MOTHER’S DAY — 2011
I consider the 14th century the turning-point of western history — the beginning of the development of the modern mind. That belief is the background for the following somewhat conjectural discussion about a mediaeval morality story known as “Griselda’s Tale.” What I propose, I think, is at least plausible … and illuminating.
The guiding enigma can be stated simply: in Archibald MacLeish’s great 1958 dramatic poem, J.B. forgives Mr. Zoos. This is not the playwright’s fancy, according to interpreters of the Bible, but faithfully reflects the source itself, because at the end of the Book of Job, “Job comes to love God gratuitously, thus making Satan lose his original bet.” In the context of Israel’s “contract” with Yahweh, trading obedience for prosperity, the Book of Job broke new ground. It waived Yahweh’s obligation, and so it was considered a significant advance. Current religious belief seems to have regressed into a quid pro quo that justifies empire. Significant as that is, that regression is not my concern in this essay. My question here is: can Job’s forgiveness of Yahweh still be taken as “the solution”?
Griselda’s Tale was the very last of the 100 stories in the Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio. It was reproduced by Geoffrey Chaucer 40 years later in the Canterbury Tales, conspicuously unchanged, as “The Clerk’s Tale“. It is what I like to call Boccaccio’s “commentary” on the Black Plague. Let me explain what I mean.
The Bubonic Plague struck Europe in 1348 and over the next two years accounted for the death, by conservative estimates, of one third of the sub-continent’s population. The story of the Decameron itself takes place at the time of its onset. Ten terrified Florentines, trying to escape the contagion, are thrown together on a remote rural estate. Literate city people, exiled to the country with no skills and nothing to do, they are bored to death. They agree to tell ten stories each to entertain themselves until it is safe to return to Florence. One would expect that at least some of these 100 fables would refer, directly or indirectly, to the unprecedented horror of the plague, the reason for the narrative marathon. Certainly Griselda’s tale, for being so outrageously unrealistic, suggests that Boccaccio must have had some purpose in mind that would explain why he used it in the emphatic final position. I am convinced it had a significance beyond the most obvious possibilities: … a male fantasy about female submissiveness, … a sarcastic jibe at marriage, … a stereotypical misogynism. None of these comes close to the crisis of faith and spiritual confusion occasioned by the plague. I believe Griselda’s Tale was a thinly veiled allegory of mediaeval Christendom’s “relationship” with the absurd “God” of its Roman Catholic inheritance … the “God” who, to the mediaeval mind, had to be responsible for the Plague.
But before we unpack that thesis, here’s a synopsis of the story for those who are unfamiliar with it:
Walter, the Marquis of Saluzzo falls in love with and marries Griselda, a peasant girl. He tests her loyalty by declaring that their first child — a daughter — must be put to death. Griselda obediently gives her up without protest, declaring her obligation to her husband. He does the same thing with their second child — a son. Griselda, again, loyally submits. Meanwhile, Walter secretly has been sending the children away to Bologna to be raised rather than killed. In a final test, Walter publicly renounces Griselda, claiming he has been granted a papal dispensation to divorce her in order to find and marry a “better” woman. Her obedience is flawless. Without complaint she goes home in rags to live with her father. Some years later, Walter announces he is to remarry and calls Griselda back to the palace and orders her, now as a servant, to prepare the wedding celebrations. He introduces her to a twelve-year old girl he claims is to be his bride (but who is really their daughter.) Griselda dutifully wishes them well. At this, Walter reveals their grown children to her and Griselda is restored to her place as wife, Marquise and mother.
