Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Clerk's Tale Quotes

  • Power

    A markys whilom lord was of that lond,
    As were his worthy eldres hym bifore,
    And obeisant and redy to his hond
    Were alle his liges, bothe lasse and moore.
    Thus in delit he lyveth, and hath doon yoore,
    Biloved and drad thurgh favour of Fortune,
    Bothe of his lordes and of his commune. (64-70)

    The first thing we learn about Walter is that he is a totally powerful guy. Not only is he a marquis, but all his "lieges," or noblemen, are obedient and ready to come at his command. Moreover, Walter is not only loved, but "drad," or feared, by his lords and the people he rules. It looks like Walter's power is real—and that he uses it enough for people to fear him.

    I dar the bettre aske of yow a space
    Of audience to shewen oure requeste,
    And ye, my lord, to doon right as yow leste. (103-105)

    By saying that Walter can "doon right as [he] leste," the nobleman who petitions him shows how aware he is of Walter's absolute sovereignty. He is careful to portray his request as nothing more than a humble petition; Walter, he says, can do as he sees fit.

    Boweth youre nekke under that blisful yok
    Of soveraynetee, noght of servyse,
    Which that men clepeth spousaille or wedlock. (113-115)

    Walter's nobleman is trying to combat a popular perception of marriage as an institution that constrains those who enter it under a "yoke." A yoke is a harness placed on two animals so that they can pull things in pairs. It's not a pretty picture, and it's obviously the view of marriage Walter himself has. It's almost as if, later, he's trying to stay clear of the yoke by placing it solely on Grisilde.

    "Ye wol," quod he, "myn owene peple deere,
    To that I nevere erst thoughte streyne me.
    I me rejoysed of my liberte,
    That seelde tyme is founde in mariage.
    Ther I was free, I moot been in servage." (142-147)

    Walter thinks that all fun and freedom end when you get married. It's odd that he thinks he has so much freedom and liberty, though, because as a leader, he has responsibilities and obligations that constantly constrain him. Awareness of responsibility is what his noblemen are trying to awaken in him with their request that he marry.

         "Lord," quod he "my willynge
    Is as ye wole, ne ayeyns youre likynge
    I wol no thyng, ye be my lord so deere;
    Right as yow lust governeth this mateere." (319-322)

    Janicula gives his definition of what it means to be lorded over: he says, in effect, that he desires nothing that goes against his lord's wishes. This is a submission to power that goes far beyond physical submission; it rules even the desires of the person ruled over. The only desire that matters is the desire of the lord.

    For I wol axe if it hire wille be
    To be my wyf, and reule hire after me. (326-327)

    Walter seems to view wifehood mainly as a state of obedience to a husband. He says he will ask Grisilde if she wants to be his wife and be ruled by him. He doesn't ask her if she would like to be, you know, honored or loved by him.

    "I seye this, be ye redy with good herte
    To al my lust, and that I frely may,
    As me best thinketh, do yow laughe or smerte,
    And never ye to grucche it, night ne day?
    And eek whan I sey 'ye,' ne sey nat 'nay,'
    Neither by word ne frowning contenance?
    Swere this, and here I swere our alliance." (351-357)

    So Walter is laying down the terms of the "alliance" he wants with Grisilde here: basically, she's got to do whatever he asks of her without complaining, without ever contradicting him, and without ever even appearing mad about having to obey him. Um. Would  you agree to such an "alliance"? It would sure make us pause, even if it came from Ryan Gosling.

    "And heer I swere that nevere willingly
    In werk ne thoght I nil yow dosobeye,
    For to be deed, though me were looth to deye." (362-364)

    As if Walter's conditions weren't harsh enough, Grisilde makes things even more difficult for herself by swearing not to disobey Walter in works or thoughts. Yes, you read that right. Thoughts, people. All Walter had asked of Grisilde was the appearance of obedience, but Grisilde promises obedience that extends to her very mind. Is that even possible? Is that desirable?

    She seyde, "Lord, al lyth in youre plesaunce;
    My child and I with hertely obeisaunce
    Ben youres al, and ye mowe save or spille
    Youre owene thing: werketh after youre wille." (501-504)

    Walter has demanded absolute obedience from Grisilde. Here, though, Grisilde almost makes her obedience seem obsolete by saying that she and her child are Walter's "owene thing." If they are possessions, they're not really entitled to have a will of their own, anyway, so what's all the fuss about, Walt?

    "Madame," he seyde, "ye mote foryeve it me,
    Though I do thing to which I am constreyned.
    Ye been so wys that ful wel knowe ye
    That lordes hestes mowe nat been y-feyned;
    They mowe wel been biwailled or compleyned,
    But men mot nede unto hire lust obeye,
    And so wol I; ther is na more to seye." (526-532)

    The Sergeant's speech raises an interesting question here, and one that reflects on Grisilde as much as on him: are people obligated to obey every command given by someone in power over them? Or might even higher (perhaps moral) considerations play a role in one's decision to obey or not? Remember that the command the Sergeant (and Grisilde) are supposedly obeying here is to commit infanticide.

