Feminism, Literature, Medieval

Patient Griselda: Perfect Wife, or Credulous Fool?

I’ve long thought that some of my better and more interesting posts are ones that I don’t think about much in advance, but which come to me spontaneously, or as a result of something I fall over on the way to looking up other things. (I do realize that your mileage may vary on this point, and it’s OK if it does. This is one such post, so if you’re not favorably inclined to my thesis, perhaps you might want to stop reading now).

But, I was on a tear about Old and Middle English Literature on a couple of other threads recently. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Knight. Beowulf. One or two other things.

And in the course of leafing through The Canterbury Tales (between us, Mr. She and I have several copies and numerous editions), I came again upon Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale, in which the Clerk, a poor fellow on a skeleton-thin horse, perhaps a perpetual student, but one whose motivations we should think of kindly (“and gladly would he learn, and gladly teach”), tells the story of Patient Griselda.

It’s a story that was first featured in Boccaccio’s Decameron (mid 14th Century), and was picked up and retold by numerous others throughout the Middle Ages, including Chaucer, Petrarch, Christine de Pizan, several fifteenth and sixteenth century playwrights, and others well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

With all that, Griselda is traditionally viewed as the very model of the patient, obedient, and Christian wife.

Here are the outlines of the story, as told by Boccaccio, and with minor variations by others throughout the ages:

Gualtieri (Walter), count of Saluzzo has spent most of his life indulging himself, but finally he succumbs to the pleas of family, friends and subjects that he should settle down, find a wife, and take care of his succession.

Thinking that his well-wishers would like him to marry up, or at least at his own social level, he goes out and finds Griselda, a poor, lovely, petite and charming, young woman, who he brings home and marries, after making her promise to love, honor and obey him in all things. She gladly agrees.

Walter, who thought her poor circumstances would make her grateful, and that her “cuteness” would make her at least bearable to live with, then begins to set Griselda a series of tests to prove her submissiveness and obedience. (Apparently, Walter has serious trust issues.)

First, not long after the birth of their first child (a daughter), Walter tells Griselda that the child must be put to death, as his subjects find the child unfit. Griselda happily surrenders the child to Walter, who has her sent off to a secret place where she will be cared for. He then informs Griselda that the child has been executed.

Walter is still not satisfied as to Griselda’s loyalty and compliance, so:

Shortly thereafter, when Griselda bears a son, Walter chastises her and says the child must be put to death. Again, she surrenders the child without complaint, and Walter take the child somewhere else, then informs Griselda that her second child is dead.

She continues in her role as happy, compliant, obedient wife. But Walter is still not satisfied. So he sets her a final test:

He denounces Griselda, asserts that the Pope has granted him permission to divorce her, and sends her, wearing only a nightie, back to her father.

And then he announces to his subjects that he’s about to remarry. He orders Griselda to come to his castle to prepare the new bride for her nuptials. Griselda gladly complies.

When she gets there, Walter introduces Griselda to his twelve-year old bride, who is actually Griselda’s and his first child, and asks Griselda what she thinks of the lovely girl.

Griselda replies, sincerely, that if the young woman’s wisdom is as great as her beauty, she and Walter will be happy together.

Eureka!  At last! That does it!

Walter is finally convinced of Griselda’s worth, her submissiveness, and her goodness, and he confesses all his deceptions. Griselda is overjoyed, she resumes her position as Walter’s loyal wife, and everyone lives happily ever after.

So. That’s the tale of Patient Griselda.

This story was, for many years, used to illustrate the proper way a wife should behave towards her husband. In the Christian tradition, it’s been compared to the book of Job, and Griselda’s trials, set by Walter, have been compared to the trials we face which are set by God. And rarely, for many centuries, was the behavior of her husband examined or questioned at all (one of the rare exceptions to this fact is the peerless Geoffrey, one of the reasons I love him so much).

This most recent time I read Chaucer’s tale, I found myself wondering how others view it, and what they would think about Griselda, and about Walter, and about their respective behaviors in this story which stood up for so long as the acme of fine womanly behavior. I’m not going to tip my hand (much) until I hear from you.

So have at it, please.

1 thought on “Patient Griselda: Perfect Wife, or Credulous Fool?”

  1. Very thought provoking, with modern parallels. How ‘woke’ will she become before she turns? However, all the while I was reading Griselda’s tale, I was expecting an outcome more like the outcome of ‘Shame and Scandal in the Family’ a Calypso song made famous in the UK mid ’60s by Lance Percival. You’ll need to go and listen to find out why!

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