The logic of the Clerk's Tale.
A Clerk ther was of Oxenford also, That unto logyk hadde longe ygo. [...] Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche, And gladly woude he lerne and gladly teche. (GEOFFREY CHAUCER) (1) This shulde a ryghtwys lord han in his thought, And not ben lyk tyraunts of Lumbardye, That usen wilfulhed and tyrannye. (2) (GEOFFREY CHAUCER) (3)
'Lucky, lucky girl!' cried Mary as soon as she could speak--'what a match for her! My dearest Henry, this must be my first feeling; but my second, which you shall have as sincerely, is that I approve your choice from my soul, and foresee your happiness as heartily as I wish and desire it. You will have a sweet little wife; all gratitude and devotion. Exactly what you deserve.' (JANE AUSTEN) (4)
The energy that would animate a crime is not more than is wanted to inspire a resolved submission, when the noble habit of the soul reasserts itself. (GEORGE ELIOT) (5)
The Moral Problem
The Clerk of Oxenford is too serious a scholar to be much concerned with literary prizes, but he understands his duty to the company of pilgrims in his deferential response to the Host's request for a tale. As always, the Clerk's response is a measured response. He accepts the present authority of the Host but in doing so he will not go beyond the bounds of reason:
'Hooste,' quod he, 'I am under youre yerde; Ye han of us as now the governance, And therfore wol I do yow obeisance, As fer as resoun axeth, hardily.' (6) (ClProl, E 22-25)
As befits a true scholar, he is punctilious in his acknowledgement of his source (a matter much less pressing for Chaucer himself in respect of Troilus and Criseyde):
'I wol yow telle a tale which that I Lerned at Padowe of a worthy clerk, As preved by his wodes and his werk [...] Fraunceys Petrak, the lauriat poete, Highte this clerk, [...]' (E 26-28, 31-32)
There can be no doubt of the essential correctness of this attribution, but the literary lineage of the Clerk's Tale is more complicated than these brief words might suggest. Petrarch's Historia Griseldis (1373) (7) is a Latin adaptation of the tale that has the distinction of being the final tale of Boccaccio's Decameron (1352), the tenth tale of the tenth day. (8) Petrarch revised his version of the tale in 1374, the year of his death (E 29-30, 36-38), for inclusion in his Epistolae seniles (XVII. 3), addressed to Boccaccio, and it is the revised version that is the source of the Clerk's Tale. In addition to Petrarch's Latin text Chaucer made extensive use of an anonymous French translation (c. 1390), Le Livre Griseldis, and perhaps also (to a slight extent) of the French translation of Philippe de Mezieres entitled Le Miroir des dames mariees (1385-89). (9) These textual relations were authoritatively established by Severs over sixty years ago and they should have enabled us to define the bearings of the Clerk's interest in the story with clarity and confidence. This has not been the case, and the mild-mannered scholar seems to have provoked a sense of moral outrage among his modern readers rather than intellectual enlightenment.
Indeed, the Clerk, like the Man of Law and the Franklin, has become a notable casualty of the application of the dramatic principle to the reading of The Canterbury Tales and of its concomitant preference for tellers over tales. Thus the Clerk has been reduced in status from that of an eminent scholar, a 'philosophical Strode' (TC, v. 1857), let us say, renowned for the rigour of his thought, to yet another fallible pilgrim narrator. Thus Edward Condren speculates that he 'does not understand the revisions Chaucer made in Petrarch's version' and that he has lost control of his tale (unlike the Friar and the Summoner in respect of their tales) to such an extent that 'some of his comments run counter to the main thrust of his tale'. (10) There is no justification for such an approach to the Clerk's Tale other than the sheer difficulty of understanding it. As we shall see, it is hard to match the Clerk's logical precision in the midst of an intensity of self-contained suffering.
It is not, as the Host fears (E 16-20), that his language is difficult to follow. On the contrary, the style of the Clerk's Tale is characterized by its plainness and simplicity, and in this respect it differs markedly from the rhetorically elaborate styles of the Man of Law's Tale, the Franklin's Tale, and the Nun's Priest's Tale. Whereas a degree of rhetorical brilliance is appropriate to the lawyer, the parliamentarian, and the preacher, clarity is the great object of the teacher and philosopher. Such clarity is the mark of the Clerk's master, Aristotle (GP, A 293-96), and of Aristotle's greatest medieval interpreter, Aquinas. The besetting sin of scholars is the ostentatious display of knowledge and the use of technical terms that are impenetrable to the non-expert. In our own day we have had to adjust to the language of structuralism and post-structuralism. Words such as 'deconstruction', 'hermeneutics', 'hypertext', 'intertextuality', and 'semiotics' seem often to be required as the norm of literary discourse. These are words (or meanings of words) often not to be found in dictionaries so that it becomes necessary to be initiated into a closed circle. Hence the praise of brevity and conciseness in the portrait of the Clerk of Oxenford in the General Prologue is both pointed and discriminating:
Noght o word spak he moore than was neede, And that was seyd in forme and reverence, And short and quyk and ful of by sentence. (GP, A 304-06)
Langland's Dame Study explains that Clergy is to be found through the experience of much joy and sorrow in life, a lack of concern for wealth, an avoidance of lechery, and the cultivation of simplicity of speech (PPl, B x.159-69). (11) Such simplicity can leave one open to ridicule as being merely simplistic. Indeed the simplicity of style of the medieval Latin of Scholastic philosophers was ridiculed by Renaissance humanists. The style of the Clerk of Oxenford is lower in register than that of Petratrch's Latin, both vocabulary and syntax being simpler. (12) In view of the stylistic brilliance of other tales in the work, this has to be a deliberate stylistic choice on Chaucer's part.
The philosopher is concerned above all to make his point without ambiguity: that is, his method is logical (GP, A 285-86) and his object is moral truth, which he both imparts to others as a teacher and receives from others as a student (GP, A 307-08). The Clerk therefore underlines at its end the exemplary nature of his tale:
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. (13) (CIT, E 1142-46)
The Clerk's Tale does not imply that it is either possible or desirable that one human being should be obedient to the will of another human being as Grisilde is to her lord and husband. Obedience is not to be given to a superior if it contradicts the will of God (ST, 2a 2ae 104. 5 sed contra). (14) Hence the note of scholarly caution in response to the Host's injunction to tell a tale. Indeed, there are times when an evil will must be resisted, although in the nature of things it will be difficult to know when this point of resistance has been reached. Such legitimate resistance must allow for the exhaustion of the virtues of patience and humility, for in the midst of adversity the demands of patience are not to be wilfully set aside.
Thus George Lyman Kittredge is able to conclude that the Clerk's Tale is 'a plain and straightforward piece of edification'. (15) But the Clerk's disclaimer has not been sufficient to satisfy a large number of modern readers, who not only find Walter intolerably cruel in the testing of his wife, but Grisilde incomprehensibly supine in allowing her children to be taken away from her to be killed. Modern scholarship is resolutely full of righteous indignation on these points. Thomas Lounsbury in 1892 finds the central idea of the tale 'too revolting [...] for any skill in description to make it palatable'. (16) C. David Benson has it in 1990 that the tale 'deliberately insults human feelings and natural justice'. (17) Mark Miller in 2004 deplores the 'inhuman detachment from maternal suffering and a monstrous dereliction of maternal duty'. (18) Some credit is surely due to the Clerk as the agent of such provocation. It is pleasing to think that his devotion to the wisdom of Aristotle has not made his discourse tedious or even only slightly uninteresting. And whereas the modern scholar deplores in the patient Grisilde a dereliction of maternal duty, not a single word of criticism passes the lips of the medieval Clerk of Oxenford.
Something may surely be said at once in the Clerk's defence. Perhaps it is his scholarly and logical method that is the true cause of the offensiveness of his tale. If the Clerk's Tale repels because of its scrupulous and unwavering logical argument we may think that the relentlessness of an Aquinas is also not to everyone's taste. We may note as well some positive elements in the argument of the tale. Walter's testing of Grisilde is not presented in such a way as to make it seem palatable. The failure of Grisilde to rebel does not imply passivity but strength (a point well made by Jill Mann). (19) Grisilde is motivated by her promise to Walter (E 362-64) as well as by ordinary considerations of wifely obedience. There is thus an active commitment to Walter's will and not merely a passive acceptance of it. (20) Grisilde without doubt reconciles herself to the death of her child, for she asks 'that she moste kisse hire child er that it deyde' (E 550) and sees that 'this nyght shaltow dyen for my sake' (E 560). But at the same time her will is subject to the will of others able to exert their power over her. She gives her child back to the sergeant with the words, 'Have heer agayn youre litel yonge mayde' (E 567). The use of the possessive youre makes it clear that the moral responsibility for the well-being of the child is not hers alone. It is not her will that the child be killed. The sergeant and the father have a responsibility for the well-being of children too.
