Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales - The Clerk's Tale demonstrates how medieval power structures were open to abuse

Essay 1997 6 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Chaucer's The Clerk's Tale shows how a noble, the ,,Marquys Walter" of the Italian country Saluce, exerts his full power in order to test the fidelity of his wife Griselda, particularly her patience and endurance. He ruthlessly abuses his people, his wife, his children, and even the pope in order to achieve his aim. It is hard to judge, however, whether this shows how medieval power structures were open to abuse or not, keeping in his obviously unobjected absolute power in mind. This is not to say that he does not abuse his people, wife, etc. - he certainly does! - but he exercises his power to its full potential, so that I think he does not abuse the hierarchical structure, but everybody within it. The moral validity of ,,abuse", as I see it, is given; the legal ,,abuse" is not given, because this would require somebody to judge him, somebody above him. As we shall see, there is nobody - not even the pope himself, everybody from ,,lowest" to ,,highest" rank becomes involved in his game, the weak and the strong. It always takes, at least, two parties when abuse of power is exercised, one party that abuses and one party that is abused - nobody makes any genuine attempt at denial, opposition or resistance. Chaucer gives an answer to why it was possible to come that far: ,,But wedded men ne knewe ne mesure, / Whan they fymale a pacient creature." (Clerk's Tale: 622-3), this holds true for Griselda and, to a lesser extent, his people - very tempting!

It all starts quite harmlessly. Walter is a respected ruler, ,,Biloved and drad" (Clerk's Tale: 69), as befits his status. He is a little neglectful of his duties and cares mainly for his pleasures of hawking and hunting (80-1), but, obviously, everything is fine so far. The problem lies hidden. He has not married so far and probably does not care about his and his people's future; a fact which even upsets the narrator, the Clerk: ,,I blame hym thus, that considered noght / In tyme comynge what myghte hym bityde" (79 - 80), and Walter's own people, who complain about it openly (92 - 140) and ask him to take a wife to ensure their own security and that no alien ruler takes Walter's place in case of his demise without an heir. This reminds the reader / listener of the fact that the lord has duties towards his own lieges, a fact that was certainly more obvious to Chaucer's contemporary audience. Wynne - Davies speaks of an ,,interplay between how far Walter must obey his tenants and how far he may proceed in reasserting his feudal authority over them." (144) - Walter gives in to his people's will, but demands that he himself chooses his wife and that his people accept his choice without question and ,,swere, that ye / Again my choys shul neither grucche ne stryve"

(Clerk's Tale: 169 - 170). He explains this demand saying that because he ,,shal forgoon my libertee" (171). This again shows his qualities as a ruler: he is about to forgo his personal freedom, so that his people have to make concessions, and he does not completely yield to their will, maybe because of the social relationships in the fourteenth century, about which R. W. Rank jr. writes ,,Humility and subservience on one side, arrogance and demand on the other were often the order of the day in a society so hierarchical." (BOITANI & MANN: 157) - this helps to explain a lot of the events pointing towards the question of abuse of power.

The question of ,,abuse" in the relationship of Walter and his people prevails when he is suspected by his lieges of having killed his children, as lines 722-5 clearly show: ,,Hath mordred bothe his children prively" (Clerk's Tale: 725). Why then do they not do anything? He has clearly broken a vow, according to Finnegan (309 - 312), who states examples of vows that void because of evil intent or action, and bereft them of his people's wish, to provide an heir. He plays for high stakes (keeping the Peasant's Revolt of 1381 (WYNNE -DA VIES: 10-1) in mind - he is also in danger) and pushes his power to the limits, abusing the hopes and fears of his subjects.

The person who has to suffer most is his wife, Griselda. She has to make a marriage vow like her people, but goes even further, swearing ,,that nevere willingly, / In werk ne thoght, I wyl yow disobeye" (Clerk's Tale: 362-3), as Finnegan points out (FINNEGAN, 363). Walter tests her three times, by pretending the murder of her daughter (Clerk's Tale: 526 - 574 in particular) and her son (especially 673 - 684) and by pretending an anullation of their marriage (792 - 812), and that he is about to marry a twelve - year - old girl of noble birth (804-5 et. al.). Lesley Johnson speaks of her ,,as an icon of passive, patient and subordinate femininity (frequently represented as the ,,ideal" wife)" (EVANS / JOHNSON: 196) that has to suffer her husband's abuse. The abuse of her is evident enough, so that I will discuss the matter of abuse in combination with the female role, particularly that of wives, further down.

