The Clerk’s Tale Versus Modern Feminism
The Clerk’s Tale is one of the 30 stories told as part of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and it is the single tale which most poignantly portrays how differently Chaucer’s time was from our own. The Canterbury Tales, written by Geoffrey Chaucer in 1392, had a very different message and audience. The Canterbury Tales is an eclectic collection of short stories that link together 30 different stories. Each vignette is told from the point of view of very different characters that have such roles as friar, knight, nun, merchant, and priest. Each tale has a tone that derives from its narrator, and an agenda that the character is trying to express. The purpose of these tales runs the gamut, from amusing and humorous (i.e. Miller’s Tale), to cautionary (i.e. Friar’s Tale), to teaching a moral lesson (i.e. Clerk’s Tale).
The Clerk’s Tale is related to us by an eternal student in response to the host’s request to tell a merry’ story. The Clerk admits that his story is one about faith and obedience that was told to him by an Italian scholar. The Clerk’s Tale is the most remarkable of all of the Canterbury Tales because it demonstrates the stark contrast in world views from Chaucer’s time to modern times. It is the story of a wealthy Marquis named Walter who chooses the most impoverished of his subjects, Griselda, as his wife and makes her swear her boundless loyalty and subservience to him. Griselda becomes Walter’s bride and leads a life of servitude to him. Even after she delivers a baby daughter, Walter decides to cruelly test’ Griselda’s loyalties in the harshest possible manner. He tells her he will kill their infant daughter, and that she must not protest and must accept the murder to prove her loyalty to him. The truly astounding thing about this tale is that the ever-suffering Griselda submits to this cruelty and simply allows her daughter to be taken away, ostensibly to be killed. Four years later Walter repeats the entire process when Griselda gives birth to a son, which he says he is also going to murder. Griselda is depicted as a proper wife because she does not even complain when her husband says he’s going to murder their children. This suspenseful tale depicts a time in history when blind faith was a sign of righteousness. However, modern audiences would react in exactly the opposite way to the Clerk’s heroine as he intended. We would not think of Griselda as a paragon of virtue, as 14th-century readers were expected to do, but instead would see her as a weak-willed sycophant with no maternal tendencies at all.
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An example of the contrast in thinking between “The Clerk’s Tale” and a modern comparison is the movie, “Kill Bill”, which came out in 2003. Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman wrote the story and script for “Kill Bill”. In the movie, the main character, The Bride/Beatrix, seeks revenge against the father of her child for his crime against her and their infant, which she (falsely) believes he killed. Compare this to The Clerk’s Tale, written in 1392, the husband is believed (falsely) to have killed he and his wife’s/Griselda’s infants. The way each woman reacts to the perceived infanticide is starkly different and portrays the absolute shift in attitude from Chaucer’s time to our own. In Kill Bill, we celebrate Beatrix for slaughtering everyone who stands in her way as she seeks, over the course of three movies, to Kill Bill. In The Clerk’s Tale, we are expected to celebrate Griselda, for her loyalty, suffering, and obedience to her husband as he murders not one, but two of her infants. Attitudes about women and their roles in regards to men have shifted quite a bit in 700 years!
Some may say that their favorite tale is that of the Miller because it is a crudely amusing story about two friends and their shared’ wife. This tale is roughly analogous to some tawdry Hollywood tripe (i.e. We are the Miller’s) that involves cliche’ jokes based on mistaken identity and gratuitous shots of butts. It is entertaining, but hardly great storytelling. The moral of The MIller’s Tale could exist within any bawdy sitcom told in modern times.
The remarkable set of circumstances depicted in The Clerk’s Tale seems so implausible to a modern reader that we would reject the credibility of it immediately. The characters are unlike any modern archetypal hero or heroine. We would, rightfully, hate Walter. We would also, rightfully, hate Griselda. However, in the time of Chaucer, this story was told as a credible parable of a clever ruler righteously testing his virtuous wife because rulers were largely considered to be above the law’ and women had few rights. One of the main expectations of a good’ woman was unquestioning obedience. In the fourteenth century, this story was acceptable and believable. This portrayal of a completely different time in history demonstrates the societal norms and mores that were accepted for that period. At the end of The Clerk’s Tale, we are witness to the poor wife realizing that her husband did not, after all, kill her children. In fact, he brought them home as young adults and she was rewarded’ for her loyalty by getting to reunite with the children that she thought had been murdered as mere babies. The moral to the story is that if you are loyal and don’t question your husband, or lord, you will be rewarded. This is very much like the story of Job, as told in the Bible, where an innocent and ever-suffering individual is tested and passes the test due to their faith and loyalty.
Lessons of faith, such as the subservience of a loyal follower, were vaunted as examples of pious and righteous behavior at a time when the church was rarely questioned. This mindset was popular at a time in history where people believed that suffering made them worthy of glory. Nowadays, humanity has largely determined that silently suffering through inequities is not noble, but is rather stupid. In modern times, the Marquis would be considered a criminal, and his wife would be considered complicit in his crimes. Walter and Griselda would be scorned and possibly imprisoned, rather than celebrated, as in the Clerk’s Tale.
Fast forward to 2003 and consider the character of The Bride’ in Kill Bill. Beatrix was also lifted up from obscurity by her lord but had the personal dignity to defy him. As soon as she realized she was pregnant, she determined that the lifestyle of the babies father was not appropriate to raise a child in, so for the good of the child, she unceremoniously abandons the babies father. Later, when she believes her child to be dead, she pursues a vendetta against the father of her child until she gets her revenge. The Bride, clad in black and yellow like a tigress, is a character that is so respected and revered in modern society that she has become iconic for the exact opposite reason as Chaucer’s bride from the Clerk’s Tale, the meek and unassuming Griselda. There is no doubt to modern audiences which woman is a heroine and which woman is contemptible. A sword-wielding Uma Thurman, aggressively outraged and furious, is considered by modern audiences to be a much more worthy mother than a docile woman who would subserviently allow her children to be taken off to be murdered.
Thus, this single tale, amongst all of the 30 different stories told in The Canterbury Tales, is the most valuable to us as a modern audience. The Clerk’s Tale clearly demonstrates not only how much the language and customs have changed since Chaucer’s time, but also the enormous changes in social norms and value systems. Chaucer expected women to be obedient to prove their worth. Tarantino makes it clear that the disobedient and powerful woman is of greater worth in this century.