Changes in the Griselda Story: Chaucer's The Clerk's Tale

By: Rich Lawson

An understanding of a work's sources can lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of the work itself. Sometimes the ties between a work and its source are strong and pronounced, while at other times, the source may have only a very weak, barely detectable influence. Regardless of the strength of such bonds, however, the detection of changes between a work and its source can help to reveal some of the author's intentions, aims, and purposes for writing the work. In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer includes a wide variety of different tales told by a wide variety of different tellers. The presence of such variety among the tales makes it quite likely that the sources from which Chaucer drew for this work are also quite diverse. This variety raises important questions as to the reason for Chaucer's inclusion of certain tales as well as his choice of sources. The relationship between The Clerk's Tale and its sources seems to be a particularly important one. The changes and additions that Chaucer makes to the story of Griselda in The Clerk's Tale reveal Chaucer's desire to examine such issues as marriage within the tale and to further explore the state of mind of Walter (the marquis) and Griselda.

So what exactly are Chaucer's sources for The Clerk's Tale? Chaucer acknowledges Petrarch as one of his sources within The Clerk's Tale itself. He writes that "Petrak writeth / this strorie" (Riverside, 152, CT, 1147-8). In fact, there are large portions of The Clerk's Tale that seem as if they could have been pulled directly from Petrarch's translation of the tale with only a few minor word changes. For example, in an English translation of Petrarch's version of the Griselda story, when Walter decides to listen to the plea of his people and get married Petrarch writes that "their loyal entreaties touched the man's heart" (Petrarch, para. 5). Chaucer writes that "hir meeke preyere and hir pitous cheere / made the markys herte han pitee" (Riverside, 139, 141-2). Chaucer very closely follows his source, almost always matching exact meanings even if not matching exact words. Yet there is another, more primary source that Chaucer does not acknowledge at all within The Clerk's Tale. The source is Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, in which the final story within the work is the Griselda story. Conceivably, Chaucer may have only come into contact with the Griselda story through Petrarch's translation of Boccaccio's work, but it is more likely that there is some reason for which Chaucer did not want to provide Boccaccio with any credit. After all, if not for Boccaccio's Teseida there would be no Knight's Tale, and if there were no De casibus virorum illustrium, there would not be a Monk's Tale either (Koff, 7). Boccaccio's work was a source for several of The Canterbury Tales, as well as other Chaucerian works, so it seems very likely that Chaucer was familiar with Boccaccio, whatever his reasons may have been for withholding credit.

Boccaccio and Petrarch may have been Chaucer's sources for the Griselda story, but what did they provide Chaucer with which to work? All three versions of this tale follow the same basic plot: an Italian marquis marries the lowly Griselda, puts her through a series of horrible ordeals, and then finally sweeps it all aside in order to live happily ever after with her. Despite each author's minor changes, the basic formula remains the same. Griselda must maintain her fidelity and obedience despite the supposed slaying of her daughter and son at her husband's command, as well as after her husband makes her think he is going to remarry another woman. In many ways, Boccaccio and Petrarch provide Chaucer with a sickeningly unrealistic tale in which Walter is able to be cruel to his wife without suffering any consequences.

This may raise questions as to what purpose such a tale would serve for Boccaccio, Petrarch, or Chaucer. For Petrarch, it would seem that much of his reason for translating the tale into Latin was because he was "so delighted and fascinated" (Petrarch, Letters) by it. Petrarch himself, however, states that his object was "not to induce women of [his and Boccaccio's] time to imitate the patience of this wife [Griselda]...but to lead [his] readers to emulate the example of feminine constancy and to submit themselves to God with the same courage as did this woman to her husband" (Petrarch, Letters). It would seem that Petrarch finds Griselda to be a sort of exemplar of virtue, virtues for which the ordinary woman can strive but never really hope to achieve.

Boccaccio provides clues as to the purpose of the inclusion of this story within The Decameron with the frame in which he places it. The teller of the tale, Dioneo, tells the audience that "it is no magnificent deed [he] is going to relate" (Boccaccio, 649) and warns that his tale is nothing but "a mad piece of stupidity" (Boccaccio, 649). Dioneo's description of his tale before he tells it is both mocking and sarcastic. He does not seem to take himself (or his tale) seriously at all. After finishing his tale, Dioneo remarks that it is his opinion that Walter should have come across the "sort of woman who, on being turned out of doors in her shift, would have had some jolly spark so rummage her hide for her that perhaps some good thing might have resulted" (Boccaccio, 659). Thus, Dioneo jokes about the whole tale. It would seem that by framing of the story within the words of such a character, Boccaccio is attempting to show that this tale, similarly to other tales in The Decameron, is meant to mock or "poke fun" at the institution of marriage.