There are some rather marginally abused people in the tale whose use / abuse by Walter is less obvious. Walter's and Griselda's children seem to have been overlooked in the discussions I have read so far. Even the feminist critics (like WYNNE-DAVIES, COOPER, EVANS / JOHNSON) obviously forgot their probable suffering as children who are taken away from their mother. Suffering and being subject to abuse seem to be exchangeable in the sense of this essay's topic. Not much is said about them in the tale, but neither do we get any insight into Walter and Griselda to a considerable extent; they might be as happy as on the day of the marriage, and they may be not. The rights of children were probably even less than the rights of wives. Two other pawns in his play are the pope and his sister. Walter commands the pope to write a counterfeited papal bull to allow him the divorce from Griselda, pretending that her ,,low birth" is the reason for it. The interesting fact about this is that he has power enough to command the pope. He does not bid him to issue a papal bull of divorce (Clerk's Tale: 736 - 749): ,,Commaundynge hem swiche bulles to devyse" (739), giving an insight into the extension of his power. This can also be a sign of some collaboration of the nobility and the clergy to preserve the current status quo and its distribution of power. Again, this can be viewed as usage / abuse of power, as well. Another example of this kind of collaboration is his sister who unquestioningly agrees to raise the two children Walter sent to her, although she obviously knows of the deceit as well: ,,And whose child that it was he bad hire hyde" (Clerk's Tale: 594). Whether this leads to a notion of ,,global conspiracy" of the ruling classes (esp. Nobility and clergy) or not, at least they help Walter in his scheme and become his accomplices. This leaves us with a distribution of power of the common kind: noble actors and the suffering people, to paint a grey - white picture which, of course, would need some more shades in-between. Johnson views the pope as some kind of victim, she speaks of ,,usurpation of papal power" (EVANS / JOHNSON: 206), which could, developing this thought further, undermine the pope's power in other rulers' eyes, stating a bad example.

The question of acting and suffering is easier to decide in the case of Chaucer's contemporary women, and their rights in society. We can get some notions about them in the Canterbury Tales themselves. Griselda, for example, fits perfectly well what Januarie expects of a wife, particularly in lines 1328 - 1347 of the Merchant's Tale, stating that women were made to help men and to fulfil their husbands' wishes. One phrase especially reverberates Walter's demands: ,,She seith nat ones ,,nay", whan he seith ,,ye". / ,,Do this" seith he, ,,A1 ready, sire", seith she" (Merchant's Tale: 1345-6) who demands the same absolute obedience from Griselda (e.g. Clerk's Tale: 355). Januarie's notions about wedlock and wives are certainly very naive, but they probably present a good picture of what was expected of them, because ,,the events in the tales evolve from the realities of medieval life." (WYNNE -DAVIES: 121). Wynne - Davies also mentions other facts of social life, girls ,,were marriageable at the age of twelve" (ibid.) like Griselda's daughter and the Wife of Bath, who were married at this age, ,,and the inequalities in age ... were common" (121). Physical (and probably mental) violence was common, particularly ,,wife - beating", which can be seen as emblematic for women's rights, ,,patience and humility" (ibid.) was expected. Brewer speaks of the fact that ,,a wife was completely subordinate to her husband, and had no right to property or to anything else, even to her children." (BREWER:75). The picture we get is one of a total lack of any rights, at least officially; it has certainly no absolute validity and things might have looked quite differently on personal levels. Most of these views coincide with Griselda's portrait, however, and make the abuse of her appear genuine and more personal. Her portrait is probably not created out of thin air, but full of contemporary cultural meanings,,,we are confronted with reciprocal relationships between text and context, not one of passive reflection." (WYNNE - DA VIES: 129). Another good example of this view can be found in the Physician's Tale, where Virginius has to kill respectively kills his daughter (who is considered his possession): ,,Which fro myn hous was stole upon a nyght, / Whil that she was ful yong" (Physician's Tale: 183-4), and she is also called ,,thral" (ibid.) to save her from shame (213 - 255), showing absolute male power, and female lack of power. She probably would have preferred to keep on living.

The Clerk's Tale shows usage and distribution of power. It is hard for me to judge the topic, because it leaves an ambiguous answer: abuse of power occurs to me as system-inherent, thus being the same as usage of power. The outcome, especially for the individuals concerned, is certainly an abuse of power, however, and the views of Walter as a monster, tempter, obsessed person etc. Are valid. He uses the power he wields to its full extent and in its wake he abuses Griselda, his children, his subjects, his sister, and even the pope. Although it is easy to conclude this essay with Finnegan's words, which require some personal courage which most people lack, I would also say: ,,She should have said no to Walter" (FINNEGAN: 321); and so should his people and all the others.


P. Boitani and J. Mann, The Cambridge Chaucer Companion (CUP, 1986)

D. Brewer, Chaucer in his Time (Longman, 1980)

R. Evans and 1. Johnson, Feminist Reading in Middle English Literature (Routledge, 1994)

R. E. Finnegan, ,,She should have said no to Walter": Griselda's Promise in the Clerk's Tale, English Studies 75 (1994), 303 – 321

M. Wynne - Davies, The Tales of the Clerk and the Wife of Bath (Routledge, 1992)


G. Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Everyman, 1996)


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Title: Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales - The Clerk's Tale demonstrates how medieval power structures were open to abuse