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Middle English Literature: Chaucer

Griselda's "Unnatural Restraint" as a Technology of the Self

M.L. Warren


Elaine Tuttle Hansen, in her discussion of Griselda in the "Clerk's Tale," suggests that "Woman's insubordination is ... a derivative of her subordination"(189). I find that remark interesting in the light of Michel Foucault's comment that the subject is compelled to decipher the self in regard to what is forbidden (Foucault 17) I am led to ask: Is Griselda's "unnatural restraint" (to use Helen Cooper's term) in the face of Walter's obsessive, cruel testing an example of a woman who has so internalized misogyny that she is unable to act, or is it a forging of the self (137)? I shall argue that Griselda's "unnatural restraint" is a technology of the self which constitutes herself as subject. I propose to examine Griselda's unquestioning obedience in the light of a particular technology of the self described in the work of Michel Foucault and William E. Paden. This technology of the self, a technology of unquestioning obedience which Foucault locates as the roots of the western European concept of the self, was developed in the fourth- and fifth-century ascetic spirituality of Christian monasticism (19). Introduced to the West by John Cassian, a fifth-century monk, this technology was central to western monasticism and influential throughout the spiritual movements of the Middle Ages (Paden 65).


Foucault defines technologies of the self as those:

... which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection or immortality (18).

Since Christianity is a salvation religion guiding "the individual from one reality to another, from death to life," there must be a transformation of the self (40). This was clear from the beginning of Christianity. Once admitted to the eschatological community of salvation in the early Church the new Christian undertook responsibility for making it truly a community of saints as a sign to the pagan world of God's saving power (Dallen 12). Hence the early Christians needed forms or techniques for discovering the truth about themselves to maintain the sanctity of the community and prevent it from being sullied by any fault or sin. In other words, they needed technologies of the self as defined by Foucault above.

One technology of the self for early Christians was exomologesis which means "full acknowledgment" or "confession." It was, first and foremost, a confession of faith, but exomologesis was also used to name the public ritual manifestation of repentance. Tertullian, while he was still a Catholic, provides one of the earliest descriptions of exomologesis in the Western tradition. The sinner wearing penitential garb begs for forgiveness from the community and especially of the presbyters:

Exomologesis requires that ... you prostrate yourself at the feet of the priests and kneel before the beloved of God, making all the brethren commissioned ambassadors of your prayer of pardon (Tertullian 9).

Exomologesis was primarily a way to erase sin and restore the sinner to the community of the saints. But as a technology of the self: "It was not a way for the sinner to explain his sins but a way to present himself as a sinner" (Foucault 42).

Meanwhile, in the Eastern tradition interesting developments were taking place. Christian ascetic monasticism was coming to birth. Ascetic monasticism involved a radical dissociation from social customs, norms, and habits and a transformation of the self. Those involved in this practice went to the desert for "... the desert was an ideal site for ascesis, and the man who went there placed himself under a virtual obligation to reinvent himself ..." (Harpham 24). But if the monk was to reinvent himself he needed a guide, a spiritual director. The technology which arose from this need for guidance was that of exagoreusis. It is this technology which Foucault takes to be the roots of the western European concept of the self. This technology was introduced to the West by John Cassian.

John Cassian was born towards the beginning of the second half of the fourth century in what is now Yugoslavia. He left his home to become a monk in Bethlehem and then in Egypt where he became imbued with the ascetic monasticism practiced by the desert monks. Everything he learned was later embodied in the two books of his Institutes and Conferences, which he wrote once he returned to the West and was the abbot of a monastery in Marseilles. Thus did the ascetic spirituality of eastern desert monasticism come to the West (Griffiths 25).

Cassian describes how having renounced the world of his past life the desert monk needed help to find the way to God. This was done through the technology of exagoreusis. Exagoreusis may be defined as "spiritual direction" since it is "... founded on the capacity of the master to lead the disciple to a happy and autonomous life through good advice" (Foucault 45). In the practice of exagoreusis the monk makes a deliberate choice to entrust himself fully to a master. The master is the "spiritual father" who helps the individual to self-knowledge; to self acceptance; to detachment from ego; and to find the will of God. Foucault points out that the keynote of this new technology of the self is obedience which is "... complete control of behavior by the master, ... It is a sacrifice of the self, of the subject's own will" (Foucault 45). In the Institutes Cassian gives examples of this radical obedience. One example, which is eerily reminiscent of Griselda's behavior at the loss of her children, is of a father who entered a monastery with his small son. In obedience he consents to see his son beaten daily without any reason. Eventually, he is ordered to throw his son into the river, which he is proceeding to do when he is stopped by some of the brothers "who had been purposely sent to watch the banks of the river very carefully" (Cassian 24). Even though Cassian himself has doubts about the morality of such a proceeding, the example served to show the radical obedience involved in the relationship between the master and the seeker of God.

