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Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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ONLINE STUDY GUIDE FOR THE CANTERBURY TALES

The Clerk’s Tale: Prologue

After the Summoner had finished his retaliating story against Friars, the Host turned to the Clerk and said that he had not said a single word since they had left the inn. It seemed as if he was meditating on some profound philosophical proposition. The Host told the Clerk that there was an appropriate time and place for everything. He then told the Clerk to cheer up and tell them a jolly tale of adventure but at the same time keep his language simple. The Clerk agreed to obey the Host, and said that he would tell a tale that he learned at Padua, from the great Italian scholar and poet Petrarch.


The Clerk’s Tale - Part 1

A young marquis named Walter once ruled Saluzzo in Western Italy. He was wise, handsome, strong, honorable, courteous, and highly esteemed by his subjects. His chief fault was that he concentrated solely on the present moment’s pleasure and was determined that he would never marry.

One day a group of courtiers went to him to persuade him to marry to ensure a line of succession. They even offered to choose a wife for him. Their humble plea moved the marquis and he agreed to marry but said that he would choose his own wife. He also laid down the condition that they would always have to honor whatever wife he chose. He asked the courtiers to pledge that they would neither oppose nor disapprove of his choice. The courtiers heartily agreed but asked him to name a definite day for the wedding. The marquis ordered his officers to make preparations for the wedding day.



The Clerk’s Tale - Part 2

There lived a poor man named Janiculia in a hamlet near the marquis’ palace who had a beautiful and virtuous daughter named Griselda. The marquis had often seen her on his hunting trips and had appraised both her beauty as well as her goodness. He resolved to take her as his wife.

The appointed wedding day soon arrived but nobody knew who would be the bride. The wedding preparations had all been completed. The marquis then proceeded with the lords and ladies towards the hamlet to ask Janicula for his permission to marry his daughter. He then asked Griselda’s consent but made her swear that she would always cheerfully submit to his will whether it pleased or pained her to do so. Further she would never complain, murmur or frown regarding his wishes. Griselda humbly accepted these conditions and the marquis married her.

She adapted herself perfectly to the life of a marchioness. Her innate goodness increased manifold. Her modesty, eloquence, kindness, and simplicity won everybody’s hearts and her fame spread far and wide. People would travel to Saluzzo just to see her. She then gave birth the to a daughter and there was great rejoicing in the land because the people knew that she was not barren and would eventually produce a male heir.


The Clerk’s Tale - Part 3

While the child was still being suckled at its mother’s breast the marquis decided to test Griselda’s steadfastness. One night he reminded Griselda of how he had rescued her from poverty and told her that his courtiers resented servitude to a common village girl. He said that the time had arrived to test her patience. The Marquis then told her that one of his courtiers would soon come for her child. He then asked her whether the taking away of her child would effect her love for him. Griselda replied that both her own and her daughter’s lives were at his disposal and nothing would ever change her love for him. The marquis was happy with the answer but went away with a grim countenance. He then ordered a bodyguard to take away Griselda’s daughter.

The bodyguard arrived and seized the child cruelly away from Griselda and made it appear as if he was going to slaughter her. But Griselda didn’t betray any emotions and complied to her husband’s will.

The bodyguard returned to the marquis and related the entire incident and described Griselda’s behavior. The marquis then ordered him to take the child to his sister at Bologna. In the meanwhile Griselda’s love for her husband did not abate.


The Clerk’s Tale - Part 4

Four years passed away and Griselda gave birth to a male heir. When her son was barely two years old, the marquis once again decided to test Griselda’s patience. He told her that her son would also be slain. Griselda patiently complied to her husband’s will. The bodyguard again arrived and made Griselda believe that her son would be slain but in stead conveyed the prince to Bologna.

The marquis marveled at his wife’s patience and unchanged love. However he was still not convinced. When his daughter grew 12 years old, he had a Papal dispensation forged, granting him permission to remarry. When Griselda heard this news she resolved to patiently undergo Fortune’s adversity. In the meanwhile the marquis wrote a letter to Bologna instructing his sister to bring both the children home to Saluzzo in utmost secrecy. It was to be said that the maiden was going to marry the marquis. Thus the young girl was dressed for the wedding and her brother was also splendidly dressed.


