Four years passed, Griselda became pregnant again and in due course gave birth to a lovely little boy. When Walter was told of this birth, not only he but the entire district rejoiced at the news. They thanked God and praised him. But when the child was two years old and weaned from his nurse’s breast, Walter was seized again by a cruel desire to put his wife on trial and to try to coax her into disobeying him, to see if she would do so. Needlessly, of course. But married men often cannot see their hands before their faces, where a patient and obedient woman is concerned.
‘Wife,’ said this marquis, ‘I have told you before how upset my people are at my having married you, but now that my son has been born, it’s getting even worse. This murmuring breaks my heart and saps my courage. Their complaints are so hurtful that I can hardly bear them any more. They say: “When Walter is dead, then Janicula’s grandson shall inherit the land and be lord over us, for there is no one else.” That’s what they're saying, and I’m afraid I have to take account of such things. They’re dangerous sentiments, although these people never express such thoughts openly in my presence. But I have to live in peace with them, if I can. So I intend to do with this little boy as I did with his sister. I warn you, don’t try to stop me or get hysterical or anything like that. Be patient and resign yourself to it, that’s all I ask.'
‘I have already said,’ replied Griselda, ‘and I shall always say it, that there is nothing I will wish for more, if you should want it, and nothing that I would rather not happen, should you wish it not to. If I knew beforehand what you wanted, it would be done without you telling me. That is to say, it doesn’t grieve me in the slightest if my son and daughter are killed, if this is what you want. These children have given me only sickness and fatigue, and then pain and sorrow. You are our lord. Do as you wish with your own things. Don’t ask me for advice. I left my old clothes behind when I came to live with you, and in the same way I left behind, as well, all my free will and all my liberty. I have clothed myself in your garments, so, as I say, you must do as you wish. I will go along with whatever you want, and if I believed that my death would bring you pleasure, I would gladly die.’
When the marquis saw such loyalty in his wife, he couldn’t look at her directly in the eye but cast his gaze to the floor and wondered how she was willing to suffer all this for his sake. He went away in sombre mood, but his heart delighted in such obedience. Then he sent the ugly sergeant to her room in the same way that he had done before, and this man seized Griselda’s lovely son. She accepted this with equanimity, made no fuss, but kissed her little son tenderly, blessed him and asked the sergeant only that he might have a proper grave prepared, so that his delicate limbs might be spared from the ravages of foxes and crows.
The sergeant refused to give any such guarantee, and took the child away as though not caring what happened to it. Then he carried the little boy safely to Bologna as he had been instructed to.
This marquis reflected unceasingly upon his wife’s patience, for if he didn’t know the truth to be that she had loved her children dearly, he might have gained the impression that all her sad obedience was a deception and that his wife was secretly delighted that his children should be killed. But he knew for sure that, next to himself, she had loved these two children above everything else. But I would gladly ask women, haven’t these tests of loyalty been enough? How much longer can a praiseworthy husband test his wife’s patience and remain praiseworthy himself? But there are people who, when they have embarked upon a certain course, cannot stop. Like those bound to a stake, they are determined to see things through to the bitter end. In the same way, this marquis has determined to test his wife to the full, as he always intended.
Walter was constantly alert to any sign that his wife’s attitude towards him might be changing, but such signs were never manifest. Her mood and her willing obedience never changed; in fact, as she grew older, she seemed to become more loyal still, if such a thing is possible. She seemed to love him more than ever and to be even more willing to please him. It was as though there was only a single will between the two of them. If Walter wished for a thing, Griselda wished for it as well, and God be thanked, their life together was a happy one. She was an example to others that a wife should desire nothing except what her husband desires, whatever the circumstances.
However, it was not long before disapproving voices began to be heard in the countryside round about. Rumours spread that, because Walter had married such a poor girl, he had wickedly had both his children secretly murdered because of it. Such slander was becoming common currency. To become known as a murderer is a frightful thing. Everybody who had loved him before began to question and even to hate him now, for what they thought he had done.
Nevertheless, Walter found himself unable to let it rest there. When his daughter was twelve years old, he sent word secretly to the Papal Court in Rome, commanding them to issue certain bulls that would help to expedite his cruel scheme. He wanted it to seem as though the Pope had issued a command that, in view of his people’s discontent, Walter must marry again. He wanted the Papal Court to counterfeit a directive from the Pope, saying that he had permission to divorce his first wife in order to put an end to the rancour and dissention that had arisen between himself and his people. And this is exactly what the bull said, when it was published.
The common folk, unsurprisingly, took this declaration at face value, suspecting nothing. When knowledge of this bull reached Griselda, I know that her heart nearly broke because of it. But nonetheless, with great sadness, she resolved to endure the cruel adversities of Fortune with humility and without complaint. She was determined to follow her husband’s wishes, to whom she had given herself in marriage, with all her heart.