Grisilde's willed submission to Walter's will is not designed to illustrate the way in which a wife would or ought to respond in actuality to a husband intent on killing her daughter, but illustrates rather the nature and working of the moral virtue of obedience. (21) In other words Grisilde is the personification and not the type of the virtues of humility, obedience, and patience. They are perfectly illustrated in her conduct, whereas in a type such as Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight moral excellence is always circumscribed by human imperfection.
The Clerk's Prologue
The Clerk emerges as a serious and learned scholar in the Clerk's Prologue, as we can see from the attitudes adopted towards him by the Host. First of all, he is accorded the term of respect that is his due: 'Sire Clerk of Oxenford [...]' (E 1). In the same way, at the end of the General Prologue the Host addresses him as 'ye, sire Clerk' (A 840). His behaviour is compared to that of a maid (E 2-3), like that of the Knight (GP, A 68-69), whose courtesy he shares. He is not puffed up with the arrogance of learning, but modest by habitual practice. Hence the Host urges him: '[...] lat be youre shamefastnesse' (GP, A 840). At the same time he is not given up to trivial conversation, but is engrossed and silent in his thoughts. Thus the Host also urges him at the end of the General Prologue at the beginning of the competition of tales: 'Ne studieth nyght [...]' (A 841), and now he observes of him:
'This day ne herde I of youre tonge a word. I trowe ye studie aboute sour sophyme.' (22) (E 4-5)
He is of a genuinely serious disposition, but not in any way sullen or unconvivial, and hence responds courteously to the Host's invitation to tell a tale (E 21-22).
The assumptions that the Host derives from his conduct are the expected ones, but somewhat superficial, and so direct us to the true complexity of the Clerk's nature. The Host encourages the Clerk to tell 'som myrie tale' (E 9) and repeats the exhortation a few lines further on (E 15). The expectation is that the moral and philosophical seriousness of the Clerk will lead to a tale that is solemn and even dull. We are all too familiar with the learning that is as dry as dust, and hopes are not high when the representative of learning takes centre stage. By contrast the Host's request of the Pardoner in the introduction to the Pardoner's Tale for 'a myrie tale' and 'som myrthe or japes' (C 316, 319) fills the gentles in the company of pilgrims with alarm (C 323-26). The Clerk's Tale of patient Griselda can hardly be described as merry, but although serious in the best manner of Scholastic philosophy, it is not dull. The moral argument of the tale is too provocative for that. The Clerk's Tale rises above the Host's worst expectations, and indeed is fittingly described by the Host after the Envoy as 'a gentil tale' (E 1212e). The Clerk's Tale is gentil in that it illustrates the Chaucerian (and Dantean) theme of true gentillesse (WBT, D 1109-76). Virtue is independent of social rank, and this principle is pre-eminently realized in Grisilde, who is of peasant stock. (23)
The Host's expectation is also that the language of the Clerk will be high-flown and impenetrable with its 'termes, [...] colours, and [...] figures' (E 16), and urges him to speak 'so pleyn at this tyme, [...] | That we may understonde what ye seye' (E 19-20). Colours refer to the forty-five figures of speech and figures to the nineteen figures of thought, classified in such treatises as the Ciceronian Rhetorica ad Herennium and the Poetria nova of Geoffrey of Vinsauf. (24) But it is the positive, not the negative, aspects of rhetoric that are stressed here, as befits 'this worthy clerk' (E 21) and his source, Petrarch, who is also described as 'a worthy clerk' (E 27) and as 'this worthy man | That taughte me this tale' (E 39-40). Thus rhetoric is seen in terms of the realization of its potentiality to teach poetic eloquence, for Petrarch's 'rethorike sweete | Enlumyned al Ytaille of poetrie' (E 32-33). The Clerk is unembarrassed by the use of the high style, but implies a distinction of styles in the proem and the body of Petrarch's tale (E 41-43). And whereas the Man of Law's and the Franklin's Tales are composed in the high style, the Clerk's Tale is written in a plain style. This accords both with the seriousness of the Clerk's intentions and with the Host's demand for ready intelligibility.
The scholarly nature of the Clerk is revealed in the first place by the acknowledgement of his indebtedness to Petrarch (E 26-38). Secondly, it is evident in his command of detail, both in reference to Giovanni da Lignano, professor of Canon Law at Padua (E 34-35), and in his knowledge of Northern Italian geography (E 43-52). The list of names is neatly rounded off in rhetorical fashion by the use of the device of occupatio (E 53-55). The essential seriousness of his mind is underlined by his recognition of human fame as bounded by mortality (E 29-30, 36-38). And it is this seriousness which finds expression in the tale itself. In this respect the Clerk does not meet but ignores (with sublime scholarly indifference) the Host's demand to supply a merry tale.
Walter and the Gifts of Fortune
The lord in the tale is first of all identified as 'a markys' (E 64). Chaucer is here following his source, for Le Livre Griseldis has 'un marquis', and the word is glossed by the MED (s.v. markis n. (b)) as 'a nobleman of France or Italy, who was usually lord or governor of a territory, town, etc.'. But the term is a more significant marker of noble status in England, and the MED records the sense (a) 'an English nobleman between the ranks of duke and earl'. The first earl to be created Marquess (of Dublin) was Sir Robert de Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford and the favourite of Richard II, in 1385. (25) The MED cites Higden as commenting that '[...] a new dignite was create not seene in Ynglonde afore that tyme; For the kynge, willenge to preferre the erle of Oxenforde, made hym markesse of Oxenforde [sic]'. Thus the title of marquess clearly establishes its possessor as a member of the higher nobility, and in this respect one who has been blessed by fortune. This point is made explicitly of the marquess in the Clerk's Tale as one who is both '[b]iloved and drad, thurgh favour of Fortune' (E 69), and it is made explicitly by Chaucer, not by his sources.
The gifts of fortune are emphasized at the beginning of the following stanza in the lord's noble lineage, his handsomeness, strength, and youth (E 71-73). Chaucer gives a special emphasis to the nobility of his birth, for he is '[t]he gentilleste yborn of Lumbardye' (E 72). Petrarch's Latin simply has 'sanguine nobilis' (65) and Le Livre Griseldis has 'moult noble de lignaige' (I. 13). The reference to Lombardy is Chaucer's addition, emphasizing the extent of the lord's nobility and perhaps also with a hint of the tyranny that is associated with the name of Bernabo Visconti (MkT, [B.sup.2] 3589-90). Praise and blame do not attach themselves to the possession or lack of the gifts of fortune, but to the exercise of virtue. And here the Clerk (ominously in view of what is to come) finds the lord blameworthy (E 76, 78-79, 83-84). This expression of blame is not in the sources, but it is the kind of moral judgement that one would expect of the Clerk of Oxenford (GP, A 307). (26) It is in connection with the expression of blame that Walter's personal name is first revealed (E 77), whereas in the sources it is mentioned at the very beginning. (27) The withholding of the personal name is appropriate, for it is attached in consequence not to the gifts of fortune but to the exercise of choice. Human beings are who they are and what they are by the choices they make, for they have the freedom to choose this rather than that, or that rather than this. (28) Here we are made aware at once of Walter's responsibility as a moral agent. Such an emphasis on the blameworthiness of Walter from the outset is of the greatest importance to the moral argument that is to follow. It is the husband, not the wife, who is to blame for all the misery that is to come, and hence at no point does the Clerk suggest any blameworthiness on Grisilde's part. Walter is a monster as a husband, and we need not doubt that many monsters have played that role in the course of history (not in the medieval world alone).
