Merchant’s Tale: suggested response LL1150-1195

As usual I am not trying to write a prefect answer but to give some food for thought…  This is relevant for students working on the Tale for OCR A level (new spec).  PLEASE feel free to add comments in reply – develop your thinking as much as possible!


Consider the depiction of Januarie and May in LL 1150-1198 of the Merchant’s Tale. How are their characters developed here and in what ways is the writing typical of the Tale as a whole?

This passage comes from the very end of the tale, Januarie has had his sight restored by Pluto and May has been given guidance by Proserpina to allow her to give “suffisant answere” to Januarie’s questions about what he has seen in the tree.  In this passage we see Januarie move from his patriarchal position of dominance to take a more “feminine” role in the debate – based on contemporary views of women as intellectually inferior to men.

As the passage opens, Januarie is crying with horror at the sight of May and Damyan making love in his pear tree.  There is irony here since Januarie has built his garden to allow privacy for those acts which are “nat doon abedde”.  He intends this to be a site for his peversions to know no boundaries, but it also allows, ironically, for his own cuckolding – something certainly not done in his own bed.  The strength of his emotion is signified in the 4 cries of pain – “out, help; allas, harrow” and it is hard not to have some pity for the man who, since his blinding, has seemed a more considerate partner than before. At this stage The Merchant begins to stress his relative emasculation – he cries like a “mooder” at the death of her child and refers to May as “stronge” -albeit in the context of her being “stoore” or crude.

Her response develops this sense of a shift in gender balance, something which the scene between Pluto and Proserpina has presaged, with her polite and dignified use of “Sire” and the second person plural “yow” suggesting a distance between the interlocutors.  She begs him to show “pacience and resoun” and stresses the danger to her “soule” which the act he has seen presents. Proserpina promised her and all women the ability to find the right answer to all charges and here she certainly delivers.  May is polite and clear – he defence is based on her teaching and he wish to serve Januarie well.  Following her use of euphemism – ‘to strugle with a man”, Januarie has no response apart from the evidence of his eyes.  His language is coarse – “algate in it wente”, “he swived thee” suggesting a man at the end of his tether.

This is the first section of the Tale in which May has spoken at any length at all, she remains silent during her courting and her feeling s are only expressed in reported speech by the Merchant.  Here she is matching Januarie in all he says and will come to dominate the discussion – again mimicking Proserpina in the earlier section.  Given that the scene is set in Januarie’s love garden (a typical feature of Medieval love-making and the centre of most literature exploring Courtly Love), the idea of Eve in Eden has to be noted here.  Eve/May has been tempted and has fallen for the serpent in the tree and now has to persuade Adam/Januarie to follow her path or to accept her transgression.  Januarie will not suffer damnation as in the Biblical telling of the story, but he will settle for acceptance rather than risking his inheritance and loss of face.  May is able to present totally plausible reasons for the failure of his eyesight to discern the “true” picture of events:  he is simply still “glimsing, and [has] no parfit sighte”.  Januarie accepts this reading of the event and backs off:  “lat al passe out of minde” suggesting an apology for all he has “missaid”, though even at this point he still refers back to the act he witnessed before May concludes the scene with a longer, more considered speech.  This part of the Merchant’s tale is a clear variation on the traditional Fabliau form of scurrilous satire.  Usually the language is coarse and the ideas of Courtly Love are held up to ridicule.  This writing is less coarse than some tales, possibly reflecting the apparent status of the Merchant – there is none of the crudity of the Miller’s Tale, for example.  Still, there is an irony in the escape from utterly evident adultery seen here.  Possibly Chaucer was aware that there was a need in 1399 to avoid writing in a manner too openly satirical and hostile towards the great Knight/adulterer of his day, John of Gaunt – his brother in law once he had married Chaucer’s wife’s sister, with whom he might also have been romantically tangled.  Gaunt was the father of the new King:  Henry IV and there was a need for Chaucer to tread carefully in times of political upheaval.

As May explains the issues surrounding Januarie’s clarity of vision, Chaucer allows a variation to the usual iambic pentameter to interrupt the line “But, sire, a man that waketh out of his sleep”.  Here the 11 syllables might suggest the slight disorientation she is describing or merely draw attention to the interpolation of “sire” as a mark of respect.  As she continues, her verse becomes smooth and consistent, suggesting that she is in full control of herself and of her subject matter. She is clear: “ye may wene as yow lest” suggests her greater confidence in this area.  She seems very considerate here and her character gains by this.  It is no glib response that she gives but suggests slightly more care for her husband than seen hitherto.  She may well be laying the ground for continued infidelity, but it is hard to imagine that she rated Damyan’s emotionless love-making (“in he throng”) as much more than the “bene” at which she valued Januarie’s labours.  The passage ends typically for such a passage of advice with a proverb: “he that misconceyveth, he misdemeth”.  Ironically – and this is a tale driven by irony – this is precisely what Januarie did when he opted to listen to the advice of Placebo over Justinus. Januarie is a man who has sought flattery and who has put his desires over his righteousness throughout the Tale.  May’s summary of the event s in the garden, can, therefore, be applied to the whole tale.