The canterbury tales, p.106
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.106

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  Medieval satirists delighted in turning this passage against the friars, casting them in the role of the Scribes and Pharisees; see Szittya, Antifraternal Tradition, pp. 201–7. The friar of SumT is clearly aware of the traditional satire against his kind and attempts to deflect it.

  2195 Friars could be given a licence by the bishop to hear the confessions of named individuals (A. Williams, AnM, 1 (1960), 22–95, at p. 38); obvious advantages were likely to accrue to them if these individuals were persons of wealth and social standing (see n. to GP 218).

  2196 salt of th’erthe: The lord is flattering the friar by applying to him the phrase that Christ used of his disciples: ‘You are the salt of the earth’ (Matthew 5:13). Implicitly he is also reminding him of how Christ goes on: ‘But if the salt lose its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?’

  2222 ars-metrik: It is tempting to suppose a pun on ‘arse’, but Chaucer seems to have spelled this word ‘ers’, as is attested by rhyme at Mil 3734 and 3755.

  2231 inpossible: Perhaps a reference to the scholastic impossibile, a proposition which violates common sense (e.g., ‘The Trojan war is still in progress’, or ‘a man’s foot is greater than the world’), but which is defended by ingenious arguments. Disputations over impossibilia were used in medieval universities to train students in combating false arguments (see R. J. Pearcy, NQ, 212 (1967), 322–3).

  2244 On the squire’s duty to carve the meat, see n. to GP 100 and cf. Mch 1773.

  2253–77 The scenario envisaged by the squire has a striking resemblance to some late medieval pictures of the Coming of the Holy Spirit to Christ’s twelve disciples at Pentecost: the disciples are depicted as sitting in a circle, with the tongues of flame that manifest the power of the Holy Spirit descending on them represented by twelve lines radiating from a central point; to the casual eye, this segmented circle resembles a wheel with twelve spokes (see A. Levitan, University of Toronto Quarterly, 40 (1971), 236–46). In the parodic version of SumT, the ‘mighty wind’ which signalled the arrival of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:1–4) is replaced by the very earthly fart, and the ‘gift of tongues’ which the Spirit bestowed on the disciples has been transposed into a bodily flatus (see n. to Sum 2149). R. F. Green has drawn attention to a late fifteenth-century French riddle which poses the problem of dividing a fart in twelve and solves it in the same way as SumT (ELN, 24.2 (1987), 24–7), and has suggested that a similar riddle may have been Chaucer’s source for the idea. Even if this were the case, it would not rule out the Pentecostal parody, which gives the riddle added meaning in the context of Chaucer’s tale. For another possible iconographical parallel, see V. A. Kolve, in The Centre and its Compass: Studies in Medieval Literature in Honor of Professor John Leyerle, ed. R. A. Taylor and others (Kalamazoo, MI, 1993), pp. 265–96, and for a thorough review of the Pentecostal associations of the end of SumT, see G. Olson, SAC, 21 (1999), 209–45.

  2258–9 Twelve is ‘the number normally required to maintain conventual life by the monastic and mendicant orders’ (Williams, AnM, 1 (1960), p. 78, n. 8). In accordance with the mendicant imitation of the apostolic life (see n. to Sum 1737), St Francis had twelve chosen companions (The Little Flowers of St Francis, tr. R. Brown, ch. 1, in Habig, St Francis, pp. 1301–2).

  2289 Euclide … Ptholomee: Euclid and Ptolemy are mentioned as famous Greek mathematicians.


  2 A ‘maidenly simplicity’ was considered the fitting demeanour for clerks (see Mann, Estates Satire, pp. 76 and 243, n. 112). Cf. n. to Mil 3202.

  5 som sophime: A large part of the training of an Oxford clerk was devoted to disputation on questions of logic, termed sophismata or sophisms (J. A. Weisheipl, Mediaeval Studies, 26 (1964), 143–85, at pp. 177–81).

  6 Ecclesiastes 3:1; cf. Fri 1475 and n., Mch 1972.

  10–11 Proverbial; see W. W. Skeat, Early English Proverbs (Oxford, 1910), no. 275.