    "Ye been oure lord, doth with youre owene thing
    Right as yow liste; axeth no reed at me.
    For as I lefte at hoom al my clothing
    Whan I first cam to yow, right so," quod she,
    "Left I my wil and al my libertee,
    And took your clothing. Wherefore I yow preye,
    Doth your plesaunce; I wol youre lust obeye." (652-658)

    Grisilde's claim to have discarded not only her liberty but her will with her old clothing further marks her as Walter's possession, rather than as a thinking, desiring being. Since Grisilde sees herself in this way, she quite naturally sees no reason for Walter to clear things with her, to ask her "reed." Walter's insistence on doing so makes it seem as if he is much more uncomfortable and uncertain than Grisilde is concerning her position.

    Beth nat bidaffed for youre innocence,
    But sharply tak on yow the governaille.
    […]
    In jalousye I rede eek thou him binde,
    And thou shalt make him couche as dooth a quaille. (1191-1192, 1205-1206)

    Part of the Envoy's advice to wives is to gain mastery over their husbands, just as the Wife of Bath had suggested they should. On the one hand, the message of the Envoy doesn't seem to fit with the "Clerk's Tale." On the other hand, if we see the Tale as a warning about the torments that can afflict the wife who is patient with a tyrannical husband, the Envoy makes perfect sense... though then we have to wonder why it's suggested in the Envoy that women should make their husbands actually suffer. Is the point perhaps that neither party should have power over the other?

  • Passivity

    And of hir labour [they] took hir sustenance
    After that the erthe yaf hem habundance. (202-203)

    Here, the tale portrays the poor as entirely passive in the matter of their own sustenance. Sure, they labor for it, but it's the earth that gives it to them—and the earth, like their lord, can take it away. The relationship between the earth and the poor is kind of like the relationship we'll see between Walter and Grisilde.

    And doun upon hir knees she gan to falle,
    And with sad contenance kneleth stille
    Til she had herd what was the lordes wille. (292-294)

    Grisilde kneels, which is an outward show of passivity. It's matched by her attitude here: she's waiting to hear what her lord's will is. She's ready to do whatever she is asked to do. Does she have a choice? Could she say no to Walter? What do you think would happen if she did? Would she be punished? Would Janicula be punished with her?

    "Grisilde," he seyde, "ye shul wel understonde
    it lyketh to your fader and to me
    That I yow wedde, and eek it may so stonde,
    As I suppose, ye wol that it so be." (344-347)

    So Walter had said that we was going to ask Grisilde to marry him, but here he is basically telling her that she's going to accept his proposal. What's the point of even asking, dude? He's definitely not imagining even the possibility that she (or her father) might not want to accept.

    And for that nothing of hir olde gere
    She sholde bringe into his hous, he bad
    That wommen sholde dispoilen hire right there;
    […]
    But natheles, this mayde bright of hewe
    Fro foot to heed they clothed han al newe. (372-374, 377-378)

    Grisilde passively submits to Walter's women here. The verb "dispoilen" can also be used to refer to rape. Well, that's cheery. The fact that Grisilde then has to put on the clothing Walter has supplied is symbolic of the way a husband supposedly "covered" his wife both legally and financially in the medieval period, so that once married she would be legally considered a dame couvade (covered lady).

    She seyde, "Lord, al lyth in youre plesaunce;
    My child and I with hertely obeisaunce
    Ben yores al, and ye mowe save or spille
    Youre owene thing: werketh after youre wille." (501-504)

    Grisilde places herself and her child in a position of ultimate passivity by portraying both of them as Walter's possessions. She's basically saying that she's just an object, a piece on a chessboard to be moved around as Walter wills. Of course, legally, that's pretty much what she was. How different do you think the situation would have been for other wives during this period?

    Grisildis mot al suffren and al consente;
    And as a lamb she sitteth meke and stille,
    And leet this cruel sergeant doon his wille. (537-539)

    By calling Grisilde a lamb, the narrator draws on the phrase "like a lamb to the slaughter," thus emphasizing the imposed helplessness of Grisilde's position. Or is it imposed? After all, Grisilde is the one who has chosen to be passive.

    "For as I lefte at hoom al my clothing
    Whan I first cam to yow, right so," quod she,
    "Left I my wil and al my libertee,
    And took your clothing." (654-657)

    Grisilde's claim to have left her will with her old clothing only confirms the passivity she has demonstrated up to this point. But her comparison between dressing and submitting to a ruler is a little deceptive: is it really as easy to "put on" someone else's will as it is to put on a new dress?

    For which it semeth thus, that of hem two
    Ther nas but o wil; for, as Walter leste,
    The same lust was hire plesance also;
    And, God be thanked, al fil for the beste. (715-718)

    With his "God be thanked, al fil for the beste," the narrator foreshadows the happy ending of his tale. But this also calls some attention to the danger of absolute obedience. What if the person you're obeying doesn't intend to make everything turn out "for the beste"? How can you know, either way?

    A wyf, as of hirself, no thing ne sholde
    Wille in effect but as hir housbond wolde. (720-721)

    Here the narrator seems cool with the idea that wives should be obedient, but later he's all about how "importable," or insufferable, it would be if wives actually behaved like Grisilde. So, which is it? It's a classic example of the narrative inconsistency of the "Clerk's Tale," and of the Canterbury Tales in general. Chaucer likes to tease us and get us going so that we think for ourselves.

