Boccaccio’s Griselda in new contexts of Petrarch & Chaucer

Griselda being exiled

In the last story of the last day of Boccaccio’s Decameron, Gualtieri imposed brutal tests of fidelity on his wife Griselda. That Griselda story has the moral starkness of Abraham’s binding of Isaac. However, marriage, unlike child sacrifice, was a matter of ordinary life in medieval Europe. The Griselda story works within the Decameron’s program of confronting moral absolutes with ordinary life.[1] In translating Boccacco’s Griselda story, Petrarch shifted it to clerical moralization, while Chaucer moved it toward noble ladies’ amusement.

In the Decameron, Dioneo’s first words in framing the Griselda story contrasted ideals of hospitality with guileful behavior. The theme for the stories of Day 10 is “those who acted with liberality or magnificence.” The story preceding Dioneo’s told of Messer Torello’s great hospitality and courtesy to a disguised Saladin. Subsequently, after Muslims had captured Torello during a Crusade, Saladin in appreciation for Torello’s earlier hospitality magically enabled Torello to return home. Dioneo laughed at that story and said:

The good man who was looking forward to raising and lowering the bogeyman’s tail the next night would have given less than two cents for all the praise you are bestowing on Messer Torello. [2]

Dioneo’s statement apparently refers to the lover having sex with another man’s wife after he and she had outrageously duped the husband about their extra-marital affair. Dioneo contrasted the mundane intrigue of ordinary life with an extraordinary romance of intercultural hospitality. Such polarization is central to Boccaccio’s Griselda story.[3]

Gualtieri’s marriage proposal to Griselda is more ordinary in Boccaccio’s Griselda than in Petrarch’s and Chaucer’s versions. Caliphs in the ancient Islamic world became subservient to their slave-girl wives. Before wedding the peasant Griselda, the lord Gualtieri asked her some questions:

He asked her whether, if he were to wed her, she would do her best to please him and never get upset at anything he ever said or did, and whether she would be obedient, and many other things of this sort, to all of which she replied that she would.

These questions aren’t marked with cruelty.[4] Petrarch’s version is significantly different. In Petrarch’s version, Gualtieri hinted at objectifying Griselda, who in turn explicitly invoked thought control and a commandment to death:

“I {Gualtieri} must ask you {Griselda} whether … you are ready and willing never to disagree with my will in anything, just as I agree with you in everything, and whatever I wish to do with you, you will let me with all your heart, without any gesture or word of repugnance.”

To this she replied, trembling with astonishment, “I know, my lord, that I am unworthy of so great an honor. But if it is your wish and if it is my lot, I will not only never knowingly do, but not even think anything that is against your wishes, nor will you ever do anything, even if you order me to die, that I would bear grudgingly. [5]

Chaucer’s version backed away from Griselda’s self-depersonalization and added sadistic specificity to Gualtieri’s request:

“I say this: are you ready to submit with good heart
to all my desires, and that I may freely,
as seems best to me, make you laugh or feel pain,
and you never to grouch about it, at any time?
And also when I say `yes,’ you will not say `nay,’
neither by word nor frowning countenance?
Swear this, and here I swear our alliance.”

Wondering upon these words, trembling for fear,
she said, “Lord, unsuitable and unworthy
am I of that same honor that you offer me,
but as you desire yourself, right so I desire.
And here I swear that never willingly,
in deed nor thought, will I disobey you,
even to be dead, though I would hate to die. [6]

Boccaccio’s version could pass as medieval marital pieties for both Gualtieri and Griselda. Griselda’s response is inhumanely extreme in Petrarch’s version, while Gualtieri’s proposal is sadistically extreme in Chaucer’s version.

In reclothing Griselda before the wedding, Boccaccio’s version moved to the inhumane extreme. Imagine:

Gualtieri, taking Griselda by the hand, led her outside and in the presence of his entire company as well as all the other people living there, he had her stripped naked. Then he called for the clothing and shoes he had ordered for her and quickly had them dress her

Gualtieri directed this action in specific steps. There he was, looking at his naked wife-to-be, in the presence of all the people. She should have been outraged. Her father should have been outraged. All the people there should have vigorously condemned Gualtieri’s shameless behavior. The story should have ended right there.