Cassian created a specific method of examination centered on the eight principal vices (Liuma and Deville 1838-48). But then, even with this method, how was the neophyte monk able to discriminate utterly and surely between the thoughts of good and bad quality? Cassian's answer was to reveal everything to the "seniores" and then, as was seen earlier, perform in total obedience what was ordered so that one might be re-formed in the image of God. This is the form of exagoreusis adopted and adapted by St. Benedict.

Benedict's Rule declares that a monk must reveal everything to the figure of authority, the abbot:

The fifth degree of humility is that he [the monk] hide from his abbot none of the evil thoughts that enter his heart or the sins committed in secret, but that he humbly confess them (Benedict 27).

Fulfilling the fifth degree of humility utterly would mean, as Janet Coleman writes that:

One's own sense of self as unique would be humbled through daily focusing on one's own faults, . . . Gradually the habit of selflessness would develop and with wilful behavior and consciousness behind one, the monk would be, as Augustine and Plotinus sought to encourage, a man without a personal memory. . . . But the ideal now set in practice was the creation of a man whose personal past was relegated to oblivion, and he lived only for the future. . . . His memory was now only a storehouse of divine texts, completely given over to the verum mentis which could take him, if only momentarily to unity with God (Coleman 135-36).

Coleman's description is certainly the ideal goal of asceticism, that concern with the paring down of the self to the essential core, the Christ within, which ideally leaves no self to narrate. The image of Christ written upon the monk as blank page is meant to come at the dictation of the spiritual director. But as Foucault points out, this technology of self-examination does not necessarily, or always, lead to the eradication of the self. Paradoxically, this technology of revealing one's self in total obedience can lead to the self constituting self:

By telling himself not only his thoughts but also the smallest movement of consciousness, his intentions, the monk stands in a hermeneutic relation not only to the master but to himself (Foucault 47).

Through the permanent sacrifice of control of his behavior the monk was to learn how to discriminate between thoughts which lead to God and those that do not. Thus, as Paden writes:"... the monk could differentiate soul from environment in a methodical way and subject the forces of sin and worldliness to his purity of will and achievement" (64). The monk, by abnegating himself through complete obedience to the discretion of the master, learned to read himself and so to determine himself. Hence, the monk became the creator of his own progress. Paden points out that Cassian's ascetic practice, which involves an active struggle "... to transform self and to certify divine favor through rigor of conduct..." paradoxically does not lead to self-abandonment but "... to the unceasing pursuit of self-reformation" (76). Thus, the monk becomes concerned with the self and self-determination. Geoffrey Harpham, writing about the ascetic practice of the desert monks, confirms this paradox:"... godliness for the eremite was a mode of action -- behavior that has as its primary orientation the transformation of the self into narrative so that it may be preserved and remembered" (27). Thus, ascetic monasticism comes to articulate a certain mode of creative being, a certain mode of self-creation. Exagoreusis, thus, leads the monk to decipher the self in regard to what is forbidden by the spiritual father.

The practice of exagoreusis became a firm part of Benedictine spirituality when monks were commanded to offer obedience not to a charismatic master, but to the official authority, the abbot. By obediently revealing all faults and thoughts to the abbot in the practice of exagoreusis, and obediently carrying out all the abbot's commands, the monk was to be redrawn in the image of God. Obedience became an end in itself. How could this be? Placid Spearritt offers a rationale: "Finally, chaps. 71 and 72 at the end of the Rule [Benedict's] remind the reader that . . . the motive for all true obedience is love, ultimately the love of God (Spearrit 154).

Simply, by being obedient in all things one could love God. The Church in the West quickly coopted this idea of obedience to authority and applied it to itself. In this way, the passage from charism to law took place. Carpentier writes:

Therefore, "evangelical obedience" is the counsel according to which we submit ourselves at every moment, and likewise our personal lives, to those who, in virtue of the Church's mandate hold the place of Christ in the religious community, the church's community of perfection (Carpentier 53 [My translation]).

Since the religious community, i.e., the monastic community, became the expression of the Church's perfection, obedience became the supreme virtue for all Christians to attain. The way that all Christians could perfectly imitate Christ was through the virtue of obedience, obeying the bishops, in all things as the representatives of Christ.

