Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Merchant's Prologue and Tale"

Genre: a fabliau.

Form: Rhyming couplets

Source: The Merchant's prologue, like the Wife of Bath's, tends to be read as a realistic complaint, simulating autobiography. The tale can be divided into three parts based on its sources: January's "courtship" (IV.1245-1688) based on Eustache Duchamps' Miroir de mariage or Matheolus' Lamentations, the wedding and the lovers' agreement (1689-2020) based on Boccaccio's Ameto, and the blind husband deceived at the fruit tree (2021-2418) based on some variant of the French or Italian forms, or Boccaccio's Decameron 2.10 and 7.9.

Characters: January, the 60-year-old knight seeking a bride; Placebo and Justinus, his bad and good advisers; May, the young bride with whom he's obsessed; Damyan, the squire who seduces her; and Pluto and Proserpyna, the god and goddess of the Underworld, who are having a bit of a spat.

Summary: After the Merchant bewails the horrible marriage he's made only two months ago, the Host urges him to tell a tale sharing his wisdom about this side of marriage. He begins with January, who thinks he wants a wife, but then the Merchant launches into a sermon against marriage, quoting standard classical and biblical examples common to the anti-feminist genre we first encountered in Jankyn's book (IV.1266-1392). After discussing the dangers and advantages of marrying young women, January asks friends for advice. Placebo [Latin, "I will please"] flatters him, telling him he's right to marry a young woman. Justinus [L. "just one"] warns him of the dangers he risks and counsels him not to marry, based on his own experience as a married man. January does what he wants, in the end, and suffers for it.  The wedding night is described with such horrible attention to the disparities in their physiques that the Merchant appears to be "assimilating" with his tale.

             Meanwhile, the squire, Damyan, becomes infatuated with May and falls into a "love sickness" which causes January to send May to his aid.   Damyan gives her a letter pleading his case, and May reads it with interest before destroying it.  She decides to yield herself to him.                                                         

            January's jealousy causes him to build a walled garden in which to hide May, and the sudden onset of blindness makes him especially glad that he has done so.  In that garden, the gods, Pluto and Proserpine walk, and as they quarrel about who is to blame for marital grief, they observe blind January unknowingly helping May to climb a pear tree to have sexual intercourse with Damyan.  Pluto, to avenge her infidelity, gives January back his sight, but, thanks to Proserpina, May has a ready answer to her husband's charge.

        In the epilogue, Harry Bailey admits that his wife is "a labbyng shrewe" with "an heep of vices mo" which he hesitates to tell the pilgrims lest "It sholde reported be / And toold to hire of somme of this meynee-- / Of whom, it nedeth nat for to declare" (IV.2428, 2429, 2435-7).  Therefore, says Harry, "my tale is do" (IV.2440), although he will tell us more later in the "Prologue of the Monk's Tale" (RC 240).  Also see his response to "Physician's Tale" and to "Pardoner's Tale," which fit the pattern of behavior he describes before the Monk tells his tale.  Harry is a man with a terrible secret that he can't quite hide.

Interpretive Issues:

1) The Merchant's response to the Clerk's Griselda is so heartfelt that it appears to strip from him the ordinary reserve which separates a teller from total revelation in the tale.  He claims his wife is terrible to him, and then tells a tale about an old man whose wife is terrible to him.  There also is the suggestion in the tale that he appreciates why old men might make awful husbands to young women, perhaps revealing a degree of self-loathing that becomes uncomfortable for most readers.  How else might this tale reflect his inner nature?

2)  The sixty-year-old January is a type of the "senex" or "old man" character familiar to Chaucer from late Roman comedy.   However, he also becomes, in this tale, a type or example of "Adam," certainly the oldest of old men and one who also had a wife in a garden.  How else might this tale's construction be shaped by biblical "typology," the shadowing forth of biblical characters and situations in medieval settings?