And to move the story quickly on, the marquis then sent a letter secretly to Bologna in which he set out his instructions, and in particular, he asked the Earl of Panico, who was married to his sister, to return his two children to him with all pomp and splendour. And he asked the earl one thing more: that on no account should he tell anyone whose children these were, and if anyone asked, he should say only that the maiden was soon to be married to the Marquis of Saluzzo. And as this earl had been asked, so he quickly did. He set out himself, the very next morning with an entourage of distinguished lords and noblemen, bringing the girl along with him and with her younger brother riding beside her. This pretty young maiden was dressed for her wedding day, adorned with jewels, and her brother, who was only seven years old, was equally well-attired.
In good humour, and in noble splendour, they ride from day to day towards Saluzzo.
But despite all that is already in motion, this marquis, as befits his now habitual cruelty, seeks to test his wife Griselda even further. He intends to test her to the very limits of her endurance, to make sure that she is still as obedient as she has always been. In his court, openly, he calls loudly to her:
‘Griselda, I married you for your goodness, your obedience and faithfulness. Certainly, God knows, not for any wealth or honour that you might have brought to me.'
'But in lordship there is also servitude, and in many ways. I cannot do what every ploughman, even, is at liberty to do. I am constrained by my people, and they wish me to take another wife. They go on and on about it day after day. Even the Pope has agreed to it, in order to keep the peace. You must believe this, as you must also know that my new wife is already on her way here. So be strong of heart, Griselda. Take back your dowry. I can be generous enough to say that it is yours. Go back to your father’s house. Nobody can enjoy prosperity all the time, and I advise you to suffer this stroke of ill-fortune with equanimity and good grace.’
‘My lord,’ replied Griselda, ‘I know, and have always known, that between your magnificence and my poverty there is no comparison. Nobody can deny this. I have never considered myself grand enough to be your wife, no, not even to be your maidservant. In this house, where you made me your wife – and may God bear witness to this – I have never considered myself to be lady or mistress but only to be your humble servant, a servant to you above all others, and I shall continue to consider myself so until I die. That you had the grace to keep me in such high estate for so long, I thank God as well as you, and although I was not worthy, may he reward you for it. There is nothing more I have to say. I was fostered with Janicula when I was a small child and I shall go back to him gladly, and live with him until I die. Since I gave you my maidenhead as your true wife, there is no disgrace; but may God forbid that a lord’s wife should ever marry again, or take another man.
‘May God grant you and your new wife health and prosperity. I shall gladly yield my place to her, a place where I have found such happiness; but since it pleases you that I must go, then I shall go.
‘You offer to return my dowry, but I well remember that all I possessed before I married you were my wretched clothes and I have no idea where those are now. Oh good God, but how gentle and kind you seemed when we were married, how, happy and considerate. Come what may, I shall never regret the time we had together, when you loved me and when I gave my heart to you completely. But it’s the truth, and it’s often proved, that love is never old until it’s new. A new love pushes away the old.'
'My lord, you may remember that in my father’s cottage you made me take off my poor clothes and through your generosity you gave me some fine and costly ones to wear. I brought nothing to you that was my own except for nakedness, faith and virginity. But you may have your clothes back, and also my wedding ring. The rest of the jewels are in your chamber, I dare say.
‘I came to you with nothing from my father’s house and I shall return with nothing. I will willingly do whatever you wish me to, but I hope it isn’t your intention that I should leave your palace without any clothes at all. You could not be so heartless as to let the naked belly in which your children grew be a spectacle for all to see. Don’t make me creep away like a worm! Remember that, however unworthy I was, I was once your wife. Therefore, as a reward for my virginity, which I brought to you and cannot take back, let me have a simple garment like the one you took from me, so that I may clothe myself and be decent. This is all I ask. I shall say no more, in case I start to annoy you.’
‘The undergarment that you are wearing now,’ replied the marquis, ‘you can keep. Take it with you.’ But he was so overcome that he could say no more for pity and left the hall.
Griselda undressed in front of all the people and stood in her linen undergarment. Then, with her head and feet all bare, she made her way back to her father’s house. Many people followed her as she went, weeping and cursing Fortune, but Griselda did not weep and did not say anything. Her father, who had already learnt what had happened, cursed the very day that he was born. He had always harboured doubts about the marriage and suspected, from the very beginning, that when the marquis had expelled the fire of his lust he would quickly tire of Griselda, look upon her as an embarrassment and divorce her at the first opportunity.
The old man went to meet his daughter, for he could tell by the sound of the people following her that she was approaching. He covered her with her old coat, weeping for her, but of course it was too worn and threadbare to be of any use.