Petrarch’s and Chaucer’s versions mitigated Boccoccio’s shocking disrobing and reclothing of Griselda. Petrarch separated Gualtieri’s overall order from its discrete and loving implementation:

Lest Griselda bring into her new home any trace of her former condition, he Gualtieri ordered her to be undressed and to be clothed from head to foot in new garments. This was carried out discreetly and speedily by the ladies in waiting, who vied in cuddling her in their bosom and on their lap.

Chaucer left the people in the background and ironically shifted attention from Griselda’s body to her old clothes:

And so that nothing of her old belongings
she would bring into his house, he ordered
that women should undress her right there.
These ladies were not very happy
to handle her clothes, in which she was clad.
But nevertheless, this maid bright of hue
from foot to head they have clothed all new.

The maid bright of hue might have been embarrassed to be so undressed. In Petrarch’s and Chaucer’s versions, both Gualtieri’s marriage proposal to Griselda and his publicly redressing of her have notes of extraordinary inhumanity. Boccaccio’s version is polarized: the marriage proposal is ordinary, and the redressing is extraordinary.

Dioneo framed the Griselda story with contrasts between moral absolutes and ordinary life. Before telling the story of Griselda, he declared:

I want to tell you about a Marquis whose behavior was not an example of magnanimity, but of senseless brutality. And even though things turned out well for him in the end, I would not recommend that you follow his lead

Dioneo concluded the story with commentary similarly invoking moral extremes and connecting them to ordinary life:

What more is there left to say except that divine spirits may rain down from the heavens even into the houses of the poor, just as there are others in royal palaces who might be better suited to tending pigs than ruling men. Who, aside from Griselda, would have suffered, not merely dried eyed, but with a cheerful countenance, the cruel, unheard-of trials to which Gualtieri subjected her? Perhaps it would have served him right if, instead, he had run into the kind of woman who, upon being thrown out of her house in her shift, would have found some nice guy to give her fur a good shaking and got a nice new dress in the bargain. [7]

Dioneo challenges the reader of Boccaccio’s Griselda to connect moral absolutes to ordinary life. When Gualtieri proposed to divorce Griselda, after he had already pretended to kill their two children, an Italian reader late in the fourteenth century wrote in his copy of the Decameron in the voice of Griselda:

Go piss on your hand, Gualtieri! Who’ll give me back twelve years? The gallows? [8]

No earthly punishment could suffice for what Gualtieri appeared to do, or even for what he did do. Another fourteenth-century reader, however, explained that Gualtieri’s father had been cuckolded and war had resulted among his two sons, each claiming legitimacy. According to this account, Gualtieri’s extreme testing of Griselda resulted from his personal trauma and intense concern for paternity certainty.[9] Abraham’s binding of Isaac was an other-worldly horror of fidelity to God. Obedience and betrayal in marriage were concerns of ordinary life.

Petrarch’s version turned Boccaccio’s Griselda story from flesh to spirit, from muddling through to moral inspiration. Petrarch translated Boccaccio’s vernacular Griselda to the clerical language of Latin. In addition to expanding references to virtues, Petrarch also appended a moralization:

I decided to retell this story in another language {Latin} not so much to encourage the married women of our day to imitate this wife’s patience, which seems to me hardly imitable, as to encourage the readers to imitate at least this woman’s constancy, so that what she maintained toward her husband they may maintain toward our God.

According to Petrarch, a Paduan friend broke down weeping and could not continue reading the Griselda story that Petrarch had translated into Latin. A Veronese read that translation and didn’t weep because “the whole thing was made up” and that no woman could act like Griselda. Petrarch suggested that these readers didn’t understand his translation.[10] With greater sophistication, Petrarch suggested that these readers responded not to the moral teaching of his Latin translation, but as readers of Boccaccio’s Griselda. Petrarch’s self-criticism with regard to his Griselda version seems actually directed at Boccaccio:

If ever I need to write either to you or to others, I shall write so as to be understood but not to amuse myself.

