The Scholar’s Desire for Power: A Reading of The Clerk’s Tale

The Clerk’s Tale is one of the most important tales among Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Clerk speaks to us as the representative from the academy, specifically he is an academic from ‘Oxenford’ (Oxford). He is the philosopher’s voice in Chaucer. We have already heard the numerous charges brought against intellectuals by various tradesmen (like the Miller, the Reeve, the Friar, and the Summoner). The “Clerk’s Tale” is the defense of philosophy from the voice of the clerk (notably this defense does not come from Chaucer, the poet).

The clerk tells an old Italian folk tale, reminiscent of the Book of Job (in fact Job is referenced at line 932). The tale reveals the innermost desire of the intellectual: the artful longing for power, control, and Machiavellian deception. However, this deception is for the sake of something good – namely, commitment in marriage. The tale uses the ongoing consideration of marriage as a testing ground for obedience and commitment, and it concludes by praising the steadfastness of Griselda amidst her husband’s cruel and unforgettable tests.

Chaucer clerk wood engraving

(A wood engraving of Chaucer’s Clerk from 1492)

In Chaucer’s “General Prologue,” the Clerk is characterized as emaciated, threadbare, poor, and unemployed. He spends all his money on books and learning. He would rather have twenty books, including Aristotle, instead of fine riches. He is a “philosopher” (297). He is terse and careful with his words, and his speech is filled with moral virtue. “And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche” (308).

In the “Clerk’s Prologue” the Host refers to the Clerk as “demure” like a “maid.” He tells the Clerk to “cheer up!” and to tell a tale of adventure, not a lecture or preach in a way that will remind people of past sins, as a friar does during Lent, nor to craft a story that will make the group weep. The Host knows a clerk runs the risk of being either preachy or weighty. The Clerk agrees to follow the ‘authority’ of the Host, at least as far as reason allows. The Clerk has learned his story from another worthy clerk named Francis Petrarch, the famous Italian poet in Padua (located in Northern Italy), but that worthy clerk is now dead. In fact, the real Petrarch shared his story with Bocaccio in a letter. It is possible Chaucer also met Petrarch in Italy. Petrarch died in 1374. The story is featured in both Petrarch and Bocaccio.

At any rate, the “Clerk’s Tale,” is set in Western Italy, at the foot of “Vesulus” (or Mount Viso) near the border between France and Italy, in a town called Saluzzo. It is a hillside town overlooking a great farming plain, and Saluzzo is also the setting for Bocaccio’s tale of “Griselda” (which is based on Petrarch’s poem), the final story in Bocaccio’s Decameron.

The story is of a young but noble marquis in Saluzzo, named Walter, a man both feared and beloved as Fortune would have it (again Fortune appears as in the “Knight’s Tale.”) Now, Walter lives only the pleasures of the day, and he refuses to marry a woman (the Clerk finds fault in Walter for this). The people of Saluzzo also group together and beg Walter to find a noble wife, and, in taking pity, Walter relents and forgoes his ‘liberty’ and promises to find a wife soon if the people will honor her.

Meanwhile in a nearby rural village, a poor man named Janicula has a daughter named Griselda. She is a noble but poor woman who honors “vertu” (“virtue”). One day, while hunting, the marquis named Walter spies her in ‘seriousness’ and he takes note of her virtue (he does not look upon her with lechery). He decides to marry her, but he keeps her name anonymous upon the wedding day feast (even Griselda does not know she is about to marry the marquis).

He asks her father who accepts in full humility, and when the marquis (Walter) proposes to Griselda, he makes one request: that Griselda submit with good heart to all of his desires (a la the “Wife of Bath’s Tale”), and that he may freely deal pain or pleasure to her without complaint. If so, he will swear her allegiance. Their proposal is a kind of negotiation. Griselda, taken aback, swears to obey him always. She is described as a perfectly just, fair, and virtuous person, even in matters of politics when her husband is away. She conceives a daughter.

Then, Walter begins to test his wife’s faithfulness, much like the tests imposed upon Job in the Hebrew Bible.

One day, the marquis decides to test his wife. Why test his wife who has been so faithful? The Clerk disagrees with the marquis’s cruel test at this point (460-463). At any rate, she relents whole heartedly to the whims of the marquis (Walter) so he sends his sergeant to appear to take their child as if he were to kill it. So the marquis has the child secretly ent to his sister in Bologna. Four years pass, and Griselda conceives again -this time a male child. Again, the marquis decides to test his wife (‘for wedded men no know moderation for a patient creature). Again, he sends his son to Bologna. Griselda proves herself to be wholly committed to Walter’s wishes.

The Clerk, a scholar, desires total control. He longs for the abdication of his beloved’s freedom more than anything. He is similar, in certain respects, to the cosmopolitan Wife of Bath. He is, however, different from the Wife of Bath in that he argues in favor of boundaries. Limitless freedom is contra to the idea of marriage, as well as any political agreement. The character of Griselda is an obvious impossibility.

The idea of a test in marriage is new in the “Tales of Canterbury.” A test is a Shakespearean ploy to find the limits of a partnership. There is something dishonest about testing a beloved in marriage (see Shakespeare’s As You Like It), yet commitment, presumably, has its limits. Walter does not feel satisfied with mere verbal commitment. He wants full devotion is both speech and deed.

At any rate, the people of Saluzzo begin to grumble at Walter’s cruelty, for killing his own sons, while Walter devises a plan for his children who are secretly alive. However he cannot resist one more test of his wife. He tells her the people grumble for him to take a new wife, so he leaves Griselda with nothing, and sends her home, naked, to return to her father’s house as before. Still she willingly abides by his demand without complaint. The people follow her, weeping, while her father curses Walter, and Griselda is asked to attend to the new bride in preparation.

The Clerk pauses for a moment and praises women, not men, for the patience and humility. Notably, the Clerk is unmarried and spends little time with women. His understanding is merely superficial.

When Walter finally confronts Griselda, she makes but one glad request to the marquis – not to torment this new bride. Seeing her steadfastness, he takes pity on her and exposes the whole ruse. In joy, he reintroduces the children again. And the Clerk reveals the purpose of his tale:

“1142 This storie is seyd nat for that wyves sholde
This story is said not so that wives should
1143 Folwen Grisilde as in humylitee,
Follow Griselda in humility,
1144 For it were inportable, though they wolde,
For it would be intolerable, though they would (want to),
1145 But for that every wight, in his degree,
But so that every person, in his station in life,
1146 Sholde be constant in adversitee
Should be constant in adversity
1147 As was Grisilde; therfore Petrak writeth
As was Griselda; therefore Petrarch writes
1148 This storie, which with heigh stile he enditeth.
This story, which with high style he composes” (1142-1148)

The Clerk ends his tale with a song, and the Host addresses the crowd and says he is glad his wife never heard this tale!


For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

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