  12 On the preaching of the medieval friars, see n. to Sum 1712.

  16–18 Medieval rhetoric distinguished three levels of style – high, medium and low – to be adopted according to the genre in which one was writing and the audience one was addressing. The art of letter-writing, known as the ars dictaminis, was a special branch of rhetoric with entire treatises devoted to it. See J. J. Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages (Berkeley, CA, 1974), pp. 19, 59, and (on letter-writing) ch. 5. The more elevated the style, the greater the amount of stylistic ornamentation used. The different types of ornamentation were known as ‘colours’, and were subdivided into figures of words and figures of thought (Geoffrey of Vinsauf, Poetria Nova, 1094–1588, tr. Nims, pp. 56–72).

  27 Padwe: Petrarch (see next n.) acquired the use of a house in Padua when he became a canon of the cathedral in 1349, and spent much time there; from 1368 to his death in 1374 Padua and nearby Arqua` were his principal places of residence. Scholars have speculated on the possibility that Chaucer might have met Petrarch on his first trip to Italy in 1373, but there is no hard evidence for this, and the probabilities are against it (Life Records, p. 40). The most likely reason for the Clerk’s presence in northern Italy is that he had gone, like so many others of his kind, to study law in Bologna.

  31 Fraunceis Petrak: Francis Petrarch (1304–74), the famous Italian writer and humanist. His family name, which was adopted from his father’s first name, was often spelled Petracco or (in Latin) Petrachus.

  laureat: In imperial Rome, the winner of a quinquennial poetry contest was crowned with a garland of oak leaves (not laurel). In imitation of this ancient practice, some pre-eminent poets in fourteenth-century Italy were offered a laurel crown; Petrarch was awarded this honour at a splendid ceremony on the Roman Capitol, on 8 April 1341 (E. H. Wilkins, Life of Petrarch (Chicago, 1961), pp. 24–9).

  34–5 Linian: Giovanni da Lignano (c. 1310–83) was a professor of canon law at Bologna, known for his writings on law, ethics, theology and astronomy. His involvement in the Great Schism in defence of Pope Urban VI gave him an international reputation. See A. S. Cook, RomR, 8 (1917), 353–82, and J. P. McCall, Speculum, 40 (1965), 484–9.

  41–55 Petrarch’s proem is not much longer than the Clerk’s résumé of it; it reads: ‘In the chain of the Apennines, in the west of Italy, stands Mount Viso, a very lofty mountain, whose summit towers above the clouds and rises into the bright upper air. It is a mountain notable in its own nature, but most notable as the source of the Po, which rises from a small spring upon the mountain’s side, bends slightly toward the east, and presently, swollen with abundant tributaries, becomes, though its downward course has been but brief, not only one of the greatest streams but, as Vergil called it, the king of rivers. Through Liguria its raging waters cut their way, and then, bounding Aemilia and Flaminia and Venetia, it empties at last into the Adriatic sea, through many mighty mouths’ (Miller, p. 140). Since this description of the course of the Po is omitted in the French translations of Petrarch’s Griselda story (see Headnote below), Chaucer’s reference to it is a sign that he had read the Latin original.

  44 Pemond … Saluces: Saluzzo, a town in Piedmont, a region in the north of Italy, the historic seat of a line of marquesses.

  45 Appenin: The Appennines, a range of mountains forming the spine of Italy. Their northernmost section borders the south of the Lombard plain which forms the Po basin, and merges into the Alps in the west.

  46 Lumbardye: Lombardy, a region in the far north of Italy, to the east of Piedmont. Its principal city is Milan.

  47 Mount Vesulus: Monte Viso or Monviso, the highest of the Italian Alps (3841 m), lies directly west of Saluzzo. As lines 48–9 state, it is the source of the river Po, the largest river in Italy, and the dominating feature of north Italian geography.

  48–51 the Poo … Ferare … Venise: The general course of the Po is eastwards; rising in Piedmont, it flows through Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna (‘Emeleward’), where Ferrara is situated, and finally enters the Adriatic sea just south of Venice.


sp; As the Clerk’s Prologue makes clear, Chaucer’s source for the story of Griselda was the Latin prose tale written by Francis Petrarch (see n. to Cl 31). Quotations from the Latin original are copied into the margins of El at equivalent points in the story. Petrarch’s own source was Boccaccio’s Decameron, where the tale of Griselda is the last in the whole collection (X.10). (It is not impossible that Chaucer knew the Decameron also, but there is no direct evidence for this; see, however, n. to Cl 1163–1212). Petrarch’s version forms the bulk of a letter to Boccaccio, and is prefaced by an explanation of how he came to rewrite the tale in Latin (Epistolae Seniles XVII.3, ed. A. Bufano, Opere latine di Francesco Petrarca (Turin, 1975), II, 1312–39). Petrarch’s Latin was the basis of two fourteenth-century prose translations, one by Philippe de Mézières (later incorporated into Le Ménagier de Paris, a handbook written by a French bourgeois for his young wife), and one anonymous; verbal echoes show that Chaucer used the latter alongside the Latin original. Petrarch’s letter and the anonymous French version are printed with facing English translation in SA2 I, 108–29, 140–67. An English translation of Petrarch’s letter is printed in Miller, pp. 136–52, and also in Kolve and Olson, pp. 378–91, where it is accompanied by English translations of Boccaccio’s tale, and a short excerpt from Le Ménagier de Paris giving the Parisian husband’s comments on the story.

