Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales


Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2007, All Rights Reserved.

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The Clerk’s Prologue

The Prologue to the Clerk of Oxford’s Tale

‘Sir Clerk of Oxford town,’ our Host said,

‘You ride as coy and quiet as a maid

Just newly wed, and sitting at the board.

From your tongue I haven’t heard a word;

Perhaps you’re pondering reason and rhyme.

But Solomon says “each thing has its time”.

For God’s sake, be now of better cheer!

The time for study is not now and here.

Tell us some merry tale, in God’s name;

For when a man has entered on a game,

He needs must to the game itself assent.

But preach not though, as friars do in Lent,

To make us for our past sins to weep,

Nor tell a tale that sends us all to sleep.

Tell us some merry thing of your adventures!

Your rhetoric, your flourishes, your figures,

Keep them in store until you come to write

In the high style, as men to monarchs might.

Speak out plainly at this time, we pray,

So we can understand all that you say.’

The worthy clerk answered him benignly:

‘Host,’ quoth he, ‘you hold authority,

For now you have of us the governance,

And therefore will I show obedience,

As far as reason goes, assuredly.

I will tell you a tale from Italy

I learned at Padua from a worthy clerk,

As proved by both his words and his work.

He is dead now, and nailed up in his chest;

I pray to God to grant his spirit rest!

Francis Petrarch, the laureate poet,

This clerk was called, whose rhetoric sweet

Illumined all Italy with poetry

As Lignano did in philosophy,

And law, and other art particular.

But death, that will allow no lingering here

As it were in the twinkling of an eye,

Has slain them both, as we all shall die.

But to tell briefly of the learned man

That taught me this tale, as I began

I say that first his style climbs the heights,

Before the body of his tale he writes,

A preface in which described we see

Piedmont, and Saluzzo, in that country,

And then the Apennines, hill scenery

That sets the bounds to western Lombardy,

And Viso, especially, the mountain

Where the Po from a little fountain

Springs, and from which it takes its source,

That eastward flows swelling in its course

To Emilia, Ferrara, and Venice,

Which would be a long thing to devise.

And truly, in my own poor judgement

I think it is a thing that is irrelevant,

Except to frame a setting for his matter.

But here’s his tale, as you now shall hear.

The Clerk’s Tale

Here begins the Tale of the Clerk of Oxford

There is, on the west side of Italy,

Down at the root of Viso the cold,

A rich plain, known for its fertility,

Where many a tower and town you may behold

Founded in ancestral times of old,

And many another fine, noble sight;

Saluzzo its name, a landscape of delight.

A Marquis there was, once, lord of this land,

As were his worthy ancestors before,

And obedient, always ready to his hand,

Were all his subjects, both less and more.

Thus in delight he lived, in days of yore,

Beloved and feared, by favour of Fortune,

Both by his lords, and all of his commune.

And to that, you may add his lineage,

Being noblest born of Lombardy;

A fair person, strong and young in age,

And full of honour and of courtesy,

Discreet enough to rule all the country –

Save, in a few things he was to blame.

And Walter was this young lord’s name.

I blame him thus, that he never thought

Of what events the future might provide,

But present pleasure was the thing he sought,

Such as to hawk and hunt on every side.

Nigh every other care he would let slide.

And he would – and this was worst of all –

Wed no wife, whatever might befall.

This thing alone his people felt so sore

That in a flock one day to him they went;

And one of them who wisest was in lore –

Or else the man most fit to win assent

From his lord, and tell him what they meant,

Or one who could well justify their fears –

He to the Marquis spoke as you shall hear:

‘O noble Marquis, your humanity

Gives us assurance, adds to our boldness,

Whenever the demands of necessity

Force us to tell you of our sadness.

Accept then, lord, of your graciousness,

What we with sorrowful hearts explain,

And let your ears not my voice disdain.

Though I have naught to do in this matter

More than another man in this place,

Yet, inasmuch as you, my master dear,

Have always shown me favour and grace,

I dare the better ask of you a space

Of audience, to tell of our request;

Then you, my lord, shall do as you think best.

For surely lord, so well do we like you

And all your works, and ever have, that we

Could not indeed ourselves imagine how

We might live in greater felicity,

Save one thing, lord, if such your will might be:

That you should be a wedded man were best –

Then were your folk in sovereign heart’s rest!

Bow your neck beneath that blissful yoke

Of sovereignty and not in slavery’s guise,

Which men do call espousal, or wedlock.

And think, my lord, among your thoughts wise,

How all our days slip past, in sundry wise;

For though we sleep, or wake, or roam, or ride,

Time flees away; it nowhere will abide.

And though your green youth flowers bright,

In creeps age always, quiet as a stone.

And death may menace every age, and smite

In every state, for there escape it none.

And also certainly we know, each one,

That we shall die, as uncertain are we all

Of the one day on which our death shall fall.

Accept you now, in us, our true intent,

Who never yet refused your behest.

And, lord, we will, if that you should assent,

Choose you a wife, speedily, for the best,

Of the gentlest born, and of the highest

Of all this land, so that we might bring

Honour to God and you, in all this thing.

Deliver us out of all our care and dread,

And take a wife, for the high God’s sake!

For if it so befell, as God forbid,

That through your death your line should forsake

Our land, and a strange successor take

Your heritage, O, woe to us alive!

Wherefore we beg you hastily to wive.’

Their humble prayer and their pious fear

Filled the Marquis’ heart with clemency.

‘Your wish,’ quoth he, ‘my own people dear,

Is one I never thought would constrain me.

