There is in Western literature a tenacious old tale about a much-tried woman named Patient Griselda. Boccaccio wrote one version, but the one I know is Chaucer’s; he puts it in the mouth of his Clerk in The Canterbury Tales.
Griselda is a beautiful and virtuous peasant girl chosen by Walter, an Italian marquis, as his wife. He cannot find repose in her goodness, loyalty, and native dignity, but is driven, seemingly by her ignoble birth, repeatedly to test her faithfulness and worthiness. First her young daughter and then her son are taken from her, and she is led to believe that they have been done away with to satisfy the populace’s desire not to be ruled by someone with peasant blood. She mourns, but still keeps faith.
After many years, Walter tells her he has decided to discard her for another wife of nobler blood. She returns to her father’s house in the village and takes up her old life. Then she is summoned to the castle and asked to prepare it for the arrival of a beautiful young woman— the daughter of an earl, and Walter’s prospective wife. Griselda accepts everything, not dumbly, as a dog accepts the kicks of its master; not even humbly, as we today are accustomed to think of humility, as a sniveling, Uriah Heep-like toadyism, but with tremendously moving simplicity.
The visiting noblewoman is revealed as Griselda’s daughter, whom Walter had spirited away years before to his sister’s household. The insatiably distrustful marquis finally owns himself satisfied, and all that was seemingly lost to Griselda is restored.
For me this story holds a mighty fascination. I contemplate it as I would some religious mystery. It seems to hold tremendous wisdom, obscure truth, almost but never quite within reach.
As even the Clerk who narrates the tale reminds us, the outline of the story recalls another great tale of testing, that of Job. Job found that he was right to remain true to God, because He was God. This does not help us very much with the Griselda story, however, since Walter bears so little resemblance to the divine image. Even as some sort of allegory there is a problem, for an allegory is supposed to work on both its levels. So, for instance, it would be no good just saying that Griselda was faithful to her husband because he represented God; in her story, and in her understanding, he is her husband and lord, but that is still, even in medieval times, something short of God. Or look at it this way—even if she is right to submit to this psychological cruelty, is there any way Walter’s behavior can possibly be justified? God has His reasons however impenetrable to us, concludes the book of Job, but Griselda’s husband’s reasons we are shown all too clearly, and they don’t even impress Chaucer’s narrator.
But somehow Griselda does impress, even in this emancipated century. Years after I first grappled with Griselda in college, I took part in an adult seminar on this tale, with the participants ranging all over the lot in age, experience, and marital condition. Almost all felt the spell of this story and bent their minds to grapple with it on its own terms. If they’d come across something like it in the newspapers, they would probably have dismissed it in terms of spousal abuse and co-dependency. But when a legend is so long-lived, it speaks to something in us, even when we do not know exactly what that is.
It helps not to have motives and simplistic psychology spelled out for us. We hear nothing of her husband’s having been abused as a child, or coming from a broken home. We are not informed of Griselda’s lack of self-esteem or poor self-image. In fact, the flatness of her representation is a welcome discipline; it keeps us from underestimating her or explaining her away.
I cannot think of another heroine in all Western literature less congenial to the age of Gloria Steinem and NOW. Even in Chaucer’s time the narrator appends this cheeky moral at the end of his tale:
Griselda is dead, and also her patience,
And both together buried in Italy,
For which I cry in open audience
No wedded man so hardy be to assail
His wive’s patience in hope to find
Griselda, for in certain he shall fail.
Still, I cannot help acknowledging the more orthodox moral which precedes that one: that we, like her, should be patient in adversity. Oh, I know (and Americans stake their patriotism on it) that we have a right and sometimes a duty to rebel against injustices, but heaven knows such rebellion usually comes easily enough to us. We yell, we squabble, we protest, we march, we litigate. And it is hard realistically to imagine a different way of being in this world. But Griselda’s attraction lies not in her passivity (she is not passive, she actively accepts), but in her astonishing psychological healthiness. It is what she is rather than what she does that attracts, though we see dimly what she is through what she does.
She is simple (not simple-minded) and whole and focused. I recall what Jesus said about a different woman, Martha’s sister Mary: that one thing only was needful, and that she had chosen the better part.
Griselda is a woman faced with vertiginous changes in fortune and condition, with awesome responsibilities, delicate diplomatic challenges, and seemingly harrowing tragedy. She is no automaton undergoing this astonishing life unmoved, yet she is always aware, it seems, of the “one thing needful,” the thing she should be doing, the duty she should be fulfilling, the form of the mold into which she is being poured.
What are we left with? Certainly not a primer on marriage and motherhood, no guide on the etiquette for discarded noblewomen or the proper behavior toward an ex-husband’s new love. Griselda is not a blueprint but an enigma. She is a very odd kind of success story, a simple woman, a single-minded woman, a good woman. Faced with good fortune, she shows an uncloying humility and dignified resolution. Faced with insults and abandonment, she looks to how she may help her treacherous husband and her changeable neighbors.
The Clerk dwells, somewhat teasingly, on her silence, contrasting it with the stereotype of the argumentative wife. Yet Griselda’s most impressive quality is her faithfulness, her constancy silhouetted against the inconstancy of all those around her. Her famed “patience” is an extension of that inner fixedness of purpose. She married for better and for worse, and she recognizes that vow as much in the worse as in the better. She is strongly reminiscent of another mysterious woman transfixed by a sword of sorrow after surrendering her fiat to a more worthy Lord.