  Petrarch’s most important change to Boccaccio’s story was to give it a religious interpretation (see n. to Cl 1142–60); Chaucer takes this over and intensifies the religious resonances of the tale, using the rhyme royal stanza (see n. to ML 96) he reserves for religious tales. At the same time he increases its human immediacy by encouraging critical responses to Walter’s conduct, and by expanding Griselda’s speeches so as to elicit emotional sympathy for her situation and emphasize its pathos (see E. Salter, Chaucer: The Knight’s Tale and the Clerk’s Tale (London, 1962), pp. 50–59, and R. Kirkpatrick’s comparison of Boccaccio, Petrarch and Chaucer in Chaucer and the Italian Trecento, ed. P. Boitani (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 231–48, esp. pp. 240–43). This emphasis on Griselda’s suffering gives the religious meaning of the tale an extra dimension: if Walter images the apparently arbitrary cruelty of God the Father, who must be loved and trusted even when he takes away one’s children, Griselda on her side images the patient suffering of God the Son, enduring the arbitrary cruelty of mankind with an unstinted love (see Mann, Feminizing Chaucer, pp. 120–28). The enigma of these two conflicting images, each of which represents both the divine and the human, gives Chaucer’s version a depth and complexity of meaning not shared by the other versions.

  128 thin: This use of the second person singular is inconsistent with the spokesman’s general use of the respectful plural ‘ye’, which befits Walter’s superior rank, but, as Kane notes, usage in this respect was ‘far from systematic in Chaucer’s time’ (p. 218).

  155–8 The view that goodness comes from God, rather than from noble birth, echoes the old lady’s speech in WBT, esp. lines 1117–18, 1128–32, 1162–4. For Boccaccio, the Griselda story shows ‘that celestial spirits may sometimes descend even into the houses of the poor, whilst there are those in royal palaces who would be better employed in royal palaces as swineherds than as rulers of men’ (Decameron X.10, tr. McWilliam, p. 824). Cf. Cl 206–7 and n.

  206–7 Petrarch’s original reads: ‘heavenly grace, which sometimes lights on even the poorest dwellings’ (SA2 I, 114). In introducing the ‘litel oxes stalle’, Chaucer creates a reminiscence of the Nativity (which was traditionally depicted in medieval art with the ox and ass mentioned in Isaiah 1:3 present in the stable), and gives Griselda a Christ-like aura; see also Cl 291 and 398.

  291 oxes stalle: Not in Petrarch. See preceding n.

  365 This is inogh: Repeated at line 1051 when Walter brings Gris-elda’s trials to an end. Petrarch’s Walter likewise uses the word satis (‘enough’) in both instances. For a discussion of the significance of the repetition, and the use of ‘inogh’ as a key-word in this tale, see J. Mann, SAC, 5 (1983), 17–48, esp. pp. 31–45.

  398 oxe-stalle: Not in Petrarch. See n. to Cl 206–7.

  413 The same expression is used at ML 532 and TC I.1078.

  428–41 Medieval women among the landowning classes often played an active role in administration and government; see R. G. Archer, in Woman is a Worthy Wight: Women in English Society c. 1200–1500, ed. P. J. P. Goldberg (Stroud, Glos., 1992), pp. 149–81.

  429 hoomlinesse*] humblenesse El Hg. The French source supports the reading ‘hoomlinesse’ (Manly and Rickert III, 470).

  455–62 These comments on Walter’s behaviour are Chaucer’s own addition to the story.

  508 ye: Both El and Hg read ‘thee’, but follow it with ‘vel [= ‘or’] ye’. Grammatically, ‘thee’ is more correct as an accusative form, but it does not fit Griselda’s usual care in using the respectful ‘ye’ form to her husband. The El/Hg scribe may be registering unease with the switch to the familiar form, or (conversely) unease with ‘ye’ in the accusative position, so that either of these readings may be regarded as the durior lectio (a reading which is ‘harder’ and therefore more likely to be original, since a scribe is likely to substitute a more familiar word or form).

