Fragment IV of The Canterbury Tales begins with The Clerk, described in the General Prologue as a student of Oxford studying theology and philosophy; very serious, very thin, and very well-read:
For hym was levere have at his beddes heedTwenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,Of Aristotle and his philosophie,Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.
The Prologue of the Clerk is quite short - just 56 lines. It begins with the Host noticing how quiet and serious is, and he asks the Clerk for a cheerful tale: "Tell us some merry tale, by your faith". The Clerk replies he will a tale, one he learned from Petrarch. But merry? No. No, the Clerk tells one of the most miserable stories there is from Boccaccio's Decameron (the tenth tale of the tenth day, which in my mind is the second most depressing tale of the lot). Petrarch claimed he believed he had heard this tale long before reading it in Boccaccio, and then later retold it in Latin, which is no doubt what the Clerk read.
The Tale is in six parts over about 1176 lines. He begins in Part I by describing a marquis, Walter, living on "the west syde of Ytaille [Italy], / Doun at the roote of Vesulus", young, handsome, and strong who loved to hunt and hawk - "As for to hauke and hunte on every syde". He loves too his freedom and lives very much for the moment, and so he is reluctant to marry. One day the lords of the kingdom approach him and beg him to reconsider and to think of the future, saying,
"Boweth youre nekke under that blisful yokOf soveraynetee, noght of servyse,Which that men clepe spousaille or wedlok
And later, "And taak a wyf, for hye Goddes sake", lest he dies without an heir. He agrees and says he will choose his wife:
"Lat me allone in chesynge of my wyf --That charge upon my bak I wole endure.But I yow preye, and charge upon youre lyf,What wyf that I take, ye me assureTo worshipe hire, whil that hir lyf may dure,In word and werk, bothe heere and everywheere,As she an emperoures doghter weere.
He leaves it to the lords to chose a wedding day, and Part I closes with the wedding preparations.
|Warwick Goble's first illustration for|
The Clerk's Tale.
In Part II Griselda is described along with her father Janicula - a poor man:
Amonges thise povre folk ther dwelte a manWhich that was holden povrest of hem alle;But hye God somtyme senden kanHis grace into a litel oxes stalle;Janicula men of that throop hym calle.A doghter hadde he, fair ynogh to sighte,And Grisildis this yonge mayden highte.
She is beautiful and sensible, and she works hard:
But for to speke of vertuous beautee,Thanne was she oon the faireste under sonne;For povreliche yfostred up was she,No likerous lust was thurgh hire herte yronne.Wel ofter of the welle than of the tonneShe drank, and for she wolde vertu plese,She knew wel labour but noon ydel ese.
Walter determines to marry her: "Upon Grisilde, this povre creature, / Ful ofte sithe this markys sette his ye". On the morning of the wedding, Griselda still doesn't know Walter intends to marry her, though he even has her dress prepared. She stands with her friends hoping to catch a glimpse of his wife-to-be. He calls her over, asks to speak to her father, then asks him for his daughter's hand:
"Janicula, I neither may ne kan
Lenger the plesance of myn herte hyde.
If that thou vouche sauf, what so bityde,
Thy doghter wol I take, er that I wende,
As for my wyf, unto hir lyves ende."
Walter then asks her, will she obey in every circumstance?
"I seye this: be ye redy with good herte
To al my lust, and that I frely may,
As me best thynketh, do yow laughe or smerte,
And nevere ye to grucche it, nyght ne day?
And eek whan I sey `ye,' ne sey nat `nay,'
Neither by word ne frownyng contenance?
Swere this, and heere I swere oure alliance."
She agreed, and Walter announces the news to the people - "This is my wyf," quod he, "that standeth heere." Griselda is dressed, and so transformed:
For though that evere vertuous was she,
She was encressed in swich excellence
Of thewes goode, yset in heigh bountee,
And so discreet and fair of eloquence,
So benigne and so digne of reverence,
And koude so the peples herte embrace,
That ech hire lovede that looked on hir face.
|Warwick Goble's second illustration for The Clerk's Tale.|
They are married, and Griselda proves to be an excellent wife, and the two have a child - a daughter. But this is not a happily ever after - there are still four parts remaining.
In Part III, Walter has an urge, a "merveillous desir" [strange desire] to test his wife and to frighten her: "Nedelees, God woot, he thoghte hire for t'affraye." He reminds her of her lowly beginnings, and then soon after arranges for her child to be taken away by an officer of the law. The man arrives and rather apologetically tells her he must obey the marquis. Then,
"This child I am comanded for to take" -
And spak namoore, but out the child he hente
Despitously, and gan a cheere make
As though he wolde han slayn it er he wente.
Grisildis moot al suffre and al consente,
And as a lamb she sitteth meke and stille,
And leet this crueel sergeant doon his wille.
