THE MERCHANT’S TALE
He is an old Knight who decides to abandon his adventurous behavior and settle down with a young maiden.
She is a beautiful eighteen year-old who marries January, but is not satisfied sexually.
He is a young man who falls in love with May.
There once lived a wealthy Knight called January, in the town of Pavia, Lombardy.
He was aged sixty and lived a life of debauchery and lust and he now wished
to settle down and marry a beautiful young maiden who lived in the city. He had always thought that it was God’s wish that men and women should marry, and he also needed a son to inherit his estates.
The Pilgrims notice that there is a suggestion of sarcasm entwined within
the Merchant’s tale.
January decides to marry a young girl named May, but before marrying the
maid, he consults with his friends concerning a dilemma he has. He wants to ensure that May is the right wife for him because to choose the wrong mate, would mean living a life of hell here on earth.
One of his friends, Justinius, advises against the match, but January
proceeds. After the wedding, January becomes impatient with his guests as he wishes to enjoy his wedding bed. After the Priest had blessed the marriage bed, he consummated his marriage.
Now there was a young servant in the household named Damian, who fell in
love with May at first sight. He soon became ill over his unrequited love and was taken to bed. January was concerned over his servant’s poor health, and sent his wife and other women of the court to
tend to him. Damian took the opportunity to pass a love note to May, and she acknowledged his desires.
Suddenly, January was stricken with blindness and consumed with jealousy
over his wife, insisted that she remain by his side at all times. Nevertheless, May and Damian arrange to meet in the garden. He would go first and climb up a pear tree.
The Merchant takes us from this earthly scene to heaven where the gods
discuss the situation.
Pluto is angry at May’s deceit, and decides that he is going to restore January’s sight, but his wife Proserpina decries men for being lecherous and will provide May with an excuse. May and January sit underneath the pear tree, and May offers to climb the tree to get her husband a ripe pear. The love-struck couple are soon locked in an amorous clinch, and just then January’s sight is restored. He bellows with rage at the sight of the couple, but May accuses him of seeing things and asks January to wait until his sight is restored fully. She then jumps down from the tree and clasps January in a fond embrace.
We have yet another instance of an old foolish man being hoodwinked by a
The clear moral of the tale here is that an old man should not marry a young
bride unless he can satisfy her. Failure to do this will only make a young bride look elsewhere for satisfaction.
The names of the characters are important; January symbolizes the old man,
whereas May represents the young woman – Winter against Spring. Justinius, January’s friend is symbolized as a righteous man whose advice is rejected.
This tale could quite easily have had a tragic ending, but Chaucer chooses
to have January continue in his fool’s paradise.
The tale reflects the Merchant’s own bad experiences with marriage, and we
gather that he too has been deceived by a young wife.
The host asks if the Squire has a tale of love to tell.
He says no, but he has something else that may be of interest.