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“Cruel Corage” The Clerk’s Tale: “Patient Griselda” (The Story of Patient Griselda, panel 1, c. 1495)

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Presentation on theme: "“Cruel Corage” The Clerk’s Tale: “Patient Griselda” (The Story of Patient Griselda, panel 1, c. 1495)"— Presentation transcript:

1 “Cruel Corage” The Clerk’s Tale: “Patient Griselda” (The Story of Patient Griselda, panel 1, c. 1495)

2 Vignette: Potentia absoluta Can God do anything? Can he change the laws of nature? Can he make 2 + 2 = 5? Can he declare good evil and evil good? What does omnipotent really mean? Can a monarch do anything? Can he change the laws? Is he obliged to be just? Or do we define justice as whatever the monarch does? What does rulership really mean? Through most of the medieval period, the answer to these questions was that both God and the king do/should act in harmony with the laws of nature and justice. In the case of monarchs, this was a consensus model of power: the king is king partly because he is just. Thus a king who is not just is not a king and can be removed. From the fourteenth century onwards, however, new theories arose that argued against almost any theoretical constraint on divine power. Despite the laws of nature and God’s covenant with humankind through Christ, argued the Oxford theologian Duns Scotus, God can continue to do whatever he wants. At about the same time, the same argument began to be made for monarchs, including both the pope and the king. Now a king can’t be removed if he is unjust, because a king cannot, ipso facto, be unjust. This theory was often unpopular. In the early modern period it evolved further into the more explicit theory of “divine right.”

3 How God’s power works In creation, God limited his own absolute power. He did the same in revelation, in several stages. As a result, under normal circumstances, God is now voluntarily tied by natural law and divine promise, e.g., he is obliged to save those who are baptized and repent of their sins. But what if God does not want to be tied in this way? Out of that possibility come strong minority theories about how God behave in practice. These include theories of election. Perhaps God only saves those he chooses, irrespective of how they behave? This becomes a crucial doctrinal debate during the sixteenth century.

4 How the King’s power works In medieval England, kingship is broadly hereditary, with quite a lot of exceptions. Nonetheless, kings are theoretically elected by the people, an important part of coronation ceremonies. Kings thus have an implied contract with their people Later in his reign, Chaucer’s king, Richard II, rejected this theory of kingship and articulated a theory of his own absolute power. His hope was to be made Holy Roman Emperor, a ceremonial title he coveted. He was also responding to the constant threat of deposition. In 1399 he was in fact deposed by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, and soon murdered. Questions of royal sovereignty, new questions, are much on the mind in Chaucer’s later lifetime.

5 Walter as an absolutist Walter is marquis of a region in southern Italy, but comes from Lombardy in the north. We don’t know the source of his power, but Lombardy was famous for tyrants, semi- hereditary rulers of city-states or small regions. The Visconti were the most famous such family. Their rule over Milan offered a model for the representation of power in Machiavelli’s Prince (1516) Walter constantly reinforces the idea of his own power. Ceremonial at his court looks like that at Richard II’s court. Walter’s marriage to Griselda is a version of his mode of rule over his own people. He demands, and receives, an oath of absolute obedience However, Walter is not future-oriented. He is not much concerned for providing an heir or protecting his own power. He does not believe in hereditary nobility (156). He lives in the moment – the moment in which he can do whatever he likes Hence his decision to test Griselda. It isn’t motivated because it doesn’t have to be – Walter would not approve of motivations. It isn’t politically expedient, because he needs her. He just does it. Walter’s behavior is imprudent and experimental. Yet he’s not merely a sensualist. He chooses and tests Griselda because she is exceptional. The tale is thus partly a response to the Wife of Bath’s Prologue: compare her own behavior. But it’s also strongly a response to the Tale of Melibee.

6 Walter’s “demandes” Griselda’s response … “But thise demandes axe I first,” quod he, “That, sith it shal be doon in hastif wyse, Wol ye assente, or elles yow avyse? “I seye this, be ye redy with good herte To al my lust, and that I frely may, As me best thynketh, do yow laughe or smerte, And nevere ye to grucche it, nyght ne day? And eek whan I sey 'ye,' ne sey nat 'nay,' Neither by word ne frownyng contenance? Swere this, and heere I swere oure alliance.” Wondrynge upon this word, quakynge for drede, She seyde, “lord, undigne and unworthy Am I to thilke honour that ye me beede, But as ye wole youreself, right so wol I. And heere I swere that nevere willyngly, In werk ne thoght, I nyl yow disobeye, For to be deed, though me were looth to deye.” “This is ynogh, Grisilde myn,” quod he. And forth he gooth, with a ful sobre cheere Griselda as absolutist (348-66)


