The Clerk's Tale  

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"The Clerk's Tale" is the first tale of Group E (Fragment IV) in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. It is preceded by the Summoner's tale and followed by the Merchant's Tale. The Clerk of Oxenford (modern Oxford) is a student of what would nowadays be considered philosophy or theology. He tells the tale of Griselda, a young woman whose husband tests her loyalty in a series of bizarre torments that recall the Biblical book of Job.



The Clerk's tale is about a marquis of Saluzzo named Walter. Lord Walter of Saluzzo is a bachelor who is asked by his subjects to marry in order to provide an heir. He assents and decides he will marry a peasant, named Griselda. Griselda is a poor girl, used to a life of pain and labor.

After Griselda has borne him a daughter, Walter decides to test her loyalty. He sends an officer to take the baby, pretending to kill her, and convey it secretly to Bologna. Griselda makes no protest at this. When she bears a son several years later, Walter again has him taken from her.

Finally, Walter determines one last test. He has a Papal bull of annulment forged which enables him to leave Griselda, and informs her that he intends to remarry. He requires her to prepare the wedding for his new bride. Secretly, he has the children returned from Bologna, and he presents his daughter as his intended wife. Eventually he informs Griselda of the deceit, and they live happily ever after.


One of the flawless characters created by Chaucer is the Oxford clerk, who is a student of philosophy. He is introduced as a diligent person who has a wide collection of books. He is portrayed as a perfect example for students in universities.


The story of patient Griselda first appeared as the last chapter of Boccacio's Decameron, and it is unclear what lesson the author wanted to convey. Critics suggest Boccacio was simply putting down elements from the oral tradition, notably the popular topos of the ordeal, but the text was open enough to allow very misogynistic interpretations, giving Griselda's passivity as the norm for wifely conduct. In 1374, it was translated into Latin by Petrarch, who quotes the heroine, Griselda, as an exemplum of that most virile virtue, constancy. Circa 1382-1389, Philippe de Mézières translated Petrarch's Latin text into French, adding a prologue which describes Griselda as an allegory of the Christian soul's unquestioning love for Jesus Christ. As far as Chaucer is concerned, critics think he used both Petrach's and de Mézières's texts, while managing to recapture Bocaccio's opaque irony.

The narrator claims that as a student in Italy he met Fraunceys Petrak from whom he heard the tale.

Chaucer's intentions

Given the context of the Clerk's tale, what lesson, if any, Chaucer's intended remains an open guess. Certainly Griselda appears as the antithesis to the Wife of Bath. The intrusive narrator comments on the foolishness of the husband's test:

Nedelees, God woot, he thoghte hire for t'affraye.
He hadde assayed hire ynogh bifore,
And foond hire evere good; (455-457)
In the course of the narrative he seems to treat Griselda's story as an exemplum. He compares her to Job (Men speak of Job, and mostly for his humility - l.932), and reminds his audience of the well-known reputation of clerks for misogyny to emphasize the fact that Griselda's virtue is such as to disarm the most prejudiced (l. 936-8). In conclusion he remarks that he did not tell the story to encourage wives to imitate Griselda, but as a lesson to all and sundry to face adversity with fortitude (1142-1146). However the Clerk's Tale is followed by an envoy whose tone is quite different. The clerk advises the ladies to disregard the heroine's passive acceptance of her husband's cruel whims, while exhorting them to indulge in the most outrageous forms of behaviour: Eer wag your tongues like a windmill, I you advise. The irony is more in keeping with the clerk's antifeminist ethos but contradicts his former conclusion. Finally, the host's wish that his wife might have heard this edifying tale is well within the scope of hackneyed antifeminist medieval discourse while suggesting that reality will be at odds with exempla:
Me were levere than a barel ale
My wyf at hoom had herd this legende ones!</br>(1212c-1212d)

See also

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