I have rejoiced in all that liberty,

That seldom is experienced in marriage.

Where I was free, there I must find bondage.

Yet nonetheless, I see your true intent,

And trust to your wisdom, any day.

Wherefore, of my free will, I do assent

To being wed, as soon as ever I may.

But inasmuch as you offered today

To choose a wife for me, I release

You of that task, and let that offer cease.

For God knows, children we often find

Are unlike their noble ancestors before.

Bounty comes all from God, not the line

Which engendered them, and them bore.

I trust in God’s bounty, and therefore

My marriage, my estate, and all the rest

I entrust to him; may he do as is best.

Leave me then to choose alone a wife;

That charge on me I will myself endure.

But I pray you, and charge you on your life,

Whatever wife I choose, you will be sure

To worship her while she lives, in your

Words and works, both here and everywhere,

As if she an Emperor’s daughter were.

And furthermore, this shall you swear to me

Against my choice you will not moan or strive.

For since I shall forgo my liberty

At your request, as ever I may thrive,

Where my heart is set, there shall I wive.

And unless you assent in this manner,

I pray you, speak no more of the matter.’

With heartfelt willingness they swore assent

To all this thing – and no man said him nay –

Beseeching his grace, before they went,

That he would appoint them a certain day

For his espousal, as soon as ever he may.

For yet the people were somewhat in dread

Lest still the Marquis no wife would wed.

He chose a day, such as seemed him best,

On which he would be wed, of certainty,

And said he did all this at their request.

And they, both humbly and obediently,

Kneeling on their knees full reverently,

Thanked him; and thus they made an end

To their embassy, and home again did wend.

And thereupon he of his officers

Commanded that a feast they purvey,

And to his privy knights and squires

Such tasks gave them as in their duties lay.

And they did his commandments obey,

And each of them used all his diligence

To arrange the feast with reverence.

(Part Two)

Not for from this palace, all honourable,

Where the Marquis prepared his marriage,

There stood a hamlet, its site delectable,

Where the poor folk dwelling in that village

Tended their homes and their pasturage,

And by their work and toil found sustenance

According as the earth gave them abundance.

Among these poor folk there dwelt a man

Who was considered poorest of them all;

But the high God sends sometimes, as he can,

His grace into a little ox’s stall.

Janicula the village did him call.

A daughter had he, fair to the sight,

And Griselda she was named aright.

And if one spoke of virtuous beauty,

Then was she the fairest under the sun.

For she was brought up in true poverty;

No sinful thought through her head had run.

More often of the well than of the tun

She drank, and in virtue sought to please,

Knowing much labour, and no idle ease.

But though the maiden tender was of age,

Yet in the depths of her virginity

There was a spirit both mature and grave.

And she in great reverence and charity

Her poor old father nurtured carefully.

A few sheep, while she spun, she kept;

She was never idle unless she slept.

And when she homeward came, she would bring

Roots and herbs, and other such things, oft,

Which she sliced and seethed for their eating,

And made her bed full hard, and nothing soft.

And thus she kept her father’s heart aloft,

With every obedience, and that diligence

With which a child shows a father reverence.

Upon Griselda, this humble creature,

Full often had the Marquis set his eye

As he rode out to hunt, peradventure;

And when it chanced that her he did espy,

It was not wantonly but with a sigh

He cast his eyes on her, in that place

And would often ponder on her face,

Commend her virtue and womanliness,

In his heart, surpassing any he might

Have seen, of her young age, in all respects.

For though the people have no great insight

Into virtue, he had considered right

Deeply of her bounty, and thought he would

Wed her only, if ever wed he should.

The wedding day arrived, and yet none can

Say what woman among them it shall be.

At which marvel wondered many a man,

And said, if they were speaking privately:

‘Will our lord yet cling to his vanity?

Will he not wed? Alas, alas the while!

Why does he thus himself and us beguile?

But nonetheless, the Marquis has them make

Of gems, all set in gold and in azure,

Brooches and rings for Griselda’s sake.

And of her clothes he takes the measure

From a maid full like to her in stature,

And other ornaments are fashioned, all

That to such a bride should rightly fall.

And the mid-morning of the very day

Approached, when the wedding would be.

And the whole palace was in full array,

Both hall and chamber, each in their degree.

Kitchens and pantries stuffed all with plenty

Delicious viands, and everything to see

Came from the furthest parts of Italy.

This royal Marquis, richly arrayed,

With lords and ladies in his company,

Whom to attend the feast had been bade,

And with all his retinue of chivalry,

And many a sound of sundry melody,

Unto the village of which I have told

In this array the nearest way they rode.

Griselda, God knows, all innocent,

That for herself was meant all this array,

To fetch water from the well she went,

Set to return as soon as ever she may;

For she had heard said, that on this day

The Marquis would wed, and if she might

She would happily see some of that sight.

She thought: ‘I’ll with the other maidens stand,

Who are my comrades, at our door and see

The Marchioness, and therefore what’s on hand

I’ll finish at home as quickly as may be,

The labour, that is, which belongs to me,

And then I could at leisure her behold,

If she this way unto the castle rode.’

But as over the threshold she’d have gone,

The Marquis came and began for her to call,

And she set down her water-pot anon

Beside the threshold, in an ox’s stall,

And down upon her knees began to fall,

And with grave countenance knelt there, still,

Till she had heard what was the lord’s will.

The pensive Marquis talked to the maid

Full soberly, and spoke in this manner:

‘Where is your father, Griselda?’ he said.

