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The Clerk's Tale

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ClerkPaperweight

Paperweight with an image of the Clerk. Based on an illustration from an early edition of The Canterbury Tales that is now in the Huntington Library, San Marino California.

"The Clerk's Tale" (Middle English: "The Clerkes Tale"; also known in Modern English as "The Student's Tale") is a short story in verse from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The story's narrator is a student from the University of Oxford who says that he learned the tale directly from the Italian poet and scholar Petrarch. The story concerns a woman named Griselda who continues to love her husband and remain loyal to him, even though he tests her obedience in a manner which the narrator describes as cruel.

The tale of the patient and faithful Griselda (also known in other English versions of the story as Grizel) originated in European folklore. Before Chaucer, versions of the story had already been written by the 14th century Italian writers Petrarch (as is acknowledged in the tale itself and its prologue) and Giovanni Boccaccio. The folktale would later be retold by the 17th century French author Charles Perrault.

Plot

The region of Saluzzo in the west of Italy is ruled by a marquis named Walter who lives only for pleasure and gives no thought to the future. This is exemplified by the fact that he has never thought about getting married. Some of his subjects approach him and tell him that he should marry, otherwise he will die without leaving an heir. They tell him that they will choose a wife for him from one of the noblest families in Italy. Walter agrees to get married but says that he will choose his wife himself. He adds that she need not be noble because that does not necessarily make someone good. A date is set for Walter's wedding and preparations are made for it. However, even on the morning of the marquis' wedding day, nobody but Walter himself knows who his bride will be.

Haweis - Griselda's Marriage

Walter makes Griselda promise to obey him always. Illustration by Mary Eliza Haweis from the 1882 book Chaucer for Children.

Griselda lives in a village near to where Walter lives and he has seen her many times. She is the daughter of Janicula, the poorest man in the village. She is beautiful, kind, serious and extremely hard working. On the morning of the day which has been set for his wedding, Walter goes to the home of Janicula and Griselda to ask for Griselda's hand in marriage. He makes Griselda promise that, if she becomes his wife, she will never contradict him and always obey him, even if what he asks her to do causes her pain or distress. Walter and Griselda are married. Griselda becomes much admired by the local people for her ability to settle disputes.

Shortly after the wedding, Griselda gives birth to a daughter. Walter decides to test his wife's obedience. He tells her that some people say that he made a mistake by marrying someone who was not noble and grew up in poverty. He adds that the fact that Griselda gave birth to a daughter instead of a son is making the situation look worse and that the girl has to go. Shortly afterwards, a soldier comes and takes the child away. Although Griselda believes that her daughter is going to be killed, she bows to her husband's wishes and gives up the child. Unaware that her daughter has really been sent to live with Walter's sister in Bologna, Griselda shows no changes in her behavior and remains loyal and loving to her husband.

Haweis - Griselda's Sorrow

The soldier takes away Griselda's son. Illustration by Mary Eliza Haweis from the 1882 book Chaucer for Children.

Four years later, Griselda gives birth to a son. When the child is two years old, Walter decides to test his wife's obedience again. He tells her that people are still saying that he should not have married a poor person and that it is not right that the grandchild of Janicula should inherit his title. He tells her that the boy will have to go. The same soldier comes to take away Griselda's son. Again, she belives that the child is killed, although he is really sent to live with Walter's sister in Bologna. Again, Griselda's behavior and her attitude towards her husband do not change.

Several years later, Walter decides to test his wife's obedience again. He tells her that he has received permission from the Pope to divorce and remarry. Griselda is told to leave Walter's house and return to her father, taking nothing but the smock she is wearing beneath her dress with her. Griselda obeys. She returns to her village and shows no sign of being unhappy or missing her former life as a noblewoman.

After some time, Walter sends a message to Griselda, asking her to come to his house as a servant and help to ready it for the merquis' new wife. Griselda works hard preparing the house for the girl who is said to be Walter's new bride, who has recently arrived from Bologna with her brother.

When Walter asks Griselda what she thinks of his new wife, she replies that she is beautiful. She adds that she hopes that Walter will not treat her cruelly because she does not think that the girl would be able to cope with it like somebody who grew up in poverty could. Walter is very moved by this. He tells Griselda that she is still his wife. The girl that he had claimed was his new bride and her brother are Griselda's daughter and son whom she had thought were dead. Walter does not test his wife's obedience again. Griselda, Walter and their two children live in happiness for the rest of their days.

The Clerk concludes his tale by saying that women like Griselda are hard to find nowadays. However, shortly before he ends his story, the Clerk says that its moral is not that all women should do what men tell them to but that everybody should face adversity and accept their fate without complaining.

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