    Disposed was, this humble creature,
    Th'adversitee of Fortune al t'endure. (755-756)

    Actually, Fortune didn't cause the adversity Grisilde submits to (at least not directly, as far as we can tell); Walter did. Walter is an all-powerful, dominating force in the tale, which lends support to an interpretation of him as a God-figure here.

  • Virtue

    For God it woot, that children ofte been
    Unlyk hir worthy eldres hem bifore;
    Bountee comth al of God nat of the streen
    Of which they been engendred and yboore. (155-158)

    Walter's sentiment here echoes the Wife of Bath's claim that gentility comes from God and not lineage. This is only one of many echoes of the "Wife of Bath's Tale" which serve, ironically, to link this tale about a totally submissive wife to that tale about women's desire for sovereignty.

         A doghter hadde he, fair y-nogh to sighte,
    And Grisildis this yonge mayden highte.
    But for to speke of vertuous beautee,
    Than was she oon the faireste under sonne. (209-212)

    By moving quickly from Grisilde's exterior beauty to her "vertuous beautee," or inward characteristics, the tale implies that while she's definitely easy on the eyes, the most important thing about Grisilde is that she's virtuous within.

    But for to speke of vertuous beautee,
    Than was she oon the faireste under sonne,
    For povreliche y-fostred up was she. (211-213)

    Here the narrator connects Grisilde's virtue to a life lived in poverty. This connection between virtue and poverty goes hand in hand with Walter's later point that virtue comes from your character and not from your lineage. This passage implies that a life of poverty better fosters a character that is likely to be virtuous.

    Wel ofter of the welle than of the tonne
    She drank; and for she wolde vertue plese,
    She knew wel labour, but non ydel ese. (215-217)

    Grisilde's lack of "ydel ese" contrasts with Walter's life of "delyt" and his obsession with hunting and hawking—both fairly idle pursuits, since noblemen just did them for fun (and not for, say, food).

    But thogh this mayde tendre were of age,
    Yet in the brest of hir virginitee
    Ther was enclosed rype and sad corage. (218-220)

    The connection between virginity and a strong character grew out of a religious rhetoric in praise of virginity, and particularly of the Virgin Mary. The idea was that a girl's virginity gave her special power and strength that a non-virgin could not possibly approach.

    Hir olde povre fader fostred she.
    A fewe sheep, spinninge, on feeld she kepte;
    She wolde noght been ydel til she slepte. (222-224)

    Grisilde's hardworking nature again takes center stage in the description of her virtue. The tale may highlight this in order to draw a sharp contrast between Grisilde's and Walter's lives and essential natures.

    And whan she hoomward cam, she wolde bringe
    Wortes or othere herbes tymes ofte,
    The whiche she shredde and seeth for hir living,
    And mad hir bed ful harde and nothing softe. (225-228)

    The fact that Grisilde is able to find and prepare herbs for food shows how resourceful she is. Her "ful harde" bed shows, again, how she has rejected "ydel ese." Even when she sleeps, Grisilde rejects the easy life. She lives kind of like a nun, really.

    And ay she kepte hir fadres lyf on ofte
    With everich obeisaunce and diligence
    That child may doon to fadres reverence. (229-231)

    The entire portrait of Grisilde is meant to emphasize her great virtue. Here the respect and obedience she pays her father become part of that virtue, and the tale sets us up to praise the way she will obey Walter later on.

    He noght with wantoun loking of folye
    His eyen caste on hire, but in sad wyse
    Upon hir chere he wolde him ofte avyse,
    Commendinge in his herte hir wommanhede,
    And eek hir vertue, passinge any wight. (236-240)

    Walter's sober—and not lustful—consideration of Grisilde makes him appear virtuous, as does the fact that he notices her virtue as much as her womanliness. Both Walter and Grisilde have a seriousness about them that makes them well suited to a serious tale like this, in contrast to some of the zanier and bawdier of Chaucer's tales.

    For thogh the peple have no greet insight
    In vertu, he considered ful right
    Hir bountee, and disposed that he wolde
    wedde hire only, if ever he wedde sholde. (242-245)

    Here "peple" probably refers to the common man, the implication being that Walter, as a nobleman, is better at sussing out virtue than the common man would be. Although at some times the "Clerk's Tale" appears to want to democratize virtue, it also has a somewhat contradictory tendency to criticize the shallowness of the "peple," or common folk.

    For thogh that evere vertuous was she,
    She was encressed in swich excellence
    Of thewes gode, y-set in heigh bountee,
    And so discreet and fair of eloquence,
    So benigne and so digne of reverence,
    And coude so the peples herte embrace,
    That ech hire lovede that loked on hir face. (407-413)

    There's a subtle criticism here of the "peple," whose hearts Grisilde is able to win after she becomes Walter's wife. After all, she's always been virtuous, but it's only now, when she's all decked-out and surrounded by bling, that they love her the way they should.

    And for he saugh that under low degree
    Was ofte vertue hid, the peple him helde
    A prudent man, and that is seyn ful selde. (425-427)

    As he did a few hundred lines earlier, Walter again gets to seem virtuous just because he's one of the few able to notice Grisilde's virtue. The idea is that only a virtuous or prudent person would be able to recognize this kind of virtue in someone else. Apparently, prudence is something rarely seen in these parts.