And she with reverence, her features clear,

Answered: ‘Lord, he is already here.’

And in she goes without lingering,

And to the Marquis does her father bring.

He by the hand then took this aged man,

And said thus, when he had him on one side:

‘Janicula, I neither may nor can

My heart’s desire any longer hide.

If you accept whatever will betide,

Your daughter will I take, before I wend,

For my own wife, unto my life’s end.

You love me, I know it well, for certain,

And you are my faithful liegeman born,

And all I wish myself, I dare to say,

You also wish, and especially therefore,

Say of the issue I mentioned before –

Whether you will unto that purpose draw,

To take me as your own son-in-law.’

The sudden news astonished him so

The man grew red, perplexed, all quaking

He stood; could hardly speak, although

These words emerged: ‘Lord, I am willing

It be as you wish, and against your liking

I will nothing; you are my lord so dear.

Just as you wish decide the matter here.’

‘Yet I desire,’ quoth the Marquis with a sigh,

‘That in your chamber I, and you and she

Have conversation; and would you know why?

So that I may ask her if she will be

My wife, and be guided then by me.

And all this should be done in your presence;

I must speak with you as our audience.’

And in the chamber while they were about

The marriage-treaty, of which you shall hear,

The people pressed around the house without,

And wondered at the decency and care

With which attentively she kept her father dear.

But well might Griselda wonder at the sight,

For never her eyes on such before did light.

And no wonder that she was astonished,

To see so many guests about the place.

She was not use to being so distinguished,

Which caused her to gaze with pallid face.

But briefly then this matter to embrace,

Here are the words that the Marquis said

To this benign, true and faithful maid.

‘Griselda,’ he said, ‘you must understand

It is pleasing to your father and to me

That I wed you; and it may thus stand,

If, as I guess, you wish it so to be.

But these demands I make first,’ quoth he,

‘To which, since all is done in hasty guise,

Shall you agree, or it be otherwise.

I say you must be ready with good heart

To do my pleasure, and that I freely may,

Do as I think best, whether you laugh or smart,

And never must you grudge it, night or day,

And also when I say “yes”, never say “nay”,

Neither in words nor frowning countenance.

Swear this, and here I swear to our alliance.’

Wondering at his words, quaking for dread,

She said: ‘Lord, ignoble and unworthy

Am I of the honour that you me should bed.

But as you wish yourself, so then will I.

And here I swear that always till I die

Will I willingly in work or thought obey,

On pain of death, though I fear it always.’

‘That is enough, Griselda mine,’ quoth he;

And forth he went with a face full sober

Out at the door, and after him came she,

And to the people he spoke in this manner:

‘That is my wife,’ quoth he, ‘standing there.

Honour her and love her too, I pray,

Whoever loves me; there is no more to say.’

Griselda's Marriage

‘Griselda's Marriage’

And that nothing of her former gear

She should bring into his house, he bade

The women to undress the girl right there;

At which the ladies showed less than glad

To handle the clothes in which she was clad.

But nonetheless, this maiden bright of hue

Foot to head they clothed again all new.

Her hair then they combed, that lay un-tressed

Untidy, and with slender-fingers all

A crown on her head they gently pressed,

And decked her with jewels great and small.

On her array why should my story fall?

The throng scarce knew her in her loveliness

When she transformed was by such richness.

The Marquis has espoused her with a ring

Brought for that very reason, and then her set

Upon a snow-white horse and gently ambling,

To his palace, without delay or fret,

With joyful people who her led and met,

Conveyed her; and thus the day they spend

In revel, till they see the sun descend.

And briefly for this tale to embrace,

I say, that to this new marchioness

God had such favour sent her of his grace

That it seemed of the unlikeliest

That she had been born and fed in lowliness,

Such as in a cottage or an ox’s-stall,

But rather nourished in an Emperor’s hall.

To everyone she became so dear

And revered, that folk where she was born,

Who from her birth had known her year by year,

Scarcely believed, though once they’d sworn,

That to Janicle, of whom I spoke before,

She was daughter, for by all conjecture

They thought she was quite another creature.

For though ever virtuous was she,

She had so increased in excellence

Of good qualities, and high nobility,

Was so discrete and fair in eloquence,

So benign, and worthy of reverence,

And could the people’s heart so embrace,

That all loved her who looked upon her face.

Not only in Saluzzo, in the town,

Was published the virtue of her name,

But also beside in many a region.

If one spoke well, another did the same.

So spread of her high virtue the fame

That men and women, young as well as old,

Went to Saluzzo her face to behold.

Thus Walter wedded humbly – yet royally –

And wedded with fortunate nobility,

In God’s peace lived full happily

At home, and outward grace enough had he.

And because he saw that in low degree

Virtue was often hid, people held him

For a prudent man, as is held seldom.

Griselda not only through her wit

Knew all the arts of wifely homeliness,

But also, when the case might require it,

The common cause too could she address.

There was no discord, rancour, sadness

In all that land that she could not ease,

And wisely bring them all to rest and peace.

And if her husband were absent, anon,

When noblemen or others of that country

Were wrath, she would make them atone.

Such wise and ripe phrases had she,

And judgement so filled with equity,

Men thought such as she the Heavens send

To save the people, and every wrong amend.

It was not long after this Griselda

Was wedded, that she a daughter bore.

Though she would have had a boy-child rather,

Glad was the Marquis still as all folk saw.

For though a maid child had come before,

She might still a boy-child yet achieve

Not being barren, so they all believed.

