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‘‘T’assaye in thee thy wommanheede’’: Griselda Chosen, Translated, and Tried Tara Williams Oregon State University Scholarly views of Chaucer’s Griselda remain split. More traditional readings stress her passivity or submission in support of The Clerk’s Tale’s allegorical or exemplary significance.1 Newer feminist or historicist interpretations stress her assertiveness, even if only ironically.2 In this fuller picture Griselda’s identity itself becomes a crucial focus of Chaucer’s interest. As Carolyn Dinshaw suggests, the interpretive puzzle of the relationship between Walter and Griselda raises ‘‘the question of the feminine.’’3 This essay will suggest that for Chaucer the question of the feminine is literally a question of wommanheede. Chaucer coins the word and, in a significant revision to his sources, introduces the concept the word signifies to the tale. I will argue Chaucer offers Griselda as a mediating figure: in an essentially ironic strategy, he intensifies the extremes already present in the tale in order to intensify her mediation.4 I would like to thank Larry Scanlon, Frank Grady, and the anonymous SAC readers for their useful comments on earlier versions of this essay. 1 See, for example, Deborah S. Ellis, ‘‘Domestic Treachery in the Clerk’s Tale,’’ in Ambiguous Realities: Women in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Carole Levin and Jeanie Watson (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987), pp. 99–113; Michaela Paasche Grudin, ‘‘Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale as Political Paradox,’’ SAC 11 (1989): 63–92; and Charlotte C. Morse, ‘‘The Exemplary Griselda,’’ SAC 7 (1985): 51–86. 2 See, for example, Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992), chap. 7; Jill Mann, Feminizing Chaucer (1991 as Geoffrey Chaucer; Rochester: D. S. Brewer, 2002), pp. 114–25; and Carolynn Van Dyke, ‘‘The Clerk’s and the Franklin’s Subjected Subjects,’’ SAC 17 (1995): 45–68. 3 Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), p. 133. 4 David Wallace has argued that Chaucer exploited the contradictions in Petrarch’s version of the story in order to critique the tyranny Chaucer associated with Petrarch; here I read some of the same aspects of the tale as allowing Chaucer’s examination of the category of womanhood. Wallace, Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), chap. 10. PAGE 93 93 ................. 11491$ $CH4 11-01-10 14:01:18 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER Walter, largely a cipher in most previous accounts of the tale, plays a central role in Chaucer’s irony.5 However inexplicable his cruelty or mysterious his motives, in testing Griselda he seeks to answer the same question as Chaucer: Can her femininity successfully combine apparently contradictory elements (such as her incompatible duties as wife and mother: to submit to her husband and, in doing so, allow the killing of her children)? As we shall see, Chaucer’s morally ambiguous deployment of Walter also enables him to project the question of Griselda’s womanhood onto a larger scale, as a juxtaposition of the courtly and the hagiographical. This essay begins with an overview of the linguistic and intellectual background to Chaucer’s concept of womanhood. Then we move to the tale itself and womanhood’s close relation to Griselda’s ‘‘translation’’ and her trials, two issues that have occupied so much previous scholarship . The word womanhood appears twice in The Clerk’s Tale: when Walter first sees Griselda and when he ends the tests and offers an explanation. The concept is also significant in several other passages where Chaucer does not directly invoke the term, including the marriage contract, Griselda’s ‘‘translation’’ and its subsequent reversal, and the three trials. Inventing Womanhood Womanhood was something that Chaucer both ‘‘found’’ in the rhetorical sense of inventio—by responding to the social and intellectual trends 5 Hansen and, to a lesser extent, Dinshaw and Wallace see Walter as primarily a reactionary, while those who focus on the marquis and his possible motivations, such as Kathryn L. Lynch, ‘‘Despoiling Griselda: Chaucer’s Walter and the Problem of Knowledge in The Clerk’s Tale,’’ SAC 10 (1988): 41–70; Andrew...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 93-127
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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