Walter's subjects appeal to him to take a wife (E 85-140), and to that extent perhaps his will is constrained, especially since he is well disposed towards them as 'myn owene peple deere' (E 143). But for the man marriage is 'that blisful yok | Of soveraynetee, noght of servyse' (E 113-14). Here the loss of freedom is combined with the retention of lordship. Thus the marquess decides to marry of his own free will (E 150-51), even though he gives up his freedom by marrying (E 145-47, 171-73), and further he reserves to himself the choice of wife (E 152-54, 162). He makes his choice in terms of the woman's goodness, for virtue comes from God and not from birth (E 157-58). The sentiments of the marquess are impeccable, and such indeed that the Wife of Bath herself can assent to. He proposes in the light of them to entrust himself to the divine will:
I truste in Goddes bountee, and therfore My mariage and myn estaat and reste I hym bitake; he may doon as hym leste. (E 159-61)
Indeed, only marriages blessed by God can hope to survive the vicissitudes of fortune and of life (as we shall later see in the happy marriage of Arveragus and Dorigen). In the event Walter as husband proves unable to subject himself to the operation of a superior will. But there is no doubt of his determination to get married. Even though the people still fear procrastination on his part (E 181-82), the marquess puts into effect the arrangements for the wedding feast (E 190-96).
The Virtue of Grisilde
As far as lineage or birth is concerned Grisilde is at the very opposite pole to Walter. She is the daughter of the 'povrest' of the 'povre folk' of a nearby village (E 204-05) and is 'this povre creature' (E 232). In this respect at least the gift of fortune has been denied to her. But she has not been denied the gift of beauty. Such beauty is inseparable from her moral goodness, for it is her 'vertuous beautee' (E 211). (29) The opening portrait of Grisilde is indeed a catalogue of her moral virtues. She is not lustful (E 214); she is industrious (E 215-17, 223-28); she is respectful, obedient, and loving to her father (E 221-22, 229-31). The active exercise of the habit of virtue is summed up in the phrase 'for she wolde vertu plese' (E 216). This particular selection of virtues is appropriate to one of humble station, and indeed it is Chaucer who has added the references to her sobriety and industry (E 215-17). We must not expect too much from one who has long been conditioned by the effects of poverty. It is one thing to be born into the life of a marquess; it is another to be suddenly elevated into such a position. This is a matter of psychological outlook as well as of moral conduct. Grisilde has long been educated by grinding poverty into the necessity of submissiveness towards those wealthier and more powerful than she herself can ever hope to be.
The marquess is drawn to Grisilde by her real virtues, not by any 'wantown lookyng of folye' (E 236). In fact he shows the virtue of prudence or practical wisdom in its full sense of deliberation, judgement (and a right judgement at that), and command in respect of Grisilde's goodness. (30) He 'in sad wyse | Upon hir chiere [...] wolde hym ofte avise', '[c]ommendynge in his herte hir wommanhede, | And eek hir vertu' (E 237-40). He 'considered ful right | Hir bountee, and disposed that he wolde | Wedde hire oonly, if evere he wedde sholde' (E 243-45). We are not to doubt the merit of his choice, and indeed it is subsequently acknowledged by his people. They held him to be '[a] prudent man', and that is seldom the case in a lord (E 425-27). This is no small thing for the narrator to say, for people at large are commonly blinded by riches and status. It is above all a vindication of the choice of Grisilde as wife. But perhaps Walter is not entirely free of presuming on his own behalf the rights conferred by his own noble lineage. If we are to press the argument for virtue against birth then we must also recognize Grisilde's entitlement to equality with her husband and the possibility also that as a human being she is morally superior to her husband.
Marriage and Grisilde's Will
The splendour of the wedding preparations is set out in telling detail (E 253-73) and is such as befits a 'roial markys' (E 267). But although the marquess makes much of his own freedom to choose, no such freedom is conceded to Grisilde other than the choice of obedience. Thus the preparations are made for the wedding on Grisilde's behalf (E 253-55), but she is as ignorant of them as Criseyde was at the beginning of Troilus's love for her (TC, I. 806-09). Grisilde is 'ful innocent, | That for hire shapen was al this array' (E 274-75). She has not been consulted about these arrangements, although she has been designated the central role in them. Her consent is presumed.
The relationship that is described here is not so much that of husband and wife as that of lord and subject, and such a relationship is clearly defined in the terms in which the marquess proposes marriage to Grisilde. It is true (in the medieval view of the world) that 'a womman sholde be subget to hire housbonde' (ParsT I. 929), but Grisilde is subject to the marquess as her feudal lord before she is subject to him as her husband. Thus when the marquess comes for Grisilde as his bride she greets him as her lord by the appropriate gesture of humility: she falls down upon her knees and waits to learn his will (E 292-94). She addresses him with a corresponding humility when he asks to see her father (E 298-99). He is her liege lord and her father is his 'feithful lige man' (E 310). The marquess appeals not to Grisilde herself but to Grisilde's father for her hand (E 306-08).
It is the will of the two men, not the will of the daughter, that counts. Now this disregard for the woman's will may be thought characteristic of the social norms and conventions of the Middle Ages. But the essence of marriage is consent, (31) and this is evident in the credibility that attaches itself to clandestine marriages. (32) Thus there is a pointed exclusion of Grisilde here in a way unlikely to find favour with a medieval audience. This fact is further emphasized by Chaucer in the stress on the equality of wills that characterizes the married relation of Arveragus and Dorigen in the Franklin's Tale (F 738-98). Predictably, the father's will is entirely subject to the bidding of his lord (E 319-22). The marquess does indeed propose to discover Grisilde's will in the matter, but only late in the process and in the presence of the father (E 326-29). Grisilde is thus further constrained by the fact of her father's initial consent (E 345-46) and the suddenness with which the moment of decision is pressed upon her (E 348-50). The marquess has been earlier described as 'this thoghtful markys' (E 295). That is because his own actions have been carefully considered. He has had the time for deliberation that he now denies to Grisilde.
The conditions that Walter puts to Grisilde are not those of marriage and equality, but of lordship and subjection (E 355-56). They belong (were it not for the power that he wields) to the fantasy world of January that is ridiculed in the Merchant's Tale (E 1344-46). Grisilde accepts them as a subject in awe of her lord, indeed 'quakynge for drede' (E 358). And further she promises to honourthem:
'And heere I swere that nevere willyngly, In werk ne thougt, I nyl yow disobeye, For to be deed, though me were looth to deye.' (E 362-64)
She is bound to obey the marquess, therefore, in accordance with fidelity to her promise as well as any ordinary considerations of wifely obedience.
The marquess is able to draw upon the bonds of feudal obligation, rather than love, in carrying out his intention to marry Grisilde, and Grisilde's response to his proposal is determined by this primary relation. The prudential rather than loving nature of the contract established between Walter and Grisilde is indicated by the fact that whereas in all these negotiations Grisilde is mentioned by name (E 210, 232, 255, 274, 335) and her father is identified as 'Janicula' (E 208), Walter is referred to as 'this markys' (E 198, 233, 253, 323), 'the markys' (E 279, 289, 342), 'this roial markys' (E 267), and 'this thoghtful markys' (E 295). (33) The use of the adjective 'roial' emphasizes the power and prestige of Walter as he makes his way 'richely arrayed' with his company of lords and ladies (E 267-68) to invite Grisilde as bride to the wedding to which she looks forward as spectator (E 278-87). Her part is merely to consent. It is a fait accompli. Our 'thoghtful' marquess has thought it out all in advance. Grisilde is taken entirely by surprise. The proper match for such a lord as she supposes is some 'markysesse' (E 283). The social disparity is emphasized in the forms of address. Walter addresses the young maiden by name (E 297, 344) and significantly, when he has obtained his will, as 'Grisilde myn' (E 365), and he addresses the father from whom he seeks permission by name (E 304). On the other hand Grisilde replies to him as 'lord' (E 299, 359), as does her father (E 319). Although Grisilde is bound to her lord by this feudal contract, she is presented by Walter to the people as his wife (E 369-71). Here he invokes concepts of honour and of love that have been conspicuously absent from the preceding negotiations. There is an illicit shift from the plane of lordship and servitude to that of marriage and equality, for these concepts of honour and love have not been internalized by Walter himself. It does not bode well for what is to follow. Hence after the marriage Walter continues to regard Grisilde with the condescension that ought to be reserved for his feudal subjects and does not show to her the honour that accords with the dignity of a wife.