In much the same way, Chaucer also provides clues as to his purpose by the way in which he frames the tale within The Canterbury Tales, but he also seems to borrow something of Petrarch's view as well. The first half of the frame (the prologue) contains a dialogue between the host and the clerk. The clerk, unlike Boccaccio's Dioneo, is a much more serious character. Chaucer's clerk "of studie took he moost cure and moost heede" (Riverside, 28, GP, 303), making him seem very scholarly and solemn. The clerk is willing to forego all sorts of luxuries, and seemingly even some necessities in order to best pay attention to his studies (and be able to buy expensive books). Unlike many of the other members of the pilgrimage, Chaucer the pilgrim does not appear to be trying to criticize the clerk in any way, and he even seems to respect him for performing his duties. Chaucer points out that not only would the clerk perform his duties but "gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche" (Riverside, 28, GP, 308). The clerk is happy about what he does. Therefore, it stands to reason that Chaucer would want the reader to take the tale assigned to such a serious and respectable character seriously.

In the first half of the frame around The Clerk's Tale (within the prologue), the clerk makes reference to Petrarch, his source for the tale. The clerk tells the reader of the "worthy man / that taughte [him] this tale" (Riverside, 137, CP, 39-40). Again, a sense of seriousness and respectability is invoked through the "worthiness" of the source. For the second half of the frame to the tale, the clerk ends the tale stating that all women should be "constant in adversitee / as was Grisilde" (Riverside, 152, CT, 1146-7). This sets up Griselda as an exemplar for women just as in the Petrarch version of the story. In fact, Chaucer references Petrarch right after the preceding quotation by stating that "therefore Petrak writeth this storie, which with heigh stile he enditeth" (Riverside, 152, CT 1147-8). This shows that Chaucer was applying many of the same themes to this tale that he found in Petrarch's writings about the subject.

This is not the very end of The Clerk's Tale, however, because Chaucer also includes what is called "Lenvoy de Chaucer" (Riverside, 152) at the end of the tale, which is a sort of epilogue. This section of the tale, rather than somehow being tied to Petrarch and his interpretations, rather seems reminiscent of the Boccaccio version of the Griselda story. Just before the lenvoy the clerk decides that he "wol with lusty herte, fresh and grene / seyn [the pilgrims] a song to glade [them]" (Riverside, 152, CT, 1173-4). In other words, the clerk has decided to leave the seriousness of the tale and its meaning behind and sing a song that will cheer up the Canterbury pilgrims. Interestingly, if the clerk were to act with a "lusty herte", he would be much more like Boccaccio's Dioneo.

The tone of the lenvoy itself also seems similar to the joking style of Dioneo's comments about the story. For example, the song advises women to bind a man in jealousy "and thou [women] shalt make hym couche as doth a / quaille" (Riverside, 153, CT, 1206-7). This appeals to a sense that a woman can have (and use) power over a man, and that the man is not always necessarily in charge. This seems to be similar in tone to Dioneo's "rummage her hide" comment quoted above and to tie the clerk's song to Boccaccian influences. Another example of this joking tone seems to occur when the clerk sings that "ne dreed hem nat; doth hem no reverence" (Riverside, 153, CT, 1201). The clerk is essentially contradicting the entire message of the tale with this line. To fulfill his goal of lightening the mood, the clerk seems to have decided to turn everything upside down.

The Clerk's Tale is also set within the overall frame of the Canterbury pilgrimage. Within this frame, several of the tales, comprising what is often called the "marriage group", comment on marriage. While it can be argued which tales comprise this group, certain tales, such as The Wife of Bath's Tale almost always seem to be included. This tale is important because the clerk directly mentions the wife of Bath and even addresses her near the very end of his tale. The clerk states that "for which here, for the Wyves love of / Bathe - / whos lyf and al hire secte God mayntene / in heigh maistrie" (Riverside, 152, CT, 1169-72). This may be a slightly ironic statement, since it comes just before the seemingly joking lenvoy. The wife of Bath, who Chaucer portrays as a very strong woman, is arguably the direct opposite of Griselda. Therefore, it is somewhat ironic that the clerk should state that women such as the wife of Bath will prevail in the end right after telling a tale of how a woman so different than the wife of Bath lived happily ever after through her faithfulness and obedience, especially since Griselda has been set up in the tale as an exemplar of wifely virtue.

