unkindly as he did her (not to “prikke with no tormentynge / This tender mayden”) but meant no malice in her words.

At that, Walter kissed Griselde and claimed that she had always been his wife. Griselde stood, astonished, like someone who had woken from a sleep. Walter then revealed to her the actual fate of her two children ­ the supposed new wife was actually Griselde's daughter. Griselde fell down in a swoon, and, on awaking, called her children to her, where she kissed them and held them so tightly that they could not tear the children from her arms. The ladies took her into her chamber, and took her out of her poor clothing, replacing it with a “clooth of gold that brighte shoon”, and a coronet on her head. The two lived happily ever after, and, eventually, the son succeeded his father after his father’s death, and was kind in marriage.

This story, the Clerk then continues, is not told so that wives should follow Griselde’s example in humility - it is impossible that they would. Every person, however, should try to be constant in adversity and in the face of God, like Griselde was to Walter: this is why Petrarch wrote the story. People under God must live in virtuous patience, accepting whatever will God serves on them.

However, the Clerk continues, it were very difficult to find even two or three Griseldes out of a whole town of people nowadays. If you put them to the test, their “gold” has been so mixed in with “brass” that the coin would snap rather than withstand the pressure. For which reason, for the love of the Wife of Bath (whose sect God maintain “in heigh maistrie”), the Clerk continues, I will now sing a song to gladden you.

Lenvoy de Chaucer

Griselde is dead and her patience is too, and both of them are buried in Italy. No wedded man should try his wife’s patience in trying to find Griselde: he will fail. The Envoy continues to address “O noble wyves”, advising them not to nail down their tongues in humility, or Chichevache will swallow them whole. Follow Echo, that held no silence, and take on the governance yourself, the Envoy continues, and use the arrows of your eloquence to pierce your husband’s armor. The conclusion of the Envoy tells fair women to show off their good looks, and ugly women to spend all of their husband’s money!

The words of the Host

When the Clerk had finished his tale, the Host swore “By Goddes bones” that he would rather lose a barrel of ale that his wife had – even once – heard this tale. It is a noble tale, he continues – before advising the company not to ask why he’d rather not have his wife hear it.

Analysis

That the Clerk, in a typically clerical touch, gets his tale from a very worthy literary source is not a fiction of Chaucer’s. The tale does indeed come from a tale of Petrarch’s; yet what the Clerk fails to mention in his citation is that Petrarch himself took it from Bocaccio’s Decameron (a fact which Chaucer certainly knew). Another thing, surely known to the clerks in Chaucer’s audience, that the Clerk omits to mention is that even Petrarch had difficulty interpreting the tale as he found it in Boccaccio. The key problem, in fact, to reading the Clerk’s Tale is interpretation.

The tale itself is simple enough: woman of low birth is horribly tested by her noble husband, made to suffer extremely, and eventually, is restored to good fortune. But what does the tale mean? Not, according to the Clerk, at least, what it seems to mean at first reading: that women should patiently submit themselves to their husbands will. This sentiment, of course, is deeply at odds with the Wife of Bath (herself explicitly acknowledged and praised by the Clerk in the tale) and her tale only a little earlier – and the Clerk endorses the Wife’s desire for female maistrie.

Yet why is the tale not to be read as endorsing female subjugation to the husband? Perhaps because the Clerk (as he implies) wholeheartedly endorses the maistrie-seeking of the Wife of Bath, but also, as is twice said in the tale, because there are no Griseldes left in the world today. Is this lack of patient Griseldes a sign of progress, or something to be mourned? If the story is a celebration of Griselde's fortitude, the Clerk accurately judges that it would be impossible for any woman to legitimately withstand the suffering that Griselde faced with such resignation; and indeed, her extreme behavior might not even be read as commendable, for she allows her husband to murder her two children without struggle. The Clerk indicates that women should strive toward the example that Griselde sets, but not necessarily follow her example in such an extreme form. Where does one draw the line? The tale could be read as supporting either pro-feminist or anti-feminist sentiments.

Petrarch’s solution to the problem is also voiced by the tale: that the tale is not, in fact, about men and women at all, but how men in general should relate to God. This is a perfectly reasonable interpretation, but as presented by Chaucer, Walter – cruel, testing for no obvious reason, and extremely self-satisfied – does not make for a particularly attractive representative of God. Petrarch’s interpretation of his own story is not an absolute one: and nor is Chaucer’s (it is important to note that the envoy at the very end of the tale is attributed “de Chaucer” and not to the Clerk – perhaps something more significant than a simple print-setting error). For the envoy advises wives not to nail down their tongues, but to attack their husbands and be shrews - a sentiment which the tale does not reflect at all, particularly when you consider that it is Griselde’s strength of character and humility which justify her eventual reward and reunion with her children.

Chaucer, Petrarch, and the Wife of Bath – each have separate lines of interpretation for a single tale, and each of them are potentially justified in the text. Yet the Clerk’s presentation does not invite the reading of the tale as simply a fable - there is little heightened or distanced in the presentation. In fact, the telling strives to arouse our displeasure at Walter’s conduct, and our sympathy for Griselde - Chaucer, in fact, studs the narrative with deeply humanizing, sympathetic details (for example, the way Griselde, reunited with her children, cannot bear to release them from her embrace) which make an allegorical reading of the tale even more difficult. It is difficult to believe that this tale is simply an allegory of man’s relationship with God, when the allegory is written with such focused, emotional detail.

One might note too that Griselde is stripped and dressed in new clothes as her status changes from low, to high, back to low, and eventually back to high. The idea of the woman dressed in cloth (cloth, as we noted in the Wife of Bath’s tale, is a symbol for text) reflects the unknowability of a woman’s heart and mind, as well as the way Griselde herself can be interpreted and reinterpreted (as peasant and as noble wife) in precisely the way that her tale can.

Petrarch is dead and nailed in his coffin, the Clerk emphasizes at the start of the tale – and so is Griselde, he tells us at the end. How either of them felt about the subject matter of the Clerk’s Tale is no longer of any relevance; and the complexity and problematic nature of this apparently simply-structured tale depends on just that incitement – how an audience, hearing the tale now, interprets and understands it in the context of their own (medieval or modern) attitudes to gender and marriage.