The Canterbury Tales The Clerk's Tale Summary
The Host next calls on the Clerk to tell a story, reminding him that he’s also agreed to the deal and that therefore he should tell a story in “plain” language. The Clerk agrees, stating he’s going to share a story he learned from someone named Petrarch, now dead.
The Clerk’s Tale is told in multiple parts. It begins by describing Walter, the marquis of Saluzzo, a town at the base of Mount Viso in Italy. Walter was a good ruler, but he was always giving up more long-lasting, worthwhile pastimes in favor of immediate pleasures. When the people in Saluzzo confront him about his failure to marry, Walter makes a deal: he will marry, but he gets to choose whom, and the villagers must treat her as if she were an emperor’s daughter no matter where she is actually from.
Part Two begins some distance from Walter’s palace in a house belonging to a man named Janicula. Janicula has a daughter named Griselde, who is known for her virtue. While hunting one day, Walter sees Griselde in the forest and decides to marry her. First, however, he goes home and has a wedding dress and jewelry made in Griselde’s size; only then does he approach Janicula and ask to marry his daughter. Janicula is shocked at first and cannot speak, but eventually manages to agree.
Walter then makes Griselde a deal: if she will do whatever he says, whenever he asks, and never resents it, then he will marry her. She agrees, and the wedding is celebrated. Griselde becomes famous throughout Saluzzo for her beauty and virtue, and she gives birth to a baby girl.
In Part Three, Walter decides, not long after the baby is born, to test his wife. Here, the Clerk notes that he doesn’t understand why the marquis would want to test his wife and states that he (the Clerk) thinks it is “evil” to test one’s wife when there is no need. Nevertheless, Walter tests Griselde by telling her that while he still loves her, the rest of the nobility hates her and wants her daughter put to death. Griselde says she and her child will do anything that pleases Walter.
Instead of killing their daughter, however, Walter sends the child to be raised by his sister in Bologna. Griselde never mentions her daughter’s name again, and though Walter feels sorry for her, he doesn’t tell her the child isn’t actually dead.
At the beginning of Part Four, four years have passed. Griselde has had a son in the meantime, and when the boy is two years old, Walter repeats the same test. He tells Griselde that the townspeople don’t want Janicula’s grandson to be their ruler and that the boy must die. Although Griselde lets him take the boy, she points out that for her motherhood has provided no joy, only pain.
The people of Saluzzo start hating Walter, thinking that he has murdered his children. Walter, however, ignores them and comes up with a new way to test Griselde’s patience: he creates a fake papal bull, or order from the pope, that says Walter must leave Griselde and take another wife. However, Walter has also written secretly to Bologna, asking his sister and her husband to bring the children back to Saluzzo but without telling anyone whose children they are. Instead, they are to pretend that the daughter is to marry Walter.
In Part Five, Walter tells Griselde about the (fake) papal bull, gives her back her dowry, and sends her back to Janicula. Griselde states that she still loves Walter and does not regret loving him. Her only request is that she be given a simple dress so that she does not have to leave the palace naked, which Walter grants. The people follow her back to her old house, weeping, and the narrator compares her suffering to that of Job in the Bible.
In Part Six, Walter’s sister, the Countess of Panago, arrives with Griselde’s two children. Walter sends a message to Griselde announcing his upcoming wedding and asking for Griselde to plan the ceremony. Griselde agrees and begins to make the arrangements.
As the wedding party sits down to dinner, Walter calls Griselde into the hall and introduces her to his “new wife” (actually their daughter). Griselde asks him not to treat his new wife as unkindly as he did his old one.
At this, Walter kisses Griselde and tells her she has always been his wife. He then reveals that the “new wife” and the other child at the dinner are actually their children. Griselde faints. When she awakens, she kisses both children; then her maids dress her in clothing befitting her station and she and Walter live happily ever after.
The Clerk goes on to explain that today’s wives should not try to emulate Griselde, since they will probably fail, but that everyone should try to be constant in adversity, accepting whatever God brings them.