  537–8 Cf. Isaiah 53:7 (a passage interpreted as a prophecy of Christ’s Passion): ‘He was sacrificed because he himself wished it, and he did not open his mouth. He shall beled as asheep to the slaughter, and shall be dumb as a lamb before his shearer, and he shall not open his mouth.’

  554–67 These lines are Chaucer’s own addition to the story; they both increase the pathos of Griselda’s situation, and deepen the religious significance of the tale by invoking the image of divine suffering in the Crucifixion (see Mann, ‘Parents and Children’, pp. 180–83).

  589–90 Boloigne … Panik: Bologna lies well to the east of Saluzzo; ‘Panik’ is probably the castle of Panico, some 18–20 miles south of Bologna (R. B. Pearsall, MLN, 67 (1952), 529–31).

  617–18 The children of upper-class families were often suckled by a wet-nurse of lower social class.

  621–3 This comment is Chaucer’s own addition to the story.

  696–700 This appeal to women to pass judgement on Walter is Chaucer’s own addition to the story.

  736 Twelve was the legal age of consent to marriage for girls; cf. WB 4.

  739–42 Divorce in the medieval period, though not common, was less rare among the upper classes, who often wished to make a new marriage for dynastic or property reasons, than among their inferiors. It was accomplished by a papal dispensation which annulled the marriage on such grounds as impotence, bigamy, non-consummation or consanguinity (i.e., bride and groom were related to each other within the proscribed degrees of kinship). Dispensations were not normally given on the grounds that a marriage was unpopular with a ruler’s subjects. See R. H. Helmholz, Marriage Litigation in Medieval England (Cambridge, 1974), ch. 3.

  807 dowere: Here, the dowry which the bride brought to her husband at her marriage (as opposed to the dower, the property which the husband settled on her at marriage to support her after his death).

  810–12 Walter here mimics the role of Philosophy in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (see n. to Kn 1313–14), who teaches Boethius to accept with patient resignation the vicissitudes of Fortune, the evil as well as the good. The grim irony of these lines is that Walter is the ‘strook of Fortune or of aventure’ which he counsels Griselda to endure with patience.

  852–61 These lines, which heighten the pathos of Griselda’s situation, are Chaucer’s own addition.

  867–8 youre: El and Hg have ‘my’ where other manuscripts have ‘youre’ in both these lines; ‘youre’ much better fits the humble tenor of Griselda’s speech, and ‘my’ looks like a variation to an easier reading.

  871–2 Griselda’s words echo Job’s patient response to the news that his wealth has been lost and his children killed: ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and th
e Lord hath taken away: as it hath pleased the Lord so is it done: blessed be the name of the Lord’ (Job 1:21). Cf. also the words which Philosophy imagines Fortune speaking to Boethius (Boece II pr.2.15–27), in response to his laments over his misfortunes:

  Whan that nature brought the foorth out of thi modir wombe, I resceyved the nakid and nedy of alle thynges, and I norissched the with my richesses, and was redy and ententyf thurwe my favour to sustene the – and that maketh the now inpacient ayens me; and I envyrounde the with al the habundaunce and schynynge of alle goodes that ben in my ryght. Now it liketh me to withdrawe myn hand. Thow hast had grace as he that hath used of foreyne goodes; thow hast no ryght to pleyne the, as though thou haddest outrely forlorn alle thy thynges.

  Griselda shows the patience that Philosophy is trying to encourage in Boethius.

  880–82 These lines are Chaucer’s addition. The expression ‘naked as a worm’ is conventional; see Whiting W673 and RR 443.

  916 she moore of age: Riverside (like many manuscripts) omits ‘she’ (which admittedly cumbers the metre somewhat). The El/Hg reading is supported by the French version of the Griselda story, which refers both to Griselda’s having grown and to the deterioration of the garment (‘la couvry a grant mesaise, car la femme estoit devenue grande et embarnie et la povre robe enrudiee et empiree’; SA2 I, 161). Petrarch mentions the garment’s roughness and age (‘tunicam eius hispidam et attritam senio … seminudam antiqua veste coperuit’; SA2 I, 127), but not the difficulty in getting it to cover Griselda’s body, nor her change in size.

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