No fault is to be attached, however, to Grisilde, who has done what she was more or less obliged to do. She has played the part assigned to her in this drama. When she is married her virtue stands out more clearly than before (to everyone, it would seem, except her husband), and fits her in every way for the exalted position she now occupies (E 410-13). She is in every respect (in Chaucer's addition to his sources) 'this newe markysesse' (E 394), and deserves to be treated as her husband's equal. The Clerk makes the point by the rhetorical device of correctio:
Thus Walter lowely--nay, but roially-- Wedded with fortunat honestetee. (E 421-22)
Thus 'this roial markys' (E 267) is wedded 'roially' (E 421). It is entirely fitting, and Chaucer deliberately uses the personal name 'Walter' (E 421) (the Livre Griseldis continues to refer to 'le marquis') to signify the personal accord. It is a match that is, we might say, made in heaven, for it is characterized both by good fortune and by virtue. Hence it is summed up in the striking phrase 'fortunat honestetee' (E 422). (34) This collocation of ideas is distinctively Chaucerian. The Historia Griseldis observes that 'Walterus, humili quidem sed insigni ac prospero matrimonio honestatus, summa domi in pace, [...] vivebat' (181-83: 'Walter, graced by a humble but worthy and prosperous marriage, lived in great peace at home'), and Le Livre Griseldis that 'le marquis, [humblement] mais virtueusement mariez, vivoit en bonne paix en sa maison' (II. 147-48).
By her conduct Grisilde shows herself entirely fitting for the role of the wife of a marquess, able to exercise harmonizing and reconciling qualities when disputes break out among her husband's subjects (E 428-41). She can without difficulty arbitrate between those of all ranks, 'gentil men or othere' (E 436). What is inhibiting is not so much that she is (or was) a peasant, but that she is a woman. The second part of the Clerk's Tale ends with the birth of a daughter. Chaucer adds to his sources lines that emphasize Grisilde's strong preference for a son:
For though a mayde child coome al bifore, She may unto a knave child atteyne By liklihede, syn she nys nat bareyne. (35) (E 446-48)
These lines reinforce our perception of the strong disadvantage of inequality under which Grisilde has had to lead her life, and which the presence of so many virtues is insufficient to counteract.
The Marquess's First Testing of his Wife
The marquess has the desire to test the constancy of his wife. The sources have it that this is a marvellous rather than a laudable intention, although there are always some willing to justify such extraordinary acts (especially in a lord). Petrarch has it that Walter's desire is marvellous though not necessarily praiseworthy ('mirabilis quedam (quam laudabilis, doctiores iudicent) cupiditas', HG, 193). The author of Le Livre Griseldis does not know where Walter could have got hold of so extraordinary an idea ('je ne scay quelle ymaginacion merveilleuse print ledit marquis', III. 162-63), but allows that some wits will find in it cause for praise ('laquelle aucuns saiges veulent louer', III. 163). Chaucer's Clerk indeed refers to the lord's 'merveillous desir' (E 454) to test his wife, but there is no praise for it. Nor is there room for any trace of ambiguity on so vital a point. The lord's desire receives the Clerk's unequivocal moral condemnation. This is consistent not only with his concern for moral values but also with our sense as readers (modern no less than medieval) of the repulsiveness of the lord's conduct.
The Clerk's moral condemnation of Walter is based on two related judgements. First of all, the testing of Grisilde is unnecessary (E 456-59), for we have seen in her, both as a poor young maiden and as the wife of a marquess, nothing but virtue. Secondly, it is bound to cause her fear and anguish. In other words, it is a motiveless cruelty:
Nedelees, God wont, he thoghte hire for t'affraye. [...] But as for me, I seye that yvele it sit To assaye a wyf whan that it is no nede, And putten hire in angwyssh and in drede. (E 455, 460-62)
The strength of the emotion that accompanies this judgement is clear from the parenthetical asides ('God woot', 'as for me') and the use of the affirmative verb ('I seye'). Such a forthright and impassioned condemnation is not only morally correct but shapes the entire imaginative presentation of the subsequent events: that is, it makes them imaginatively and morally intelligible in a way that often seems to have been doubted. But although the treatment of Grisilde is intolerable, there is a limit to the usefulness of expressions of moral indignation. Abuses of power by human beings in positions of authority are a commonplace of the world we live in. What matters more is how we (the victims) are able to shape a moral response on our own account. Innocent victims can be more or less worthy in their response to persecution (not to put too fine a point on Walter's desire).
The marquess reminds Grisilde (despicably, but correctly) that it was he who took her from her position of poverty to that of exalted rank. This underlying reality is emphasized in Chaucer's text by its repetition (E 466-69, 470-73). Once again we are led to appreciate the lack of complementarity of birth and virtue. And the marquess is able to take advantage of Grisilde's virtue by invoking their private agreement, the promise she made to him before marriage to obey his will (in lines not paralleled in the sources: E 475-76). Grisilde is required as a result to commit her will patiently to that of her husband in assenting to whatever he will do in the disposal of their daughter (E 484-97). This situation is designed to test the notion of wifely submission to the limit (not merely the submissiveness of an individual wife). Grisilde keeps her promise and shows a perfect conformity to her lord's (not her husband's) will (E 501-04).
Obedience is a voluntary act. It is a willed subjection of one's own will to another's will. Hence there is nothing grudging in Grisilde's response: 'she was nat agreved' (E 500). Here the Clerk makes us confront the fact that obedience is of its nature an uncomfortable moral virtue as requiring action of a moral agent that is in itself repugnant to the will. A wife is a weak and defenceless woman, and she can hardly be blamed for a husband's desire to kill her children. They are his own as much as hers. He can 'save or spille' his 'owene thyng' (E 503-04). He has the power to execute an evil will, even if she were so silly or foolish as to attempt physical resistance. We may admire the resistance of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the tyranny of Hitler, but for all that it was unavailing and the end result personally calamitous.
There is a difference here between the obedience of the wife and the obedience of the sergeant who comes to carry the child away (E 519-39). He too is obedient to his lord's will (E 528-32), but in his case some show of physical resistance would surely be possible. Obedience in his case is such as to lead a man to 'doon execucioun in thynges badde' (E 522). This is yet another addition by Chaucer to his sources, significantly modifying the tendency of the poetic argument. By his actions in suggesting that he intends to slay the child (E 535-36) the sergeant shows himself to be 'this crueel sergeant' (E 539). A distinction seems to be involved here between a true and false obedience. Aquinas explains that one is under no obligation to obey unjust commands:
[...] principibus saecularibus intantum homo obedire tenetur inquantum ordo justitiae requirit. Et ideo si non habeant justum principatum sed usurpatum, vel si injusta praecipiant, non tenentur eis subditi obedire nisi forte per accidens propter vitandum scandalum vel periculum. (ST, 2a 2ae 104. 6 ad 3)
The obligation to obey civil authority is measured by what the order of justice requires. For this reason when any regime holds its power not by right but by usurpation, or commands what is wrong, subjects have no duty to obey, except for such extraneous reasons as avoidance of scandal or risk. (trans. by T. C. O'Brien)
In her acceptance of the loss of a daughter Grisilde shows a combination of virtues. She is obedient (E 545-46), humble (E 547-48, 566-67), loving (E 551-53), Pious (E 556-60), and patient (E 563-65). The scene of farewell is full of pathos (E 554-67) and it is one which encourages us to identify with the mother's suffering. It is again matter of Chaucer's own invention. And we ought not to isolate Grisilde in her suffering by adding blame to her misfortune. Significantly, the Clerk himself makes no attempt to do so. It is not only mothers who have a duty of care for little babies.
The lord, who is also the father, has an overriding duty of care. But he remains implacable. Pity will not deflect him from the execution of his will (E 579-81). The reflection on the inflexibility of the lord's will shows by contrast to Grisilde's patience how human beings can be stubborn or perverse in holding to their will, even in the face of the suffering of others. But the lord's obstinacy illuminates the virtue of Grisilde. Just as the lord's will is unaltered, so Grisilde's behaviour remains unchanged (E 598-602). She is as cheerful, humble, courteous, and loving as she ever was (E 603-05). Here we see that the moral virtue of obedience is not merely the acceptance of another's will. It is a glad and actively willed acceptance, and it requires by contrast with the lord's obstinacy a firmness of purpose that is admirable.
