The Merchant's Tale

By Elias Ashooh

Who is the Merchant?

He sails the seas selling Flemish currency, making good use of his wits in his trade. His story is inspired from his life. Before his telling, he explains how miserable life with his wife his. He says " We married men live in unhappiness and anxiety." (Chaucer 371)

His Tale

The story begins with a wealthy, old, and noble knight, January. He has been a bachelor for sixty years and has recently acquired a strong desire to have a wife. He desperately wants a young wife, under twenty years of age. He seeks the advice of his two brothers, Placebo and Justinus, regarding his dilemma. Placebo advises January to follow his heart and do what he wants to do. On the other hand, Justinus advises against marriage, citing the unfaithfulness of women. At the end of the discussion, January decided he will marry a young and beautiful wife.

January falls for a young, stunning girl named May. The have an extravagant wedding filled with love and happiness. The merchant gives many allusions and descriptions on their wedding. " Hymen, who is the god of weddings, never in his life saw so merry a wedded man." (399) January and May then begin life as a married couple. January becomes completely blind with his old age. At the same time, one of January's attendants, Damian, falls in deep love for May. He confesses his love for May and they plot to have an affair and take advantage of January's lack of sight. January and May are in the garden when May says she is craving a pear. Damian is waiting in the tree for May. May climbs up the tree and copulates with Damian. At this moment, a god decides to give January his sight back and he sees May with Damian. He is in anger, but May insists his sight wronged him and he believes her and they go on with their life.

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Moral of the Story

Before the story, the Merchant explains how unhappy he is with his marriage. However, in the beginning of the story, he narrates several different opinions on marriage, most of them positive. This contradicts his earlier statements; but towards the end he explains how January stayed with May even after she deceived him. This shows the Merchant's opinion on women; how they are deceitful and cannot be trusted. It shows the possibility of the Merchant himself being fooled by a young bride in his own life. It also shows the Merchant's severe frustration with love.

What You Need to Know

During the story there is an interlude with a discussion between the Roman Gods Pluto and Prosperina. Pluto wants to give January back his eyesight so he can see what is going on between his wife and Damian. However, Prosperina says she will give May an excuse for it. The story does not give background on these gods, but Pluto, stole a young Prosperina from her mother because of his love for her. This parallels an old January taking a young bride in May.
The Canterbury Tales: The Merchant's Tale


Maxim- a short statement expressing truth

Prudence- the act of being cautious

Solicitude- caring for someone

Occult- supernatural beliefs

Felicity- intense happiness

Essential Questions

1) What does January returning to May at the end of the story reveal about the narrator and his life?

2) What is the significance behind the names of May and January and how do they relate to their characters?

3) How does May feel about her marriage to January?