3)  From lines 1266 through 1392, the Merchant suddenly launches into a sort of sermon on the problem of marriage seen in the light of numerous biblical examples.  In it, one can find direct parallels to the "Miller's Prologue" (IV.1305-6 and 1332), as well as the "Clerk's" and "Wife of Bath's Tales" (IV.1345).  How might you compare this teller with the Miller, Clerk, or Alisoun, the Wife?  How do his concerns and style of speaking relate to theirs?   If this is one of the major tales in the "Marriage Group," what position does it occupy with respect to their tales?

4) January's friends talk back to him in the representative figures of Placebo (Latin for "I will please") and Justinus (Latin for "just one"). Their speeches are almost a little play about bad and good advice. Are they played for satiric/comic effect, or do they seem to tend toward tragedy? Especially note the way January responds to their advice (IV.1566-1571).

5) January's next move is an inward drama which makes his mind into an inward mirror wherein he sees reflected all the maidens who live in his vicinity, but transformed by his "fantasye" into naked figures sitting in his bed. This corresponds to the Merchant's repetition of the old axiom, "love is blynd alday, and may nat see" (IV.1598). Given what happens to January in the plot, what kinds of ironies are set up here and how do they relate to that "inner mirror"? Do "normal" people have such a place in their minds, and if so, what do we call it?

6) Placebo's recommendation of a bride arouses in January even more of that idiotic optimism about relationships that he specializes in, and he even dreads that he might be so happy in marriage that he'll fail to earn a place in heaven. Justinus is offended by this notion, especially that it's said in "japerye" (humorously). Could January actually be right under Christian doctrine--can a man love his wife too much and be damned for it?

7) Justinus' sharp rebuke to January's "japerye" urges him to consult the "Wyf of Bathe" because she has said much about what marriage is. This can only mean the "Wife of Bath's Prologue," but how can a character in the Merchant's tale know about another tale teller's prologue? In addition to providing a rough "terminus a quo" for the composition of the tale (after GC wrote "WoBPro"), it also might be more evidence of the Merchant's "assimilation" with the content of his tale (see #1 above). Could you compare this with any attributes of the Wife of Bath's fashion of telling her life story in the prologue?

8) May's marriage to January described by a curiously bitter remark that might escape the notice of novice Middle English readers:

"Forth com the preest, with stole aboute his nekke,

And bad hirebe lyk Sarra and Rebekke

In wysdom and in trouthe of mariage;

And seyde his orisons, as is usage,

And croucheth hem, and bad God sholde hem blesse,

And made al siker ynogh with hoolynesse" (IV.1703-8)

The priest's behaviors are stereotypic elements of a marriage, but consider what they are supposed to create, a holy union between two persons. What the Merchant's sarcastic last line do to the force of the wedding sacrament, especially in light of what will happen to this relationship?

9) After the wedding, a typical medieval wedding procession with torches takes the couple from the church to their wedding bed. Two entities are described as carrying torches here (IV. 1727-8 and 1776-8). How does the Merchant use these images of fire (and that in IV.1783-7)?

10) What would be the effect on the pilgrim hearers of knowing that January was a knight and that Damyan was his squire "Which carf biforn the knyght ful many a day" (compare I.100)? Why would the Merchant make his chivalric household into such an ancient Roman comedy of the "senex-puer" (Old Man vs. Young Man) tale type?  Does the set-up have any structural similarities with any other tales we have read?  If so, what does the structural alliance seem to mean?

11) January's and May's wedding night is one of the most physically repulsive events in the tales of Canterbury. How does the Merchant draw our attention to the disparities between them "When tendre youthe hath wedded stoupyng age" (IV.1738)? Look carefully at lines 1839-40--the Explanatory Note (RC 888) is oddly indirect, but suffice it to say that January is incorrect. In fact, one can sin with one's wife, and the church prohibited married couples from having sexual intercourse on feast days, Lent, etc. precisely to emphasize that this act must be controlled in the interests of procreation, only. What does January say is his attitude toward children from this match (IV.1446 ff.)? What does his behavior suggest?

