To formulate any type of argument using the Bible as a reference is challenging, since the Bible is diversely perceived from person to person. These varied perceptions can be results of different translations of the Bible, the cultural background of the reader, or quite simply, a vagueness with which the Bible can lend itself to multiple interpretations. Nevertheless, there are certain topics which are void of much gray area, which are explicitly and consistently outlined by the authors of the various books found in the Bible. Marriage, while tirelessly mentioned throughout the entire Bible, can be included as one of these topics. There are certain elements about the topic which remain the same through the generations of contributors to the Sacred writ. Geoffrey Chaucer, in The Canterbury Tales, frequently alludes to marriage according to the Bible. While the book is not mentioned specifically in The Clerk?s Tale, it is interesting to examine how the Clerk?s characters, Walter and Grisilde, fulfill ? or do not fulfill – the roles of biblical husband and wife. At the outset, it would seem that, biblically, they fit the roles assigned to them. However, as the tale progresses, inconsistencies escalate into a rather puzzling conclusion.
The reader should first be aware of how Chaucer presents the Bible overall in The Canterbury Tales. This will lay the foundation for how one might expect it to be used in The Clerk?s Tale specifically, and why it would be worth studying. The first great reference to the Bible in The Canterbury Tales is the Wife of Bath?s argument for her multiple marriages. This comprises most of her Prologue, and she mentions the names of many biblical characters to support her argument. To give one of many examples, she specifically mentions King Solomon when she says of him, ?I trowe he hadde wyves mo than oon? (36). Other characters include Abraham (55), Jacob (56), Paul (64, 79, 160), and Mark (145). Another hugely obvious biblical reference is the Prioress? Prologue and Tale. She begins her Prologue with, ?O Lord, oure Lord, thy name how marveillous / Is in this large worlde y-sprad? (19). The Prioress? Tale itself is centered around the Virgin Mary and Christian ideals. These are only two of many of The Canterbury Tales which have religious references.
Furthermore, the very fact that Chaucer?s characters are on a pilgrimage would suggest that they have some sort of religious upbringing. In fact, there are even clergy on the trip: The Nun, the Monk, the Friar and the Pardoner (immoral men, but clergy nonetheless), and the Parson. While some of these pilgrims are not very representative of the Bible?s teachings, this assortment of characters does confirm that religion and the Bible are important parts of these people?s lives. Therefore, it would follow that their tales might reflect some of this aspect of life. While The Clerk?s Tale does not make specific mention of characters from the Bible, biblical traits are illustrated ? and contrasted ? between the two main characters.
The Clerk introduces Walter to the audience as a pleasant man, describing him as ?A fair persone, and strong, and yong of age / And ful of honour and of curteisye? (73-74). However, Walter does have one fault: He refuses to marry. This troubles his vassals, as they lament to him,
For certes, lord, so wel us lyketh yow
And al your werk, and ever han doon, that we
Ne coude nat us self devysen how
We mighte liven in more felicitee,
Save o think, lord, if it youre will be,
That for to been a wedded man yow leste::
Than were your peple in sovereyn hertes reste.
Now, according to the New Testament teachings of Paul in the Bible, being a bachelor is actually commendable. Paul specifically states in 1 Corinthians 7:1, ?It is good for a man not to marry.? He goes on to write in verse 3, ?But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife.? So, under much pressure from his people, Walter concedes and marries Grisilde.
At first, the marriage seems wonderful. The Clerk says that Walter ?Wedded with fortunate honestee / In Goddes pees liveth ful esily / At hoom, and outward grace y-nogh had he? (422-425). Grisilde fits the picture of the perfect wife described in Proverbs 31:10-12: ?A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.? She faithfully serves Walter and yields to his every wish. It pleases Grisilde to do so, as she says to Walter, ?Ne I desyre no thing for to have / Ne drede for to lese, save only ye / This wil is in myn herte and ay shall be? (507-509). This too is biblical, as Paul commands, ?Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything? (Ephesians 5:24)?.
Here is where the major conflict arises. On one hand, there is Grisilde, the good and faithful wife, who perfectly fits the mold described in the Bible. On the other hand, there is Walter, who started out just fine; he had married with honor, seemingly with the best of intentions for his new bride. However, Walter takes a turn for the worst, as he begins ?testing? his wife. He has ?in his herte a longeth so / To tempt his wyf, hir sadnesse for to knowe? (451-52). First of all, Paul not only commands wives to submit to their husbands, but he also commissions husbands to love their wives ?as Christ loved the church? (Ephesians 5:25). It is important to note how Christ loves the church, to clearly understand what is expected of the husband. Concerning this, Paul goes on to write, ??as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word?In the same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies? (Ephesians 5:25-28).
Be of strong herte , and voyde anon hir place;
And thilke dowere that ye broughten me
Tak it agayn, I graunte it of my grace.
Retourneth to your fadres house?(806-809)
Obviously, Walter does not love his wife as Christ loved the church. Not only does he send Grisilde away, he says he will take another wife (lines 953-987). According to the Bible, to divorce is bad enough (God says in Malaichi 2:16, ?I hate divorce?), but to remarry is even worse. Jesus himself claimed that “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her? (Mark 10:11). Throughout all of these trials, however, Griselde remains faithful. She has completely fulfilled everything expected of a Godly wife. Walter, on the other hand, is a complete opposite, going against everything the Bible says about marriage. It is unclear as to whether Chaucer purposely used The Clerk?s Tale to create this type of paradox. Nevertheless, it is clear that the contrast is there, and the religious pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales would have no doubt recognized such a biblical conflict.
? Other references to this command include, but are not limited to: Romans 7:2, 1 Corinthians 7:39, Colossians 3:18, 1 Peter 3:1
The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Corp., 1984.