The Merchant's Tale  

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"An adulterous woman [in the] "Merchant's Tale" [...] , desiring to carry on an intrigue with her paramour, climbed up a pear-tree to gather the fruit, and when she had reached the top she looked down, and pretended that she saw her husband misconducting himself with another woman. The husband assured her there was no one but himself there, and desired her to come down and see for herself. She came down and admitted there was no one there. Her husband then, at her request, ascended the tree, and she at once called her paramour, and began to amuse herself with him. Her husband saw her from his post in the tree, and began to abuse her; but she declared there was no man with her, and that the pear-tree made her husband see double, just as it had made her see double previously."--Whinfield translation of the Masnavi

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The Merchant's Tale is one of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In it Chaucer subtly mocks antifeminist literature like that of Theophrastus's Liber aureolus de nuptiis. The tale also shows the influence of Boccaccio (Decameron: Lydia and Pyrrhus). The Merchant's Tale is the story of a cuckolded an older husband and his young wife who by quick-witted lying get away with it. Though several of the tales are sexually explicit by modern standards, this one is especially so. One question that splits critics is whether the Merchant's tale is a fabliau. Typically a description for a tale of carnal lust and frivolous bed-hopping, some would argue that especially the latter half of the tale, where Damian and May make love in the tree with the blind Januarie at the foot of the tree, represents fabliau.

The main character, Januarie (or January) (a senex amans), is a 60-year-old knight from the town of Pavie, in Lombardy. Pavie was a place known for having many banks and brothels (thus revealing certain characteristics about both the merchant and Januarie).


Name symbolism

The naming of the characters in this Tale is riddled with satirical nomenclature: Januarie, the main character, is named in conjunction with his equally seasonal wife May, representing their individual characters: January is 'hoor and oolde', sharing the bare and unfruitful characteristics of his title month, whereas his youthful and 'fresshe' wife represents the spring seasons. This has particular relevance when considering the parallel between this tale, and the Biblical tale of Adam and Eve. Januarie's brothers are named Placebo and Justinus: the former a sycophant, whose name in Latin means 'I will please', and the latter a fairer man with no individual motive.

Summary of the tale

Januarie decides that he wants to marry, predominately for the purpose of lawful recreational sex and to produce an heir, and he consults his two brothers Placebo (meaning - 'I shall please'), who encourages him offers no personal opinion, and Justinus (meaning - 'the just one'), who opposes marriage from his own experience. Januarie, a vain man, hears only the flattery of his sycophantic friend Placebo.

Januarie marries May, a teenage girl, largely out of lust and under the guise of religious acceptablilty. He chooses her seemingly spontaniously after telling all his friends to go and look for a wife for him. It is unknown why May accepts Januarie; however, it is safe to assume that she did it for social betterment and possibly some kind of inheritance, Januarie being a rich man.

A squire in Januarie's court, called Damian, falls in love with May and writes a letter to her confessing his desires, the god Venus 'hurt him with hire brond' at the wedding party - meaning she set his heart on fire with love. This could simply be a personification of Damian falling in love, but since Pluto and Prosipina do physically intervene later, Damian's love could be seen as entirely induced by Venus. She becomes intrigued by this man and plots to have sex with him. Januarie creates a beautiful walled garden, reminisent of the Garden of Eden as well as courtly love poetry, where he and May do 'things that were not done in bed'. Immediately after this Januarie is struck blind, although it is not explained why, though Chaucer's suggestion is that his vanity, lust and general immorality have rendered him both in terms of moral judgement, and literally blind. This disability, however, spiritually serves Januarie well. His language and character, formerly lewd and repulsive, becomes beautiful and gentle love poetry, and his love for May could be seen to evolve to more than just lust and desire. On June 8, Januarie and May enter a garden that he has built for her. Meanwhile, Damian has sneaked into the garden using a key he has made from a mold May has given him and waits for May in a pear tree, symbolising, it has been said, the forbidden fruit from Genesis. The Biblical relevance of The Merchant's Tale allows it to become more than just a bawdy fabliaux, but a reinforcement of age-old Christian morality.

May requests a pear from the tree and Januarie, old and blind, and therefore unable to reach, is persuaded to stoop and allow May to climb onto his back herself. Here Chaucer evokes enormous pathos for the 'hoor and oolde' January, soon to be cuckolded by a manipulative female figure, a clear reversal from the horrific and repulsive figure painted by the narrator in the opening presentation of the man. In the tree, May is promptly greeted by her young lover Damian, and they begin to have sex, described by the Merchant in a particularly lewd and bold fashion: 'And sodeynly anon this Damian / Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng.' Indeed, the narrator does apologise for this explicit description, addressing the pilgrims saying: 'Ladyes, I prey yow that ye be nat wrooth; I kan nat glose, I am a rude man --'

Two Gods are, at this moment, watching the adultery: Pluto and 'Proserpina' (or 'Proserpyne'). They begin a passionate argument about the scene, in which Pluto condemns women's morality. He decides that he will grant Januarie his sight back, but Proserpina will grant May the ability to talk her way out of the situation, saying, "I swere / That I shal yeven hire suffisant answere / And all wommen after, for hir sake; / That, though they shulle hemself excuse, / And bere hem doun that wolden hem excuse, / For lak of answere noon of hem shall dien."Indeed, Proserpina's promise that 'alle wommen after' should be able to excuse themselves easily from their treachery, can be seen as a distinctly anti-feminist comment from the narrator, or perhaps even from Chaucer himself. These presentations of these two characters and their quarrel crystallises many elements of the tale, namely the argument between man and woman and the religious confusion in the tale which calls of both the ancient and the Christian Gods. Indeed the presence of these particular Gods has individual relevance when related to this tale: as the classical myth tells, Proserpina, a young and much loved Goddess, was stolen and held captive by Pluto, the King of the Underworld, who forced her to marry him.

Januarie regains his sight - via Pluto's intervention - just in time to see his wife and Damian engaged in intercourse, but May successfully convinces him that his eyesight is deceiving him because it has only just been restored and that she is only 'struggling with a man' because she was told this would get Januarie's sight back.

The tale ends in an unorthodox manner: the fooled Januarie and May continue to live happily with the promise of a baby soon to be born However, Chaucer does not end the tale entirely happily: a darker suggestion is there, as May tells Januarie that he may be mistaken on many more occasions ('Ther may ful many a sighte yow bigile'), indicating that, perhaps, her infidelity will not stop there. Conforming with the wider symbolism in the tale of spring triumphing over winter (May over Janurary), the conclusion supports the unimportance of Damian, (who is not named after a month) he only has two lines of direct speech in the tale, and at the end is utterly forgotten, ever by the Merchant.

The Fabliau debate

One question that splits critics is whether the Merchant's tale is a fabliau. Typically a description for a tale of carnal lust and frivolous bed-hopping, some would argue that especially the latter half of the tale, where Damian and May make love in the tree with the blind Januarie at the foot of the tree, represents fabliau. Derek Pearsall, for example, is in favour of this view. Some critics, such as Maurice Hussey, feel that Chaucer offers a great deal more sophistication and philosophical insight to put this on a level above fabliau.

Sources and variants

Similar tales are Boccaccio's Story of Lydia and Pyrrhus and The Simpleton Husband from One Thousand and One Nights. Book IV of the The Masnavi of Rumi contains another pear tree story.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Merchant's Tale" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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