As leene was his hors as is a rake,
And he nas nat right fat, I undertake,
But looked holwe, and therto sobrely.
Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy,
. . .
For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
Of Aristotle and his philosophie
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.
The noble Walter enjoys his freedom as a bachelor, but his people implore him to marry and beget an heir. He agrees, provided the choice of a wife is entirely his. His people assent, and he chooses Griselda, daughter of the low-born serf Janicula. Before the marriage she swears never to disobey him, whatever he may ask, nor complain of anything he may do. She bears a daughter, and Walter, to test her obedience, sends a servant to take away the child (apparently to put her to death). Griselda accepts this. She bears a son, and again the child is taken away, and again Griselda accepts it without demurral. Finally Walter sends Griselda away, apparently to take a new wife. He sends for the son and daughter, telling Griselda the girl is to be his new wife and asking her to prepare for the wedding. Griselda patiently does so. Walter announces that Griselda has passed the test, and that her children live. He welcomes her back as his wife, and Griselda's son succeeds Walter as Marquis.
(Students reading this text for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful).
The Host pleads with the Clerk not to use the high style, and the Clerk complies with a tale told in a simple and straightforward manner (as compared to the Man of Law's Tale, which the Clerk's Tale generally resembles).
The tale is ultimately based on some folk tale such as that embodied in the story of Cupid and Psyche, first told by Apuleius (2nd Cent. B.C.), a variant of the Beauty and the Beast motif. Except in their ultimate roots, there is little resemblance between Apuleius' story and the Clerk's Tale. But it is so charming it is worth reading anyway: Cupid and Psyche.
However that may be, Chaucer draws on a literary source, on a tale first written down by Boccaccio: Decameron ; Tenth Day,Tenth Tale.
Petrarch, Boccaccio's good friend, was much taken with this tale, and he decided to translate it into Latin. He explains this and notes some interesting reactions to the tale in the introductory section of his letter: Petrarch's Introduction to the Story of Griselda. The tale itself elaborates considerably on that told by Boccaccio: For a translation of Petrarch's version see Robert D. French,A Chaucer Handbook, New York, 1947.
Chaucer follows this version of the tale very closely and takes few freedoms with Petrarch's text (unlike his more usual practice in The Man of Law's Tale). For a study of the relation of the Latin to Chaucer's version see J. Burke Severs, The Literary Relations of Chaucer's Clerk's Tale, New Haven, 1942 [Widener 12422.11.20, Lamont PR1912.A3 S]. Petrarch's tale was also translated (into French) by the "Goodman of Paris" (Le Mènagier de Paris); he wrote a book of instruction for his much younger wife; a book that seems to reflect a happy marriage. The book contains translations of both the Melibee and Petrarch's Tale of Griselda. The Goodman's comments on the Tale of Griselda are of interest especially in light of the comments of Petrarch's friend, who refused to believe the story: The Goodman's Comments
The Clerk's Tale has always fascinated readers and critics, primarily perhaps because it seems so intractable to criticism. Most interpretations of the tale assume it is a "religious fable," as Petrarch seemed to believe. The tale is taken as purely symbolic and Griselda is regarded as a type of Job. Yet there are suggestions of depth to the characters of Walter and Griselda that make it difficult to dismiss her as merely a symbol of Christian patience in the face of adversity.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Clerk's Tale click here.