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The Exemplary Griselda Charlotte C. Morse Virginia Commonwealth University Ch,umi,ns hm not p,id much mention to fourtccnth-ccntmy responses to the tale of Griselda. Only Anne Middleton has directly addressed the relatively abundant evidence. 1 As editor of The Clerk's Tale for the Variorum Chaucer I have come to this evidence and Middleton's argument to find myself at once engaged by the evidence but unable to support Middleton's interpretation. Her account of Petrarch and of Chau­ cer's relationship to him and to the French seems forced by her desire to deny exemplary value to the tale of Griselda in Petrarch's and Chaucer's versions. She locates the use and value of the story in its pathos: the story tests its readers' capacity for sympathy with Griselda. To its credit, Mid­ dleton's interpretation requires no allegorical reading of Walter's and Griselda's marriage. Such readings have been commonplace in postwar classrooms; published criticism more often explores The Clerk's Tale as a conflict between allegorical or idealized fiction and realistic fiction and often concludes with charges of aesthetic failure.2 1 Anne Middleton, "The Clerk and His Tale: Some Literary Contexts," Studies in the Age ofChaucer 2(1980):121-50. 2 E.g., among the earliest postwar studies Bertrand Bronson, In Search of Chaucer (Toronto: University of Toronro Press, 1960), pp. 104-14: and Elizabeth Salter, Chaucer: "The Knight's Tale" and "The Clerk's Tale," Studies in English Literature, no. 5 (London: Edward Arnold, and Great Neck, N.Y.: Barron, 1963), pp. 39-65. Amongthose, in addition to Salter, offering allegorical (or symbolic) interpretations were John Speirs, Chaucer the Maker(London: Faber and Faber, 1951), p. 152; and Charles Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957), pp. 192-96.Judson Boyce Allen and Theresa Anne Moritz offer an explanationofwhy The Clerk's Tale is not allegory, despite the resonance ofits language, inA Distinction of Ston·es: The Medieval Unity of Chaucer's Fair Chain of Narratives for Canter­ bury (Columbis: Ohio State University Press, 1981), pp. 191-92. The Variorum Edition will include a full review of critical literature on The Clerk's Tale. 51 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER Both Middleton's denial of exemplary value to the Griselda and the allegorizers' displacement of the tale into a study of the human soul's relationship to God result from what historians inelegantly call "present­ ism," that is, the imputation of our own concerns, attitudes, or prejudices to evidence of earlier periods. Middleton limits the power of the tale to its pathos, undeniably a major quality of the Petrarchan and Chaucerian narratives, which makes the tale safe and acceptable for modern women like us and silences undergraduateobjections to the tale. But the students who object to the tale because they reject Griselda as exemplary are, I believe, responding in the same register as the medieval audience did, but they aremaking an opposite response to the onefourteenth-centurywriters expected. The allegorizers justify Walter's tests of Griselda-he removes first her daughter, then her son from her as ifto kill them, then dismisses her only to recall her to prepare for his new bride-by reading them as God's tests of the faithful Christian soul. This strategyshifts attention away from the narrative itself and onto an abstracted pattern of divine-human relationship that holds little more than curiosity value for much of the modern audience but fits with its notion of what concerned medieval people. Thus displacing the tale from itself and from themselves, readers make it safe, acceptable, and comfortable. Those who charge Chaucer's tale with aesthetic failure struggle against its power to compel. Subtly or nai:Vely, Middleton, the allegorizers, and outraged students-and, to varying degrees, the proponents of aesthetic failure-resistthe example of Griselda's patience, her chief virtue. Doubtless our resistance to patience is culturallyconditioned. Patience is neitherhighlyregardednormuchthoughtabout,especially by notoriously impatient Americans. We do not attribute positive power to patience, unlike Thomas Dekker and his collaborators in their play Patient Grissil; there Griselda tames Walter, and her male...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 51-86
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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