“He Nedes Moot Unto the Pley Assente”: Queer Fidelities and Contractual Hermaphroditism in Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale

  • Tison Pugh
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Readers of Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale frequently ponder why Griselda so patiently acquiesces to Walter’s outrageously cruel demands.1 Her unqualified and unyielding assent to abject cruelty troubles today’s sensibilities, and ample evidence suggests that this story proved likewise troubling to medieval readers. Mary Carruthers, for example, concludes that the story of Griselda “seems always to have left some of its readers in a state of puzzlement and with a feeling of distaste.”2 The same question, however, could also be directed to the Clerk himself: why does he consent to Harry Bailly’s storytelling game? The Clerk appears initially resistant to playing the Canterbury tale-telling game, yet he nonetheless acquiesces to the Host’s demands (4.21–25).3 In many ways, the narrative force of the Clerk’s Tale is predicated upon both the Clerk’s and Griselda’s stubborn refusal to refuse desires antithetical to their own. Although their respective acquiescences to external authority contrast sharply in degree—the Clerk succumbs to Harry Bailly’s bullying for a story, whereas Griselda sacrifices her children in response to Walter’s tyrannical cruelty—their shared disavowal of personal desires creates a troubling tension between submission and suffering that resonates throughout Prologue and Tale.


Gender Role Social Contract Queer Theory Personal Desire Male Audience 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Recent critical discussions of the Clerk’s Tale addressing the question of Griselda’s will and her submission to Walter’s demands include J. Allan Mitchell, “Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale and the Question of Ethical Monstrosity,” Studies in Philology 102.1 (2005): 1–26; William McClellan, “ ‘Ful pale face’: Agamben’s Biopolitical Theory and the Sovereign Subject in Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale,” Exemplaria 17.1 (2005): 103–34; Mark Miller, “Love’s Promise: The Clerk’s Tale and the Scandal of the Unconditional,” Philosophical Chaucer: Love, Sex, and Agency in the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 216–48; Rodney Delasanta, “Nominalism and the Clerk’s Tale Revisited,” Chaucer Review 31 (1997): 209–31, at pp. 214–18; Linda Georgianna, “The Clerk’s Tale and the Grammar of Assent,” Speculum 70.4 (1995): 793–821; Carolynn Van Dyke, “The Clerk’s and Franklin’s Subjected Subjects,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 17 (1995): 45–68; Andrew Sprung, “ ‘If it youre wille be’: Coercion and Compliance in Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale,” Exemplaria 7.2 (1995): 345–69; and Robert Emmett Finnegan, “ ‘She Should Have Said No to Walter’: Griselda’s Promise in the Clerk’s Tale,” English Studies 75.4 (1994): 303–21.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Mary Carruthers, “The Lady, the Swineherd, and Chaucer’s Clerk,” Chaucer Review 17.3 (1983): 221–34, at p. 222. For medieval constructions of Griselda’s story, see Amy W. Goodwin, “The Griselda Game,” Chaucer Review 39 (2004): 41–69; Charlotte C. Morse, “The Exemplary Griselda,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 7 (1985): 51–86; and Anne Middleton, “The Clerk and His Tale: Some Literary Contexts,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 2 (1980): 121–50.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    All references to and citations of Chaucer are taken from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987) and are noted parenthetically.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    I use the terms “heterosexual” and “homosexual” as appropriate lexical shorthands for describing sexual relationships in the Middle Ages, with full awareness of their limitations in regard to pre-Foucauldian sexualities. For a discussion of the issues inherent in discussing medieval sexualities, see the Introduction, pp. 7–11.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 62.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Charlotte Morse reviews the critical history of the tale in “Critical Approaches to The Clerk’s Tale,” Chaucer’s Religious Tales, ed. C. David Benson and Elizabeth Robertson (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1990), pp. 71–83.Google Scholar
  7. 9.
    Lee Edelman, “Queer Theory: Unstating Desire,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 2.4 (1995): 343–46, at p. 345.Google Scholar
  8. 10.
    Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 48.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Octave Mannoni addresses this tension between conflicting layers of knowledge and desire in the essay “I Know Well, But All the Same” (Perversion and the Social Relation, ed. Molly Anne Rothenberg, Dennis Foster, and Slavoj Žižek [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003], pp. 68–92). The very title of this essay captures the stunning disjointure between oppositional senses of knowledge and desire.Google Scholar
  10. 12.
    Molly Anne Rothenberg and Dennis Foster, “Introduction: Beneath the Skin: Perversion and Social Analysis,” Perversion and the Social Relation, p. 3.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    See Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), and Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990). Primary texts of Chaucerian gender criticism include Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989); and Holly Crocker, Chaucer’s Visions of Manhood (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    Scholarship on aggression in the Canterbury Tales includes Anne Laskaya, “Men in Love and Competition: The Miller’s Tale and the Merchant’s Tale,” Chaucer’s Approach to Gender in the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1995), pp. 78–98; Emily Jensen, “Male Competition as a Unifying Motif in Fragment A of the Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer Review 24 (1990): 320–28; and Carl Lindahl, “Conventions of a Narrative War,” Earnest Games: Folkloric Patterns in the Canterbury Tales (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), pp. 73–155.Google Scholar
  13. 16.