(Part Three)

There befell, as it befalls often, though,

When the child had sucked a month or so

The Marquis in his heart longed, I owe,

To tempt his wife, her constancy to know,

And he could not out of his thoughts throw

This marvellous desire, his wife to test;

Needlessly, God knows, as I contest!

He had tried her well enough before,

And found her always good; what needed it

To tempt her, and always more and more,

Though some might praise his subtle wit?

As for me, I say evil we admit

In testing a wife when there is no need,

And placing her in pain and dread indeed.

The Marquis wrought it in this manner:

He came alone at night to where she lay,

With a stern face, he troubled did appear,

And then: ‘Griselda,’ quoth he, ‘that day

When I took you from your poor array,

And set you in a state of nobleness –

Have you forgotten it, as I would guess?

I say Griselda, this present dignity,

To which I have raised you, I vow,

Cannot have made you forgetful be

That I took you from your estate full low,

With all the little wealth you might know.

Take heed of every word I say to you;

There is no one to hear us but us two.

You well know yourself how you came here

Into this house; it was not long ago.

And though to me you are prized and dear,

Among my noblemen you are not so.

They say it is great shame to them and woe

To be subject, and to live in bondage,

To you who are born of a small village.

And especially since you your daughter bore

These words have been spoken, more not less.

Yet I desire, as I have done before,

To live my life with them in peace and rest.

I may not in this case be deemed reckless;

I must do with your daughter, still

Not as I would, but as my people will.

And yet, God knows, it’s painful to me.

But nonetheless, without your knowing

I will do nothing, but this I wish,’ quoth he,

‘That you assent with me to all this thing.

Show your patience now in your being

That you swore to me in your village,

The day that we agreed our marriage.

When she had heard all this, she received

It all unchanged in word or countenance,

For, as it seemed, she was not aggrieved.

She said: ‘Lord, all power is in your glance.

My child and I, with true obedience,

Are all yours, and you may save or kill

Your own things: work then as you will.

There can be nothing, God my soul save,

That you desire that may displease me;

No I require nothing for to have

Nor dread to lose, save only thee.

Your will in my heart shall ever be;

No length of time nor death may this deface,

Nor direct my thoughts to another place.’

Glad was the Marquis at her answering,

But yet he feigned as if he were not so.

All dreary was his face and his looking

When that he would out of the chamber go.

Soon after this, a few moments or so,

He secretly had told all his intent

Unto a man, and to his wife him sent.

A sort of servant was this confidant,

As faithful a man as ever he had

In things great, and such folk also can

Do execution in things that are bad;

The lord knew he loved him from a lad.

And when this sergeant knew his lord’s will,

Into the chamber he stole quiet and still.

‘Madam,’ he said, ‘you must forgive me,

If I do a thing to which I am constrained.

You are so wise that you will clearly see

A lord’s command must ever be attained.

It may well be lamented and complained

But all men must his desire obey.

And so will I; there is no more to say.

This child I am commanded for to take.’

– And spoke no more, but grasped the child then

Violently, and a vile face he did make

As though he would have slain it as he went.

Griselda must endure all and consent,

And as a lamb she sat meek and still,

And let this cruel sergeant do his will.

Griselda's Sorrow

‘Griselda's Sorrow’

Suspicious the reputation of this man,

Suspect his face, suspect his word also,

Suspect the time at which he thus began.

Alas, her daughter that she loved so,

She thought he would slay her though!

But nonetheless, she neither wept nor sighed,

Conforming to whatever might betide.

But at the last to speak she began,

And humbly to the sergeant replied,

That as he was a worthy nobleman,

To let her kiss her child before he slay it.

And in her lap the little child she laid it

With full sad face, and began to bless

And lull it, and after began to kiss.

And thus she said, in her gentle voice:

‘Farewell, my child! I never you shall see.

But since I have marked you with the cross

Of your Father – blessed must He be –

That for us died upon the cross-tree,

Your soul, little child, may He now take,

For this night shall you die for my sake.’

I think that for a nurse, if one there was,

It would have been hard this sight to see;

Well might a mother then have cried ‘alas!’

But nonetheless, so firm steadfast was she

That she endured all adversity;

And to the sergeant humbly she said,

‘Have here again your sweet little maid.

Go now,’ quoth she, ‘and do my lord’s behest.

But one thing I pray you of your grace,

Unless my lord forbade it you, at least

Bury this little body in some place

Where neither birds nor beasts may it deface.’

But he no word to that request would say,

But took the child and went on his way.

The sergeant came unto his lord again,

And told him how Griselda did appear

In this, her words, the details short and plain,

Delivering to him her daughter dear.

The lord showed some pity in his manner,

But nonetheless his purpose held he still,

As lords do when they must have their will.

And bade the sergeant that he secretly

Should the child gently take and wrap,

In every circumstance all tenderly,

And carry it in a cradle or his lap –

But upon pain of death, by no mishap

Allow any man to know of his intent,

Nor whence he came, nor whither he went –

But to Bologna, to his sister dear,

That at this time of Panico was countess,

He should it take and tell her of the matter,

Beseeching her to make it her business

To foster this child with all gentleness.

And whose child it was he bade her hide

From everyone, whatever might betide.

The sergeant went, and fulfilled this thing;

But to the Marquis at this time turn we.

For now he goes about wondering

If from his wife’s face he might see,

Or by her words perceive, whether she

Had changed at all; but never could he find

Her anything but steadfast ever and kind.

As glad, as humble, as eagerly she plies

Service, loving, as she was wont to be,

To him in every manner, and every guise.