The Practice of Benedictine exagoreusis, with its emphasis on absolute obedience, was carried forward into the twelfth century by the Cistercian Order, which sought to establish a form of Benedictinism stricter and more primitive than any existing. The Cistercians greatly emphasized the eradication of the self:

This new monastic Order only recruited adults whose entire lives would totally change under the regime of austerity, hard labour, silence and absolute uniformity which prevailed. . . . Such men posed new and radical problems for St. Bernard who took upon himself the extraordinary task of restructuring these men's memories (Coleman 170).

Bernard's aim was "to purify the memory from its stains; it must be blanched" (Coleman 181). Janet Coleman writes that Bernard interpreted Benedict's Rule as a technique which operated in such a way that "to cut one's life out of one's memory would be to destroy one's very self" (185). Left upon the "blanched" memory would be the Scriptures, the very Word of God. The Abbot's role, as in Benedict's Rule, was to be the agent of destruction of the monk's will, through the practice of exagoreusis.

The changes in monastic spirituality in this period were of considerable significance for the devotional life of Europe. Monastic life was viewed as the ideal Christian way. To a tremendous extent this led to the monasticization of western Christian spirituality.

Women's devotion in the later Middle Ages was characterized by penitential asceticism, an asceticism influenced by Cistercian monastic spirituality with its emphasis on obedience (Bynum, Fragmentation 59-60).

I believe that the dynamic of exagoreusis and its emphasis on obedience is at work in "The Clerk's Tale". I will argue that as Griselda strives to fulfill the role prescribed for her by her husband, the paradox noted by Foucault within monastic asceticism arises. Griselda's radical obedience brings her to a mode of self-creation.


In his investigation of "modern identity," Charles Taylor echoes the thought of Aristotle and Aquinas when he writes that "webs of interlocution" are quintessential to the formation of human identity:

one cannot be a self on one's own. I am a self only in relation to certain interlocutors: in one way in relation to those conversation partners who were essential to my achieving self-definition; in another in relation to those who are now crucial to my continuing grasp of languages and self-understanding- and, of course, these classes may develop. A self exists only within what I call `webs of interlocution'. It is this original situation which Gives its sense to our concept of `identity', offering an answer to the question of who I am through a definition of where I am speaking from and to whom. The full definition of someone's identity thus usually involves not only his stand on moral and spiritual matters but also some reference to a defining community (36).

The preceding part of this paper showed asceticism to be the basic underlying "web of interlocution" in western Christianity.

The mid-eleventh century saw the birth of new monastic orders, such as the Cistercians, and a great religious revival (Vauchez 96-100). According to Benedicta Ward, this revival

. . . led to a monasticizing of spirituality throughout the Church, in which the ascetic spirituality of the monks became the norm for the devout Christian and especially the clergy (285).

My quest here is to uncover how the asceticism of the monks, this "web of interlocution", with its emphasis on obedience, operates in the character of Griselda.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, according to Bynum, many women were attracted to the call of wandering preachers to imitate the apostolic life in poverty and obedience. New monasteries for women were founded in which a strict interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict was enforced. Since this rule embodied Cassian's ascetic practice women were introduced to the technology of exagoreusis. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries there arose the new phenomenon of women choosing a quasi-religious status as "beguines" and "tertiaries." This movement was also marked by a strict penitential asceticism (Bynum, Holy 14-18). What is important to note is that asceticism gave women the opportunity to create meaning for themselves. As was seen in the examination of Cassian's ascetic practice, asceticism paradoxically led the monk to a certain mode of self creation rather than self-abandonment. Just so the practice of asceticism by women in the Middle Ages led women to give themselves meaning, to create a narrative of themselves which is remembered and preserved to this day in the accounts of their lives.

Bynum, writing about the religious significance of food to women of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, contends that "... the extreme asceticism and literalism of women's spirituality ... " was not rooted in a self-hatred caused by the internalization of misogyny, but was a means "... to give power and meaning" (208). She argues that women's ascetic practice around food:

... enabled them to determine the shape of their lives -- to reject unwanted marriages, ... to redirect the use of fathers' or husbands' resources, ... to criticize powerful secular or religious authorities, and to claim for themselves teaching, counseling, and reforming roles for which the religious tradition provided, at best, ambivalent support (Bynum 220).

Thus, the practice of asceticism did not lead to the total self effacement of women but to their self-determination. As one example among many, Bynum cites the fourteenth-century Englishwoman Margery Kempe, who persuaded her husband to grant her sexual abstinence in private if she would put aside her asceticism around food and return to normal eating practices (221). So, by subordinating themselves in complete obedience to their vows of fasting, medieval women managed to be subversive and self determining. It is the paradox of Cassian's exagoreusis in action.

