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The Clerk in The Canterbury Tales: Physical Description & Character Analysis

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Instructor: Joe Ricker

Joe has a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing and a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.

The Clerk in ''The Canterbury Tales'' is an insightful and thoughtful man whose tale on Patient Griselda provides a moral much different than what his tale implies. Updated: 02/22/2021

Background on the Clerk

The Clerk is one of the original travelers who joined the patriots at the Tabbard Inn, who were making a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in The Canterbury Tales. Not much is given to his physical description; however, when the Host calls on the Clerk, much is detailed about the Clerk's demeanor. These remarks help illustrate the analysis of the Clerk, especially the subtext of the moral in the tale he tells. The Clerk is a philosophy student from Oxford, who claims that he originally heard the tale from Petrarch. As a philosopher, the Clerk is a thinking man, which means he's pensive. The Host, when he calls on the Clerk to share a tale, points out the Clerk's silence and lack of speech during the journey:

''As coy and quiet as a virgin wife,
Newly espoused and sitting mum at table!
You haven't said a word since we left stable.''

After the Host's request, the Clerk agrees to tell his tale, and it's the first indication of his character. The following statement from the Clerk in response to the Host's request for a tale not only shows that he is insightful but premises the Clerk's implied moral of the tale that he is about to tell. The Clerk states:

''And I am obedience, heart and soul,
That is, as far as reason will allow.''

This short statement from the Clerk exemplifies his nature and demeanor thus far on the trip to Canterbury Cathedral. Unlike many of the other travelers, such as the Miller, for example, the Clerk does not interrupt others to speak, and he doesn't grovel with the Host to be the next to share a tale. The Clerk has remained quiet along the journey, paying attention to the other travelers, and waiting for the Host to call on him for a tale.

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  • 0:04 Background on the Clerk
  • 1:44 Analysis of the Clerk
  • 3:57 Lesson Summary
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Analysis of the Clerk

It is clear from the Clerk's behavior that he is very pensive, and his tale proves how close he was paying attention to the others and their tales. ''The Tale of Patient Griselda,'' which the Clerk shares, is the opposite of the Wife of Bath's tale. Griselda is a poor peasant girl who marries a rich nobleman. Also known as Patient Griselda, she earned this moniker because of her unshaking loyalty and submissiveness to her husband. Even when he made her believe that two of her children were dead as a test of her loyalty, Griselda did not falter in her submissiveness. The Wife of Bath, on the other hand, told a tale about a submissive husband, so this, too, is an indication not only of how closely the Clerk was paying attention to the others and their tales, but that he was also thinking about what they'd had to say.

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