The Marquess's Second Testing of his Wife
The marquess's second testing of his wife is also prefaced by the Clerk's outright condemnation, and (it is of the utmost significance) in another addition by Chaucer to his source:
O nedelees was she tempted in assay! But wedded men ne knowe no mesure, Whan that they fynde a pacient creature. (E 621-23)
Here not only the needlessness of the lord's conduct is condemned, but also the immoderation of 'wedded men' (E 622) in the face of wifely patience. The criticism of the husband is at least as stringent as anything the Wife of Bath might muster on her own behalf. It is the cruelty of Walter that must be withdrawn, not the dignity of a wife. Here Chaucer introduces into the moral equation a sense of the loving duty of a husband to cherish and honour his wife. Such a duty ought to overrule the relationship of lord and servant which the marquess continues to invoke (E 631-37).
In proposing the loss of a second child the marquess sees clearly the danger of madness for the mother (E 642-44). But his persistence in his evil will gives rise to the most sublime expression of Grisilde's obedience in yet another significant addition by Chaucer to his sources:
'Naught greveth me at al, Though that my doughter and my sone be slayn-- At youre comandement, this is to sayn.' (E 647-49)
She does the lord's will willingly and happily. That is, after all, the nature of any moral virtue. The husband has no need to ask the wife what is to be done with their children, for they are subject to his will in the same way as she herself is:
'Ye been oure lord; dooth with youre owene thyng Right as yow list; axeth no reed at me.' (E 652-53)
This is a moral crisis not for the wife but for the husband. The wife continues to obey the will of her lord and husband and the father of her children. As a moral choice and not a mere imposition she obeys his will happily, not grudgingly. It is a morally elevating choice. But the act of obedience as the outward fulfilment of a command does not necessarily imply the inward assent of conscience (ST, 2a 2ae 104. 5), and Grisilde's declaration 'axeth no reed at me' (E 653) suggests detachment on her part from the lord's judgement. (36) The moral virtue of obedience requires promptness of the will, but in relation to the carrying out of what is commanded, not in relation to the nature of the command itself, which is likely to be repugnant to the will:
[...] obedientia sicut et quaelibet virtus debet habere promptam voluntatem in suum proprium objectum, non autem in quod repugnans est ei. (ST, 2a 2ae 104. 2 ad 3)
Obedience, like any other virtue, necessarily includes the will being prompt with respect to the objective of the virtue, not with regard to what runs counter to the will.
Grisilde shows herself to be perfect in obedience from the time that she was taken from her home and, if necessary, to the point of death (E 654-65). To put it simply (and convincingly), she places love for the marquess above her own life as any loving wife would do: 'Deth may noght make no comparisoun | Unto youre love' (E 666-67). Indeed Aquinas observes that charity is the source of obedience (ST, 2a 2ae 104. 3 sed contra). The marquess is lei to marvel at her womanly fortitude (E 667-70) and in itself this is a telling comment on her virtue.
The sergeant comes again to take the son as he has taken the daughter, but finds in Grisilde the same patience, love, and piety (E 677-79). The evil intent of the sergeant would seem to be confirmed by the description of him as 'ugly' (E 673; not in the sources), but it is not developed by any particularizing details (as in the portraits of Miller, Summoner, and Pardoner in the General Prologue). Moreover, the sergeant brought the little child to Bologna 'tendrely' (E 686; again, not in the sources). There is a contradiction here between the outward appearance and the inner intent, and it is emphasized in Chaucer's version of the tale: 'He wente his wey, as hym no thyng ne roghte, | But to Boloigne he tendrely it broghte' (E 685-86). But Grisilde's obedience involves no such dislocation between appearance and intent, as is evident in the following stanza. Grisilde shows an example of perfect patience and love, without trace of deceit, malice, or cruelty (E 687-93). Here the Clerk gives us to understand that the obedience of a wife is a deeper thing than the obedience of a mere servant. Grisilde has (or ought to have) the dignity of a wife, and is bound to Walter by her marriage vows. A wife promises obedience only to one who has vowed to God to love, honour, and cherish her until death, and in her turn she has vowed to God to love and cherish her husband as well as to obey him. (37) Vows are if at all possible to be kept and are not lightly to be dispensed (ST, 2a 2ae 88. 3 and 10). The absence of criticism of Grisilde by the Clerk is an acknowledgement that Grisilde, in the trying and perhaps impossible circumstances of her marriage, nevertheless continues to fulfil in her conduct the marriage vows she has made to Walter. In all respects she acts as a wife ought to act (but in the event will be unable to act). Hence the final act of cruelty on Walter's part is his repudiation of Grisilde as his wife. There is in Walter's successive acts a merciless logic of a kind that the Clerk is peculiarly well fitted to appreciate (albeit grimly).
But at this point in his tale the Clerk of Oxenford turns away from logic in a direct appeal to the women in his audience to vouch for the fact that the testing of Grisilde has passed all reasonable bounds (E 696-97), and by the figure of traductio ('a sturdy housbonde[...] | [...] continuynge evere in sturdinesse', E 698, 700) he emphasizes once again the husband's cruelty. (38) The appeal to women is Chaucer's invention, and characteristic of the deferential manner of the poet in matters necessarily beyond his personal experience. Thus he has appealed to women to vouch for the treachery of Criseyde side by side with the many examples of women betrayed in love by men (TC, v. 1772-85). The appeal to the judgement of women in the Clerk's Tale is the clearest indication of the narrator's sympathies, for the conduct of the lord is best judged from the point of view of the experience of wives. They would appreciate with special force just how impossible the demands on Grisilde have been. At the same time there is an understanding of the psychology of the husband. Once he has embarked upon his evil purpose it is difficult for him to turn aside from it (E 701-07).
But Grisilde remains unchanged in outlook and behaviour (E 708-10), and is the same in both outward appearance and inner reality: 'She was ay oon in herte and in visage' (E 711). This accord of inner and outer reality is the true mark of moral virtue. Moreover, husband and wife are united by a single will (E 715-17) and this conformity of the human wills accords with the divine will (E 718). Here Chaucer enforces our sense of the personal nature of the marriage bond by the use of the personal name 'Walter' (E 716). The husband's will is placed by Grisilde above all other worldly obligations or considerations (E 719-21). Thus a sacred ideal of marriage is realized by Grisilde even while it is violated by her husband. But the 'sclaundre' or ill-fame (E 722, 730) of Walter makes his people turn against him (E 722-35). (39) It seems that he is the murderer of his own children (E 725, 727-28, 732), and allegiance ought not to be given to one who is so cruel (E 723, 734) and depraved. For once the murmurs of the common people do not lack substance, and the Clerk indicates his sympathy with them (E 726-28). We seem to have arrived here at the limits of obedience. It is surely not right to give obedience to the murderer of one's own children. But the wife is not to be blamed or tainted by the moral turpitude of the husband. It is he who has violated the laws of marriage and persistence in evil is ultimately beyond human resourcefulness to correct.
The Husbands Repudiation of his Wife
The logical progression from the private dishonouring of the wife is the public shaming of her, and we now proceed to this dismal stage with Walter's repudiation of Grisilde as his wife (E 736-49). Here the Clerk reveals his sympathy with Grisilde's misery: 'I deeme that hire herte was ful wo' (E 753). But Grisilde continues to endure this new affliction with patience and humility (E 754-56). This humiliation is not a pointless humiliation, for it is directed at the very essence of Grisilde's will. Now, as a faithful and loving wife, she is required to will her separation from her husband (E 758-59). Chaucer refers at this point to Grisilde's endurance of 'the adversitee of Fortune' (E 756) (a reference not in the sources), and this seems to suggest that the marquess's behaviour corresponds to the randomness of fortune--that it is completely irrational and entirely unjust.