8 The Clerk as troubled narrator (449-62) Ther fil, as it bifalleth tymes mo, Whan that this child had souked but a throwe, This markys in his herte longeth so To tempte his wyf, hir sadnesse for to knowe, That he ne myghte out of his herte throwe This merveillous desir his wyf t' assaye; Nedelees, God woot, he thoghte hire for t' affraye. He hadde assayed hire ynogh bifore, And foond hire evere good; what neded it Hire for to tempte, and alwey moore and moore, Though som men preise it for a subtil wit? But as for me, I seye that yvele it sit To assaye a wyf whan that it is no nede, And putten hire in angwyssh and in drede. The clerk is a conservative. He believes in prudent action and limits to divine, royal, or marital power. He would support Prudence in the counsel she gives Melibee. He would also disapprove of his fellow-clerks, Nicholas and Jankyn. He’s an ethical, ideal member of his own profession. But he’s not in charge of his own tale. He is translating it, and must obey what it says. He’s Griselda to his source’s Walter. Unlike Griselda, he protests.

9 Choosing your husband over your children… Whan she had herd al this, she noght ameved Neither in word, or chiere, or contenaunce; For, as it semed, she was nat agreved. She seyde, “lord, al lyth in youre plesaunce. My child and I, with hertely obeisaunce, Been youres al, and ye mowe save or spille Youre owene thyng; weketh after youre wille. “Ther may no thyng, God so my soule save, Liken to yow that may displese me; Ne I desire no thyng for to have, Ne drede for to leese, save oonly yee. This wyl is in myn herte, and ay shal be; No lengthe of tyme or deeth may this deface, Ne chaunge my corage to another place.”

10 The “three tests” story type A rags to riches story: a simple girl becomes a princess, then is tested in increasingly severe ways before finding a happy ending. This is a female and domestic equivalent of the male “quest romance,” centering around the “marriage plot.” (Jane Eyre; “Harlequin” romances.) A distinctive element in the Clerk’s Tale, as in other stories in this genre, is the tests themselves: the requirement the woman voluntarily give up her children and then her husband. LOVER and TESTER are the same. The story moves into the psychological terrain of emotional abuse or psycho-sexual practices such as S/M (Sado-Masochism) or dominance-subjection.

11 The “Virgin Martyr” Story Type Margaret, a poor shepherdess, who is a Christian during a time of persecutions in the early Church, is watching over her flocks when she is noticed by Olibrius, the local governor. He tries to rape her but she resists, insisting she is spiritually married to Christ. He puts her on trial for her faith. She continues to resist, speaking out against him and converting many by her words. In prison, she is tempted spiritually, by a demon disguised as a dragon, whom she overthrows. She expresses an intimate, sensual love of Christ. Finally, after many torments which she heroically endures, she is beheaded and taken straight to heaven. (See Second Nun’s Tale, about St. Cecilia) In The Clerk’s Tale, Walter plays the part of Olibrius and God

12 I Am You “For which it semed thus, that of hem two There nas but o wyl, for as Walter leste, The same lust was hire plesance also” To know something is to be fully identified with it. In mystical theology, God and the soul know each other through “union,” in which the distinction between them seems lost: one is light, the other fire, but which is which? In some constructions of sexual love, partners know each other through “erotic union,” forgetting which is which. Even our verb understand contains a hidden metaphor of union. To “understand” something is to “stand under” it, to be beneath it.” This mode of knowing is termed “empathy.” We tend to think of empathy as egalitarian, understanding as a mode of equalization. But this is only part of the story. Knowing is also often understood in terms of dominance. We “grasp” a fact or concept; we “assimilate” or “learn” it; we “master a body of knowledge.” Hierarchy is integral to all these phrases. But if Walter knows Griselda by dominating her, how does Griselda know Walter? Isn’t it in the same way, by being dominated?

13 Love Tests: Walter’s experiments and Griselda’s responses 1. Remove daughter with suspicion she has been killed 2. Remove son with suspicion he has been killed 3. Propose divorce in order to marry a younger woman (in fact the daughter) 4. Demand help with the marriage arrangements 5. Ask Griselda opinion of new wife in public 1. Unmoved 2. Unmoved 3. Unmoved. Negotiates for a smock to go home in. 4. Unmoved 5. Unmoved. Suggests Walter be careful how he treats this one

14 “Do with youre own thynge as yow liste” “Many anchoresses [female hermits] think the first years will be the hardest. Not so! They are child’s play. The enclosed life is rather like a marriage. A husband marries a wife. At first, he is good and kind to her. But then, because he wants to know if she is truly in love with him, he puts her through all kinds of tests to see if he can unsettle her love for him. Only when he knows she is truly patient does he relent and return to his former kindness. And how beautiful is this moment! (Ancrene Wisse, c. 1240) The Epistle of James, Chapter 1 2 My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations and trials; 3 Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. 4 But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.

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