Petrarch seems not to have appreciated Dioneo amusingly connecting moral absolutes to ordinary life in telling Boccaccio’s Griselda. Dioneo’s telling of Griselda provided no moralization. Within the Decameron, Boccaccio’s Griselda prompted lengthy discussion: “the ladies inclined to one side or the other in their responses, some criticizing one detail in it, some praising another.”[11]

While Boccaccio pretended to write the Decameron for noble ladies, Chaucer actually shifted Boccaccio’s Griselda toward noble ladies’ amusement. Taking down a big man is a favored pattern for a man entertaining women. In his version of Griselda, Chaucer took down Petrarch. Petrarch was a cleric. Chaucer told the Griselda story as The Clerk’s Tale. Its prologue teased the clerk:

For God’s sake, cheer up!
It is no time to study here.
Tell us some merry tale, by your faith!
For whatever man is entered in a game,
he of necessity must assent unto the rules.
But preach not, as friars do in Lent,
to make us weep for our old sins,
And let not your tale put us to sleep.
Tell us some merry thing of adventures.
Your technical terms, your figures of speech, and your rhetorical devices —
keep them in reserve until it so be that you compose
high style, as when men write to kings.
Speak so plainly at this time, we pray of you,
that we can understand what you say.

The prologue proceeded to refer to a “worthy clerk … now dead and nailed in his chest.” Chest most directly means coffin, but being nailed in the chest also ironically suggests restraining a demonic figure.[12] The clerk is then explicitly identified as “Francis Petrarch, the laureate poet.” According to Chaucer, being a laureate poet didn’t make Petrarch immortal. Death “as if it were a twinkling of an eye” had slain Petrarch, as it will everyone else in the mass of humanity from which Petrarch self-consciously distinguished himself. Moreover, “a twinkling of an eye” alludes to a Biblical verse that highlights change in resurrecting the dead.[13] Chaucer’s  prologue explicitly referred to the long proem that begins Petrarch’s Griselda in high style. Chaucer’s prologue noted of Petrarch proem, “It seems to me a thing irrelevant.” Chaucer made fun of Petrarch while translating the Griselda story.

In translating Petrarch’s and Boccacio’s Griselda versions, Chaucer added narrative interruptions in support of wives. Noble ladies in Chaucer’s audience would have nodded in agreement with the narrator’s interjection:

He had tested her enough before,
and found her always good. Why was it needed
to test her, and always more and more,
though some men praise its ingenuity?
But as for me, I say that it ill befits one
to test a wife when there is no need,
and put her in anguish and in dread.

The narrator also interrupted with an explicit address to women:

But now I would like to ask of women
if these tests might not suffice?
What could a cruel husband more devise
to test her wifehood and her steadfastness,
and he continuing ever in cruelty?

These interruptions emphasize questioning Gualtieri’s testing and devalue moral absolutes of fidelity or obedience. They undercut Petrarch’s attempt to inspire persons with extreme virtue. They also lessen Boccaccio’s challenge to readers to reconcile ordinary life with moral absolutes.

Chaucer included at the end of his Griselda another explicit reference to Petrarch and high style. Chaucer translated Petrarch’s moralization:

And listen to what this author says there before.
This story is said not so that wives should
follow Griselda in humility,
for it would be intolerable, though they would,
but so that every person, in his station in life,
should be constant in adversity
as was Griselda. Therefore Petrarch writes
this story, which with high style he composes.

The imperative “listen to what this author says” easily carries a shade of incredulity. Chaucer translated Petrarch’s Latin moralization into the vernacular piety “be constant in adversity.” The closing reference to “high style” in this context seems gently mocking.

Following his translation of Petrarch’s moralization, Chaucer apparently alluded to Boccaccio’s Griselda, but developed that allusion in a different direction. At the end of Boccaccio’s Griselda, Dioneo suggested that no one other than Griselda could have endured Gualtieri’s tests. Chaucer’s clerk storyteller similarly concluded:

It would be very difficult to find now-a-days
in all the town Griseldas three or two.

Dioneo described a possibility after marital breakdown: the ex-wife seeking sex and getting paid for it. Chaucer’s alternative was narrower and more gender-symmetric. With a prayer for the Wife of Bath and her sect to be masters of their husbands, Chaucer reversed the direction of cruelty. He urged wives:

Fear them not. Do them no reverence,
for though your husband be armed in chain-mail,
the arrows of your spiteful eloquence
shall pierce his breast and also his neck-guard.
In jealousy I advise also that you bind him,
and you shall make him cower as does a quail.
If you be fair, where folk are present,
show your visage and your apparel;
If you are ugly, be lavish in your expenditures.
To get friends for yourself always work hard.
Be ever in behavior as light as a leaf on a linden tree,
and let him grieve, and weep, and wring his hands, and wail!

Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale explicitly called for an end to serious matter. It continued with song and intricate literary play. Chaucer translated Petrarch’s Griselda into entertainment, most probably for noble ladies.[14] That isn’t a true restoration of Boccaccio’s Griselda.[15]

In medieval and early modern Europe, Petrarch’s Griselda story was much more influential than Boccacio’s Griselda.[16] In English-language scholarship and teaching today, Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale gets much more attention than either Petrarch’s or Boccaccio’s Griselda. That’s a parochial failure like the medieval reception of the Decameron. Recognizing moral ideals and struggling to reconcile them with ordinary life enriches human life.

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[1] Giovanni Boccaccio, Decameron, Day 1, Introduction, describes the plague that ravished Florence. Those extreme conditions generated a wide range of behaviors. Some Florentians abandoned fundamental moral commitments: “even worse, and almost unbelievable, is that fathers and mothers refused to tend to their children and take care of them, treating them as if they belonged to someone else.” From Italian trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 9.

[2] Decameron, Day 10, Story 10, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 839. Dioneo’s symbolically obscure statement refers to Day 7, Story 1, a story about a cuckolded man. In context, “raising and lowering the bogeyman’s tail” suggests motion characteristic of sexual intercourse. The term “good man” is a common, ironic medieval term for a cuckolded man. But here it seems to have a different irony.

All subsequent quotes from Boccaccio’s Griselda, unless otherwise noted, are from id. pp. 839-50.  The theme for Day 10 is declared in the conclusion of Day 9. Id. p. 749.

[3] A man named Gualtieri also figures in Decameron 2.8. That story contrasts virtue in ordinary life with rationalizations of romance.

[4] The Decameron addresses Ephesians 5:22-33 in the context of the brigata ladies’ demand for service from men.

[5] Francis Petrarch, Rerum senilium libri (Letters of Old Age} XVII.3 (to Boccaccio), from Latin trans.  Bernardo, Levin & Bernardo (1992) v. 2, p. 660. Subsequent quotes from Petrarch, unless otherwise noted, are from id. pp. 665-8. Letter XVII.3 has prefatory text, the Griselda story, and subsequent text. An online version in translation extracted the Griselda story and appended to the remainder of Letter XVII.3 part of Letter XVII.4. See mislabeled letter to Boccaccio.

Griselda’s willingness to die at her husband’s command echoes the understanding of love (kenosis) in Philippians 2:6-8. Goodwin (2004) p. 56 observes:

he {Petrarch} overloads the narrative’s didactic content as he deepens the reader’s emotional response. Petrarch boldly purples the prose, and we should recognize as Petrarch’s artistic, experimental choices the surfeit of moral didacticism and the increased emotional involvement of the reader.

The increased emotional involvement is imaginatively third-personal. Boccaccio’s Griselda makes emotional involvement more specific and relevant to the particular reader.

Le ménagier de Paris (The Householder of Paris), compiled about 1393, includes an Old French translation of Petrarch’s Griselda. The translation follows Petrarch’s text closely. However, Griselda’s response to Gualtieri’s marriage proposal omits her willingness to be ordered to die. Le ménagier de Paris, 1.6.8, trans. Greco & Rose (2009) p. 108.

[6] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Clerk’s Tale ll. 351-64, in modernized English by Benson (2006), with my slight changes. Subsequent quotes from The Clerk’s Tale are from Benson’s modernization, ll. 372-8, 7-20, 31-41, 53-4, 456-62,  696-700, 1142-8, 1164-5, 1201-12.

[7] The contrast between “senseless brutality” and “divine spirits” suggests poles of Aristotle’s moral spectum from vice to virtue (Nichomachean Ethics, Bk. 7). Goodwin (2004) p. 47.

[8] Marginal comment of Francesco d’Amaretto Mannelli in his copy of the Decameron in 1384, from Italian trans. Green (2012) p. 49, citing K.P. Clarke’s study of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, MS Plut. 42,1. The husband-narrator of Le Ménagier de Paris observed that the Griselda story “contains excessive accounts of cruelty, in my opinion more than was fitting.” See 1.6.10, trans. Greco & Rose (2009) p. 119.

[9] As recounted in Thomas III, Marquis of Saluzzo (ca. 1355-1416), Le chevalier errant, s. 512-528, from Old French trans. Green (2012) pp. 51-62.

