The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Merchant’s Tale” is the second of two poems in what is most commonly identified as fragment 4 of The Canterbury Tales. Each story-poem in the Tales is told by a different character in a group of pilgrims traveling to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The tales range from high romance to low comedy. “The Merchant’s Tale” is primarily among the latter, though it contains elements of poetry in the genres of courtly romance and homily as well.

Like most of The Canterbury Tales, “The Merchant’s Tale” is preceded by a prologue that links it to the outer frame of the story of the pilgrims on their journey. The Merchant—in response the Clerk’s tale of Griselda, the ultimately submissive wife—announces to the group that he and other married men have suffered much at the hands of their wives. He offers to tell a tale to illustrate a wife’s unfaithfulness.

The story is of an old knight, January, who has lived a life of sexual promiscuity but at age sixty decides to settle down and get married. He claims to desire marriage because of the many virtues of a wife and the beauty of the “blisful ordre of wedlok precious.” However, he insists on marrying a beautiful woman of no more than twenty years, and his motives are soon revealed as desiring a regular and lawful place to satisfy his sexual appetite. Prior to choosing a mate, January solicits his friends and brothers...

(The entire section is 578 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Merchant’s Tale” conforms to a genre of narrative common to medieval French literature called “fabliau.” Such stories are usually short, comic, bawdy accounts of characters of the middle or lower classes, involving one man stealing another’s wife. The basic plot of “The Merchant’s Tale” fits this genre, particularly with the stock feature of the lustful elderly husband cuckolded by a younger man. Part of the comedy of a fabliau of this type is the folly of an old man to think he can sexually satisfy his young, attractive wife and keep her faithful to him. January may seem the victim of an unfaithful wife, but his foolishness and inappropriate lust would have aroused no sympathy from Chaucer’s medieval audience.

The tale is not pure fabliau, however. It also contains elements of courtly romance and sermon. The love triangle of January, May, and Damian in which the squire falls in love with his knight’s wife is patterned after the tradition of courtly love. Here, however, that noble tradition is mocked by January’s folly and sexual vanity, by May’s easy capitulation of Damian’s love, and by the absence of any tragic consequences for their sins.

The poem also contains elements of a homily or speech praising marriage. After introducing January and his intent to marry, the Merchant as narrator, for 125 lines, expounds on the virtues of taking a wife. However, January’s actions and the Merchant’s stated purpose...

(The entire section is 426 words.)