In The Canterbury Tales, what does Chaucer suggest when he says, "I noot how men hym calle," at the end of the Merchant's portrait?

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Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Chaucer carefully depicts the Merchant in the General Prologue as

estatly was he of his governaunce/With his bargaynes and with his chevvysaunce./For sothe he was a worthy man with-alle,/But, sooth to seyn, I noot know how men hym calle.

In other words, he was careful in his conduct of business, but when Chaucer uses the word "chevvysaunce," which in Middle English was associated with usury, he is confirming the Merchant's money-grubbing activities.  Perhaps more important, lending money and charging interest in Medieval England was not perceived as an appropriate Christian endeavor, and Chaucer's audience would have condemned such a merchant-lender.

Many commentators on this portrait have wondered why Chaucer chose to make the Merchant anonymous and most conclude that Chaucer is simply being careful.  Later in the Prologue, for example, when the Clerk gives his tale of the ideal patient wife, Grisilde, the Merchant goes into a tirade against women and his wife in particular, even though he has only been married for a couple of months:

'Wepyng and waylyng, care and other sorwe/I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe,'/. . .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.

Essentially, the Merchant says he has the worst wife in the world, and if she and the devil were married, she would be more than a match for him.  This outburst at women and his wife may provide the reason for Chaucer's cautious failure to identify the Merchant--Chaucer was simply protecting him from further troubles at home.  It's also possible that the Merchant's usury was enough for Chaucer to want to shield him from condemnation.


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The Canterbury Tales

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