  • Loyalty

    A markis whylom lord was of that londe,
    As were his worthy eldres him bifore;
    And obeisant, ay redy to his honde
    Were all his liges, bothe lasse and more. (64-67)

    Walter's "liges" are those noblemen sworn to remain loyal to him. They are "redy to his honde" in the sense that if he calls upon them to go into battle to defend his land claims, they must present themselves, with their lieges as well, ready to go to war. This system of loyalties and lieges is how feudalism works.

    Accepteth than of us the trewe entente,
    That never yet refuseden youre heste. (127-128)

    Walter's lords remind him of their loyalty to him by highlighting their constant willingness to do as he requests. They imply that in return for this loyalty, he owes them regard for their counsel.

    For if it so bifelle, as God forbade,
    That thurgh your deeth your lyne sholde slake,
    And that a straunge successour sholde take
    Youre heritage, O, wo were us alyve! (136-139)

    Walter's lords say that their desire for him to produce an heir comes out of their loyalty to his particular bloodline. This passage demonstrates the way the loyalty of lieges extends to families rather than just particular individuals.

    But I yow preye, and charge upon youre lyf,
    That what wyf that I take, ye me assure
    To worshipe hire whyl that hir lyf may dure,
    In word and werk, bothe here and everywhere,
    As she an emperoures doghter were. (164-168)

    Walter makes his lieges promise that they will worship his wife "in word and werk" as long as she is alive. This reference to the worship of someone in "words" foreshadows the rumors that begin to circulate about Walter later in the tale. It also foreshadows the way that loyalty may be shown in the way you talk about a lord as well as in your obedience to his commands. By the way, do Walter's lieges actually live up to their promise?

    With hertely wil, they sworen and assenten,
    To al this thing-ther seyde no wight nay. (176-177)

    Swearing an oath was a powerful gesture in medieval feudal relationships. This passage emphasizes that Walter's nobles do so in good faith by describing how they swear "with hertely wil."

    "Thou lovest me, I woot it wel, certeyn,
    And art my feithful lige man y-bore;
    And al that lyketh me, I dar wel seyn
    It lyketh thee." (309-312)

    Walter's definition of the loyalty a vassal owes his lord is extreme. It's not just obedience that he demands, but love and a total sublimation of his vassal's will to his own, so that "al that lyketh me […] it lyketh thee."

    "This is my wyf," quod he, "that standeth here.
    Honoureth hire and loveth hire I preye
    Whoso me loveth; ther is namore to seye." (369-371)

    Walter draws on his people's loyalty to him to extract a similar loyalty to his wife. Basically, in order to be loyal to him, they'll have to be loyal to his wife. By saying that those who love him must love and honor her as well, he implies that they will be breaking their feudal oath if they do otherwise. So, is that real loyalty to Grisilde, or isn't it?

    This markis in his herte longeth so
    To tempte his wyf, hir sadnesse for to knowe. (451-452)

    "Sadness" refers to steadfastness or constancy, a complete focus of your attention on one thing and one thing only. In effect, Walter wants to make sure that Grisilde is loyal to him by testing her obedience.

    A maner sergeant was this privee man,
    The which that feithful ofte he founden hadde
    In thinges grete, and eek swich folk wel can
    Don execucioun in thinges bade.
    The lord knew wel he him loved and dradde. (519-523)

    In a striking condemnation of blind obedience, the narrator remarks that the Sergeant's loyalty to Walter makes him just as capable as doing evil things as "grete" or honorable things. Walter can simply capitalize on the love and dread the Sergeant has for him to get him to do just as he wishes. Is the Sergeant loyal? If so, what kind of loyalty is that?

    And whan that folk it to his fader tolde,
    Nat only he, but al his contree, merie
    Was for this child, and God they thanke and herie. (514-516)

    Here, in Walter's people's joy at the birth of his son, is another example of how a people's loyalty to their lord extends not just to him but to his bloodline.

                And whan this markis sey
    The constance of his wyf, he caste adoun
    His eyen two, and wondreth that she may
    In pacience suffre al this array. (667-670)

    As lord of his land, Walter has never had to prove his loyalty to anyone through obedience. It's no wonder, then, that he "wondreth" at the patience Grisilde shows when asked to do so.

    Thogh clerkes preyse wommen but a lyte,
    Ther can no man in humblesse him acquyte
    As womman can, ne can ben half so trewe
    As wommen been, but it be falle of newe. (935-938)

    The narrator's claim that no one can match the loyalty ("trueness") of a woman flies in the face of centuries of anti-woman rhetoric, which portrayed women as faithless adulterers. So is Grisilde a positive or negative portrayal of a woman? A little of each? Neither?

    O stormy peple! unsad and evere untrewe!
    Ay undiscreet and chaunging as a vane!
    Delytinge evere in rumbel that is newe,
    For lyk the mone ay wexe ye and wane!
    Ay ful of clapping, dere y-nogh a jane!
    Youre doom is fals, youre constance yvel preveth,
    A ful greet fool is he that on yow leveth! (995-1001)

    Here the narrator criticizes the townspeople for the quick shifting of their loyalties to Grisilde's younger replacement. By calling them "unsad," "untrewe," and of evil "constance," he places them in direct comparison with Grisilde, who is often described as exactly the opposite.