The fifth part of the Clerk's Tale begins with the continuation of the testing of Grisilde, and with the repeated moral judgement upon the marquess's purpose (again, not in the sources) as being 'after his wikke usage' (E 785). The wickedness of the marquess has hardened into habit: that is, it is a vice. Sometimes in a marriage it is the case that blame lies entirely, or almost entirely, on one side. Chaucer again adds the reference to fortune in the words with which the marquess urges Grisilde to accept his repudiation of her: 'With evene herte I rede yow t'endure | The strook of Fortune or of aventure' (E 811-12). It is the marquess's will, not fortune, that is responsible for Grisilde's suffering, save that it is her fortune or rather misfortune to have been chosen by him as his wife. The marquess can produce wise generalizations for Grisilde's benefit on the short-lived character of human prosperity (E 810) when he has himself been so conspicuously a beneficiary of fortune. In this new misfortune Grisilde remains patient (E 813) and humble (E 823-24, 829, 882), but above all she continues to be a loving wife. This important fact is made clear by Chaucer in three more significant additions to his sources. Grisilde is full of horror at the thought of taking a second husband (E 839-40). She addresses her husband as 'myn owene lord so deere' (E 881). And her final words are full of loving concern for his well-being (E 888-89). It is not a comment on what the marquess has done (other than by remote inference), but on what she is. Walter cannot break down by his wicked actions the wall of Grisilde's integrity. Her goodness is a more powerful force than any wicked actions that he may commit. Moreover the emphasis on Grisilde's love for Walter is designed to focus on the fact that the virtue of obedience is no imposed thing. As a virtue it is voluntary, and it is inspired by love (as are all the virtues). Little wonder that even the marquess is overwhelmed by pity (E 892-93).
Grisilde's father (like most people) is unable to take so sudden a reversal of fortune calmly (E 901-03; again, in lines added by Chaucer). Loss of status is often a crushing blow to the spirit, much like the loss of the title 'Her Royal Highness' for Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1996. Grisilde by contrast remains 'this flour of wyfly pacience' (E 919). The reason is that she did not lose her humility in the elevation of her rank. Chaucer develops at this point his account of her humility with a circumstantial detail that is not to be found in his sources (E 925-31). Such poetic elaboration is fitting to the character of the Clerk, for it is designed to show that moral virtue is to be set above all considerations of social rank. The one is only a gift of fortune, but the other is an expression of the individual will.
Just as the marquess is moved to pity by Grisilde's loving obedience, so the Clerk is moved to admiration by her humility and fidelity. The fifth part of the tale ends with the Clerk's praise of womanly virtue, and the fact that the praise comes from so unexpected a source (at least in terms of the common expectation) is the best possible testimony to Grisilde's virtue (E 935-38). It is yet one more way in which Chaucer has shaped the narrative so as to clarify the balance of moral forces.
The Husband's Second Marriage
It now falls on Grisilde to receive the guests for the second marriage, and Chaucer stresses that she does so with her customary humility (E 949-52) and love (E 971-73). Though now reduced in status she is responsible for ensuring that the guests are treated with the dignity that is their due in accordance with their social class and rank (E 957-59). It is a cruel irony and cruelly conceived. But the greater her awareness of her own suffering, the better able is she to recognize the needs of others.
The beauty of the marquess's daughter is such that the common people are readily persuaded by their lord's new opinion, for 'they seye | That Walter was no fool' (E 986). The use of the lord's personal name at this juncture by Chaucer ('le marquis' still in LG, v. 372) reminds us of the marquess's personal responsibility for these events, and the negative formulation 'Walter was no fool', where Petrarch has 'prudenter [...] ac feliciter' (HG, 356) and the Livre Griseldis has 'saige' (v. 372), draws attention to his folly. The Clerk of Oxenford in characteristic fashion underlines the fact that few are possessed of steadfast minds and many are unduly impressed by 'heigh lynage' (E 991). Indeed, there follow here two stanzas, added by Chaucer, which consist in a vehement denunciation of the fickleness of common people (E 995-1008). Such vehemence is well calculated to impress upon the reader the truth of the conclusion:
'Youre doom is fals, youre constance yvele preeveth; A ful greet fool is he that on yow leeveth.' (40) (E 1000-01)
The point of view is attributed in the tale to 'sadde folk in that citee' (E 1002), (41) but it reflects the sobriety and independence of thought of the scholar. In this way the Clerk of Oxenford distances us and himself further from the judgement and will of Walter, for they are implicitly the subject of these criticisms.
In receiving the marquess's guests at the wedding feast Grisilde shows both her 'constance' and her 'bisynesse' (E 1008). She is constant in enduring the pain of receiving the maiden who is to supplant her as wife--'the markysesse' (E 1014)--and does so, moreover, 'with glad cheere' (E 1013) and 'with so glad chiere' (E 1016). (42) Not only does she suppress her own sorrow, but she also shows the gladness that is appropriate to such a festive occasion. She has no false sense of her own dignity, for she makes nothing of her rude and tattered dress (E 1011-12), but she does not neglect the rank of the guests, receiving 'everich in his degree' (E 1017). Much is made indeed of her solicitude. She is 'ful bisy' (E 1009) in attending to all matters requisite for the feast. After greeting the new marchioness she 'dooth forth hire bisynesse' (E 1015). And the marquess calls to her 'as she was bisy in his halle' (E 1029). Such an emphasis on Grisilde's bisynesse is that of Chaucer and not of his sources. It is designed to show the active quality of Grisilde's obedience. Virtuous acts are those that are performed promptly and with pleasure (ST, 1a 2ae 107. 4). Hence there is nothing grudging in Grisilde's execution of her lord's will. She is busy in her desire to see his will fulfilled and in such solicitude we are led to see the true meaning of obedience. Such conduct is indeed exemplary. Thus the guests at the second wedding of the marquess 'worthily [...] preisen' the 'prudence' (E 1022) of the erstwhile wife, and the Clerk observes (the observation is not in the sources) that 'no man koude hir pris amende' (E1026).
Grisilde shows not the slightest trace of ill will towards the maiden and her brother. Indeed, she praises them with kindness, 'in ful benygne entente' (E 1025; again, Chaucer's addition). The marquess is thus unable to torment her with the beauty of his new wife (E 1030-33), but elicits from her only the anxious concern that the new wife will not suffer as the old one has done, for she would not be able to endure it (E 1037-43). Here Grisilde reveals the depth of the suffering that she herself has had to endure, and that her own experience of life has always required her to endure.
We have now reached the point of the complete vindication of Grisilde's virtue, and it is such as to overcome the stubbornness of Walter's heart. The willing acceptance of undeserved suffering on Grisilde's part in the end brings about a reformation of the higher will (E 1044-50). (43) The Clerk's Tale does not merely illustrate the virtue of patience, but the triumph of patience, and the means by which patience triumphs is through pity. It is pity that prompts Walter's final (if intolerably belated) change of heart (E 1049-50). It leads to the 'pitous joye' (E 1080) of the reconciliation scene, and that is such as to call forth 'many a teere on many a pitous face' (E 1104). (44) It is a powerful example of the common idea that patientes vincunt, an idea appropriately expressed by Langland's Conscience to Patience:
Pacience hap be in many place, and peraunter knowep That no clerk ne kan, as Crist berep witnesse: Pacientes vincunt [...] (PPl, B xin. 134-35a)
The same lesson is repeated by the Franklin in the context of the loving marriage of Arveragus and Dorigen (FranklT, F 773-76). But although the idea may be a commonplace its emotional power here cannot easily be ignored. We are too much aware of the pressure of human suffering that is necessary to induce Walter to turn aside from his evil intention. It is indeed 'ynogh' (E 1051) and more than enough, as Walter at last realizes, for Grisilde's 'feith' and 'benyngnytee' (E 1053) have been tested to the limit, and she has needed all her 'stedfastnesse' (E 1056)--that is, her womanly fortitude or patience--to sustain her. As the Clerk explicitly recognizes, Walter has asked too much of her, and there are many in this world (like Walter) who can bear with equanimity the suffering of others.
