The portrayal of women by Geoffrey Chaucer is a topic that to this day inspires thought provoking debate. Two interesting characters are Grisildis, from The Clerk’s Tale, and Custance, from the Man of Laws Tale. Both women, while either major characters or the main character, take little if any true actions in their tale. Instead, they allow the male presences in the stories to drive the plot while they affect the story by their mere presence.
The women in the two tales exemplify idealize characteristics of women in the middle ages. Griselda in impossible and perfectly faithful, despite the trials and tribulations inflicted upon her and her children, while Constance’s silent power of Christian conversion is seemingly Christ-like. Both women however have the unfortunate trait or luck that leads them repetitively into terrible situations.
While discussing these two tales in class, a common theme that continued to surface was the similarities to biblical stories. Constance has some similar qualities to Christ, but with notable flaws. Griselda draws comparisons to both Abraham, with the willing yet ultimately unneeded sacrifice of his son, and to Job, who patiently and faithfully suffered in the name of the Lord.
Concerning Griselda in the Man of Laws Tale, our group discussion lead us to determine that her qualities of idealized patience and faithfulness to her husband, while seen as a virtuous quality in the time of Chaucer, would not be popular in today’s society. In fact, the things she allows could be considered an instance of criminal negligence or abuse today. Griselda’s virtues are not however the whole of the story. As pointed out in our discussion, Chaucer states that, while women should be like Griselda, that it’s actually impossible, or as he says “I openly declare that no married man should be so harsh as to try his wife’s patience in hope of finding another Griselda, for he shall certainly fail.” Essentially, no woman can hope to be so patient as Griselda, so it falls to men to not treat their wives as Walter does. Chaucer does in fact paint Walter as a villain, as someone who should in no way be emulated.
Constance’s ideal virtue is her powerful, Christ like belief. Her belief leads her to numerous conversions as she searches for a suitable husband. She is not, however, Jesus, and must therefore be continuously bailed out of situations by God. In our class group, Constance was seen as more of a “modern” woman. A woman who was more worldly than most, but at the same time never seemed to evolve over the course of the tale. From beginning to end, her actions, and the actions of those around her follow the same routine. Constance continues on her seemingly ill-fated journey though, because it is her role to play; she must obay the authority in her life.
Both Constance and Griselda show a similar theme in their willing subjection to authority. For Constance, this is obeying the will of her father in finding a husband, and for Griselda, this is obeying the will of her husband. This idea plays well in the Man of Laws tale, where the father is both loving and understanding, and God interjects to rescue Constance whenever needed. In the Clerk’s tale though, there is an absence of the power of God. Griselda suffers with no help from the Lord in the fashion of Job. This was also an interesting topic in class. If Walter is supposed to be a portrayal of God, where is the compassion and understanding? Is this how we are supposed to view God? Indeed we came to the conclusion that even though Walter is the authority, and Griselda in her perfect obedience must obey him, Walter is not a figure to be emulated in any way.
The women in these two tales are representative of idealized virtues in the ideas and social norms of the time. It will be interesting to see if Chaucer continues with this portrayal of women in his other stories, or changes his writing style.