illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Clerk’s Tale Summary

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Last Updated November 9, 2022.

The Clerk’s Prologue

The Host invites the Clerk to speak up and tell a merry tale. The young man has been too quiet, and the Host expects a fun story, not something that will put the company to sleep, much less a line of moral preaching filled with scholarly terms. The Clerk must speak plainly so that all can understand.

The Clerk announces that he will obey the Host’s request. He will tell a story he learned from Petrarch, who writes in a wonderful high style, but he will leave out Petrarch’s descriptive introduction.

The Clerk’s Tale

The story takes place in Saluces in Italy. A marquis named Walter lives a happy and worthy life there and has the respect of his subjects. Yet he refuses to marry, and this makes his people nervous, for they fear that if the marquis does not leave an heir, they will be subject to harsh rule from his successor. Some of the elders speak to Walter about this problem, requesting humbly that he marry before it is too late and save them from their fear.

Walter agrees to marry on the conditions that he will choose a wife and that his people will honor her well no matter who she is. The elders swear to do so. Walter soon sets his wedding day, but no one knows who the bride will be.

In a little village there is a poor man named Janicula, who has a beautiful, virtuous daughter called Griselda. This young woman is pure and compassionate, caring for her father and finding joy even in her poverty. She is the one Walter chooses as his wife. When the matter is settled with her father, and when Griselda has consented to the marquis’s proposal and promised to obey him in everything, the court ladies strip the maiden of her poor clothing and dress her in finery. Griselda and Walter marry, and the people rejoice at their new lady.

Griselda proves to be the perfect wife, and she soon bears a daughter. The people celebrate again. Walter, however, cannot help himself in his desire to test Griselda’s obedience and loyalty. He tells her that the people are displeased with their daughter and with her, and he orders a sergeant to take the child away. Griselda obeys even though she believes that her baby will be killed. She utters not one word of complaint but merely blesses her daughter and hands her over. The sergeant takes the baby to Walter’s sister in Bologna, who will raise her with love, but Griselda does not know this.

Time passes, and Griselda gives birth to another child, a son. Again, Walter decides to test his wife, and the sergeant takes the child away to Bologna. Griselda utters no reproach. She remains the same loving, obedient wife she has always been.

Seven years go by, and Walter tests Griselda yet again. This time Walter tells her that he has decided to divorce her and marry another. The people, he says, are displeased with Griselda’s low status. A young maiden will come from Bologna to be the marquis’s new wife. Her younger brother will travel with her. Walter strips Griselda of all her finery and, giving her only a plain smock, sends her back to her father’s house. Griselda goes willingly with no complaint. She even follows Walter’s orders and leads the work to prepare the house for his new bride.

On the day of the maiden’s arrival, however, Griselda is treated to a wonderful surprise. The maiden and her brother are her own children. Walter explains everything, and Griselda swoons in shock, clinging to her children. She and Walter live happily for the rest of their lives.

The Clerk notes that women cannot be expected to be as patient with their husbands as Griselda is, but all people are called to fully obey God even in the trials he sends. Chaucer provides a brief “envoy” about how wives usually treat their husbands, and then the Host chimes in that he hopes his wife will hear this tale some time.

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