Walter's conversion, of course, comes too late. Having endured his cruelty towards her for so long Grisilde is now incapable of responding to his words and gestures of affection: 'And she for wonder took of it no keep; | She herde nat what thyng he to hire seyde' (E 1058-59). At Walter's disclosure of the truth (E 1062-78) she is overwhelmed, for what she has been asked to endure has indeed been insupportable. Her response is similar to that of Dorigen when faced with the moral dilemma of breaking faith with Arveragus in order to keep her word to Aurelius (FranklT, F 1471): 'This is to muche, and it were Goddes wille.' The overwhelming nature of Grisilde's experience is seen in the extended description of her double swoon (E 1079-80, 1098-99) and in the irresistible force of the love for her children that has been so painfully suppressed and now can no longer be concealed (E 1100-03). The emotional power of the swoon is reinforced by the Clerk's personal expression of pity:
O which a pitous thyng it was to se Hir swownyng, and hire humble voys to heere! (E 1086-87)
The use of the apostrophe is suggestive of anger as well as pity, (45) and anger would certainly be fitting when one considers that all this desperate sorrow proceeds from the stubborn will of one man. Nevertheless, Walter's declaration of fidelity to his wife (E 1062-64) does not lack the power to move, and Grisilde refers to him without irony as her children's 'benygne fader' (E 1097). However, Walter's claim that he was not motivated by 'malice' or 'crueltee' (E 1074) but simply by the desire to test his wife's 'wommanheede' (E 1075) is harder to justify. It stands condemned above all in the light of the reaction of Grisilde to which it gives rise. Motives are not to be set above the effects of one's actions. And what right has any human being to test another in that way? Perhaps Walter has become too used to the exercise of power conferred upon him by his noble lineage. Those who are habituated to the exercise of power become indifferent to the sufferings of those subject to their will.
The deeply moving account of Grisilde's sorrowful and joyful reunion with her children (E 1079-1106) is perhaps the most significant of all Chaucer's additions to his sources. It is a scene that above all expresses the meaning of Grisilde's obedience to her husband in the great reservoirs of loving feeling that inform it. And the impact of such a scene serves once again to shape our response to the moral values of the tale. Walter goes fittingly as a true husband (at long last) to comfort his wife, and this restoration (or perhaps rather initiation) of the true marital relationship is signified by the use of his personal name on two occasions in the space of five lines (E 1107,1111).
The Conclusion of the Tale
The feast which follows these revelations exceeds in both solemnity and cost the celebrations of Grisilde's marriage (E 1125-27), for the human happiness it signifies is now more securely based. The conclusion involves the working out of the whole series of family relationships, of the children and Janicula as well as Walter and Grisilde themselves (E 1128-37). Chaucer adds here the telling observation that the son does not test his own wife as his father had done his mother (E 1138-40). Sons do indeed take note of and learn from the sufferings of their mothers. Once again the Clerk of Oxenford seeks to clarify the moral issues. Walter's testing of Grisilde is not justified in itself and goes beyond what is humanly permissible. Walter cannot, therefore, be an image of God, for God 'tempteth no man' (E 1153) and knows without testing 'al oure freletee' (E 1160). In Chaucer's version of the tale at any rate Walter is 'less an analogy for God than a contrast to Him'. (46)
A lesson is indeed to be learnt from the patient suffering of Grisilde, for it may enable us to endure the suffering that we ourselves shall undoubtedly have to experience in this life (E 1155-58): that is, we must learn to live our lives 'in vertuous suffraunce' (E 1162). Such a conclusion in its moral seriousness is eminently suited to the character of the Clerk, although it follows the conclusion of the sources. But Chaucer adds two more stanzas (E 1163-76) in which the tone and mood change dramatically. The direct address to the audience--'But o word, lordynges, herkneth er I go' (E 1163)--is in the lively and pugnacious manner in which the Wife of Bath initiates her debate on marriage (WBProl, D 4, 14, 224). The example of Grisilde is now used for polemical rather than moral effect (E 1164-69) and that is difficult to reconcile with the Clerk's meekness (E 2-3). Further, the appeal to 'stynte of ernestful matere' (E 1175) does not seem to suit his moral seriousness. The stylistic discontinuity that is evident here is justified rather by the larger scheme of The Canterbury Tales, and of this the Clerk's moral seriousness is but a thirtieth part. In many ways the Clerk's Tale is more convincing as an independent work, and indeed it was copied independently at least six times, more so than any of the other tales. (47)
The Envoy to the Clerk's Tale is headed Lenvoy de Chaucer, and this is perhaps an explicit acknowledgement on Chaucer's part that the ironic address to wives goes beyond the special point of view of the Clerk, and is yet another card in the game played between the sexes. Thus it constitutes a warning to husbands not to look for patience in their wives (E 1177-82), and an exhortation to wives not to let considerations of humility deflect them from their purpose (E 1183-88), and to do whatever is necessary to assert their own interests (E 1189-1212). We have been brought back with a sharp shock from the high plane of philosophical enquiry and moral idealism to the rough and tumble of life itself.
(1) General Prologue, A 285-86, 307-08. References are to The Riverside Chaucer, ed. by Larry D. Benson and others, 3rd edn (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).
(2) See Middle English Dictionary, ed. by H. Kurnth, S. M. Kuhn, R. E. Lewis, and others, 13 vols (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1952-2001), s.v. wilfulhed(e n.: 'A tendency to act arbitrarily, willfulness'.
(3) The Legend of Good Women, Prologue, G 353-55.
(4) Mansfield Park, II. 12, ed. by John Wiltshire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 338.
(5) Middlemarch, IV. 42, ed. by David Carroll (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), p. 418.
(6) See MED, s.vv. yerd n. (2) 2: 'A rodlike object, usu. of metal, used as: (a) a scepter; also, a rod used as an emblem of authority, office, or power; [... ]under ~, under control'; and hardili adv. 2(b): 'assuredly, certainly, indeed, for certain'.
(7) Petrarch's Historia Griseldis in Epistolae seniles, XVII. 3, has been edited by J. Burke Severs side by side with a text of Le Livre Griseldis in Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales', ed. by W. F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941; repr. New York: Humanities Press, 1958), pp. 288-331. This excellent scholarly work has now been revised and updated by Thomas J. Farrell and Amy W Goodwin, 'The Clerk's Tale', in Sources and Analogues of 'The Canterbury Tales', ed. by Robert M. Correale and Mary Hamel, 2 vols (Cambridge: Brewer, 2002-05), 1, 101-67. Farrell prints the Historia Griseldis from Cambridge, Peterhouse College, MS 81 as base manuscript, closer to Chaucer's source manuscript than Vat 6 (Rome, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, MS Vat. Lat. 1666), used by Severs as the base manuscript for his edition (Farrell, p. 105; Severs, p. 294). Goodwin follows Severs in printing Paris, Bibliotheque nationale, MS fr. 12459 (P[N.sub.3]), as the base manuscript of Le Livre Griseldis in slightly revised form (Goodwin, pp. 137-39; Severs, p. 294). This manuscript is unique among the twenty-one extant manuscripts of Le Livre Griseldis in containing the six-part division of the text followed by Chaucer in the Clerk's Tale. I refer throughout to the Historia Griseldis and Le Livre Griseldis in the texts established by Farrell and Goodwin.
(8) See the Decameron, ed. by Vittore Branca, in Tutte le opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, 12 vols to date (Milan: Mondadori, 1964-), vol. IV (1976). Petrarch himself observes the rhetorical significance of the appearance of the tale 'fine operis, ubi Rethorum disciplina validiora quelibet collocari iubet' (Historia Griseldis, 111. 32-33: 'at the end of the work, where the art of rhetoric teaches us to place whatever is more important').
(9) Chaucer is in agreement with de Mezieres in strong condemnation of Walter's testing of his wife and in stressing the human impossibility of Grisilde's conduct (in de Mezieres words 'impossible a porter') (Goodwin, pp. 132-34).
(10) See Edward I. Condren, Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and the Organization of 'The Canterbury Tales' (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999), pp. 124-25. This narrator-centred approach to the reading of medieval texts has recently been challenged by A. C. Spearing in a brilliant book entitled Textual Subjectivity: The Encoding of Subjectivity in Medieval Narratives and Lyrics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). In respect of the Man of Law's Tale it is 'to shrink from plumbing the metaphysical depths that Chaucer was prepared to contemplate' and in effect to avoid reading the tale as a unified whole (p. 136).
(11) References are to William Langland, 'Piers Plowman': A Parallel-Text Edition of the A, B, C and Z Versions, ed. by A. V. C. Schmidt, 1 vol. to date (London and New York: Longman, 1995)
(12) See Helen Cooper, 'The Canterbury Tales', 2nd edn, Oxford Guides to Chaucer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 185.
(13) See MED, s.v. importable adj. (a): 'Unbearable, unendurable'. (14) References are to St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, ed. and trans. by Thomas Gilby and others, 61 vols (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode; New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964-81).
(15) George Lyman Kittredge, 'Chaucer's Discussion of Marriage', Modern Philology, 9 (1911-12), 435-67, repr. in Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. by Edward Wagenknecht (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), pp. 188-215 (p. 189).
