In the Middle Ages, when men were urged both to know and to love truth, pathos frequently participated in a narrative strategy and a larger philosophical vision which attribute to motive and will as much importance as to specific acts. In particular, the emotions aroused by the details of innocent suffering had become part of the communal understanding of the relationship between the physical and the spiritual realms. This study examines how the pathos of three Canterbury Tales functions in the reader's apprehension of these tales' fictional worlds.
The Clerk's Tale juxtaposes the narrator's insistence on the unreasonable cruelty of Walter's tests to his absolute approval of Griselda's response. In addition, the narrator, by invoking the human responses of his audience, juxtaposes that response to Griselda's, thus encouraging the audience to question her motivation and the source of her strength. The humanizing of Griselda's suffering, far from detracting from the religious significance of the tale, enables the audience to recognize its true significance. For it highlights the nature of the Christian moral virtues which shape her responses.
The emotionalism of the Prioress's Tale is both a controlled and functional part of a sincere devotional response that seeks to fuse feeling and understanding into a moment of joyous understanding. The Prioress's intrusions into the tale are not those of a "thwarted mother," weeping over pathetic suffering, but those of an instructress intent on revealing the true spiritual significance of all that transpires.
The narrative strategy of Physician's Tale, on the other hand, suggests that it is intended primarily not as a moral exemplum but as a troubling vision of the world which moves its audience to self-awareness and scrutiny. The Physician--through a tale which dramatizes the dangers of the world, the ideal human nature against which each is judged, the uncertainty of mortal life, and the certainty of death for just and unjust alike--stimulates each of his listeners to get his spiritual house in order.
Act and motive, thought and feeling, the temporal and the timeless--all become part of the narrative event.