The practice of women ascetics was often extreme and drew criticism from Church authorities. Bynum cites such extreme actions as "... wearing iron plates, mutilating one's flesh and rubbing lice into wounds, or even jumping into ovens or hanging oneself" (85). With such extreme ascetic practice being a fact in the daily life of the Church from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, Chaucer would have been aware of the phenomenon. I contend that the Clerk's description of Griselda's behavior is an example of this very same phenomenon.

With this in mind, I will now turn to the "Clerk's Tale" and examine Griselda's "unnatural restraint" in the light of the ascetic practice of exagoreusis.


In Cassian's ascetic practice the neophyte ascetic leaves behind the world he or she has known, stepping beyond the culture which has defined him or her, and enters into a unique relationship with a spiritual father. The relationship is characterized by absolute obedience. The ascetic deliberately chooses to entrust him- or herself into the hands of the master, who reads the neophyte ascetic, helping the neophyte to discriminate between those thoughts which lead to God and those that do not. At the beginning of the "Clerk's Tale," Griselda lives in her rural world as a poor peasant woman. When confronted with Walter's desire to marry her, and her father's agreement to that desire, Griselda chooses to accept the proposal, but in doing so she makes this promise:

And heere I swere that nevere willyngly, In werk ne thoght, I nyl yow disobeye, For to be deed, though me were looth to deye (IV 362-64)

This promise is of great significance, setting into motion everything that comes to Griselda. Nor is it any ordinary promise. As Jill Mann says:

Griselda's unquestioned obedience to her husband is not the simple result of her marriage vow, but something that she takes upon herself with the unique promise that is the special condition of her marriage (146).

This promise of total obedience, and not any wifely duty, extracts from Griselda her absolute compliance with Walter's wishes. It is a promise akin to that of the ascetic entering into a relationship of exagoreusis with a spiritual father.

Indeed, Aquinas, in writing about the more serious nature of Eve's sin in comparison to Adam's sin, talks about the relationship between husband and wife in terms of the master and the disciple, in which the wife is to be guided in all things by her husband. In the Summa, Aquinas writes that woman's subjection is

one which is servile, according to which the master makes use of a subject for his own [the master's] benefit. This subjection came about after the introduction of sin (ST I, 92.1 ad 2).

Griselda entrusts herself to Walter and in doing so is translated, like the ascetic, from one world to another. She deliberately chooses to step beyond her rural world. She is stripped of her clothes (IV 373-374) which identify her as a poor peasant woman, and is thus stripped of her peasant self. Like a spiritual director Walter has already read Griselda recognizing her natural beauty and virtues. Now he directs her on her way.

As the work of Foucault and Paden showed, the ascetic monk by abnegating himself through complete obedience to the discretion of the master learned to read himself, becoming a new virtuous self. Just so under Walter's direction Griselda discovers a new self. The Clerk describes this new self in lines 393-441. Griselda is soon beloved by the people. Her renown travels far and wide. People travel far and wide simply to see her. Once a poor peasant woman, Griselda now becomes one who serves the "commune profit" ( IV 431). While Walter is away Griselda is able to settle discord and dispute with her "wise and rype wordes" (IV 438). At this point Walter's benign direction breaks down. If Walter can be configured as a spiritual director and Griselda as the one directed, it is as if at this moment Walter's commitment to Griselda's good disappears and he becomes consumed with the exact nature of Griselda's obedience in the relationship. It is as if he is "obsessed with the desire to actualize the total commitment which has been promised, to see whether in fact it has limits or secret reservations" (148).

It seems that Walter's direction has worked too well. By abnegating her peasant self and following Walter's direction in complete obedience, Griselda has assumed a new role. Hansen writes that "... Walter's decision to torture and humiliate her comes, according to the narrative, after she has been acclaimed as a saintly ruler ..." (191). Griselda has become a ruler and a threat to her director. Her subordination has become insubordination. Just as the ascetic practice of medieval women became a threat to the church authorities as the women laid claim to teaching, counseling, and reforming roles, just so Griselda's public virtue becomes a threat to Walter.

Walter now becomes obsessed with proving the integrity of Griselda's commitment pushing her to the extreme. It is in this extremity of obedience, in her "unnatural restraint," that Griselda determines herself.

After the birth of their daughter Walter argues that Griselda's low-born status is causing the people to grumble and, therefore, he feels constrained to remove their daughter and silence the grumbling (IV 477-497). Griselda, like the true ascetic, does not demur. There is no word of disagreement, no emotional outburst. She lets her child go in "obeisaunce" (IV 498-511).

