The General Prologue includes twenty-four portraits, each varying in description, lengths, and details. It is through the conversations of Chaucer-pilgrim with the various sojourners that we, the audience, make acquaintance with them. We are thus presented with the first act of reading in The Canterbury Tales. On that account, we need to recognize the act of reading beyond its sense of “[understanding] the meaning of written words” (“Read [v.]”). In the etymological sense of the term, “to read” is also associated with the implication “of [making] out the character of (a person)” (“Read [v.]”). Accordingly, we need to understand the nature of the pilgrims’ portraits as being closely related to Chaucer-pilgrim’s reading of his fellow pilgrims.
Yet, Chaucer-pilgrim adopts a somewhat problematic position in his portrayals. Most relevantly, Chaucer-pilgrim uses the same expression to describe various pilgrims. First, the Knight is described as a “worthy man” (I.43) for his chivalry, his loyalty, his honour and more (I.45-50); “he was a “verray, parfit, gentil knight” (I. 72). Second, the Friar is portrayed as a “worthy man” (I. 243) for he was “(…) the beste beggere in his hous” (I.252). Next, the Merchant, again a “worthy man” (I.279, 283), who made a name for himself in the business trade thanks to his “wit” (I.278-279). Finally, Chaucer-pilgrim describes the Wife of Bath as a “worthy woman al hir lyve” (I.259). Each and every one of these pilgrims differ in social and economic class, virtues, behaviours, etc. Yet, Chaucer-pilgrim claims that all of them are “worthy.”
The encompassing view of Chaucer-pilgrim’s portraits of the pilgrims has long been “explained as part of Chaucer’s genial enthusiastic appreciation of all kinds of people” (George 55). Although this may be true, without criticism, the non-judgmental tone denies any sort of guidance as to how to read the pilgrims. How is one supposed to read the text? The answer is “participatory reading.” By refusing to impose his authorial interpretation, Chaucer calls attention to the necessity of the audience’s involvement with the text and their interpretation to create meaning. Similarly, Chaucer positions himself as a reporter. He claims that the Tales are the result of accurate reporting; he is merely writing out what he has heard the pilgrims say (I. 725–738). As a result, Chaucer the author presents himself as an audience to the pilgrims. However, the following lines complicate this reading of Chaucer as a passive observer: Crist spak himself ful brode in Holy Writ, And wel ye woot, no vileynye is it. Eek Plato seith, whoso can him rede, The wordes moote be cosin to the dede. (I.739-42)
Here, Chaucer the poet appeals to authoritative figures to relinquish his own authority (Sharma). He expresses his submissive role as a reader through a dominating discourse as an author. This ambiguous assertion reveals the changing power dynamics between writer and reader in late-medieval England. At that period of time, authors are increasingly aware of their “changing status as writers” as a result of the rise of vernacular in late-medieval England (Blatt 2, 9–10, 195). Accordingly, Chaucer aligns himself with eminent authors , Christ and Plato, to assert his lack of authority, highlighting how medieval authors no longer possess the authorial control of their predecessors. Authority thus lands into the hands of an audience. By undermining his own authority, as an author, Chaucer raises awareness to the growing power of an audience to undercut his as well as other writers’ authority. Moreover, by establishing himself as both writer and reader, Chaucer stands as a representative for this collaborative relationship late-medieval writers sought to encourage, inviting, once again, his own audience to recognize the value of their engagement with the text and its author. Likewise, the Clerk in his prologue asserts himself as a reader to his source Petrarch (I.31-40), echoing Chaucer in the General Prologue. Once again, the audience is asked to acknowledge the power of interpretation and creation of reading.
Before sharing with the pilgrims the tale he has been told, the Clerk reveals finding the introduction to Petrarch’s The Story of Griselda “impertinent” (IV.54), irrelevant. He immediately departs from his source by excluding its proem (IV.43). From the beginning, the Clerk alerts his audience of the fact that he is not simply reciting from Petrarch’s text but he is actually offering a reading of it. He is a participant in his own right in the creation of meaning through interpretation of the tale. In addition, the Clerk actively engages with his own tale as a reader through repeated interjections. In the following passage, the Clerk criticizes the cruelty of men and their desire to test wives: He hadde assayed hire ynogh bifore, And foond hire evere good; what neded it Hire for to tempte, and alwey moore and moore, Though some men preise it for a subtil wit? But as for me, I seye that yvele it sit To assay a wyf whan that it is no nede, And putten hire in angwyssh and in drede. (IV.456–462) Here, the Clerk departs from the allegorical reading of Petrarch’s version. He disapproves of Walter’s treatment of Griselda, and thus diverges from the Petrarchan reading of Walter as a God-figure and Griselda as a Christian soul. Judith Bronfman notes in her book, Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale: The Griselda Story Received, Rewritten, Illustrated, how for the Clerk, “Walter is no God at all … God does not tempt mankind” (Bronfman 28; IV.1152–1155).