    And whan this Walter say hire pacience,
    Hir glade chere and no malice at al –
    And he so ofte had doon to hire offence,
    And she ay sad and constant as a wal,
    Continuinge evere hire innocence overall—
    This sturdy markis gan his herte dresse
    To rewen upon hire wyfly stedfastnesse. (1044-1050)

    At the climax of the tale, Grisilde's "sadness," constancy, and "stedfastnesse"—in short, her loyalty to Walter—gain her the ultimate reward, in the form of Walter's devotion. Interestingly, though, Walter ends Grisilde's trials because of the emotion that Grisilde's behavior evokes in him.

  • Marriage

    And eek he nolde—and that was worst of alle—
    Wedde no wyf, for noght that may bifalle. (83-84)

    Walter's refusal to marry is the "worst of alle" his faults because it prevents him from producing a legal heir. One of his most important obligations to his vassals is to ensure a stable transfer of power through the continuation of his bloodline. For this, a wife is a necessity.

    Ne coude nat us self devysen how
    We mighte liven in more felicitee,
    Save o thing lord, if it youre wille be,
    That for to been a wedded man yow leste:
    Than were your peple in sovereyn hertes reste. (108-112)

    The people will only be at ease once Walter has married, because this will mean he is on his way to producing an heir. Medieval people knew that bloodshed and civil unrest could result from an uncertain succession. These nobles are trying to ensure that this calamity does not occur in their province.

    Boweth youre nekke under that blisful yok
    Of sovereaynetee, noght of servyse,
    Which that men clepeth spousaille or wedlok. (113-115)

    The "blisful yok of soveraynetee" is quite the paradox, but the meaning is that, although Walter will be tied or "yoked" to his wife, he will still be the sovereign in this marriage (translation: he'll rule her, and not vice-versa). The nobles are trying to counteract the idea that marriage is the beginning of a husband's slavish service to a shrewish wife.

    Chese yow a wyf in short tyme, atte leste,
    Born of the gentilleste and of the meste
    Of al this lond, so that it oghte seme
    Honour to God, and yow, as we can deme. (130-133)

    Walter's nobles naturally want him to take a highborn wife. Doing so will not just do him and God honor, as they say here. If the wife comes from a powerful family, his marriage will also further secure his hold on power through the forging of an alliance.

    "Ye wol," quod he, "myn owene peple dere,
    To that I never erst thogte streyne me.
    I me rejoysed of my libertee
    That selde tyme is founde in marriage;
    Ther I was free, I moot been in servage." (143-147)

    If Walter has really never thought he would have to get married, then he's way naive. The continuation of his bloodline by means of a legitimate heir was one of a nobleman's most pressing duties. Walter's focus on the idea of marriage as a prison shows that he's thinking primarily in terms of himself and not of his responsibilities. Now, we can also question whether feudal responsibilities are inherently limiting of personal freedoms, but that's a question the tale doesn't bring up directly.

    For thogh the peple have no greet insight
    In vertue, he considered ful right
    Hir bountee, and disposed that he wolde
    Wedde hire only, if ever he wedde sholde. (242-245)

    One of the ways we know that the "Clerk's Tale" is fictional is that Walter has the freedom to choose a wife merely for her virtue. In real life, a nobleman would have to marry someone from a rich and powerful family as a way of cementing his own power.

    For I wol axe if it hire wille be
    To be my wyf, and reule hir after me. (326-327)

    There are two ways to read the "and" in this passage. Either Walter views Grisilde's willingness to obey him in all things as something she must promise in addition to her regular duties as a wife, or he views this as a necessary part of wifehood. Our money's on the second option.

    Nat only this Grisildis thurgh hir wit
    Coude al the feet of wyfly hoomlinesse,
    But eek whan that the cas requyred it,
    The commune profit coude she redresse. (428-431)

    Grisilde is great not only at performing her wifely duties but also at caring for the general welfare of Walter's people. This makes her an ideal noble wife: noble wives were supposed to "wed" their husband's people (as well as their husband) and care for their welfare as much as for her own.

    But as for me, I seye that yvel it sit
    T'assaye a wyf whan that it is no nede
    And putten hire in anguish and in drede. (460-462)

    The narrator is suggesting that a husband owes his wife consideration for her feelings, and that flies in the face of Walter's idea of a wifely duty of absolute obedience regardless of how she feels about what she's being asked to do.

    O needles was she tempted in assay!
    But wedded men ne knowe no mesure
    Whan that they finde a pacient creature. (621-623)

    Although the narrator won't explicitly say so until later, it already seems like he might be advising real women not to imitate Grisilde. If they do, they may be subject to the whims of a man who knows no "mesure," or moderation, in what he asks of her.

    A wyf, as of hirself, no thing ne sholde
    Wille in effect but as hir housbond wolde. (720-721)

    Here's a concise expression of one of two totally contradictory viewpoints expressed by the narrator: 1) that wives should obey their husbands in everything, or 2) that they shouldn't.

    For sith I yaf to yow my maydenhede,
    And am youre trewe wyf, it is no drede,
    God shilde swich a lordes wyf to take
    Another man to housbonde or to make. (837-840)

    Grisilde thinks that she shouldn't marry again after Walter kicks her out of the palace. (This is a view the Wife of Bath tried to refute in her Prologue.) The idea that a wife should not marry again after the death of her first husband was a commonly held one, coming in part from the church's prohibition of sex for any other purpose but procreation. The idea was that once a woman had borne a few children, she had no need for sex anymore.