Griselda, this flower of wifely patience, stayed with her father, and gave no impression that she was harbouring any self-pity or vengeful thoughts. She gave no impression even that she had once lived in wealth and privilege; and this should come as no great surprise, really, since in the midst of affluence her spirit had retained its humility. No delicate pretensions nor royal pomp had ever burdened her. Her only concern had been to show patient goodness, care and honourable discretion, and to be meek and submissive to her husband.
Men speak of Job and his great humility, as clerics are well able to describe, mostly in relation to men it must be said, but regarding faithfulness, although clerics speak little of women in this regard, no man can display such humility as can a woman, nor be half as faithful.
The Earl of Panico has arrived from Bologna. Word soon gets around that he has brought along with him the new marchioness. They arrive in such pomp and splendour that never before has such a thing been seen in the whole of western Lombardy.
The marquis, who was awaiting this arrival, sent a messenger to Griselda with instructions to bring her to the palace. Griselda, happily, humbly and without any inflated expectations, was pleased to comply with this summons. She knelt before the marquis and greeted him with reverence.
‘Griselda,’ said the marquis. ‘It is my desire that this maiden, whom I am soon to marry, should be received tomorrow as royally and with as much pomp and splendour as my palace will allow. Every guest should be seated and served in as fitting a way as their status deserves, to the utmost of my resources. But I have no women I can trust enough to prepare the rooms in the way that I would like them prepared, so I would like you to take charge of this; you know the kind of things I like. Although your clothes look dreadful, I’m sure you will be willing to do your best, for my sake.’
‘I will be delighted to,’ replied Griselda. ‘I shall serve you as my lowly status requires, now and for evermore, and I shall never cease from loving you.’
Having said this, she set about organising the preparation of all the rooms, the furniture, the tables and the beds. Griselda took every trouble to see that the chambers were properly decorated and urged the chambermaids to work quickly – for God’s sake! – to sweep and shake and clean, until, by her own efforts more than anybody else’s, the chambers were all prepared and the hall made ready.
Next morning, the earl appeared with his two charges. Everybody ran to see the magnificence of their grand arrival and the beautiful clothes they were wearing, and quickly arrived themselves at the opinion that Walter was no fool to want to change his wife for this young lady. They all thought it was a fine idea! She was prettier that Griselda, they all agreed, and much younger, and the chances of them raising some excellent children seemed very good indeed, since she was so well-born herself. The girl’s brother, also, was very splendid to look at, they thought, and seeing the pair of them together, everybody felt able to commend the marquis on his shrewd foresight and wise diplomacy.
Oh stormy people! Frivolous and unfaithful, now sailing one way, now another, always changing direction like a weathervane, delighting in new things, waxing and waning like the moon! Your opinion is worth little, you clap or jeer like fools and only fools should ever listen to you.
This is what sensible people thought. The majority, however, gazed around in wonderment at all the splendour and delighted in the novelty of having a new lady, suddenly, to rule over them. But enough of this. I will turn instead to Griselda. I will describe how busily she worked, and with such patient equanimity. She laboured hard to make everything ready for the wedding feast and cared little that her clothes were impoverished and somewhat ragged. With genuine delight, she went to the entrance of the palace to greet the new marchioness, and then quickly went about her business again. She received Walter’s guests in exactly the right way, as befitted their individual status, and with such happiness that no man could fault her; although they wondered who this woman might be, who despite her torn and ragged clothes was able to display such courtesy and etiquette. But Griselda was so complementary and courteous to this young marchioness and her brother, and showed such heartfelt affection towards them, that everybody praised her for it.
At last, as all the noblemen began to take their seats at the tables in the hall, Walter called to Griselda, who was busy at a task: ‘Griselda,’ he cried, as though in fun. ‘What do you think of my new wife? Isn’t she beautiful?’
‘I think she is lovely,’ replied Griselda, calmly. ‘I have never seen a more beautiful young lady in all my life. May God give her everything she wishes for, and may he send happiness to you both, for the rest of your lives. But let me give you one word of advice: don’t torment her or poke her continually with a stick as you have done to me, for she has been brought up in comfort and privilege and I don’t suppose that she will be able to endure the suffering that a poor woman can, who has spent her childhood in poverty.’
When Walter remembered the things that he had done to Griselda, and saw how she still stood as firm and unwavering as a wall, patient and innocent, his heart began to break out of pity for her.
‘Enough!’ he cried. ‘Griselda, I have tested your faith and your constancy as far as any woman’s has ever been tested, rich or poor, and now I know how steadfast you are,’ and he swept her up into his arms and kissed her.
Griselda was so astonished that she just went along with it, without wondering too much about what was going on and without really listening to what he was saying, as though she had just woken out of sleep. Only slowly did his words begin to sink in.