Nor of her daughter a word spoke she.

No outward sign of her adversity

Was seen in her, nor ever her daughter’s name

Did she speak, in earnest or in game.

(Part Four)

In this state they reached the fourth year

Before she was with child, God us hold,

A boy child she bore to this Walter,

Full gracious and full fair to behold.

And when the father by his folk is told,

Not only he, but his folk in all the ways

Cheer this child, and God they thank and praise.

When it was two years old, and from the breast

Weaned by its nurse, on a certain day

The Marquis with another whim was blessed

To test his wife once more now, if he may.

O needlessly was she tested in this way!

But married men never keep wise measure

Whenever they find a patient creature.

‘Wife,’ quoth the Marquis, ‘you have heard ere this

My people still resent our marriage day;

And especially since my son new-born is,

It is worse than ever in every way.

The mutterings my heart and spirit slay,

For to my ears comes the deadly smart

Of that voice, and nigh destroys my heart.

Now they speak thus: “When Walter is gone,

Then shall the blood of Janicle succeed

And be our lord, for other have we none.”

Such my people speak, in fear indeed.

I must of such murmurs take full heed,

For certainly I dread such muttering,

Though they will not say it in my hearing.

I would live in peace if I but might.

And therefore am decided utterly,

That as I served his sister by night,

Right so think I to serve him, secretly.

This I warn you of, so that suddenly

You with woe might not be outraged;

Be patient, and towards that I you pray.’

‘I have,’ quoth she, ‘said thus, and ever shall:

I wish for nothing, nothing, I say again,

But as you wish; naught grieves me at all

Though my daughter and my son be slain –

At your commandment, that is to say.

I have had no part of my children twain

Save first sickness, and then woe and pain.

You are our lord; do with your own things

Just as you wish; ask no advice of me.

For as I left at home all my clothing

When first I came to you, then so,’ quoth she,

‘I left my will and all my liberty,

And donned clothes of yours, wherefore I pray,

Do your pleasure; I will your wish obey.

And certainly if I’d had prescience

To know your will ere you your will told

I would have done it without negligence.

But now I know your wish and it behold,

To your pleasure all firmly I will hold.

For if I knew my death would bring you ease,

Right gladly would I die, you to please.

For death is nothing in comparison

To your love.’ And when the Marquis knew

His wife’s constancy, then he cast down

His eyes two, and then he wondered too

That she in patience suffered all this rue.

And off he went with dreary countenance,

But in his heart his spirit was enhanced.

The ugly sergeant, in the same wise

That he her daughter snatched, so did he –

Or worse, if men a worse can devise –

Take her son that full was of beauty.

And, ever at one, so patient was she,

That she showed no look of sadness,

But kissed her son, and after did him bless.

Save this: she begged him that he might

For her little son fashion him a grave,

His tender limbs, delicate to sight,

From wild beasts and birds for to save.

But he no answer to her prayer gave;

He went his way as if he heard her not.

But to Bologna tenderly it brought.

The Marquis wondered, ever the more,

At her great patience then, and if he

Had not known truly that all before

Her children so perfectly loved she,

He would have thought that in some subtlety

Either of malice or of cruel spirit

She had endured all this with sad visage.

Yet he knew that next to himself again,

She loved her children best in every wise.

But now women would I ask right plain

If all these trials might not now suffice?

What could a harsh husband more devise

To prove her wifehood and her steadfastness,

While he continued ever in his harshness?

But there are folk of such inclination,

That when a certain end they undertake,

They cannot fall short of their intention,

But as though they were bound to the stake,

They never will their first pledge break.

Just so this Marquis here fully proposed

To test his wife, as he was first disposed.

He waits to see, will word or countenance

Betray that she has changed towards him, waits

But never can detect a variance;

She was at one in heart as in visage.

And the truer was, the more she aged,

If ever such a thing were possible,

To him in love, and the more dutiful.

So that it seemed, between the two

There was but one will, for as Walter wished

The same desire was her pleasure too.

And, God be thanked, all was for the best.

She well showed, despite the world’s unrest,

A wife, for herself then, nothing should

Will in effect, but as her husband would.

Ill report of Walter was widely spread,

That with a cruel heart he, wickedly,

Because a poor woman he chose to wed,

Had murdered both his children secretly.

Such was the word among them generally.

No wonder is it, for to the people’s ear

There came no word, but that they murdered were.

At which, whereas the people there before

Had loved him well, the ill-report for shame

Made them hate him bitterly, and more.

The name of murderer is a hateful name;

But nonetheless, in earnest not in game,

He on his cruel purpose still was bent;

To test his wife was still his set intent.

When his daughter was twelve years of age,

He to the court of Rome, in subtle wise

Informed of his intent, sent his message

Commanding them such bulls to devise

As for his cruel purpose might suffice:

Stating the Pope, to set men’s minds at rest,

Bade him to wed again, as he thought best.

I say he bade them to counterfeit

The Pope’s bulls, there making mention

That he had leave his first wife to reject,

According to the Papal dispensation

To calm all the rancour and dissension

Between him and his people; thus the bull,

Which they then made public, and in full.

The common people, as is no wonder,

Thought indeed these things were truly so.

But when the tidings came to Griselda,

I deem that her heart was full of woe,

But she, as steadfastly as ever though,

Was disposed, this humble creature,

The adversity of Fortune to endure.

Abiding ever his will and pleasure

He to whom she was given, heart and all,

As if to her content, in worldly measure.