Even if Petrarch is the only named source of The Clerk’s Tale, another source is attributed by critics: Le Ménagier de Paris. This French translation proposes a reading of the story in terms of marital relations. The Norton Critical Guides note that this version was written “for the instruction of his young wife” (Le Ménagier de Paris ). Although the Clerk revokes the Petrarchan allegorical reading of the tale with his comments, his tale does not fully adhere to the French’s translation either. The Clerk invites his female audience to respond to Walter’s cruel treatment of Griselda: But now of wommen wolde I axen fayn, If thise assayes mighte nat suffyse? What coude a sturdy housbond more devyse To preve hir wyfhod and hir stedfastnesse, And he continuinge evere in sturdinesse? (IV.696–700) Here, the Clerk invites his female audience to not only question domestic issues but also to question the implications of such a reading of the tale. Above all, his direct address creates a similar dialogue to Chaucer’s address to his audience in the General Prologue. Both Chaucer and the Clerk invite their audiences to participate in the creation of meaning of the text. Here, they are asked to participate in a game of interpretation by questioning their own reading of the text, as an allegory, a marital affair, or perhaps something else.
The Clerk invites multiple potential readings to his Tale asking the readers to participate with him in the creation of meaning of the story of Griselda. The structure of The Clerk’s Tale acts, within the greater framework of The Canterbury Tales, as an additional invitation to the audience to participate with the text. The Clerk’s Tale is divided into six parts which allows the audience to take “moments to break from reading and reflect, which undoubtedly would lead to the formation of thoughts and opinions” (Arguelles 2). On top of its structure, multiple readings are built into The Clerk’s Tale from its teller’s interjections to the contradictory morals espoused by the narrative. On the one hand, the story ends with the Clerk upholding Petrarch’s spiritual moral which he repeatedly seemed to reject in his comments. He claims that wives should not follow Griselda’s example (IV.1142–1143), setting forth the interpretation of Griselda as a human soul, living “in vertuous suffraunce” (IV.1162). On the other hand, the Clerk addresses the Wife of Bath before the Envoy (IV.1170), connecting his reading of the story to marital affairs. In the first stanza of the Envoy, the Clerk warns husbands to not test their wives (IV.1177–1182).
In the following stanzas, he advises wives to not follow Griselda’s example and to stand firm against their husbands (IV.1183–1212). Critics such as Kittredge read “the envoy as simple irony, meaning the opposite of what it says” (Cherniss 242). In this sense, the Envoy stands as an ironic comment against the Wife of Bath (Cherniss 243–245), calling attention to Griselda’s status as a wife. In “Chaucer’s ‘Clerk’s Tale’ and the Question of Ethical Monstrosity,” J. Allan Mitchell asks how one is supposed to read Griselda: “The dilemma is whether to take Griselda at all as an example of character or conduct” (Mitchell 16). In her book, Bronfman claims that “[t] here is no correct answer [on how to read the story]” (Bronfman 128; Mitchell 2). The Clerk’s Tale’s inconsistencies and contradictions function in favour of engaging readers’ participation. The Clerk opens a discussion by offering various interpretations of the story and thus inviting the audience to question his as well as their own reading of the tale. Readers’ participation is central to the creation of meaning. Chaucer deploys in The Canterbury Tales a series of strategies to invite the audience to be aware of the necessity of their involvement with the text. First, the pilgrimage and the tale-telling contest serve as a structure for participatory readings within the text. By creating a framework which encourages interactions between the pilgrims, Chaucer invites the audience to be aware of the value of participation in the text. Second, Chaucer connects the acts of reading, his and the Clerk’s, to those of his audience to make them aware of the power of interpretation.
Finally, the Clerk’s own repeated attempts to read the story of Griselda invite the audience to participate with the text in a similar manner. Through these invitations to engage with the text, the readers become active participants in the creation of meaning and fulfill their role to late-medieval authors and their texts.