Poor Griselda has already promised to obey her husband, and remarkably "she neither weep ne syked [sighed]" but simply bends to his will though she believes the child will be killed. Walter then privately gives orders that the child must be looked after, but no one must know she, the daughter, is alive.
|W. Heath Robinson's illustration for|
Janet Harvey Kelman’s Stories from Chaucer.
Part IV begins four years later, and Griselda gives birth to a son. Walter is struck once more with a need to test her:
This markys caughte yet another lest
To tempte his wyf yet ofter, if he may.
O nedelees was she tempted in assay!
But wedded men ne knowe no mesure,
Whan that they fynde a pacient creature.
So he tells her she must give up her son, and the same sergeant comes to take him. Walter however is not satisfied at this and the Clerk observes,
What koude a sturdy housbonde moore devyse
To preeve hir wyfhod and hir stedefastnesse,
And he continuynge evere in sturdinesse?
He goes on to talk of Walter's obsession, that he is compelled to keep testing her:
But ther been folk of swich condicion
That whan they have a certein purpos take,
They kan nat stynte of hire entencion,
But, right as they were bounden to that stake,
They wol nat of that firste purpos slake.
Right so this markys fulliche hath purposed
To tempte his wyf as he was first disposed.
So Walter forges a decree that he might leave Griselda and remarry (we are now twelve years from the start of this tale), and he plans a sham marriage whilst ordering that his son and daughter (living with his sister) be returned. In Part V he cruelly tells her of his plans to remarry - "My newe wyf is comynge by the weye." He then tells her to return to her father: "Retourneth to youre fadres hous". She of course obeys, "Unto my fader gladly wol I wende, / And with hym dwelle unto my lyves ende." And she wishes him every happiness (at which point I could not help but think of the Wife of Bath and what she would have to say at such treatment - she is a complete opposite recommending wives have sovereignty over their husbands, not the other way around as in this story). She prepares to leave, asking only to return with her dress, not to be forced to leave naked. He consents -
"The smok," quod he, "that thou hast on thy bak,
Lat it be stille, and bere it forth with thee."
Part V concludes with the Clerk recalling the sufferings of Job:
Men speke of Job, and moost for his humblesse,
As clerkes, whan hem list, konne wel endite,
Namely of men, but as in soothfastnesse,
Though clerkes preise wommen but a lite,
Ther kan no man in humblesse hym acquite
As womman kan, ne kan been half so trewe
As wommen been, but it be falle of newe.
In Part VI, the final part, the latest humiliation of Griselda is that she must help the marquis' new wife-to-be prepare for the wedding, not realising that the girl is actually her daughter (now twelve years of age). Walter asks Griselda what she thinks of his new wife:
"Grisilde," quod he, as it were in his pley,
"How liketh thee my wyf and hire beautee?"
"Right wel," quod she, "my lord; for, in good fey,
A fairer saugh I nevere noon than she.
I prey to God yeve hire prosperitee;
And so hope I that he wol to yow sende
Plesance ynogh unto youre lyves ende.
But, she is not finished - she adds a warning not to treat his new wife as he treated her:
"O thyng biseke I yow, and warne also,
That ye ne prikke with no tormentynge
This tendre mayden, as ye han doon mo;
For she is fostred in hire norissynge
Moore tendrely, and, to my supposynge,
She koude nat adversitee endure
As koude a povre fostred creature."
Walter, at last, sees her patience, her loyalty and steadfastness and he reveals that this was but another test:
"This is ynogh, Grisilde myn," quod he;
"Be now namoore agast ne yvele apayed.
I have thy feith and thy benyngnytee,
As wel as evere womman was, assayed,
In greet estaat and povreliche arrayed.
Now knowe I, dere wyf, thy stedfastnesse"
And hire in armes took and gan hire kesse.
He tells her the girl he was to marry is his daughter, and her son too is still alive. Griselda is overjoyed, and once more she is the wife of the marquis - "And ther she was honured as hire oghte." They live out the rest of their days happily and peacefully. The Clerk concludes that this tale was not told to recommend that wives should be tested by their husbands, but that everyone should be constant and steadfast as Griselda was in times of adversity:
This storie is seyd nat for that wyves sholde
Folwen Grisilde as in humylitee,
For it were inportable, though they wolde,
But for that every wight, in his degree,
Sholde be constant in adversitee
As was Grisilde; therfore Petrak writeth
This storie, which with heigh stile he enditeth.
Chaucer (the author rather than the pilgrim) speaks and warns that no man should test their wife as Walter did:
No wedded man so hardy be t'assaille
His wyves pacience in trust to fynde
Grisildis, for in certein he shal faille.
And there ends The Clerk's Tale: horrible, but compelling and excellently told.
← Previously: The Friar's Prologue and Tale & The Summoner's Prologue and Tale
|The Marquis of Saluce Marries Griselda by Charles West Cope (1852).|