But briefly, since this story tell I shall,

The Marquis now wrote an especial

Letter, in which he revealed his intent,

Then secretly to Bologna had it sent.

The Earl of Panico, the noble who

Had wedded his sister, especially

He begged to bring back his children two,

In honourable state all openly.

But one thing he asked specifically,

That, though men enquire, he give no answer

To those who asked whose children they were,

Saying the maiden now would wedded be

To the Marquis of Saluzzo, right anon.

And as the Earl was asked, so did he,

For on the day set, he on his way is gone

Towards Saluzzo, and lords many a one

In rich array, this maiden for to guide,

Her young brother riding by her side.

Arrayed in clothes fit for her marriage

Was this fresh maid, decked in gems clear.

Her brother, who was seven years of age,

Also arrayed full freshly in his gear.

And so with great nobility they near

Saluzzo, towards which their journey lay,

From day to day, riding on their way.

(Part Five)

Meanwhile, following his wicked deed,

The Marquis, to try his wife yet more

To the furthest limits of loyalty,

And so gain knowledge, as before

As to the steadfastness he saw,

One day, and in open audience,

Bluntly pronounced this dread sentence:

‘Certainly, Griselda, it was pleasant

To take you as my wife for your goodness,

In that you were loyal and obedient –

And not for your lineage or riches.

But now the truth is here in its fullness,

For in great lordship, I realise,

There is great servitude, contrariwise.

I cannot do as any ploughman may;

My people are demanding that I take

Another wife: they moan day after day.

And the Pope determined, too, to slake

Their rancour, will consent I’ll undertake.

And in truth, this much to you I’ll say:

My new wife is already on her way.

Be strong of heart and vacate your place.

And the dower that you brought to me,

Take back again; I grant it of my grace.

Return now to your father’s house,’ quoth he.

‘None can forever know prosperity;

With calm heart I advise you to endure

The stroke of Fortune as you did before.’

And she replied again, in her patience:

‘My lord, ‘quoth she, ‘I know as always,

That between your great magnificence

And my own poverty none can nor may

Make comparison, not in any way.

I never thought myself in any manner

Fit to be wife – nor yet to clean your chamber.

And in this house you me a lady made –

The high God take I for my witness,

And as surely as my soul he may save –

I never thought myself lady or mistress,

But humble servant to your worthiness,

And ever shall, while life may endure,

Far above all other worldly creatures.

That you so long of your generosity

Have held me in honour and always

Nobly, where I did not deserve to be,

That I thank God for, and you, I pray

He repay it you; there is no more to say.

Unto my father gladly will I wend,

And with him dwell unto my life’s end.

There was I fostered as a child so small,

My life there will I lead till I be dead,

A widow clean in body, heart and all.

For since I gave to you my maidenhead,

And am your true wife, it is no dread:

God forbid such a lord’s wife to take

Another man to husband, for his sake!

And with your new wife God in his grace

Grant you happiness and prosperity;

For I will gladly yield to her my place,

In which I used so blissfully to be.

For since it is your wish, my lord,’ quoth she,

‘That once were to me all my heart’s rest,

That I should go, I’ll go as you think best.

And since you offer me such dower

As I first brought, it is then in my mind

That they were wretched clothes, not fair,

The which were hard now for me to find.

O good God, how gentle and how kind

You seemed, by your speech and visage,

The day that you took me in marriage!

But so it’s said – and now I find it true,

For in effect it is proved such by me –

Love is not, old, what once it was when new.

But, my lord, whatever the adversity,

Though death be in the case, it may not be

That ever in word or deed could I repent

Of giving you my heart with full intent.

My lord, you know that in my father’s place

You did me strip of all the clothes I had,

And richly clad me then, of your grace.

To you I brought naught else, be it said,

But faith, and nakedness, and maidenhead.

And here again your clothing I restore,

And your wedding ring for evermore.

The rest of your jewels, lie readily

To hand in your chamber, I dare say.

Naked out of my father’s house,’ quoth she,

‘I came, and naked shall I go away.

All your wishes I’ll follow as always.

But yet I hope it would not be your intent

That I smock-less out of your palace went.

You could not do so shameful a thing

As let this womb in which your children lay

Be seen before the people in my walking

All bare; wherefore I to you do pray,

Let me not like a worm go by the way.

Remember now, my own lord so dear,

I was your wife, though all unworthy here.

In recompense then for my maidenhead,

Which I brought you, and no longer bear,

Vouchsafe a gift and grant me instead

Such a smock as I was wont to wear,

That I may clothe with it the womb of her

That was your wife; and here I take my leave

Of you, my own lord, lest I you grieve.’

‘The smock,’ quoth he, ‘that you have on your back,

Let it remain, and take it home with thee.’

But yet with difficulty he spoke, in fact,

And went away, in sadness, and with pity.

Before the folk then herself stripped she.

And in her smock, with head and foot all bare,

Towards her father’s house began to fare.

The folk followed weeping, as she went by,

And they cursed Fortune everyone.

But she from weeping kept her eyes dry,

And all this time word spoke she none.

Her father, who the tidings heard anon,

Cursed the day and time that ever Nature

Created him to be a living creature.

For beyond doubt this poor old man

Had ever been suspicious of the marriage.

Because he deemed, since it all began,

That once the lord’s desires were assuaged,

He would consider that it disparaged

His status, on so lowly a girl to light,

And would reject her swiftly as he might.

To meet his daughter, hastily goes he,

For by folk’s noise he knew she was coming.

And with her old cloak, as it might be,

He covered her, full sorrowfully weeping.