12) Damyan's "love sickness" closely parallels the ruse by which Chaucer's Troilus was able to get access to the woman he loved, and this lover also uses letters to achieve his ends, like Troilus. The letter is concealed in fashion very similar to the strategy by which Pandarus delivers Troilus' letter to Criseyde (T&C Book II). How does the letter affect May, what does she do about it, and why? Note the tale's echo of the "Knight's Tale" on destiny (IV.1967-76 vs. I.1465-6, I.1663 ff. and the "Firste Moevere" speech). Is May's decision to love Damyan really controlled by Destiny? Also see in line 1986 the direct, openly sarcastic echo of the Knight's Tale I.1761 regarding Theseus' change of heart about love. How does this work with the pattern in #10, above?

13) January's garden has been compared to the "hortus conclusus" of the Song of Songs, an image usually interpreted in Chaucer's time as symbolic of the Virgin, whose chaste fertility yields Jesus (see RC 888). What does this garden contain, and what does the presence of Pluto and Proserpina do to this symbolic setting?

14) The sudden blindness is introduced with another invocation of destiny (IV.2057) that seems more warranted in this instance, but how else is January "blind"? Look again at the "mirror in the marketplace" image from #5 above.

15) The parody of Song of Songs continues in ll. 2138 ff., a passage that the Merchant calls "Swiche olde lewed wordes" (IV.2149). What is the effect of this comment on the tale's use of a sacred text describing the union of the soul with God and the Incarnation?

16) After the pear tree plot has been hatched between May and Damyan, Pluto and Proserpina quarrel about Solomon's authority to describe women's deception of men (IV.2237-2319). What echoes can you find her of "Wife of Bath's Prologue" and the other tales so far associated with the Marriage Group?

17) The "pear tree trick" involves May's feigning an unseasonable appetite for the fruit. What medical condition might she be feigning and how might it affect January's judgment? Also, medieval readers would have probably been familiar with a popular tune known as "The Cherry Tree Carol." This lyric recounts a similar strange appetite mentioned by Mary to Joseph as they traveled toward Bethlehem. How does this affect the ongoing parody we saw in #13 and 15 above? Especially considering what January does for May, how does this version of the old story reshape its ironies?  (In the "Cherry Tree Carol, Joseph, apparently feeling like an abused cuckold, angrily responds to Mary's request for cherries in December by pointing to a leafless cherry tree and saying "let he who is the baby's father get them for you"--the tree bursts into bloom, bears fruit instantly, and bends down to her.)

18)  When Pluto returns January's sight, May's "ready answer" involves claiming credit for the "cure."   How does this play on the various kinds of "blindness" that January has exhibited, and what might the pilgrim tale-tellers learn from May's advice, "He that mysconceyveth, he mysdemeth" (IV.2410).  Also, remembering the implication of May's uncanny appetite for pears (#17 above) and that, when January joyfully embraces her at the tale's end, "on hire wombe he stroketh hire ful softe," what else might that statement apply to (IV.2414)?

19)  Harry Baily's outburst in the "Epilogue" begins his emergence as a character in his own right, because it gives us the first direct details about his life since the "General Prologue"'s portrait (I.747-56).  Because his character develops serially, rather than in an extended passage of his own tale-telling, it's easy to miss the significance of his persona.  The secret to which he alludes, which appears to be directly related to his relationship with his wife, might be considered a part of the "pugilistic group" of tales which turn upon the resolution of disputes by violent force.  His concern for secrecy also becomes a major issue in later tales (e.g., those told by the Squire, Canon's Yeoman, and Manciple, especially).  Which pilgrim does he fear will tell his wife if he says anything bad about her?  (Hint: see III.529-42, esp. 535.)

20)  In one major manuscript order (the "a" group, includngi Ellesmere MS and others), the next tale teller will be the Squire.  In those MSS, Oure Hooste specifically directs the tale telling to the Squire.  Why would he do so at this particular moment, and what kind of pressure would the "Merchant's Tale" (and others) place on the Knight's son?  In other manuscript orders (see RC 1121), the "Merchant's Tale" is followed by the "Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale" (the "b" and "d" groups), or the "Franklin's Tale" (the "c" group).  How would each of these tellers' prologues and tales react with the matter and style of the "Merchant's Tale"?  Which make better matches and for what reasons?

 Click here for some recent scholarship on "Clerk's Tale" and "Merchant's Tale"

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