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  • Regimes of the Visual in Premodern England: Gaze, Body, and Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale
  • Sarah Stanbury (bio)

Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale tells a story of visual investigation. Before his decision to marry Griselda, Walter, we hear, has often “sette his ye” on her—though not, the narrator carefully notes, with “wantoun lookyng” but in “sad wyse.” 1 Later, after listening to Griselda’s response to his ominous warning that the people are uneasy about their son’s peasant blood, he averts his gaze in wonder, a gesture that evokes, proleptically, his visual scrutiny of her during the speech he has just heard: no doubt he has been studying her face for any signs of weakness. The looks Walter fixes on Griselda, acts of a private and studied investigation, are also mimicked throughout the text by the public, whose interrogative gaze follows her about, even to the threshold of her house as Walter enters with his marriage proposal. Indeed, Walter’s private gaze seems to collude with a collective will to turn Griselda into a public spectacle, an intersection of wills and lines of sight that is most forcibly represented in the public acts of dressing and undressing her. After describing in quite detailed spatial terms how Walter goes out the door of Janicula’s house, with Griselda behind him, to present her to the crowd—“this is my wyf . . . that stondeth heere”—the narrator goes on to say that Walter orders his women to undress her “right theere,” as if the undressing and redressing (sic) of Griselda occurs in full view of a public gaze. And this public doesn’t leave off with its first assessment, but continues to look and judge; accounts, both oblique and direct, of a collective gaze on Griselda occur with a marked structural symmetry in the final position of three successive stanzas: she is, the public thinks, “another creature” than Janicula’s daughter; she is so virtuous and worthy that everyone loves her who looks at her (413); she is so famous her fame spreads so widely that people come from afar “upon hire to biholde” (420).

The centering of Griselda as public spectacle, and as the focal point of multiple levels of collective and private scrutiny, evokes, of course, the paradigm that has been so frequently invoked and described in cultural theory of the last two decades—namely, the paradigm or trope of a masculine gaze on a woman’s body. 2 A highly gendered construction of [End Page 261] visuality has been an important concern of texts that themselves have been foundational to postmodernism, cultural theory, and especially feminism: Freud’s theories of castration and of the Oedipus complex; or Foucault’s models of the visual disciplines of the patriarchal state. Both of these paradigms rely, albeit in different terms, on gendered visual metaphor, the gaze as male, to describe the recapitulative, appetitive construction of male identity and patriarchal hegemony: power relations in the modern state and in the modern male psyche are played out in a visual drama of desire and fear, authority enacted visually through mastery of the complex nexus of terrors that women represent. 3

Individual and collective male gazes on Griselda would seem to exemplify this model with precision. Centering an interrogative private look and a public gaze, Griselda’s body is both a place of resistance and a pièce de resistance, “translated” materially through clothing and figuratively through visual assessment. As psychoanalytic studies of the Clerk’s Tale have pointed out, the text seems to replay an oedipal narrative of gender formation, one in with Otherness is invested in or inflicted on a feminine/maternal/sexual body. 4 Walter’s investigative quest attempts to vitiate the double jeopardy she poses as both primary object of his first love and as sign of his always imperiled masculinity. Arguing that the tale dramatizes parallels between religious, political, and marital forms of tyranny, Patricia Cramer claims that power relations at all levels of this tale replay a psychoanalytic narrative; Walter and Griselda are an “‘ideal’ [prototypical?] Oedipal couple whose sadomasochistic rituals of dominance and submission enact gender roles prescribed by patriarchal social structures which Freud recognized and propagated...

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pp. 261-289
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