    For out of doute this olde povre man
    Was evere in suspect of hir marriage;
    For evere he demed, sith that it bigan,
    That whan the lord fulfild hadde his corage,
    Him wolde thinke it were a disparage
    To his estaat so lowe for t'alighte,
    And voyden hire as sone as ever he mighte. (904-910)

    Janicula's suspicions about Walter's intentions reflect the idea that like should wed like. They also show his acute understanding of the great disparity in status between Walter and his daughter. The fact that he allows the marriage to take place despite his reservations suggests that he is powerless to defy his lord.

    This storie is seyd, nat for that wyves sholde
    Folwen Grisilde as in humilitee,
    For it were importable though they wolde. (1142-1144)

    The narrator contradicts himself again by claiming that "it were importable," or insufferable, for wives to imitate Grisilde's example. Earlier, he had claimed that a wife should will nothing "but as her husband wolde" (721). So which is it, narrator? You're killing us here.

  • Class

    Therwith he was, to speke as of linage,
    The gentilleste y-born of Lumbardye. (71- 72)

    If Walter is "the gentilleste y-born of Lumbardye," that means he comes from the highest-ranking noble family in the region. This entitles him to rule the land.

    Chese yow a wyf in short tyme, atte leste,
    Born of the gentilleste and of the meste
    Of al this lond, so that it oghte seme
    honour to God and yow, as we can deme. (130-133)

    Medieval people believed that like should marry like. Therefore, a nobleman like Walter ought to marry an equally "gentil" woman. This policy had the added advantage of allowing powerful families to cement their power through beneficial alliances.

    For God it woot, that children ofte been
    Unlyk hir worthy eldres hem bifore;
    Bountee comth al of God, nat of the streen
    Of which they been engendred and y-bore. (155-158)

    Walter's sentiments here are an exact echo of the loathly lady's in the "Wife of Bath's Tale." The irony there, of course, was that she addressed them to a nobleman who had already proven his lack of gentility. You might argue that Walter does the same in this tale due to his horrendous treatment of Grisilde, who proves to be more "gentil" than he is.

    Noght fer fro thilke paleys honorable
    Wheras this markis shoop his marriage,
    Ther stood a throp, of site delitable,
    In which that povre folk of that village
    Hadden hir bestes and hir herbergage.
    And of hir labour took hir sustenance
    After that the erthe yaf hem habundance. (197-201)

    This passage emphasizes the close proximity of poverty and powerlessness to absolute power and wealth. They literally live right next to each other. Here, we see the concerns of the nobility—Walter's nobles' plan for him to marry—contrasted with the poor people's more mundane day-to-day struggle to just survive.

    Amonges thise povre folk ther dwelte a man
    Which that was holden povrest of hem alle;
    But hye God somtyme senden can
    His grace into a litel oxes stalle. (204-207)

    The statement that God sometimes sends his grace into an ox's stall is an allusion to the Christian Nativity, in which God sent his son to be born in a manger. As the "grace" that has been sent to Janicula is Grisilde, this passage implicitly compares her to the Christ-child.

    But for to speke of vertuous beautee,
    Than was she oon the faireste under sonne;
    For povreliche y-fostred up was she. (211-213)

    The suggestion here is that poor people are more likely than others to be virtuous. The lines that follow suggest that this virtue originates with the life of hard labor and austerity they endure out of necessity.

                It ne semed nat by lyklinesse
    That she was born and fed in rudenesse,
    As in a cote or in an oxe-stalle,
    But norished in an emperoures halle. (396-399)

    If this passage seems overly concerned with food and eating, it may reflect the medieval reality that a higher-class person was likely to have better nutrition, and thus to appear healthier and more attractive, than a lower-class person.

    With sterne face and with ful trouble chere,
    [He] seyde thus: 'Grisilde,' quod he, 'that day
    That I yow took out of your povre array
    And putte yow in estaat of heigh noblesse
    Ye have nat that forgeten, as I gesse.' (465-469)

    Walter portrays himself as a God-figure to Grisilde in the way he speaks of plucking her from poverty and raising her to nobility. The way he views his role in her life may even be a little prideful, appropriating powers that are rightfully God's. Do Walter's wealth and status entitle him to "play God"?

    And though to me that ye be lief and dere,
    Unto my gentils ye be no-thing so;
    They seyn, to hem it is greet shame and wo
    For to be subgets and ben in servage
    To thee, that born art of a smal village. (479-483)

    Although Walter is lying about the sentiment his nobles are expressing, it's not unlikely that they might secretly object to being ruled by a lower-class person. If they believed that God had ordained nobility to rule and lower-class people to be ruled (many medieval people did believe this), they would totally have some gripes about Grisilde's power over them.

    "Certes, Grisilde, I hadde y-nough plesaunce
    To han yow to my wyf for youre goodnesse-
    As for your trouthe and for youre obeisaunce –
    Nought for youre linage ne for your richesse." (792-795)

    Walter implies that Grisilde's innate goodness—her truth and obedience—have stood in for the lineage and dowry he should have sought in a wife. Medieval religious texts often compare virtue to worldly riches.