(16) Thomas R. Lounsbury, Studies in Chaucer: His Life and Writings, 3 vols (New York: Harper, 1892), 111, 340 ff.; quoted by James Sledd, 'The Clerk's Tale: The Monsters and the Critics', Modern Philology, 51 (1953), 73-82, repr. in Wagenknecht, pp. 226-39 (p. 232).
(17) C. David Benson, 'Poetic Variety in the Man of Law's and the Clerk's Tales', in Chaucer's Religious Tales, ed. by C. David Benson and Elizabeth Robertson, Chaucer Studies, 15 (Cambridge: Brewer, 1990), pp. 137-44 (p. 142).
(18) Mark Miller, Philosophical Chaucer: Love, Sex, and Agency in 'The Canterbury Tales' (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 232.
(19) Jill Mann, Geoffrey Chaucer (New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf 1991), p. 152.
(20) See Elizabeth D. Kirk, 'Nominalism and the Dynamics of the Clerk's Tale: Homo Viator as Woman', in Benson and Robertson, pp. 111-20 (p. 117).
(21) See Derek Pearsall, 'The Canterbury Tales' (London: Allen & Unwin, 1985), p. 270.
(22) See MED, s.v. sophim(e n. (b): 'an ambiguous and sometimes paradoxical sentence, often involving syncategoremata, designed to investigate issues and rules in philosophy, semantics, and logic, a sophisma; any question for disputation in logic'. The MED is surely right to identify this sense of the word here as distinguished from (a) A subtle but fallacious argument usu. used to deceive, a sophism'. The Host attributes subtlety to the Clerk and not falseness of reasoning. He remains deferential, but understands that the Aristotelian scholar and logician is too clever by half for the likes of him and his pilgrim audience. For a detailed account of the portrait of the Clerk in the General Prologue, see Laura F. Hodges, Chaucer and Clothing. Clerical and Academic Costume in the General Prologue to 'The Canterbury Tales' (Cambridge: Brewer, 2005), pp. 160-98. Here we encounter the view of the Clerk of Oxenford as an intellectual novice of twenty-one whose collection of twenty books is excessive and whose love of Aristotle a sign of intellectual narrowness (pp. 190-93). Thus the threadbare 'courtepy' (GP, A 290) is to be construed as a sign of worldly pride and curiosity (pp. 184-89) rather than humble devotion to learning (pp. 175-77). Such a view, in my opinion, does not take sufficient note of the reputation of Aristotle in the Middle Ages.
(23) See Cooper, p. 196.
(24) [Cicero], Ad C. Herennium de ratione dicendi, ed. and trans. by H. Caplan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: Heinemann, 1954); E. Faral, Les Arts poetiques du xiie et du xiiie siecle (Paris: Champion, 1924); and 'Poetria nova' of Geoffrey of Vinsauf, trans. by M. F. Nims (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1967).
(25) See H. E. L. Collins, The Order of the Garter 1348-1461: Chivalry and Politics in Late Medieval England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), pp. 19, n. 53, 72, 74-75, 81, 87, 97-98, 291. De Vere received the accolade of the Garter in July 1384 at the young age of twenty-two.
(26) For the authority to make moral judgements of this kind compare the Parson (GP, A 515-24). Langland's Clergy defines Dobest as the just censure of the wicked by those who are pure in spirit: 'Thanne is Dobest to be boold to blame pe gilty' (PPl, B x. 259). This presupposes the state of Dowel as belief in God (PPl, B x. 232-50a) and of Dobet as conduct in accordance with such belief (PPl, B x. 251-58). The necessity for righteousness in those who administer rebukes leads to a series of warnings addressed to those who exercise such authority in the life of the Church, as parish priests and members of religious orders (PPl, B x. 260-329). The importance of righteousness in the life of Dobest is such that these lines cannot be dismissed as 'a long digressive diatribe against unworthy religious' (William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman, ed. by A. V C. Schmidt, 2nd edn (London: Dent; Vermont: Tuttle, 1995) p. 445). The judgements of the Clerk in the Clerk's Tale are the judgements of Dobest and are to be distinguished from examples of foolish censure such as that of the Manciple in openly reproving the drunken Cook (MancT H 69-70).
(27) 'Walterus quidam', HG, 63; 'un marquis appellez en son propre nom Wautier', LG, I. 11.
(28) See e.g. ST, 1a 83. 1, 2; 1a 2ae 55. 3, 71. 3, 71. 4.
(29) See MED, s.v. vertuous adj. 5(c): 'of a quality, an attribute, or ability: characterized by goodness, morally virtuous'.
(30) On the three acts or stages of prudence, see Aquinas, ST, 1a 2ae 57. 6; 2a 2ae 47. 8.
(31) On the principle of consent (expressed in the present tense) as constituting a true marriage, see Conor McCarthy, Marriage in Medieval England: Law, Literature and Practice (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2004), pp. 19-50.
(32) Thus the marriage of Joan of Kent (c. 1328-1385) to William Montagu (1328-1397), 2nd Earl of Salisbury, in the winter of 1340-41 was declared void by a papal bull dated 13 November 1349 on the basis of her prior consent (per verba de praesenti) in a clandestine marriage to Thomas Holland, Montagu's steward, in the spring of 1340. See The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, 60 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), xxx. 137-39.
(33) Petrarch's Latin has the personal name 'Walterus', while Chaucer follows the Livre Griseldis, which uses the impersonal 'le marquis'.
(34) See MED, s.v. honestete n. (a): 'Honorableness of character; virtue, uprightness'.
(35) The desire for a son is a general desire in the sources (HG, 190-91; LG, II. 158-59).
(36) See MED, s.v. red n. (1) 1a(a): 'Advice, counsel; also, teaching; also, a suggestion, piece of advice'; (c) asken ~, 'to seek counsel; ask (sb.) for advice; ask advice (of sb. or a god)'.
(37) See my article 'Experience and the Judgement of Poetry: A Reconsideration of the Franklin's Tale', Medium Aevum, 70 (2001), 204-25 (pp. 214-18).
(38) See MED, s.v. sturdi adj. 3(a): 'Stern, severe, harsh', and sturdines(se n. (a): 'Sternness, harshness; cruelty, violence; an instance of active hatred'.
(39) See MED, s.v. sclaundre n. 2(a): An action or a situation bringing disgrace or shame; a shameful act (done or suffered), a disgrace, an ignominy'; and 3(a): A state of impaired reputation, of disgrace or dishonor; ill-repute'.
(40) See MED, s.v. dom n. 2(c): 'a judgment or verdict pronounced by God'; and 4(a): 'The act of choosing or deciding; a judgment, decision, resolution'.
(41) See MED, s.v. sad adj. 2(c): 'of a person: firm, steadfast; constant; faithful, righteous'; and 4(a): 'Of a person, group of nuns: (a) grave, sober, serious; dignified, solemn; discreet, wise; stern'.
(42) Constancy is identified by Aquinas among the potential or secondary parts of the cardinal virtue of courage. It pertains to patience in respect of steadfastness in some good in the face of present obstacles or difficulties, but to perseverance in respect of the end of goodness: 'Et ideo constantia secundum finem convenit cum perseverantia: secundum autem ea quae difficultatem inferunt, convenit cum patientia' (ST, 2a 2ae 137. 3 ad 1: 'Therefore constancy is associated with perseverance, as regards their end; but with patience, as regards the source of difficulty'). Hence Grisilde needs constancy to endure the present and bitter humiliation of supplantation.
(43) This is a point well made by Pearsall (pp. 276-77).
(44) See Mann, pp. 152-53.
(45) The author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium defines exclamatio (apostrophe) as the figure 'quae conficit significationem doloris aut indignationis alicuius per hominis aut urbis aut loci aut rei cuiuspiam conpellationem' (iv. 15. 22: 'which expresses grief or indignation by means of an address to [rebuke of] some man or city or place or object').
(46) Cooper, p. 191.
(47) See Cooper, p. 186.
TRINITY COLLEGE DUBLIN
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
|Previous Article:||Venice's European diaspora: the case of James Leoni (1685-1746).|
|Next Article:||Whispering to the converted: narrative communication in Rudyard Kipling's Letters of Marque and Indian fiction.|