The Merchant's Tale is the second and final tale of Fragment IV of The Canterbury Tales and it follows the rather miserable tale told by The Clerk. The Merchant is in a sense an opposite of the Clerk, who was described in the General Prologue as wearing a rather threadbare overcoat ("Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy"). The Merchant on the other hand was wearing very bright and colourful clothes:
There was a Mᴀʀᴄʜᴀɴᴛ with forked beard
In motley gown, and high on horse he sat,
Upon his head a Flemish beaver hat;
His boots were fastened neatly and elegantly.
Like the Clerk's, the Merchant's Prologue is very short (about 31 lines; the Clerk's was 56 lines). Acknowledging the Clerk's Tale, he says he knows all too well about the woes of marriage having what he believes to be the worst wife in the world: a shrew of a woman, and the antithesis of the Clerk's Griselda:
"Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe
I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,"
Quod the Marchant, "and so doon other mo
That wedded been. I trowe that it be so,
For wel I woot it fareth so with me.
I have a wyf, the worste that may be;
For thogh the feend to hire ycoupled were,
She wolde hym overmacche, I dar wel swere.
What sholde I yow reherce in special
Hir hye malice? She is a shrewe at al.
Ther is a long and large difference
Bitwix Grisildis grete pacience
And of my wyf the passyng crueltee.
The Host urges him on, and so the Merchant begins his Tale. He tells of an old knight, Januarie, who had been unmarried his whole life however has a change of heart, "Were it for hoolynesse or for dotage / I kan nat seye" the Merchant observes. He, the Merchant, goes on to say that to be married is a wonderful thing for an old man: one may find not only happiness (living "a lyf blisful and ordinaat [orderly]") but also produce an heir:
And certeinly, as sooth as God is kyng,
To take a wyf it is a glorious thyng,
And namely whan a man is oold and hoor;
Thanne is a wyf the fruyt of his tresor.
Thanne sholde he take a yong wyf and a feir,
On which he myghte engendren hym an heir,
And lede his lyf in joye and in solas...
Another advantage: a wife would look after an old and sick husband: "She nys nat wery hym to love and serve". Yet, there are those who disagree. The Merchant refers to Theofrastus, an Ancient Greek and anti-feminist, as the Merchant describes, who believes it is more prudent to take on a servant than a wife:
"Ne take no wyf," quod he, "for housbondrye,
As for to spare in houshold thy dispence.
A trewe servant dooth moore diligence
Thy good to kepe than thyn owene wyf,
For she wol clayme half part al hir lyf.
But, says the Merchant - ignore him and his foolishness. Take a wife, and look to the Bible for proof of their worth (using the examples of Judith, Rebecca, Abigail, and Esther); and if that is not enough, remember Seneca's assertion that there is none better than a humble wife: "Ther nys no thyng in gree superlatyf, / As seith Senek, above an humble wyf." Furthermore, one should love one's wife as one loves oneself ("If thou lovest thyself, thou lovest thy wyf"), and cherish one's wife or one will never prosper ("Cherisse thy wyf, or thou shalt nevere thee"). And so, the Merchant says returning to Januarie he decides to marry and to tell his friends of his intentions ("To tellen hem th' effect of his entente").
So he tells his friends Placebo and Justinus. Placebo is supportive, telling Januarie he must decide himself what is best for him, however Justinus argues against is, saying,
For, God it woot, I have wept many a teere
Ful pryvely, syn I have had a wyf.
Januarie asks Placebo was he thinks of Justinus's speech and he replies,
"I seye it is a cursed man," quod he,
"That letteth matrimoigne, sikerly."
So it is decided: Januarie will find a wife - a young wife (and not an old woman of thirty!), and there are many young women to choose from. However, at last, he finds one:
He atte laste apoynted hym on oon,
And leet alle othere from his herte goon,
And chees hire of his owene auctoritee;
For love is blynd alday, and may nat see.
And whan that he was in his bed ybroght,
He purtreyed in his herte and in his thoght
Hir fresshe beautee and hir age tendre,
Hir myddel smal, hire armes longe and sklendre,
Hir wise governaunce, hir gentillesse,
Hir wommanly berynge, and hire sadnesse.
And whan that he on hire was condescended,
Hym thoughte his choys myghte nat ben amended.
