Theological Reflections on “The Clerk’s Tale”

The following is a short article I have written on “The Clerk’s Tale,” by Geoffrey Chaucer, which is available here: pdf.

Theological Reflections on “The Clerk’s Tale”

Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale” certainly invokes controversy among readers with modern sensibilities. On the face of it, it is a story about spousal abuse. The marquis, the paternalistic husband, takes for himself a wife from among the poor. Why does he choose this lowly bride? One thinks of Ayn Rand’s James Taggart who plucks his bride from the gutter only to hold her “condescension” over her as a tool for stolen power, power which his moral fiber does not warrant. In this case Chaucer is clear, however, that it is the blend of womanliness and goodness that commends Griselda to the marquis. And he prepares his wedding day withholding from her that the plans are made with her in mind. And when the day arrives, he offers his proposal but with one caveat,

‘Griselda, I would have you understand
As pleasing to your father and to me
That I should marry you, and here’s my hand
If, as I may conjecture you agree.

I warn you to be ready to obey
My lightest whim and pleasure; you must show
A willing heart, ungrudging night or day
Whether I please to offer joy or woe.
When I say “Yes” you never shall say “No”
Either by word or frowning a defiance
Swear this and I will swear to our alliance.

With this promise secured, the marquis calls Griselda his and weds her with celebration and pomp. Yet, in spite of his seeming satisfaction with her, he puts her through a series of “tests.” The narrator states that these flow from “his obsession with his wife” and even calls them “cruel.” When she gives birth, he coldly states that he means to put the child to death for fear of what his nobles think. She replies, “My child and I are your possession / And at your pleasure; on my heart’s profession / We are all yours and you may spare or kill / What is your own. Do therefore as you will.” In reality, he takes the child to be raised in Bologna by the marquis’ sister. And yet, his wife having passed the test, the marquis is not satisfied. He tests her further with her second born and then her position as his wife. With regard to his coming marriage he says,

‘Strengthen your heart to give her up your place
As for the dowry that you brought of old,
Take it again, I grant it as a grace
Go home, rejoin your father in his fold.
No one can count upon his luck to hold,
And I enjoy you to endure the smart
Of fortune’s buffets with an even heart.’

Of course the marquis is aware that Griselda had no dowry, but the rags hanging on her naked body. So he brought her into the house naked and naked she shall return. She responds with shocking calmness,

‘Touching your second wife, may God in grace
Grant you both joy and long prosperity,
For I will gladly yield her up my place
That once was such a happiness to me.
But since it pleases you, my Lord,’ said she,
‘In whom was formerly my whole heart’s rest
Then I will go when you shall think it best

The reader responds as the subjects of the marquis do. The narrator states, “Folk followed weeping when she passed them by, / They railed on fate for all that had occurred. / Her eyes withheld their weeping and were dry / And at this time she did not speak a word.” Interestingly, it is fate that is blamed, rather than the marquis here—though later he is blamed as well. And furthermore, in another echo of Job, the narrator records that she does not curse the marquis but her father does. There is then a final test where Griselda is asked to oversee the celebration of the arrival of the bride of the marquis, which she gladly prepares. And finally, when the marquis has made his last cruel test, asking her to complement his new wife “as if in jest,” he reveals to her that the young “bride” is Griselda’s daughter, and the boy her son, and Griselda is and will be his only wife.
The shock the modern reader feels at this account requires no explanation. Further, Chaucer implies this response is expected even from the ancient reader by giving voice to the feelings of the people of the marquis. Yet, the story takes a turn that perhaps only the modern reader will almost surely rue. Chaucer seemingly makes theological application of this story with these lines:

‘This story does not mean it would be good
For wives to ape Griseld’s humility
It would be unendurable they should.
But everybody in his own degree
Should be as perfect in his constancy
As was Griselda.’ That is why Petrarch chose
To tell her story in his noble prose.

For since a woman showed such patience to
A mortal man, how much the more we ought
To take in patience all that God may do!
Reason He has to test what He has wrought,
Yet never tempts the souls that He has bought
Above what they are able, and St James
Tells us He tests us daily, and reclaims.

No doubt many readers will find this conclusion very difficult to swallow. The issue is, if we are to act as Griselda did, how can we excuse the behavior of so monstrous a God? It seems that the author has given us, in contradiction to Griselda ample reason to suspect that we should not rashly enter into such an arrangement of total submission. Yet, to take issue with Chaucer on this point is perhaps to miss the point. Chaucer himself insists that there are at least two ways that the analogy is imbalanced. First, God differs from the marquis in that he exercises reason rather than cruelty in his testing. His testing does not follow his “lightest whims”, but rather the wise and deliberate counsel of God. Second, God differs from the marquis in that he understands perfectly the souls he has bought. The marquis sought to understand and to prove his wife faithful by his test. Yet God, understanding perfectly his own souls, tests them never “above what they are able.” His tests, therefore, are constructive in intent rather than searching. So, the reader must understand, the story is not about the marquis or by analogy, God. The story presents a character, Griselda, who in spite of the cruelty of her master, responds with constancy and resolve. She is rewarded with happiness. How much more, we who serve a master who is wise and good, should serve him with constancy and resolve, with an eye to the expectation of a hope which will not disappoint.

__________________________________

Further, it should certainly be noted that this story is not about how wives should act to their own husbands. Chaucer himself writes (though I might put it with more tact):

O noble wives, in highest prudence bred
Allow no such humility to nail
Your tongues, nor give a scholar cause to shed
Such light on you as this astounding tale
Sheds of Griselda, patient still, and kind,
Lest Chichevache engulf you like a whale.

Imitate Echo, she that never fled
In silence, but returns you hail for hail,
Never let innocence besot your head,
But take the helm yourselves and trim the sail.
And print this lesson firmly in your mind
For common profit; it can never stale.

Arch-wives, stand up, defend your board and bed!
Stronger than camels as you are, prevail!
Don’t swallow insults, offer them instead.
And all you slender little wives and frail,
Be fierce as Indian tigers, since designed
To rattle like a windmill in a gale.

Never revere them, never be in dread,
For though your husband wears a coat of mail
Your shafts of crabbed eloquence will thread
His armour through and drub him like a flail
Voice your suspicions of him! Guilt will bind
Him down, he’ll couch as quiet as a quail.

If you are beautiful, advance your tread,
Show yourself off to people, blaze the trail!
If you are ugly, spend and make a spread,
Get friends, they’ll do the business of a male;
Dance like a linden-leaf if so inclined,
Leave him to weep and wring his hands and wail!

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