Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2020


History of Christianity | Literature in English, British Isles | Medieval Studies | Religious Thought, Theology and Philosophy of Religion


Jessica Harkins


Among the most disturbing of The Canterbury Tales, the Oxford Clerk’s story of the submissive Griselda and her husband-cum-tormentor Walter has, despite its categorization as one of Chaucer’s “religious tales,” resisted most, if not all, theological readings with its lack of a clear moral. I attempt to address this ambiguity by focusing on the teller himself. As an Oxford-trained cleric, the Clerk is uniquely qualified to juggle the interrelated but conflicting discourses of two significant theological controversies of the late fourteenth century: the ongoing realist-nominalist debate within medieval universities and the rising Wycliffite/lollardy reform movement among all levels of English society. The realist-nominalist debate significantly dealt with questions of free will, divine foreknowledge, and predestination, and in the fourteenth century, Oxford clerics such as William of Ockham, Thomas Bradwardine, and John Wyclif proposed a variety of irreconcilable answers to these questions. Wyclif’s reform movement outside of the university – informed by his realist philosophy – also challenged the theological tradition in new ways. The Clerk’s Tale seems inconsistent in its philosophy because the Oxford Clerk functions at least partly as a representative of his role within society, and he thus carries these varied and often contradictory discourses into his literary narrative. My research illustrates how Chaucer leverages his source material, his narrator, and his familiarity with these particular academic and populist controversies in order to present a tale that is not merely a story of a long-suffering wife but rather a reflection of the socio-theological climate of the late fourteenth century.

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