But over her body he might not it fling,

For coarse was the cloth, and she in age

Owned many a day more than at her marriage.

So with her father, for a certain space,

Dwelt this flower of wifely patience,

Who neither by her words nor in her face

Before the folk, nor ever in their absence,

Showed that anyone had done offence

To her, nor showed she her remembrance

Of former high state, in her countenance.

And no wonder, for in her high estate

Her spirit had shown but plain humility;

No luxurious tastes, no feelings delicate,

No pomp, no semblance there of royalty,

But she was full of patient benignity,

Discreet and void of pride, and honourable,

And to her husband ever meek and dutiful.

Men speak of Job, and of his humbleness,

Of which clerics, when they wish to, prattle

Regarding men especially, yet I stress,

Though clerks praise women but a little,

No man’s humility gains him acquittal,

As woman’s can, nor are men half so true

As women are, unless the world be new.

From Bologna the Earl of Panico’s come,

The news of which is spread to great and less;

And to the people’s ear, all and some,

It is made known a new marchioness

He’s brought with him, in pomp, such richness

That never a man’s eye might ever see

A nobler array in Western Lombardy.

The Marquis, who devised and knew it, he,

Ere that the Earl was come, sent a message

To his poor innocent Griselda, she

With humble heart and happy visage,

And not a proud thought in her spirit,

Came at his behest, kneeling at his feet,

And reverently and wisely did him greet.

‘Griselda,’ quoth he, ‘my wish entirely

Is that this maid, who shall be wed to me,

Be received tomorrow as royally

As it is possible in my house to be;

And also that everyone in their degree

Be ranked fitly, seating and service-wise,

With noble pleasure, as best as I can devise.

I have no women capable, for certain,

Of attending to every circumstance

As I would wish, and therefore would fain

That of it yours was all the governance.

You know of old my will in every instance.

Though your array is but poor today,

Do your duty, and in the humblest way.’

‘I am not merely glad, lord,’ quoth she,

‘To do your will, but I desire also

To serve you and please you in my degree,

Without wearying, and will do so.

No never, whether in joy or woe,

Shall the spirit within my heart stint

To love you best, with all my true intent.’

With that she began to set the house aright,

And to lay the tables and beds to make,

And wearied herself to do all that she might,

Begging the chambermaids, for God’s sake,

To hasten, and quickly sweep and shake.

And she, willing to serve the most of all,

Arrayed every chamber and then the hall.

About mid-morning did the Earl alight,

And brought the noble children that day,

While the people ran to see the sight

Of their splendour and their rich array.

And then among them first began to say

That Walter was no fool, though he wished

To change his wife, for it was for the best.

For she is fairer, and so deemed them all

Than Griselda, and tender is of age,

And fairer fruit between them shall fall,

And nobler, due to her high lineage.

Her brother too was of so fair a visage

The people were pleased in an instant,

Commending now the Marquis’ governance.

O storm-blown people, fickle and untrue,

Undiscerning, turning like a vane,

Delighting ever in all rumour new,

For like the moon itself, you wax and wane!

Full of chatter, worthy of all disdain!

Your judgement false, fitful in your ends;

A fool is he, who ever on you depends.

– Thus said the grave folk in that city,

When the people gazed up and down,

For they were glad of the novelty,

To have a new lady in their town.

No more of this will I make mention,

But to Griselda again I make address,

And tell of her labours and her steadfastness.

Griselda was busied with everything

That to the feast itself was pertinent.

Unembarrassed was she by her clothing,

Though it was coarse, and sorely rent,

But with glad face to the gate she went

With other folk, to greet the marchioness,

And after that she went about her business.

With a glad face his guests she received

And so skilfully, and all in their degree,

That no fault was by anyone perceived.

But ever they wondered who she might be

That in such poor array, as they could see,

Was capable of such honour and reverence

And were noble in praise of her prudence.

Meanwhile amongst all this she did not stint

The maid and her brother to commend

With all her heart, in her benign intent,

So much so no one could her praise amend.

But at the last, when that the lords went

To sit down to their meat, he began to call

Griselda, as she was busied in the hall.

‘Griselda,’ quoth he, as it were in play,

‘How like you my wife and her beauty?’

‘Right well,’ quoth she, ‘my lord, by my faith,

A fairer saw I never none than she.

I pray God to bring her prosperity;

And so hope I that he will to you send

Pleasure enough, until your lives end.

One thing I beseech, in warning, though,

That you do not goad with your tormenting

This tender maid, as you have others so;

For she is fostered in her nourishing

More tenderly, and by my supposing,

She could never adversity endure

As could a basely fostered creature.’

And when Walter saw all her patience,

Her glad face, no malice there at all,

Though he had oft done to her offence,

And she as steadfast, constant as a wall,

Maintaining ever her innocence overall,

The Marquis in his heart could not repress

His pity for such wifely steadfastness.

‘It is enough, Griselda mine,’ quoth he;

‘Be now no more aghast nor dismayed.

I have your faith and your benignity,

As well as ever woman’s was, assayed,

In high estate, and in poverty arrayed.

I know, dear wife, your steadfastness by this!’

And took her in his arms then, with a kiss.

And she for wonder could not seem to keep

Her mind upon the things that he now said.

She was as one who starts up out of sleep,

Till all her bewilderment she might shed.

‘Griselda, by God who died in our stead,

You are my wife, no other do I have,

God save my soul,’ quoth he, ‘nor ever had!

