In the “General Prologue,” the Merchant is described by Chaucer as having a forked beard, and he wears a Flemish beaver hat (presumably from his trade with the Dutch). He speaks his opinions solemnly, always focused on his profits. He expresses his desire for England to guard the coastline well, and he is well familiar with foreign currencies. He gives the appearance of managing his financial affairs very well, no one would know if he was in debt. Chaucer does not recall his name (the merchant businessman is forgettable).
“The Merchant’s Tale” begins in “wepyng and waylyng” as the Merchant laments his wicked wife. He distinguishes his wife’s cruelty from Griselda’s extreme patience from “The Clerk’s Tale.” He is in dismay at the imprisonment of marriage (he swears by St. Thomas of India, or “doubting Thomas”). He has only been married for two months but he still praises the unmarried life.
His tale is about an aging, hedonistic knight named “January” from a small town called Pavia in Lombardy, Northern Italy. When the knight turn sixty, he longs to get married. He imagines marriage as easy, blissful, and pure.
In continuing with discussions of marriage and gifts of Fortune (that began with the “Knight’s Tale”) the Merchant claims that a wife is the one true gift coming from God, while all other gifts, like property, rents, and pastures all come from Fortune. An unmarried man is lonely and desolate. The Merchant spends many paragraphs citing ancient sources on the topic of marriage, giving advice to both men and women (i.e. Theophrastus, Cato, Statius and so on).
January, the knight, longs for a young wife who can give him ‘rest’ and produce for him heirs. He speaks his intentions to his friends: Justinus and Placebo. They both give advice to January, but January’s vanity clouds his perspective. He spontaneously chooses a wife named May (note: January is the cold month, named for the Roman god Janus who looks both forward and backward, and May is the Spring month named for Maia, the Roman goddess of fertility). His new wife, May, is not yet twenty years of age.
The second half of the tale gets considerably more bawdy. A man named Damyan, January’s servant and squire, plots a lustful sexual escapade with January’s new wife, May. In a cruel parody of the Garden of Eden, Damyan and May sneak into January’s new garden to sleep together in his pear tree. January is now blind and high up in his pear tree, the Merchant graphically describes Damyan and May’s activities. However, at the end, the god Pluto intervenes and restores January’s eyesight so that he sees his wife cheating, but somehow, she manages to convince January that his eyesight was, again, deceiving him. Amazingly, he believes her and the tale ends happily. A blind husband becomes cuckolded, but unlike Oedipus, he is given the chance to see the truth, but his conniving wife persuades him otherwise. In a brief epilogue, the Host praises the fact that he is not married to the character May, though the Host does admit his own wife is something of a shrew.
The cuckoldry of this tale is reminiscent of “The Miller’s Tale.” This particular form of cuckoldry highlights the age distinctions between January and May, leaving January vulnerable to betrayal. Perhaps the Miller, in telling this tale, is suggesting there are certain limits to marriage. The Merchant offers a qualified defense of marriage by highlighting the tension between a youthful Epicureanism (understood in the modern sense) and an elderly desire for companionship in marriage. The ironic nature of marriage is to make the commitment when young, despite the desire of some to pursue wanton base desires. Unlike the Wife of Bath, the Merchant is skeptical that one can be both hedonistic and fully committed in marriage. A hedonistic young man unnaturally leads to a blind and betrayed old man. January is a thoughtless leader who fails to follow proper advice from his friends.
The origins of the “Merchant’s Tale” may be derived from Bocaccio or other medieval manuscripts, like the “Romance of the Rose,” and the One Thousand and One Nights.
For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. Here one may read a Middle English text that is closer to what Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst, actually wrote than that in any other modern edition.