Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005
Weeping for the Virtuous Wife: Affective Piety, Adult Male Householders and the Popularity of the Griselda Legend

Nicole Nolan, East Carolina University

Students of medieval literature have long noted the remarkable popularity of the Griselda legend during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Petrarch’s morally serious Latin version of the legend – which first appears in Boccaccio’s Decameron -- inspires a wide variety of translations in French, Latin, and English. Chaucer’s version of the Griselda legend -- as “the Clerk’s Tale” in the Canterbury Tales -- becomes one of the author’s most popular fictions in the fifteenth century.

While scholarship has documented the Griselda legend’s notable career, it has yet to explain fully why this strange tale of abuse and endurance is so popular among late medieval audiences. This paper proposes that the Griselda legend’s strange popularity is best understood if we examine it in light of medieval lay masculinity. Specifically, I propose that the Griselda legend appeals to medieval laymen because its heroine’s wifely piety allows men to intervene emotionally in her legend as adult male members of households – an experience denied to them by conventional models of affective piety.

The paper begins by demonstrating that the Griselda legend’s popularity among medieval audiences is primarily a popularity among men (as opposed to the greater popularity among women of other medieval narratives like the St. Cecilia legend). Citing Petrarch’s letters and the frequent emotional interventions of Chaucer’s Clerk into his own version of the tale, the paper also demonstrates that the Griselda legend provokes an exceptionally intense emotional response amongst its male readers. The argument then turns to conventional models of lay sanctity and affective piety. Citing the research of Carolyn Walker Bynum on the highly feminized nature of affective piety and citing other evidence (such as the characterization of Joseph as a foolish old cuckold in medieval drama and art) the paper documents the inability of adult laymen to access affective piety as husbands and fathers in the manner that women engage with it as mothers and wives. Citing a number of pious works by laymen, the paper notes that they most frequently identify with the holy family as infantilized ‘sons’ of God or the Virgin, not as adult males.

The paper goes on to demonstrate that numerous features of the Griselda legend in a variety of versions of the tale -- including those of Petrarch and Chaucer -- invite laymen into a domesticated affective piety that is specifically oriented to adult male roles. Using recent historical research by Sharon McSheffrey, I note that in the late medieval period, middle rank men were expected to govern their own families with moderation and were entitled to intervene in dysfunctional marriages in their communities. I propose that both Walter’s tyranny and Griselda’s passive response facilitate masculine emotional intervention in the tale because they create a situation in which historical men would have been legally entitled to intervene.

The paper concludes by noting that many versions of the Griselda legend display an ambivalent attitude to emotion, at once delighting in its release and yet also using the figure of the pious Griselda to identify wisdom and piety with a lack of emotional display. The paper connects this ambivalence to models of lay male authority in the household, which discourage emotional displays and praise qualities, like gravity and wisdom, that imply emotional self-control.


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