The great poet Francesco Petrarch was so taken with “The Tale of Griselda” that he memorized the entire thing word for word so he could retell it at gatherings of friends. Petrarch was a celebrated international man of letters. Together with Dante Alighieri he dominated the 14th century and is considered the “father of renaissance humanism.” He decided to translate the Tale of Griselda into latin — which at that time was the lingua franca of the literate classes. The translation by a man of such prestige insured an international readership to Boccaccio’s story. Petrarch, even though a fast personal friend of Boccaccio, had been unaware of the existence of the Decameron until toward the end of his life. This surprising fact reveals how little diffusion the work had received in Italy. Boccaccio was an unknown. The two friends occupied different strata of social recognition. Petrarch was quite fond of Boccaccio but in the way an older well-established literary guru is of his younger admirer and brilliant but obscure student. Chaucer’s Clerk, in a rare acknowledgement of “source,” attributes his tale to “Petrak,” not to Boccaccio. It seems probable that Chaucer himself was introduced to the work of Boccaccio through reading (or meeting) Petrarch. It seems hardly likely that the Decameron, so little known in Italy that even a friend was unaware of it, would have been widely circulated in England. But later Chaucer used other tales found in Boccaccio, and so the situation might have changed. Chaucer’s insistence on using Petrarch’s name as the tale’s author was his way of enhancing the importance of the Canterbury Tales.
Now, the nature of Petrarch’s enthusiasm for the tale was explained in a letter he wrote to Boccaccio in 1373. In that letter, Petrarch states that his object in translating it was not to induce women to imitate the patience of Griselda, “but to lead readers … to submit themselves to God with the same courage as did this woman to her husband.“ (emphasis mine) The Plague had decimated Europe only 20 years before. Everyone alive had memories still open and bleeding from the loss of family and friends. As I read this, Griselda’s tale is a commentary on exactly that overwhelming question that obsessed the minds of 14th century Europeans: “… how and why did a supposedly ‘good God’ let this [the Plague] happen to us?” And, given the submissiveness of Petrarch to the teachings of the Church, his reaction is entirely consistent with his known character. Petrarch was enthralled with this tale because it represented what he considered the proper Christian attitude to be assumed in the face of the plague and suffering in general. And J.B., as drawn by MacLeish, displays it as well. Griselda’s forgiveness of Walter mirrors J.B.’s forgiveness of Mr.Zoos for what we all recognize to be a senseless unforgivable torment, motivated by nothing but a sadistic narcissism. How could “God” visit such an ordeal on Christian Europe for no other reason than to test its constancy?
In commenting on the Clerk’s Tale, Barbara Newman agrees that Griselda’s story proclaims that “conjugal loyalty is … a perfect analog of the soul’s obedience to God …” She continues:
… if Griselda signifies the faithful Christian, then Walter must represent God — but is not that precisely the point? In this Petrarchian (sic!) allegory, which too many critics read as a mystification, we may find a last and perhaps more benign explanation for the popularity of child sacrifice plots. At a time when … the apocalyptic mind perceived in the endless wars, famines and plagues of the age a whole series of deals between God and Satan, God must often have seemed to bereft mortals like a celestial Walter.
Boccaccio, for his part, it seems, provided a commentary on the tale through the framing remarks of his narrator, Dioneo, whose character, known to be flip and satirical, warns his listeners in advance not to take the “moral” of the tale seriously. But he clearly states that its subject matter is the role of women in marriage. He appears to be ridiculing the ideal of wifely submissiveness, implying a literalist reading of the tale. But is that all?
Chaucer himself, in a revision of an earlier edition of the CT, added an “envoy” (an epilogue) to the Clerk’s Tale. The speaker in the revised version is now the “Host” (surely, Chaucer himself), not the Clerk. In his straightforward mockery of Griselda’s reactions, Chaucer is both playfully sarcastic on the one hand, ― saying, we know how you women really react when your husbands are overbearing: you nag and carp, you load them with guilt and you make them jealous ― and quite serious, on the other, as he warns the men: “don’t try this Griselda-test at home,” and encourages the women: “when you are treated like this, fight back!” But if my reading of what’s really going on here is correct, Chaucer’s critique, like Boccaccio’s, runs a lot deeper than this apparent call for marital fairness.