‘Griselda, by God who died for us!’ he was saying. ‘You are my wife, I have no other and never have had, may God save my soul! This is your daughter whom I was supposed to marry, and this boy will be my heir, as I have intended all along. He is your son. They have been living secretly in Bologna. Take them into your arms, for now you cannot say that you have lost your two children. Those who have held me in low regard because of the things that they believe I have done, I say to them that it was not out of malice or cruelty but only to test your obedience. I have not killed my children, God forbid! I have only kept them out of the way until I knew your mind, that’s all.’
When Griselda heard this, she fell in a faint for joy, and when she came to again, she called her son and daughter to her, then embraced them and kissed them, weeping like a mother and bathing their faces and their hair in her tears. It was pitiful to see her faint and then to hear her humble voice saying: ‘Thank you, Lord, thank you! Thank you,’ she sobbed, ‘for saving my children. I don’t care if I die right now, in your love and in your grace. If I die now, it doesn’t matter.
‘Oh, my dear, tender children, your tearful mother quite imagined that cruel dogs, foxes or some other vermin had eaten you; but God in his mercy, and your kind father, has kept you safe,’ and with this, she fell once more to the ground, holding her son and daughter so tightly that they had difficulty getting free from her embrace as she lay there on the floor in a faint. All the people standing around her began to weep so much that they were scarcely able to remain standing themselves.
Walter comforted Griselda and she tried to get up; she was still only half aware of what was going on and everybody made a big fuss of her while she re-gathered her thoughts. Walter was so loving and so caring that it was a delight to see the joy that quickly grew between the two of them, now that they were reconciled.
When an opportunity arrived, the ladies took Griselda to a chamber, stripped her of all her ragged clothes and gave her a gown of cloth-of-gold and a coronal of precious stones to wear upon her head. Then they brought her back into the court where she received the honour she deserved.
And so this day had a happy ending after all. Everybody celebrated until the sun had set and the stars had come out, for it seemed to be a more joyous occasion even than the wedding they had been expecting.
Walter and Griselda lived for many years in prosperity and contentment. Their daughter was married to one of the worthiest lords in all of Italy. Griselda’s father was brought to live in the palace where he remained until he died.
Walter’s son succeeded him in due course and ruled his land well; and he was happily married, although he didn’t test his wife nearly so such as his father had done. It cannot be denied that the world today is not as harsh as it used to be, so listen to what the author of this story said. This story – he said – is related not in order to urge wives to be as compliant and submissive as Griselda was, for such a thing would be insufferable, but rather that people should learn to take adversity in their stride, as Griselda did. Petrarch wrote this story for this reason, in his inimitable style. Because a woman was able to show so much patience towards a mortal man, we should all accept our lot that God has allocated to us, for it is a skilful craftsman indeed who can prove the utility of the things he makes without testing them. Saint James said in his epistle that, without doubt, Christ tests us every day of our lives and keeps us on our toes with the sharp scourge of adversity; and not in order to discover our strength, either, for he knows how weak we are! But all is for the best, so let us suffer it with virtuous acceptance.
One word more, lords and ladies, before I finish. One would be hard-pressed to find more than two or three Griseldas in any town or city nowadays. If most women were put to such a test, their gold would be found to be so contaminated with brass that although the coin might look genuine, it would snap the moment you tried to bend it. For which reason, for the love of this wife of Bath who is riding along with us, whose life and all those like her may God maintain in high authority – great harm it would be otherwise! – I will sing, with a vibrant and youthful heart, a song which I’m sure will delight you. Let us put an end to moralising. Listen to my song.
Griselda is dead and her patience also, buried together in one grave in Italy. So I sing, let no man be so optimistic as to test his own wife in the hope of discovering Griselda’s patience. He will fail!
Oh noble and prudent wives, don’t let humility staple your lips together or cause any cleric to compose a tale of you like the one I just told of Griselda. Copy echo, who has always found an answer. Don’t be taken for a compliant fool but seize the initiative yourself, and print this message indelibly into your mind, for everybody’s profit. You wives who are in charge of your own lives, stand firmly in your own defence, since you are wilful and stubborn like the great camel; don’t be trodden on by men! And you weak and slender wives, be like the tiger in India, give your husband an earful!
Have no fear of men. don’t put them on a pedestal. Even if your husband is armed in steel, the arrows of your eloquence will find their way through into his flesh. Make him jealous and you will have him eating out of your hand. If you are pretty, dress in your finest clothes and make sure that people can see your face. If you are ugly, learn to spend a little and make friends who will help you. Always be as carefree as a leaf in the wind, and let him do all the weeping, wailing and wringing of hands!
Translation and retelling of Chaucer's Clerk's Tale copyright © Richard Scott-Robinson, 2016