The Canterbury Tales: The Clerk's Tale Introduction
In A Nutshell
Want more deets? We've also got a complete Online Course about The Canterbury Tales, with three weeks worth of readings and activities to make sure you know your stuff.
Need a break from the bawdy sex and belly laughs you get in most of the rest of The Canterbury Tales?
Okay, probably not, but whatever: the Clerk's got you covered anyway.
The "Clerk's Tale" is the story of how a nobleman named Walter tests the loyalty of his virtuous, lowborn wife in a series of horrendous ordeals. As the Clerk tells us in his Prologue, the tale doesn't originate with him; it comes from the Italian poet Petrarch. Petrarch, in turn, translated the tale from a famous Italian story collection, Boccaccio's Decameron. It's a popular story, and people have been telling and retelling it for centuries.
In some ways, the plot of the "Clerk's Tale" might be a contemporary retelling of the Biblical story of Job, in which God tests Job's devotion to him by allowing Satan to make his life miserable. The Clerk does, in fact, claim that the story is meant as an allegory of the soul's relationship to God, with the figure of Grisilde representing the devotion and obedience of the ideal Christian toward God.
Yet many elements of the tale make us question this interpretation, leaving us with a story about how a nobleman tortures his wife... and how she's rewarded for accepting and submitting to it. This literal view of the tale leaves us with more questions than it answers, though: Is Grisilde supposed to be an example for us to follow? Is the "Clerk's Tale" actually advocating women's passive obedience to their husbands? Or is Grisilde's passivity so grotesquely extreme (like, you know, when she consents to the murder of her children) that it's actually criticizing such passivity?
What these questions boil down to, as the questions surrounding Chaucer's tales about women so often do, is whether or not the tale is anti-woman. Does it or doesn't it advocate women's total submission to men? So incomprehensible and seemingly extreme is the behavior of not only the tale's female protagonist, but also its male antagonist, that the answer to that question is far from obvious.
It may not even be the right question. After all, in trying to probe the intentions and motivations of two such impenetrable characters, we're struck not necessarily by any sort of revelation about what women or men are like but about how difficult it can be to interpret the human heart and the tales and characters through which it's expressed.
Now, that's something that is true about The Canterbury Tales as a whole. One of the reasons these tales are so great is that they're so complex: they make us think long and hard about ourselves and our world. If you read the "Clerk's Tale" and then go back to one of the funnier, sexier tales, you might find that even the silly ones are saying a lot more than you'd think.
Why Should I Care?
Absolute obedience, folks.
Who's got issues with it? "The Clerk's Tale," that's who. Why does it matter? We're glad you asked.
On April 11, 1961, a man named Adolf Eichmann was indicted before an Israeli court in Jerusalem on fifteen criminal charges, including crimes against humanity. As a high-placed Nazi official with a talent for logistics, Eichmann had organized and set in motion the mass deportations of millions of Jewish people and other minorities to concentration camps in Eastern Europe.
After a prosecution in which many witnesses testified to Eichmann's key role in the mass deportations, the defense lawyers declined to cross-examine any of the witnesses. They explained that Eichmann did not dispute the witnesses' version of what happened during the Holocaust. But his defense was that he was only following orders, that, in fact, he had suppressed his own conscience in order to do the will of his leader. This was the same defense that other Nazi war criminals had used during the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. They, and Eichmann, were all found guilty of crimes against humanity; many received the death penalty.
The so-called "Nuremberg Defense," used by someone to defend himself of a crime committed because he was "just following orders" is the same one used by the menacing Sergeant in the "Clerk's Tale" whom Walter tasks with snatching Grisilde's child from her and convincing her he's about to murder it. "Ye moote foryeve it me," he tells Grisilde, "though I do thyng to which I am constreyned" (526-527).
From the Sergeant's point of view—a perspective Grisilde actually shares—Walter's orders must be obeyed, no matter what. Yet the juries who tried Adolf Eichmann and the Nuremberg criminals would not have been likely to forgive the Sergeant—or Grisilde—had they actually conspired to commit infanticide.
The Nuremberg jurors, however, were members of a society with very different views of the individual human person and his sovereignty than the medieval feudal society from which the Sergeant and Grisilde come. Would they have a different perspective on the Nuremberg defense if they came from this society, in which one's duties and obligations are to a superior whose authority is thought to emanate from the ultimate sovereign-God?
On the other hand, are the characters in the "Clerk's Tale" any less free than Eichmann to act according to their own consciences? These aren't questions with easy answers, which is why, 600 years after it was written, we continue to care about the "Clerk's Tale."