This your daughter, whom you have supposed

Would be my wife; the other, faithfully,

Shall be my heir, as I have pre-disposed;

And you have born him in your body, truly.

At Bologna have I kept them, secretly;

Take them again, for now you may believe

For neither of your children need you grieve!

And folk who otherwise have talked of me,

I tell them, that I did not do this deed

Out of malice, nor out of cruelty,

But to test your steadfastness, indeed,

And not to slay my children – God forbid! –

Only to keep them secretly and still,

Till I your purpose knew and all your will.’

When she heard this, swooning she did fall

For piteous joy, then after her swooning,

Both her young children to her did call,

And in her arms, all piteously weeping,

Embraced them, and tenderly kissing,

Now like a mother, with salt tears there

She bathed both her visage and her hair.

O, what a piteous thing it was to see

Her swooning and her humble voice to hear!

Graunt mercy, lord, God thank you,’ quoth she

‘That you have saved my children dear!

Now I care not if I should die, and here;

Since I have still your love and your grace,

No matter is it when death my spirit takes.

O my young children, tender, and dear

Your sorrowful mother did think truly

That cruel hounds, or foul beast, for fear,

Had devoured you; but God, in his mercy,

And your benign father, so tenderly

Have kept you safe, and here you are found!

And suddenly she swooned to the ground.

And in her swoon so tightly held she

To her two children, whom she did embrace,

That only with skill and great difficulty

The children from her arms could they unlace.

Oh, many a tear on many a pitying face

Ran down the cheeks of those at her side;

Scarcely in her presence could they abide.

Walter comforts her, her sorrow slakes;

She rises up, confused, from her trance,

And everyone much of her feelings makes,

Till she is once again in countenance.

Walter dances on her such fine attendance

It is a true delight to see joy hover,

Between the two, now they are together.

The ladies, when the right moment came,

Took her away, to her chamber were gone,

And stripped her there of her coarse array,

And in a cloth of gold that brightly shone,

And with a richly-jewelled royal crown

Upon her head, into the hall her brought,

And there she was honoured as she ought.

Thus had this piteous day a blissful end,

For each man and woman, with all their might,

Sought the day in mirth and revel to spend,

Till in the welkin shone the starry light.

For far more noble then in each man’s sight

Was this feast, and richer in its display,

Than was the feasting on their marriage day.

Full many a year in high prosperity

These two lived, in concord and in rest,

And richly his daughter married he

Unto a lord, one of the worthiest

In all Italy; and then in peace and rest

His wife’s father in his court he kept,

Till the soul out of his body crept.

His son succeeded, and his heritage

Enjoyed in peace, after his father’s day,

And fortunate also was in his marriage –

Though he put his wife to no such assay.

Our world’s not so tough in fibre, nay,

As it seems to have been in days of yore.

And hearken what the author says therefore:

This story is told, not because wives could

Follow Griselda in her humility,

It would be unreasonable if they should;

But that everyone, in their degree,

Should yet be constant in adversity

As was Griselda – that is what Petrarch cites

Of the story, which in high style he writes.

For since a woman showed such patience

To mortal man, then the more so we ought

To accept all willingly what God us sends.

For it is right He tries what he has wrought;

Yet tempts no man for whom His Son has bought

Redemption, as Saint James does truly say.

Though there’s no doubt, He tries folk every day.

And suffers us, as if for our exercise,

With sharp scourges of adversity,

To be scourged, full oft, in sundry wise;

Not though to prove our will, for He

Ere we are born knows all our frailty.

And for our best is all His governance;

Let us then live in virtuous sufferance.

But one word, lordings, hearken, ere I go:

It would be hard to find nowadays

Griseldas, in any city here below;

For if that they were put to such assay,

The gold in them is so alloyed, always,

With brass, that though the coin cheat the eye,

It would rather break in two than bend, say I.

With which here, for love of the Wife of Bath –

Whose life and all her sect may God maintain

In high mastery, or it were a pity, alas –

I will with lusty heart, fresh and green,

Sing you a song, to gladden you, I mean;

And let us finish all this serious matter.

Hear then my song that runs in this manner.

L’envoy de Chaucer.

Griselda is dead, and all her patience,

And both are buried now in Italian dale.

For which I cry to my audience,

Wedded men be not eager to assail

Your patient wives, in hopes to find

Griselda, for with certainty you’ll fail.

O noble wives, full of lofty prudence,

Allow not humility your tongue to nail!

And let no clerk have cause from diligence

To write of you a story that might entail

All that Griselda’s did, patient and kind,

Lest fabled cow wind you in her entrails!

Follow Echo, who never keeps her silence,

But ever answers you with hail for hail.

Do not be cowed in your innocence,

But take on you the mastery without fail.

Imprint this lesson deeply in your mind,

For common profit, since it may avail.

You arch-wives, be strong in your defence,

Since you are mighty as the camel hale;

Suffer no man to do you an offence.

And slender wives, feeble in war and frail,

Be fierce as the tigress, that in Inde we find;

Clack away like the mill, beneath the sail!

And dread them not, do them no reverence;

For though your husband be armed in mail,

The arrows of your forceful eloquence

Will pierce his breast and turn him pale.

With jealousy I’d advise that you him bind,

And then you’ll see him cower like a quail.

If you are fair, in other folk’s presence

Show your face, and your apparel trail,

If you are foul, be free with your expense;

To get you friends, thus labour and travail.

Be light-hearted as a leaf, be blind,

And let him grieve, and weep, and wring, and wail!

Here ends the Tale of the Clerk of Oxford