He consults his friends; again Placebo is supportive, and Justinus is against it. But he proceeds with this young woman, appropriately called May (if the new year begins in March then she is spring, and Januarie / January is a very old month indeed), and they are married and enjoy a great wedding feast.
However - because of course there is a twist - there is a young man, Damian, who too falls in love with May and indeed he is lovesick -
He was so ravysshed on his lady May
That for the verray peyne he was ny wood.
Almoost he swelte and swowned ther he stood,
So soore hath Venus hurt hym with hire brond,
As that she bar it daunsynge in hire hond;
And to his bed he wente hym hastily.
The Merchant goes on to give a very unflattering description of Januarie's wedding night, and finishes by saying the next morning he is up early while May 'recovers'. Meanwhile Damien continues to suffer, "This sike Damyan in Venus fyr / So brenneth that he dyeth for desyr". Everyone thinks he is ill and has taken to his bed, so Januarie decides that he and May must visit him and May must cheer him up. She goes, "Confortynge hym as goodly as she may" and he passes her a letter confessing his love. Eventually she reciprocates, sending him a letter back. Damien of course is cured of his love-sickness ("Al passed was his siknesse and his sorwe").
As this plays out, Januarie is making their house a home, and he makes a garden that the Merchant notes,
That he that wroot the Romance of the Rose
Ne koude of it the beautee wel devyse
(Referring to Chaucer's The Romaunt of the Rose, 1361 - 1367). This garden has high walls and a key in needed to enter it. But in a cruel twist of fortune he goes blind - "Is woxen blynd, and that al sodeynly". The Merchant observes (and I'll quote this in full because I rather like it):
O sodeyn hap! O thou Fortune unstable!
Lyk to the scorpion so deceyvable,
That flaterest with thyn heed whan thou wolt stynge;
Thy tayl is deeth, thurgh thyn envenymynge.
O brotil joye! O sweete venym queynte!
O monstre, that so subtilly kanst peynte
Thy yiftes under hewe of stidefastnesse,
That thou deceyvest bothe moore and lesse!
Why hastow Januarie thus deceyved,
That haddest hym for thy fulle freend receyved?
And now thou hast biraft hym bothe his yen,
For sorwe of which desireth he to dyen.
He asks that May never leaves his side, but nevertheless she makes a skeleton key for the gate to the garden and gives it to Damien. One beautiful day he decides he wants them to sit in the garden, and May gives Damien a sign that he must come too, which he does and hides under a bush:
On Damyan a signe made she,
That he sholde go biforn with his cliket.
This Damyan thanne hath opened the wyket,
And in he stirte, and that in swich manere
That no wight myghte it se neither yheere,
And stille he sit under a bussh anon.
As she swears her love for Januarie she signals to Damien that he must hide up the pear tree. And here there is an interlude: Pluto and his wife Proserpina discuss the situation: Pluto resolves to give Januarie his sight back, pitying the man, but Proserpina, pitying May, says that she will give her the perfect excuse for her behaviour.
|Warwick Goble's illustration for |
The Merchant's Tale.
The Merchant returns to the action: May tells Januarie she wants a pear from the pear tree and she will climb up to pick one. She does so, and up in the tree she has sex with Damien (Chaucer writes that Damien immediately "Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng [thrust]"). As promised, Pluto returns Januarie's sight and he sees them, shouting at May, "He swyved [screwed] thee; I saugh it with myne yen [eyes]". But she has her excuse: that Januarie could see only dimly, and he did not in truth see her having sex with Damien (this excuse derives from the ninth story of the seventh day of Boccaccio's Decameron). He believes her, and there ends the Merchant's Tale.
Following the tale there is a brief epilogue. The Host exclaims,
"Now swich a wyf I pray God kepe me fro!
Lo, whiche sleightes and subtilitees
In wommen been! For ay as bisy as bees
Been they, us sely men for to deceyve,
And from the soothe evere wol they weyve;
By this Marchauntes tale it preveth weel...
He goes on to confess that he wishes he wasn't married to her, but asks that no one tells anyone else that for women always find out.
So there is the Merchant's Tale, which ultimately supports his view that marriage is to be avoided, but it is the women that cause the pain not the men, as the Clerk's Tale might have suggested. Though a sad tale with an unpleasant message it is nevertheless enjoyable!