It should seem obvious that Chaucer applies his own unique sort of frame to the Griselda story in The Clerk's Tale that is absent in the Boccaccio and Petrarch versions of the tale, but what is his purpose in doing so? Why even include a lenvoy that seems to so dramatically shift from the aim and trajectory of the rest of the tale? It seems probable that this dramatic change represents a shift from a contemplation of the ideal back down to reality. When the clerk states that it is time to "lat [them] stynte of ernestful matere" (Riverside, 152, CT, 1175), it is like he is putting an end to his studies for the time being. Although it may be best for a woman to imitate Griselda, in reality, since it is so impossible for anyone to live up to such standards, Chaucer is pointing out how women really act in marriage as they interact with their husbands. In a way, it seems that Chaucer is almost equating love with war in saying all is fair; he includes a great deal of battle imagery in the lenvoy, especially in lines 1195-1200 of The Clerk's Tale. Women, according to the lenvoy, should "stondeth at defense, / syn ye be strong" (Riverside, 153, CT, 1195-6). Perhaps Chaucer is pointing out that unless a woman completely submits her will to her husband's (which Chaucer acknowledges is not really even possible), she must make a stand for herself. Therefore, a woman must make a stand for herself, and Chaucer seems as if he supports a woman's need to do so.

Chaucer did not just make changes and additions to the Griselda story through his frame but also through actual modifications to the story itself. In Chaucer's version of the tale, the speaker (the clerk) is much more sympathetic to Griselda than the speakers in Boccaccio's and Petrarch's version of the story, and he actually interrupts the flow of the story to make comments on the situations in which he finds Griselda. At first (and right before Griselda's first trial in regards to her daughter), the clerk does not show much emotion in his sympathy for Griselda. The clerk tells us that he feels "that yvele it sit / to assaye a wyf whan that it is no nede" (Riverside, 143, CT, 460-1). The clerk's commentary seems almost purely logical and apathetic at this point in the tale. After the birth of the son and just prior to the second ordeal that Griselda's husband puts her through, however, the clerk's sympathy grows much more poignant. The clerk remarks about how "nedelees was she [Griselda] tempted in assay!" (Riverside, 145, CT, 621). The presence of an exclamation point indicates that the clerk is really feeling for Griselda and not just contemplating the whole affair in a scholarly fashion. Finally, just before Walter's decision to enact the false remarriage, the clerk asks a pair of rhetorical questions, seemingly in disbelief. The first of the two questions he asks is whether or not "thise assayes myghte nat suffise" (Riverside, 146, CT, 697). He asks this question of women in general. The second question is essentially a continuation of the first; the clerk asks about "what koude a sturdy housbonde moore devyse / to preeve hir [Griselda's] wyfhod and hir steadfastnesse" (Riverside, 146, CT, 698-9). The clerk seems to really find Walter's actions to be both repulsive and offensive.

The clerk interjects into the story to give his opinion about the events that are occurring in the tale, but what is the overall effect of these interruptions? Arguably, the clerk may not actually care about what is happening to Griselda and may only be attempting to appeal to the women on the pilgrimage with seeming concern for Griselda. After considering the clerk's description within The General Prologue, however, this would seem out of character for the clerk. In fact, it seems likely that Chaucer wants the audience to believe the clerk to be sincere, since he gives the reader no reason to mistrust the clerk. Rather, it is the clerk's usual seriousness and lack of worldly concerns that increases the overall effect of the clerk's interjections. The tale deeply moves a character who is usually only concerned with his studies.