    Of course, Harry Bailly established the contractual nature of the game much earlier, when he declared in the General Prologue, “ ‘And therfore wol I maken yow disport, /As I seyde erst, and doon yow som confort. /And if yow liketh alle by oon assent /For to stonden at my juggement, /And for to werken as I shal yow seye’ ” (1.775–79). For a discussion of this passage, see chapter 3, pp. 52–54.Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    For scholarship on the ways in which gender and sexuality structure the Canterbury Tales, see my “Chaucer’s Queering Fabliaux,” Queering Medieval Genres, pp. 45–79; Susan Schibanoff, Chaucer’s Queer Poetics: Rereading the Dream Trio (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2006); Glenn Burger, Chaucer’s Queer Nation (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Richard E. Zeikowitz, Homoeroticism and Chivalry: Discourses of Male Same-Sex Desire in the Fourteenth Century (New York: Palgrave, 2003); Angela Jane Weisl, Conquering the Reign of Femeny: Gender and Genre in Chaucer’s Romance (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1995); and Susan Crane, Gender and Romance in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994). Google Scholar
  15. 18.
    According to the Middle English Dictionary, “mayde” may refer to a female or a male virgin: “1(a) An unmarried woman, usually young;… 2(a) A Virgin; (b) a virgin by religious vocation; (c) the Virgin Mary…; (d) a man who abstains from sexual experience for religious reasons; also a man lacking sexual experience.” Despite the possible ambiguity of “mayde” in relation to gender, the Host’s words contextually paint the Clerk as a newly wed bride in this brief tableau of marital jitters at the reception table, a typical scene that Chaucer parodies in the Merchant’s Tale (4.1750–82).Google Scholar
  16. 19.
    These clerks appear in fabliaux, and the generic expectations of such tales in some manner necessitate such lusty clerics. Still, the Clerk of the pilgrimage stands in direct contrast to the sexually frisky clerks depicted elsewhere in the Canterbury Tales.Google Scholar
  17. 20.
    Johan Huizinga argues that play is a “free activity standing quite consciously outside ‘ordinary’ life.” He proceeds to describe play “as being ‘not serious,’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly” (Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture [Boston, MA: Beacon, 1950], p. 13). This conception of play’s voluntary and free qualities does not mesh well with the Host’s coercive sense of fun and amusement.Google Scholar
  18. 21.
    Barrie Ruth Straus, “Reframing the Violence of the Father: Reverse Oedipal Fantasies in Chaucer’s Clerk’s, Man of Law’s, and Prioress’s Tales,” Domestic Violence in Medieval Texts, ed. Eve Salisbury, Georgiana Donavin, and Merrall Llewelyn Price (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002), 122–38, at p. 124.Google Scholar
  19. 22.
    Gail Ashton, “Patient Mimesis: Griselda and the Clerk’s Tale,” Chaucer Review 32 (1998): 232–38, at p. 236.Google Scholar
  20. 26.
    Ann W. Astell, “Translating Job as Female,” Translation Theory and Practice in the Middle Ages, ed. Jeanette Beer (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1997), 59–69, at p. 60.Google Scholar
  21. 27.
    Jill Mann, “Satisfaction and Payment in Middle English Literature,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 5 (1983): 17–48, at pp. 43–45.Google Scholar
  22. 28.
    Lynn Staley Johnson, “The Prince and His People: A Study of the Two Covenants in the Clerk’s Tale,” Chaucer Review 10 (1975): 17–29, at p. 27.Google Scholar
  23. 31.
    Kathryn L. Lynch, “Despoiling Griselda: Chaucer’s Walter and the Problem of Knowledge in the Clerk’s Tale,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 10 (1988): 41–70, at p. 44.Google Scholar
  24. 32.
    The crowd, however, displays little consistency in their desires, first asking Walter to marry and approving of Griselda, then disapproving of Walter, and finally approving of him again. The crowd can thus be seen to embody the fickleness and unknowability of desire, as well as the need for governance, as Michaela Paasche Grudin observes: “Contrasted with both Walter and Griselda, the diversity and changeability of the crowd becomes a powerful argument for the need for authority” (“Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale as Political Paradox,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 11 [1989]: 63–92, at p. 81).Google Scholar
  25. 33.
    Studies of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 in relation to Chaucer and fourteenth-century literature include Marion Turner, “Troilus and Criseyde and the ‘Treasonous Aldermen’ of 1382: Tales of the City in Late Fourteenth-Century London,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 25 (2003): 225–57; J. Stephen Russell, “Is London Burning?: A Chaucerian Allusion to the Rising of 1381,” Chaucer Review 30.1 (1995): 107–09; Susan Crane, “The Writing Lesson of 1381,” Chaucer’s England: Literature in Historical Context, ed. Barbara Hanawalt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), pp. 201–21; and Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).Google Scholar
  26. 41.
    According to the Middle English Dictionary, “wif” refers generally to a “human biological female, a woman” with the more contextual sense of a “female partner in procreation,” “mother,” and “mistress of a household.” It is, therefore, possible that the Clerk’s use of “wyves” refers to all women and not specifically to married women. The context of his tale, however, indicates that he uses the word in its matrimonial and familial denotation.Google Scholar
  27. 42.
    That Harry refers to the Clerk’s tale as “gentil” also highlights the social class issues inherent in the tale-telling competition, as the ostensibly aristocratic trait of gentility that Harry praises is one which he is culturally denied as a bourgeois man. For a discussion of gentility in regard to Harry, see chapter 3, esp. pp. 57–59.Google Scholar
  28. 47.
    Other Canterbury Tales also deny narrative pleasure, such as the Squire’s Tale, the Tale of Sir Thopas, and the Tale of Melibee, but the ways in which the Clerk’s Tale refuses readerly pleasures appears to be a unique instance of an aggression bleeding into the tale and foreclosing easy enjoyment of the text. Enjoyment of the Clerk’s Tale can nonetheless be found queerly, freed from the bounds of normative readings.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Tison Pugh 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Tison Pugh

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations