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Griselda in The Canterbury Tales

Instructor: Joe Ricker
Griselda is the epitome of patience and loyalty from medieval folklore, and her story of absurd resilience and submission is shared by the Clerk in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Griselda

Griselda is a fictional character appearing in 'The Clerk's Tale,' a story he shares during his journey with several other travelers in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Influence for Griselda came from the Decameron, a frame narrative similar to The Canterbury Tales. The Clerk informs the group before telling this tale that he originally heard it from Petrarch while studying philosophy in Italy. The Clerk's story of Griselda is told after the 'Wife of Bath's Tale' about a submissive husband. Griselda is known in the folklore that inspired her appearance in the Decameron and The Canterbury Tales as being submissive to her husband. The tale itself shows Griselda as the exemplar for a wife's behavior of that period.

The Tale

A young nobleman is urged by his people to marry so that he will have a wife to conceive a legitimate heir to his throne. Moved by the concern of his people and convinced by his own arrogance that his people wish to see his bloodline continue, he decides to grant their humble request and find a wife. The nobleman does not choose a woman of royalty. Instead, he chooses Griselda, a poor peasant girl who lives with her father. The nobleman has seen Griselda on several occasions and admires her beauty. However, this is not a rags to riches tale of romantic bliss, despite how the nobleman seeks out Griselda for marriage.

The nobleman seeks the permission of Griselda's father to marry his daughter. After the nobleman is granted this, he then seeks Griselda's consent. She obliges him, and the torturous future for Griselda is set in motion. Before their wedding, the nobleman makes Griselda vow to never question him, to remain unshakably loyal and submissive. Not only this, but she must do so with enthusiasm and joy. Griselda agrees, unable to foresee the kind of trials she is about to face as tests of her loyalty.

When their first child is born, a daughter, the nobleman has the child seized from Griselda and tells her that the child will be murdered. Griselda keeps her vow and shows no anger or resentment when the child is taken away. The nobleman, while vicious and cruel, is not so cruel as to have the child murdered. Instead, the daughter is taken away and raised somewhere else. Years later, the nobleman does the same thing to Griselda when their son is born.

It seems, at this point, that nothing could be more cruel than to tell a mother that her children are to be killed with the expectation that she shows no resistance and remains happy with what is happening to her. Nevertheless, the nobleman makes another attempt to dislodge Griselda's loyalty. He forges papers that state their marriage is annulled, and Griselda returns to her father's home. Some time later, he calls on Griselda to plan his next wedding, including care for the future bride on the wedding day. Griselda happily complies.

On the day of the wedding, Griselda is introduced to a young girl who will marry her former husband, the man who ordered her children to be slain. When Griselda wishes the nobleman and his soon-to-be wife a prosperous life, the nobleman breaks down and confesses that he did not have their children slain, and that the annulment papers were forged. He then introduces Griselda to her daughter who is posing as the nobleman's bride. The son, too, is brought out, and Griselda is so overcome with joy that she pays no mind to the fact that her husband allowed her to believe for years that her children had been taken away and murdered. In folklore, that is how Griselda earned her virtue of patience.

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