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From The Canterbury Tales:
The Merchant's Tale
Modern english adjacent to middle english

About The Canterbury Tales:
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories in a frame story, between 1387 and 1400. It is the story of a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury (England). The pilgrims, who come from all layers of society, tell stories to each other to kill time while they travel to Canterbury. He never finished his enormous project and even the completed tales were not finally revised. Scholars are uncertain about the order of the tales. As the printing press had yet to be invented when Chaucer wrote his works, The Canterbury Tales has been passed down in several handwritten manuscripts.

About The Merchant's Prologue and Tale:
The Merchant comments on The Clerk's Tale and claims the highest possible discrepancy between Griselda in the Clerk's tale and the woman he himself was married to for only two months. He says the latter would overmatch the devil (line 8). So the reader knows that the Merchant has had un unhappy marriage. The Merchant offers to tell a tale and the Host gladly asks the Merchant to proceed.

Once there was a noble sixty-year old knight named January residing in Lombardy. After turning sixty, the knight decides that he has to marry as he is convinced that marriage is paradise on earth (line 53), especially when you have a young and beautiful wife. What follows is a lenghty treatise about the pros of marriage elaborated with biblical examples and quotations. January wants a wife of not more than twenty years old (line 205) so he can mold her like warm wax with his hands (line 218). January discusses his intention with his friends and his brother Placebo. Some agree and some don't telling January that a young wife will likely commit adultary. Quotations of classical writers are used to support the opinions in favour or against a young wife. Some time later January chooses a beautiful girl, but she is of low class (lines 411-413). January has one urgent and remaining question left, which is shortly "how do I get to heaven if marriage is already heaven (on earth)?" (lines 438-440). January's brother Justinus relativizes marriage as somekind of paradise. A wife can be a man's purgatory (458), Justinus explains to January. Also think about what the Wife Of Bath has told about marriage in her tale, the narrating Merchant adds (line 473). So do not compare marriage with paradise.

January's bride is called Maia (or May) (line 481). January and Maia are married and have a wedding party. January fantasizes about the consummation of the marriage (line 544). All the guests are amused, except for a squire called Damian, who is in love with Maia (line 562). At the end of the party the freshly weds go to the marital bedroom. January is satisfied with wine and food and takes his wife in his arms. He causes some pain with his unshaved cheeks and chin (lines 612-615). He reminds her of her legal obligation and subsequently the newly weds have sex all night. Maia finds the sexual exploits of her husband worthless (not worth a bean, line 642).

Lovesick Damian pretends to be ill and writes a letter to Maia to reveal his love for her. He passes the letter to her when she visites him on command of January (lines 724-729). After reading the letter, Maia tears the letter into little pieces (lines 740-741). Maia writes a letter in return which she secretively passes to Damian. Of course she likes Damian, but they have to wait for the appropriate time and opportunity (line 785-789). Damian's illness vanishes at once (line 798). The narrator jumps to the fact that January has a beautiful garden, of which garden only January possesses the key. During the summer January goes to the garden with his wife Maia and has sex with her (lines 838-840). January has lost his sight and more or less permanently stays close to his wife. That is awful for Damian and Maia, but Maia manages to make an impression of the key in warm wax (line 905). Damian makes a copy of the original key (line 909). Upon a morning in July January goes to the garden with his wife, but she secretly directs Damian, who goes to the garden too (line 940-943). January is blind as a stone (line 944). In the garden January proclaims his love for Maia and Maia declares her love for him. Meanwhile she signs Damian to climb in a tree that is full of fruit (line 997-999).

Almost all of a sudden the Greek god Pluto and goddess Proserpina enter the plotline watching the scene in the garden. Pluto feels sorry for January and intends to restore his sight so he can see the bad behaviour of his wife and Damian (line 1046-1051). Proserpina disagrees arguing that classical writers that narrate about the evil of women ignored the evil done by men. Proserpina consents with Maia to have sex with Damian. The Greek gods stop their argument and both promise to carry out their intentions.

Meanwhile Damian is waiting in the pear-tree. Maia says to January that she wants to pluck some fruit and with help of January she climbs in the tree. Damian pulls up her dress and thrusts her deep and long (line 1141). Pluto cures January's blindness and with restored sight and looking up the tree, January enrages about what he sees. Maia responds telling January that she had been told that she could cure January's blindness by struggling with a man in a tree. To cure January was her sole intent (lines 1161-1163). January says that he sees more than a struggle. He sees full penetration (lines 1064-1067). No, says Maia, no penetration here. The medicine must be false, she tells January (line 1068-1071). She insists in her denial. Damian did not penetrate her. January's sight is not fully restored, she argues. And yes, she convinces January that he has seen it all wrong and she climbs done from the tree. The spouses kiss happily and go home. And what about Damian? The story does not tell.

In The Merchant Tale the meaning of love, marriage, truth and faithfulness are being discussed. January may be a noble knight but he has scratchy bristles on his cheeks and chin. He is old and not so surprisingly performs badly in the marital bed. At the end Maia is not punished for her adultary, although she does not adhere to the general rules and morality about women, wifes and sex. What to expect from a poor woman who is of low class? The story does not reveal her thoughts. We may assume that she had no significant wealth or assets prior to her wedding. Marriage seems a free choice, but it hardly was in medieval times. Economic reasons and social pressure often pushed people in unhappy marriages. January could not say that he has not been warned. Marriage can be purgatory. Is it purgatory for January or is it purgatory for Maia? Or are they both in purgatory? Interesting question. Pluto thinks January is in purgatory. Proserpina thinks Maia is in purgatory. Scholars and readers can argue in all directions.

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