Chaucer also adds more information into the tale about the characters of Walter and Griselda. This information fleshes out the characters more than in the two previous versions of the tale. Chaucer makes sure that the reader knows that Walter is not completely cold-hearted. Walter shows more emotion in Chaucer's version of the Griselda story. At one point, Griselda addresses Walter, providing him with proof of her constancy, and as a result, he "caste adoun / his eyen two, and wondreth that she may / in pacience suffre al this array; / and forth he goth with drery contenance" (Riverside, 146, CT, 668-71). In some ways, Walter's reaction is similar to the clerk's; he almost seems to wonder at his own torture of his wife. Walter is not happy at what he is doing, even if he is happy that Griselda is passing all of his horrific tests. Chaucer also addresses this issue at various other points in the story. The clerk tries to explain that Walter is the type of person that "whan they have a certain purpose take, / they kan nat stynte of hire entencion, / but, right as they were bounden to that stake, they wol nat of that firste purpose slake" (Riverside, 146, CT, 702-5). In other words, it would seem that Walter has a steadfastness (although stubbornness is probably a better way of describing it) of his own. In fact, it would seem as if Walter is obsessed with his plans. He gives no regard to his reputation. The clerk tells the reader that "the sclaundere of Walter ofte and wyde / spradde, / that of a cruel herte he wickedly...hath mordred bothe his children prively" (Riverside, 146, CT, 722-3, 725). Walter is so engrossed in his plans to test Griselda that he pays no heed to his standing as ruler and the unrest among his subjects. The clerk goes on to say that "to tempte his wyf was set al his entente" (Riverside, 147, CT, 735). Walter has become obsessed with his plan to prove Griselda's worth, which gives the reader quite a bit of insight into Walter's character.

Chaucer also provides the reader with more insight into Griselda's character than can be found in Chaucer's sources. After Walter dismisses her, calling upon God, Griselda tells Walter that she "nevere heeld [hir] lady ne mistresse, / but humble servant to [his] worthynesse" (Riverside, 148, CT, 823-4). Throughout it all, Griselda assures her husband that she has remained true and faithful to him. This shows a sort of desire on Griselda's part to somehow exonerate herself. She knows she has done nothing wrong. It may also show a hint of her disbelief at what has happened. Why should Griselda be punished when all she has done is love and remain true to her husband? Chaucer even seems to hint at Griselda's shock at what has happened at one point in the tale. Griselda tells Walter about "how gentil and how kynde / [he] seemed by [his] speech and [his] visage / the day that maked was [their] marriage" (Riverside, 148, CT, 852-4). Griselda seems to be mourning her loss and asking herself how the present circumstances could have happened. This dialogue helps to make Griselda more realistic, since she is actually imbued with a little bit of emotion and not just virtue.

Griselda's virtue is also extolled in The Clerk's Tale much more in her words than in Chaucer's sources. In both Boccaccio and Petrarch, Griselda's actions are often enough to show how virtuous she is. In Chaucer, however, Griselda speaks quite a bit more, providing her virtue with words as well as action. As Walter dismisses Griselda, she still has kind words for her husband, and promises to remain ever faithful. She tells Walter that she believes "God shilde swich a lordes wyf to take / another man to housbonde or to make" (Riverside, 148, CT, 839-40). Even when she is being rejected and turned away, Griselda still professors her undying faithfulness to Walter, showing the reader her virtue through her words. Interestingly, although Boccaccio and Petrarch sympathize with and praise Griselda, Chaucer not only does this but also explicitly provides women with praise in the tale. The clerk tells the reader that he thinks that "ther kan no man in humblesse hym acquite / as woman kan, ne kan been half so trewe as women been, but it be falle of newe" (Riverside, 149, CT, 936-8). Thus, the clerk praises women in these lines. Based on the clerk's status in the tale as a serious character whom the reader has no reason to mistrust, and since Chaucer has already commented about the worthiness of the source, it would seem that the reader can trust the clerk's judgment in the matter.

Each of the changes and additions that Chaucer makes to the Griselda story within The Clerk's Tale demonstrate his desire to examine marriage issues, as well as to further explore the state of mind of Walter and Griselda within the tale. The more detailed information present in Chaucer's version of the story about Walter and Griselda simply fleshes out both of their characters, providing the tale with more detail and realism. In the case of issues of marriage, however, it seems unclear what Chaucer is really trying to say. Chaucer creates an exemplar in Griselda throughout the tale, but in the lenvoy seems to take a sort of opposite view to this in favor of realism. Perhaps Chaucer's main goal is to get the reader thinking about what it means to be married rather than attempting to provide an answer. Whatever the case may be, Chaucer seems to show not only sympathy and praise for Griselda, but also praise and support for women with his inclusion of The Clerk's Tale and other stories within The Canterbury Tales.