I believe this tale is an allegory representing the traditional response to the sufferings of life, and both Boccaccio and Chaucer demur. The very fact that the issue is joined in a tale about marriage supports the allegorical interpretation. Marriage was the arch-symbol of the relationship with “God.” It would never have been lost on late mediaeval Christians that marriage symbolized the union between Yahweh and Israel (Osee, and other OT prophets), “God” and the individual soul (Song of Solomon, and mediaeval mystical lierature), and Christ and the Church (Paul ‘s letter to the Ephesians). It was an allegory derived from a traditional symbol, and Petrarch understood it exactly that way. It explains his enthusiasm for Griselda’s reaction and the frank admission to Boccaccio of his edifying intentions in translating and promoting it.
The sufferings that result from natural catastrophes like the Plague are aggravated exponentially when they are viewed as the work of “providence.” For it’s is only under a regimen of “God’s” personal management that calamities lose their random innocence and become “willed” or “permitted” by “someone.” Simple bad luck, in other words, becomes an incomprehensible animosity, or the punitive rage of an insulted tyrant or, at very best, a tortuous “test” imposed by a benevolent but paranoid ego-maniac like Walter. We must recognize that, at one time or another, all these characterizations of “God” have functioned — and sometimes simultaneously — in the history of the humanoid “God” imagined by the religions of the “Book.” Walter’s “benevolence” represented the best of these scenarios, but if the tale does anything, it illustrates how morally unacceptable even that is. The severe losses that one suffers in life become, psychologically speaking, unbearable when they are believed to be purposely inflicted for no reason except “God’s” need to feel himself trusted. Such a “God” would be more insecure than we are.
The claim that sufferings of whatever magnitude are intended for our benefit loses all credibility when translated into griselda-terms. That “God” could not possibly want these things was a realization that spread with the Plague. Simplistic attitudes about “providence” are still in evidence today in the ludicrous interpretations people give to natural disasters. Many but not all are prejudiced, hateful and condemnatory, but even those that are intended to be consoling are incomprehensible. “God,” clearly, has nothing whatsoever to do with any of it. Therefore, “God,” as literally imagined by “the Book,” does not exist.
That conclusion and the questions it raises have been the defining mark of the modern mind.
Walter displays all the odious self-centeredness necessary to explain such cruel behavior, and, as repeated in all versions, he comes to be hated by his people. The criticism of the standard recommended response to suffering implies a thorough rejection of the fundamental Western “doctrine of God” designed to explain it. Both Boccaccio and Chaucer use their framing remarks to clarify what may have been hidden by the “the husband’s” disguise. It is exactly the kind of clandestine criticism one would expect from master story-tellers who had to present their “theological” dissent in carefully crafted symbolic narratives in order to outmaneuver the literalist nets of the inquisitors.
“Given the undeserved suffering in life,” they seem to be saying, “your God — the ‘God’ you have always imagined — would have to be like Walter, at best. What does it take to realize no such ‘God’ could possibly exist?”
From our point of view, they are right, of course. Where do we go from here?
 Cf Paul Ricoeur, Evil tr Bouden, Continuum, 1985 (2004) p.72: “… the end of the book of Job, where it is said Job comes to love God gratuitously, thus making Satan lose his original bet.”
 Synopsis taken from “Griselda’s Tale” in Wikipedia
 The translation was made in 1373, Petrarch died in 1374.
 Chaucer traveled to the continent on many occasions in the service of the king. One, in 1373, may have included Petrarch.
 Petrarch, Letter 3, Book XVII, translated by James Harvey Robinson (NY: G.P. Putnam, 1898) The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters
 Barbara Newman, From Virile Woman to Woman Christ, Phila., U of PA Pr, 1995, p.100, emphasis mine.
 Ibid, p.105
 I think especially of Pat Roberts who said that the Haitian earthquake of January 2010 was punishment on the Haitian People because they had “sold their soul to the devil” to gain independence fromFrance in 1803.