The Clerk’s Tale - Part 5

In the meanwhile the ruthless marquis decided to test Griselda’s patience to the utmost. He told her that he had acquired a Papal dispensation to remarry as his subjects considered Griselda to be of a very low birth and wanted him to marry a woman of a higher birth. He ordered her to go back to her father’s house and to take her dowry along. Griselda firmly replied that she had always been his humble servant and would willingly return to her father if he so desired. She recalls that she had not brought any dowry and had come dressed in rags. She then strips away all the rich clothes, jewels and the wedding ring and requests to be allowed to wear an old smock to hide her nudity. She walked barefoot to her father’s house. However she remained a paragon of wifely patience and did not weep or give any other hint of her distress.


The Clerk’s Tale - Part 6

The Earl of Panago arrived with the would be marchioness. The marquis then called Griselda and asked her to supervise the decoration of the rooms. Griselda patiently assisted in preparing the bedrooms and the banquet hall. Clothed in rags Griselda cheerfully went to receive the bride. She also unceasingly praised the young girl and her brother. When the marquis saw Griselda’s patience and constancy, he could not bear the deception any longer. He revealed that the young girl was her own daughter and her brother would certainly become his heir. He revealed that they had been secretly brought up in Bologna. The cruel tests had only been designed to ascertain her strength of will and constancy.

Griselda was happily reunited with her children and they lived happily for many years. Eventually her daughter was married to the worthiest lord in Italy and her son ascended the throne after the marquis’ death.

The tale ends with the Clerk’s statement that it would be intolerable for women to imitate Griselda’s patience and humility. But everybody should meekly accept God’s will and face adversity with courage and fortitude. He then tells the Wife of Bath that he will sing a song in praise of Griselda.


Chaucer’s Epilogue

Chaucer acknowledges here in six stanzas that the character of Griselda has been stylized to the point of impossibility and asks wives to show more independent spirit and assume control.

Notes

The Clerk’s Tale is an indirect response to the Wife of Bath who stated that women desire complete sovereignty over their husbands and lovers. The Clerk puts forth a diametrically opposite view and draws the sketch of a totally submissive woman.

Chaucer’s source for the Clerk’s tale is Petrarch’s ‘Fable of Obedience and Wifely Faith’ written in Latin that was in turn derived from Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’. Chaucer closely follows Petrarch’s text. Chaucer makes the Clerk candidly acknowledge that his tale is derived from "Frauncey's Petrak".

The Clerk’s Tale is suited to his character as a serious student. His tale too has a scholarly theme and deals with the issue of genuine obedience and loyalty in a wife. Griselda’s story upholds faith in goodness even in times of adversity. It is definitely a moral tale and the Clerk relates it with all seriousness and economy of words.

The Host’s warning to the Clerk to keep his language simple and to tell an entertaining and adventurous tale were not needed. The tale proves that the Clerk was not an ossified academic. However the Clerk does not relate an adventurous tale and does make use of rhetoric and figures of speech. When the Clerk concludes his tale the Host commends him for relating his story in a sweet and wholesome manner.

Chaucer has invested, the folk tale Petrarchan version of the patient Griselda’s story, with an amazing degree of realism. Griselda comes across as a real life human character. Her sincerity to her husband and affection for her children seem realistic. Her pathos is heart rending and earns the reader’s compassion.

Griselda’s story of long suffering may be unappealing to modern readers. But it is important to interpret the tale in the context of the fourteenth century. Griselda was simply acting in accordance with her roles as a loyal wife and a subject of the marquis. She was fulfilling her moral obligations.

One could perhaps interpret the tale as a homily on Christian humility and perseverance. The Clerk clarifies while concluding his tale that Griselda is not to be emulated as an example by women. Rather his tale simply advocates faith in the innate goodness of God and perseverance in times of adversity.

It is also possible to interpret the Clerk’s tale as a comment on the exploitation of the governed class by the rulers. Griselda is a lowly village girl and suffers the cruelty of the marquis silently and is resigned to her fate. Similarly the tale may also be seen as a comment on patriarchal domination.

The marquis Walter appears to be a sadistic man who derives intense pleasure from torturing his wife. His skepticism about his wife’s loyalty and obedience is irremediable as he subjects poor Griselda to one inhuman test after another. During the entire period of his married life he does not exhibit an iota of remorse. However his character is redeemed by the fondness of his subjects and his choice of a poor girl for his bride.


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