"Following Echo": Speech and Common Profit in Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale


This essay builds on previous readings of The Clerk's Tale as a political fable. It argues that the Clerk's affiliation with Aristotle, and his use of the key phrase "common profit," invite us to read the tale both in the context of scholastic arguments for conditional obedience, and alongside Boethius's account of the philosopher's duty to the common profit in Chaucer's Boece. As a potential political speaker and teacher, the Clerk is naturally concerned about how to use reason and eloquence for the common good; this helps to explain his interest in Petrarch, and in Petrarch's tale of Griselda. Griselda has wisdom and eloquence, and she is both a philosopher-figure and a counselor-figure. But she does not end up serving the common profit, and the Boece in particular provides grounds for a critical reading of her absolute obedience and refusal of change. Petrarch was known in England as a stoic philosopher, thanks to his popular De remediis utriusque Fortuna. Contemporary readers may well have made the connection to Griselda's patient suffering of adversity, which Chaucer reshapes in order to emphasize its serious and politically dangerous misreading of Boethian ethics. Finally, this essay argues that the envoy, which rejects Griseldan silence and obedience and recommends talking back for the sake of common profit, may be taken as a serious political and poetic lesson, despite its framing in the language of antifeminist comedy—language that both acknowledges the costs of such speech, and serves as a strategy for accepting those costs.


New Chaucer Society

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Studies in the Age of Chaucer



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