[10] Petrarch, Rerum senilium libri (Letters of Old Age} XVII.4 (to Boccaccio), from Latin trans.  Bernardo, Levin & Bernardo (1992) v. 2, p. 669-70. The subsequent quote is from id. p. 671.

[11] Staking a vampire through the heart existed in written literature probably only from the 18th century. But in Aeschylus’s 5th-century Greek play Prometheus Bound, the rebel Prometheus was staked through his chest to a desolate crag.

[12] Decameron, Day 10, Conclusion, trans. Rebhorn (2013) p. 851.

[13] 1 Corinthians 15:52.

[14] Chaucer, on the margin of the English court as a member of the gentry, plausibly wrote at least partly for women meeting separately from the royal court. The Garter sorority might have provided such a context. McDonald (2000) pp. 26-9. Something like Madeleine de Scudéry’s seventeenth-century French salon might have existed in fourteenth-century England.

Green (1983) argues that women weren’t in the English royal court “in significant numbers until the final years of the fourteenth century.” Id. p. 153. Yet less often noticed are Green’s comments buried in the concluding endnote:

This paper … is intentionally speculative; if it merits publication at all, it is as a stimulus to further investigation, and no one would be less surprised than myself if such investigation were to prove its conclusions nugatory.

Id. p. 154, n. 28. Perhaps Chaucer also wrote for women within the English royal court.

[15] Schwebel (2013) p. 275 states:

it is not in vague, verbal echoes that we see the ghost of Boccaccio’s original work in the Clerk’s Tale but in Chaucer’s methodical undoing of the editorial adjustments that Petrarch first made to Decameron X.10. The Clerk’s Tale is thus less of a translation than a restoration, as it brings us closer to the Boccaccian original than Petrarch ever desired to reach.

That Chaucer knew the Decameron seems probable. Id. See also Harkins (2013). The Clerk’s Tale is closer in its moral openness to Boccaccio’s Griselda than to its more direct source, Petrarch’s Griselda. But the Clerk’s Tale adds considerable literary posing and surface artifice that Boccaccio’s Griselda doesn’t have.

Academics working and writing in English overwhelmingly favor Chaucer over Boccaccio. Harkins (2013), p. 273, concludes that Chaucer’s translation made Boccaccio’s Griselda “something richer and stronger.” Academics writing in English have commonly evaluated similarly Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde relative to Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato. Such evaluations deserve more broad-minded and less orthodox reconsideration.

[16] Goodwin (2003) p. 130.

[image] Griselda being exiled. Painting from the Spalliera Panels’ story of Griselda. Oil, with some tempera on wood. Ca. 1494. In National Gallery, London. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons.


Benson, Larry, trans. 2006. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Clerk’s Tale (including its Prologue). The Geoffrey Chaucer Page, Harvard University.

Bernardo, Aldo S. , Saul Levin, and Reta A. Bernardo, trans. 1992. Francesco Petrarca {Petrarch}. Letters of old age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Goodwin, Amy W. 2003. “The Griselda Story in France.” Pp. 130-67 in vol. 1, Correale, Robert M., and Mary Hamel. 2003. Sources and analogues of the Canterbury Tales. Woodbridge: D. S. Brewer.

Goodwin, Amy W. 2004. “The Griselda Game.” Chaucer Review. 39 (1): 41-69.

Greco, Gina L., and Christine M. Rose, ed. and trans. 2009. The good wife’s guide; Le ménagier de Paris: a medieval household book. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Green, Richard Firth. 1983. “Women in Chaucer’s Audience.” The Chaucer Review. 18 (2): 146-154.

Green, Richard Firth. 2012. “Why Marquis Walter Treats His Wife So Badly.” The Chaucer Review. 47 (1): 48-62.

Harkins, Jessica. 2013. “Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale and Boccaccio’s Decameron X.10.” The Chaucer Review. 47 (3): 247-273.

McDonald, Nicole F. 2000. “Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, Ladies at Court and the Female Reader.” Chaucer Review. 35 (1): 22-42.

Rebhorn, Wayne A., trans. 2013. Giovanni Boccaccio. The Decameron. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Schwebel Leah. 2013. “Redressing Griselda: Restoration through translation in the Clerk’s Tale.” Chaucer Review. 47 (3): 274-299.

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