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The Clerk's Tale

Patient Griselda

The following panels were executed about 1500 by the GRISELDA STORY Master and are now in the National Gallery, London. Wood, approx 62 x 154 cm each No. 912, 913, & 914, Purchased, 1874. A set of works illustrating the last story of Boccaccio's *Decameron. They may have been let into the wainscoting of a room, or have decorated *spalliere.

The Marquis hunts and meets his chosen bride Griselda, a poor girl. He marries her on the condition of her absolute obedience.

He puts his wife's obedience to the test by giving her baby to a servant, and making her believe it is to be killed. The marquis pretends to dissolve the marriage; Griselda sweeps the marquis's house for his supposed second marriage.

Her children arrive (unrecognized since she thought they had been killed). The marquis reveals that her trials were invented to test her obedience.

Copyright © 1993, The National Gallery, London

The Decameron, Tenth Tale of the Tenth Day

Press here to read Boccaccio's story of Griselda.

How was the story received?

Francis Petrarch: To Giovanni Boccaccio

Petrarch translated Boccaccio's story into Latin in 1373. This is the way Petrarch ends his version of the story:

This story it has seemed good to me to weave anew, in another tongue, not so much tat it might stir the matrons of our times to imitate the patience of this wife--who seems to me scarcely imitable--as that it might stir all those who read it to imitate the woman's steadfastness, at least; so that they may have the resolution to perform for God what this woman performed for her husband. For He cannot be tempted by evil, as saith James the Apostle, and he himself tempts no man. Nevertheless, he often proves us and suffers us to be vexed with many a grievous scourge; not that He may know our spirit, for that He knew wee we were made, but that our own frailty may be made known to us through notable private signs. Therefore I would assuredly enter on the list of steadfast men the name of anyone who endured for his God, without a murmur, what this obscure peasant woman endured for her mortal husband.

This is an excerpt from a letter written by Petrarch to Boccaccio in 1374:

My affection for you has induced me to write at an advanced age what I should hardly have undertaken even as a young man. Whether what I have narrated be true or false, I do not know, but the fact that you wrote it would seem sufficient to justify the inference that ti is but a tale. Foreseeing this question, I have prefaced my translation with the statement that the responsibility for the story rests with the author; that is, with you. And now let me tell you my experiences with this narrative [historia] or tale [fabula] as I prefer to call it. In the first place, I gave it to one of our mutual friends in Padua to read, a man of excellent parts and wide attainments. When scarcely half-way through the composition, he was suddenly arrested by a burst of tears. When again, after a short pause, he made a manful attempt to continue, he was again interrupted by a sob. He then realized that he could go no farther himself, and handed the story to one of his companions, a man of education, to finish. How others may view this occurrence, I cannot, of course, say; for myself, I put a most favourable construction upon it, believing that I recognise the indications of a most compassionate disposition; a more kindly nature, indeed, I never remember to have met. As I saw him weep as he read, the words of the Satirist came back to me: Nature, who gave us tears, by that alone
Proclaims she made the feeling heart our own;
And ‘t is our noblest sense

[Juvenal, xv., 131-3, as translated by William Gifford
Some time after, another friend of ours, from Verona for all is common between us, even our friends), having heard of the effect produced by the story in the first instance, wished to read it for himself. I readily complied, as he was not only a good friend, but a man of ability. He read the narrative from beginning to end without stopping once. Neither his face nor his voice betrayed the least emotion, nor a tear or a sob escaped him. "I too," he said at the end, "would have wept, for the subject certainly excites pity, and the style is well adapted to call forth tears, and I am not hard-hearted; but I believed, and still believe, that this is all an invention. If it were true, what woman, whether of Rome or any other nation, could be compared with this Griselda? Where do we find the equal of this conjugal devotion, where such faith, such extraordinary patience and constancy?" I made no reply to this reasoning, for I did not wish to run the risk of a bitter debate in the midst of our good-humoured and friendly discussion. But I had a reply ready. There are some who think that whatever is difficult for them must be impossible for others; they must measure others by themselves, in order to maintain their superiority. Yet there have been many, and there may still be many, to whom acts are easy which are commonly held to be impossible. Who is there who would not, for example, regard a Curtius, a Mucius, or the Decii, among our own people, as pure fictions; or, among foreign nations, Codrus and the Philaeni; or since we are speaking of woman, Portia, or Hypsicratia, or Alcestis, and others like them? But these are actual historical persons. And indeed I do not see why one who can face death for another, should not be capable of encountering any trial or form of suffering.

