English Language and Literature | Literature in English, British Isles | Religion
Of all of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Clerk’s Tale is perhaps the most disturbing. The alarmingly submissive Griselda and her husband-cum-tormenter Walter have horrified and frustrated scholars with their irrational behavior for centuries. Although considered a teller of one of Chaucer’s “religious tales,” the Clerk’s seeming ambivalence about his tale’s moral has rendered most, if not all, theological readings unsatisfying and inconclusive. For this reason, the Clerk’s Tale has primarily been studied for the glimpse it provides into medieval gender politics. My research, however, attempts to situate the tale within its theological context by paying more attention to its teller – an Oxford-trained cleric. The 14th century witnessed several theological controversies, and Oxford University was often the hotbed of these debates. For instance, the general shift towards nominalism at medieval universities and the realist dissent that arose in response both introduced further ambiguity to the already-complicated problem of theodicy. And towards the end of the century, the rise of Wycliffism – and the eventual quagmire of lollardy – began with the work of John Wyclif and his early followers, all of whom were based at Oxford. Thus, the Oxford Clerk himself provides necessary context for the theological themes found within his tale. Using this context, my research suggests that the famously unsatisfying ambiguity of the story of Griselda may have been Chaucer’s intended theological reading, after all.
Kluever, Molly K., "“Thus seyden sadde folk” : Chaucer’s Oxford Clerk on theological controversy in the 14th century" (2019). Forum Lectures. 409.