    "My lord," quod she, "I woot, and wiste always,
    How that bitwixen youre magnificence
    And my poverte no wight can ne may
    Maken comparison; it is no nay.
    I ne heeld me nevere digne in no manere
    To be youre wyf, no, ne youre chamberere." (813-819)

    Grisilde's words seem submissive, but she could also be making the point that it was Walter, not she, who thought her worthy to be his wife. Her reference to being unworthy to serve as Walter's "chamberere" foreshadows her later stint as a palace servant.

    "And in this hous ther ye me lady made –
    The heighe God take I for my witnesse,
    And also wisly he my soulde glade –
    I nevere heelde me lady ne maistresse,
    But humble servant to youre worthinesse,
    And ever shal, whyl that my lyf may dure." (820-825)

    Grisilde again draws attention to the fact that it is Walter, not her, who has made her a lady. In fact, if she had her way, Grisilde would be nothing but a servant.

    For evere he demed, sith that it bigan
    That whan the lord fulfild hadde his corage,
    Him wolde thinke it were a disparage
    To his estaat so lowe for t'alighte
    And voyden hire as sone as ever he mighte. (906-910)

    Janicula is totally aware of the class difference between Walter and Grisilde. Rather than thanking Walter for "raising" her up, though, Janicula takes a cynical point of view: he thinks that Walter is pretty much just going to use Grisilde for sex.

    That neither by hire wordes ne hire face
    Biforn the folk, ne eek in hire absence,
    Ne shewed she that hire was doon offence;
    Ne of hire heighe estaat no remembraunce
    Ne hadde she, as by hire countenaunce. (920-924)

    Grisilde's apparent lack of recognition that she was ever raised to high estate supports her declaration to Walter that she truly never thought of herself as anything more than a servant.

    For she is fairer, as they demen alle
    Than is Grisild, and more tendre of age,
    And fairer fruit bitwene hem sholde falle,
    And more plesant, for hire heigh linage. (997-991)

    The townspeople's belief that more pleasing fruit will fall from the marriage of Walter and this girl (because of this girl's higher lineage) than from the marriage of Walter and Grisilde is ironic because, of course, this girl is the fruit of the marriage of Walter and Grisilde.

         "O thing biseke I yow, and warne also,
    that ye ne prikke with no tormentinge
    This tendre mayden, as ye han don mo.
    For she is fostred in hire norishinge
    More tendrely, and to my supposing,
    She coude nat adversitee endure
    As coude a povre fostred creature." (1037-1043)

    Grisilde appears to hold the same belief as the narrator, that a poor person is more likely to have a strong character than a rich one. The girl's "tender" upbringing makes her unable to withstand adversity, or so Grisilde believes.

  • Family

    For if it so bifelle, as God forbade,
    That thurgh your deeth you lyne sholde slake,
    And that a straunge successour sholde take
    Youre heritage, O, Wo were us alyve! (136-139)

    Walter's nobles have sworn allegiance not just to him but to his entire family, including his ancestors and progeny. If he fails to produce an heir, he'll end his line, and this will create a break in their continuity with the past: they'll be unable to serve the same family their ancestors served.

    Unnethe trowed they-but dorste han swore –
    That to Janicle, of which I spak bifore,
    She doghter were, for, as by conjecture,
    Hem thoghte she was another creature. (403-406)

    Remember Walter's sentiment that "children ofte been / Unlyk hir worthy eldres hem bifore" (155-156)? That passage has foreshadowed this moment, in which Grisilde is completely unrecognizable as Janicula's daughter as a result of the change she has undergone.

    Nat long tyme after that this Grisild
    Was wedded, she a doughter hath y-bore.
    Al had hire levere have born a knave child,
    Glad was this markis and the folk therefore;
    For though a mayde child come al bifore,
    She may unto a knave child atteyne
    By lyklihed, sin she nis nat bareyne. (442-448)

    The hard truth is that at this time, a noblewoman's most important function in her marriage was to be a vessel for babies. Her duty was to produce a male child who could be his father's heir (a function a girl could not perform). Walter and the people rejoice more in the proof that Grisilde is not barren (and may yet produce a male) than in the newborn girl herself.

    I moot don with thy doghter for the beste,
    Nat as I wolde, but as my peple lest. (489-490)

    Walter's choice to call his and Grisilde's baby "thy doghter" makes it seem as if he does not even acknowledge the child as his own. This sentiment would be in keeping with his aim of making Grisilde feel like an illegitimate intruder in the palace, someone whose children don't really belong there.

    She seyde, 'Lord, al lyth in youre plesaunce;
    My child and I with hertely obeisaunce
    Ben youres al, and ye mowe save or spille
    Youre owene thing: werketh after youre wille.' (501-504)

    Grisilde's portrayal of herself and her child as Walter's property is extreme, but it accurately reflects the legal status of women at this time period: they were denied personhood before the law except as "covered" by their husbands.

    And mekely she to the sergeant preyed,
    So as he was a worthy gentil man,
    That she moste kisse hire child er that it deyde;
    And in hir barm this litel child she leyde
    With ful sad face, and gan the child to blisse
    and lulled it, and after gan it kisse. (548-553)

    This moment is so gut-wrenchingly dramatic that it convinces us of Grisilde's love for her child. It's necessarily for us to believe in this love so that Grisilde's sacrifice in the name of obedience will appear all the more heroic.