Later, after their son has been born and Walter demands his removal, Griselda again complies in complete obedience. She seems without any maternal feeling as she says:"Naught greveth me at al,/ Though that my doughter and my sone be slayn -/ At youre comandement, that is to seyn" (IV 647-649). This "unnatural restraint" is, however, the mark of her commitment to Walter's direction in this practice of exagoreusis. It is the same mark of radical obedience found in Cassian's Institutes where he cites the example of the apparently emotionless father who consented to seeing his little son beaten daily, and was going to throw him into the river when ordered to do so.

Griselda then draws Walter's attention to the nature of her "unnatural restraint:"

"Whan I first cam to yow, right so," quod she, "Lefte I my wyl and al my libertee, And took youre clothyng; wherefore I yow preye, Dooth youre pleasaunce; I wol youre lust obeye (IV 655-658).

n these four lines Griselda gives the perfection description of the ascetic disciple who renounces everything from his or her past life in order to follow the master. She goes on to say:"For wiste I that my deeth wolde do yow ese,/ Right gladly wolde I dyen, yow to plese" (IV 664-665). Here Griselda demonstrates her complete commitment to her promise of obedience, giving Walter complete control over her life and even her death. She behaves as the ascetic monk does in Foucault's description of the practice of exagoreusis: "The monk must have the permission of his director to do anything, even to die" (45).

When Walter finally tells Griselda that she is too low-born to be his wife and that he means to marry another, her reply (IV 813-889) is truly that of the obedient disciple. She answers in "pacience;" thanks Walter for what he has done for her; wishes him and his new wife well; and then leaves the palace in the style of the ascetic for "... she fro wepyng kepte hire eyen dreye,/ Ne in this tyme word ne spak she noon" (IV 899-900).

Griselda's strength is found in the tale's ending. Recalled to the palace to prepare for Walter's second wedding, Griselda is called upon to say how she likes Walter's new wife. Griselda, obedient as ever wishes Walter well of his young bride, causing him to "rewen upon hire wyfly stedfastnesse" (IV 1050). He cries, "This is ynogh" (IV 1051) and her trials are ended. Griselda's obedience has realized itself as power. Foucault's remark that the subject has to decipher the self in regard to what is forbidden is borne out here. Griselda has determined herself. Her radical obedience has enabled her to first relinquish her peasant background, and then to relinquish wealth, status, children and husband. She has discovered herself to be no poor peasant woman, but a woman "... ful of pacient benyngnytee,/ Discreet and pridelees, ay honurable" (IV 929-930). Like the extreme ascetic practice of medieval women which enabled them to claim new roles for themselves, Griselda's radical obedience forces Walter to recognize her innate nobility, restoring her to the palace "... ther she was honured as hire oghte" (IV 1120). Her subordination has become her insubordination, and her radical obedience a mode of self creation.


Reading the "Clerk's Tale" within the framework of the practice of exagoreusis offers an understanding of Griselda's "unnatural restraint." Her obedience does not equal passivity. Rather it is an active mode of creative being set into motion by her deliberate choice to be obedient in all things. Like the early desert monks Griselda reinvents herself in the desert of her obedience. Nevertheless, there are some problems with this reading.

First of all, in paralleling the spiritual father's role with Walter's, it seems to make the spiritual father a sadist and the practice of exagoreusis sadistic. But then, bearing in mind the examples of complete obedience Cassian quotes, and his reservations about them, there may well have been doubts about some spiritual fathers.

Secondly, Griselda's restoration to the palace does not seem altogether a happy ending. After all, she is returning to a husband who has been excessively cruel. Griselda's return to Walter, however, may not be such a surprise when it is borne in mind that in exagoreusis "Even when he becomes a director himself, he [the former ascetic disciple] must retain the spirit of obedience" (45).

Finally, if Griselda's subordination is ultimately an act of insubordination, what is Chaucer saying through the Clerk? It could be argued that Griselda is to be seen as a threat to male authority, just as Bynum writes that Church authorities saw the new roles that medieval women established for themselves as threatening. Then again, it could be said that the Clerk's sympathy with Griselda illustrates the need for medieval women to go to extreme lengths to determine themselves in a patriarchal society.


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Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

---. "The Mysticism and Asceticism of Medieval Women: Some comments on the Typologies of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch." Fragmentation and Redemption. New York: Zone Books, 1992.

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Paden, William E. "Theaters of Humility and Suspicion." Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Eds. Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, Patrick H. Hutton. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1988. 64-79.

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I would be interested to hear any comments or questions from readers with regard to this particular view of Griselda's "unnatural restraint." I can be contacted at: warre019@gold.tc.umn.edu or mlwarren@stthomas.edu

Copyright (C) 1998, M. L. Warren. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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