From Le Ménagier de Paris

This is an excerpt from a book written by a Parisian member of the upper bourgeoisie for the instruction of his young wife, some time between 1392-94. The paraphrase of the Griselda story is one of several tales meant to illustrate the proper obedience and humility a wife should show her husband.

Dear sister [dear wife], this story was translated by master Francis Petrarch, the poet crowned at Rome, not in order to move good women to have patience amid the tribulations which their husbands cause them solely because of their love for those husbands. It was translated to show that since God, the Church, and Reason would have them be obedient; and since their husbands would have them endure a great deal; and since, to avoid worse, it is necessary that they submit themselves completely to their husbands' wills, enduring patiently whatever their husbands desire; and what is more, since these good women must conceal such troubles, keep silent about them, and indeed come to terms with them while seeking always, with a happy spirit, to draw closer to the favor and love of those mortal husbands: how much greater then the reason for which men and women ought to suffer in patience the tribulations which God, who is immortal and eternal, ends to them Whether it be the death of friends; the loss of goods, children or kinfolk; the distress brought about by enemies, captures, slaughters, destruction, fire, tempest, thunderstorms, floods or other unexpected disasters; one ought always to endure it patiently and turn oneself again, with love and solicitude, to the love of the immortal Sovereign, eternal and everlasting God. This we may learn by the example of this pitiable woman born into poverty among simple people without rank or learning, who suffered so much for her mortal husband. I have set down this story here only in order to instruct you, not to apply it directly to you, and not because I wish such obedience from you. I am in no way worthy of it. I am not a marquis, nor have I taken in you a shepherdess as my wife. Nor am I so foolish, arrogant, or immature in judgment as not to know that I may not properly assault or assay you thus, nor in any such fashion. God keep me from testing you in this way or any other, under the color of lies and dissimulations. Nor do I wish to test you in yet some other manner, for I am fully satisfied by the proof already established through the good name of your ancestors and of yourself, along with what I feel and see and know from direct experience. I apologize if this story deals with too great cruelty--cruelty, in my view, beyond reason. Do not credit it as having really happened; but the story has it so, and I ought not to change it nor invent another, since someone wiser than I composed it and set it down. Because other people have seen it, I want you to see it too, so that you may be able to talk about everything just as they do.

The source for the above material is The Canterbury Tales: Nine Tales and the General Prologue. ed. V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Co., 1989), pp. 378-393.

From Letter to King Richard II
an epistle written to Richard II by Philippe de Mézieres to urge his marriage to Isabelle of France, then aged 7


May it please God, worthy Prince, for the furtherance of peace in Christendom and the comfort of our royal person, to grant you a wife such as Griselda, the wife of the Marquis of Saluzzo, who was but the daughter of a poor working man, yet, according to the authentic chronicle of the said Marquis of Saluzzo and Griselda his wife, written by that learned doctor and sovereign poet, Master Francis Petrarch, there is no record, from the beginning of the world until today, apart from the saints, of a woman of such great virtue, nor so loving towards her husband, nor of such marvelous patience, as this same Lady Griselda; and this you have read, or may come to read, in the said chronicle.>

Letter to King Richard II, ed. and trans. G.W. Coopland, New York: Barnes & Noble, 1976, p. 42.

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