    And thus she seyde in hire benigne voys,
    'Far weel, my child; I shal thee nevere see.
    but, sith I thee have marked with the croys
    Of thilke Fader, blessed mot he be,
    That for us deyde upon a croys of tree,
    Thy soule, litel child, I him bitake,
    For this night shaltow dyen for my sake.' (554-560)

    Grisilde says that although Walter has rejected his own child, the child will have a "foster-father" in God, whom she refers to as "thilke Fader." She also implicitly compares the baby to Christ, since the child will (she believes) sacrifice its life for another person (Grisilde herself). Is it right for her to allow this to happen? To whom does she owe more loyalty: to Walter, or to her child?

    Though that my doghter and my sone be slayn—
    At your commandement, this is to sayn,
    I have noght had no part of children tweyne
    But first siknesse, and after wo and peyne. (649-652)

    When Grisilde says that her only claim to ownership of her children comes from the suffering and pain of childbirth, this may be a strategic reminder to Walter that he owns them in every other way. Walter has consistently referred to the children as Grisilde's and Grisilde's only, but he's contradicted himself by claiming the right to decide what their fates will be.

    That of a cruel herte he wickedly,
    For he a povre womman wedded hadde,
    Hat mordred bothe his children prively. (722-725)

    The murder of one's own flesh and blood was one of the most heinous sins during this time period: it added to the crime of murder another sin—lack of loyalty to your family. Walter's approval ratings are quick to slide when word of his possible transgression gets out.

    But o thing he him preyede outerly,
    That he to no wight, though men wolde enquire,
    Sholde nat telle whos children that they were. (768-770)

    The secrecy surrounding Walter's children is necessary for his test of Grisilde to work, but it could also be symbolic of his refusal to claim them as his own before Grisilde. In effect, these are parentless children.

    Ye coude nat doon so dishoneste a thing
    That thilke wombe in which youre children leye
    Sholde biforn the peple, in my walking,
    Be seyn al bare. (876-879)

    Why might it be "dishoneste" for Walter to expose the womb that bore his children to the public eye? One possibility might be that this exposure is symbolic of Walter's failure to "cover" his wife before the law, with "coverage" of a woman by a man being a common way of talking about marriage at this time period.

    This is thy doghter which thou hast supposed
    To be my wyf; that other feithfully
    Shal be myn heir; as I have ay disposed,
    Thou bare him in thy body trewely.
    At Boloigne have I kept hem prively;
    Tak hem agayn, for now maystow nat seye
    That thou hast lorn noon of thy children tweye. (1065-1071)

    Walter's statement of how Grisilde bore his intended heir in her body confirms not only the child's legitimacy and rightful place, but also Grisilde's legitimacy and rightful place. Walter reinstates Grisilde as his wife by affirming her most important function in that position.

  • Duty

    I blame him thus, that he considered noght
    In tyme cominge what mighte him bityde,
    But on his lust present was al his thought,
    As for to hauke and hunte on every syde;
    We ny alle othere cures leet he slyde,
    And eek he nolde-and that was worst of alle –
    Wedde no wyf, for noght that may bifalle. (78-84)

    As his people's leader, Walter fails in his duty to them by neglecting to think about the future. One of his most important duties is to produce a legitimate heir, something he can only do if he marries.

    Accepteth, lord, now of youre gentillesse,
    That we with pitous herte unto yow pleyne,
    And lete youre eres nat my voys disdeyne. (96-98)

    Just as Walter's nobles owe him obedience and loyalty, he owes it to them to take their advice seriously when they offer it. The duty of a lord to listen to counsel has a long-established tradition by this time period.

    And ay she kepte hir fadres lyf on lofte
    With everich obeisaunce and diligence
    That child may doon to fadres reverence. (229-231)

    Grisilde is a dutiful daughter, doing everything in her power to sustain her father's life. This kind of makes you wonder what Janicula's going to do when Walter takes Grisilde away.

    Nat only this Grisildis thurgh hir wit
    Coude al the feet of wyfly hoomlinesse,
    But eek, whan that the cas requyred it,
    the commune profit coude she redresse.
    Ther nas discord, rancour, ne hevinesse
    In al that lond that she ne coude apese,
    and wysly bringe hem alle in reste and ese. (428-434)

    Grisilde easily fulfills her wifely duties, but it's in her role as peacemaker among the people that she fulfills her role as a noblewoman. (The noblewoman's function as a peacemaker was a well-established tradition in literature at the time.)

    But now knowe I in verray soothfastnesse
    That in gret lordshipe, if I wel avyse,
    Ther is gret servitute in sondry wyse.
    I may nat don as every plowman may.
    My peple me constreyneth for to take
    Another wyf. (796-801)

    Walter's statement about being constrained echoes the Sergeant's claim to Grisilde that he is constrained by Walter's orders. According to Walter, a lord's duty to his people is just as binding as a subordinate's debt of obedience to his superiors.

    "Though thyn array be badde and yvel biseye,
    Do thou thy devoir at the leeste weye." (965-966)

    Walter's claim that it is Grisilde's "duty" to prepare his chambers for his new wife is a little suspect. After all, wasn't Grisilde released from her promise to obey Walter in everything once she was (supposedly) no longer his wife?