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Seventeenth Century

Eighteenth Century


Stephanie A. Tolliver
The University of Virginia's College at Wise
Merchant Woodcut. The Canterbury Tales, London: Richard Pynson, 1492.

January's Misogynist Merchant: The Theme of Sight
in Chaucer's Merchant and "The Merchant's Tale"

        The narrator of "The Merchant's Tale" is introduced as a fashionable businessman, a successful financial expert, and a terribly unhappy husband. Critics have painted him as a disillusioned man full of hatred and contempt because of his unhappy relationship with his wife. Most seem to agree that there is no textual reason to suggest that the Merchant is a cuckold or that his tale is autobiographical; however, some do find evidence that the Merchant does hate women anand has a disillusioned view of marriage by connecting his experiences to those of January, the main character in his tale. In order to analyze both characters, it is important to examine perceptions: society's view of merchants in the fourteenth-century, concepts of medieval marriage, and the individual perceptions of the Merchant and January in regard to marriage, women, and money. Through January's physical sight in "The Merchant's Tale", we are introduced to characteristics of the Merchant that he purposefully hides from others; also, we glimpse how sight is central to January's control over May, his wife, and how the Merchant's dependence on others' blindness allows him to maintain his secrecy.

        To begin dissecting the Merchant, Muriel Bowden stresses it is important to understand how typical merchants of Chaucer's day were perceived by the general public and how Chaucer characterizes his own. Bowden writes, "To not a few of Chaucer's contemporaries this portrait of a fourteenth-century merchant-prince must have been a vividly familiar figure" (p.146). Bowden's description of the Merchant as a prince is influenced by his description in the General Prologue.

A Marchant was there with a forked berd,
In mottelee, and hye on horse he sat;
Upon his heed a Flaundryssh bever hat,
His bootes clasped faire and fetisly.
His resons he spak ful solempnely,
Sownynge alwey th'encrees of his wynnyng.
He wolde the see were kept for any thyng
Bitwixe Middelburgh and Orewelle.
Wel koude he in eschaunge sheeldes selle.
This worthy man ful wel his wit bisette;
There wiste no wight that he was in dette (ll. 270-80).

        The imagery tells Chaucer's audience that his merchant is skilled and wise in the ways of trading, borrowing, and lending. The "typical medieval merchants, who were engaged in the wholesale traffic of wool, hides, cloth, iron and tin were also bankers and money-lenders of the nation" (Bowden, p.146). In addition to his established financial knowledge, his eloquent speech, fine apparel and slight element of mystery suggest that the Host and the other pilgrims question if he is an honest dealer. Bowden writes, "This perception of the Merchant should be fairly accurate, as merchants in the later Middle Ages enjoyed a social position which, for all that it was tacitly and sometimes impermanently held, exceeded that of many a noble" (Bowden, p.146). We admire the merchant because we perceive his attractive dress and middle-class wealth; however, we question his character because we cannot physically see the process of his trades. He depends on the audience's acceptance that he is a wise trader to affect its judgments of him.

        Thus, the physical act of seeing has been introduced, and will continue as a theme. The pilgrims have yet to see everything about the Merchant, but can assume that by definition, he will acquire things at market value only to sell them for a higher price. R.A. Shoaf suggests that the Merchant is not interested in the actual worth of his items, but what they will bring him in return, much like January who "shops" for his bride:

Many fair shap and many a fair visage
Ther passeth thurgh a mirour, polisshed bryght,
And sette it in a commune market-place,
Thanne sholde he se ful many a figure pace
By his mirour (ll. 1577-85.)

        These lines provide textual proof that January is connected to the Merchant since he appraises May before buying her. The connection of teller to tale can be further supported by January's treatment of May. January's marriage "arises from and presupposes exchange of property. So in fact did most if not all marriages of the Middle Ages" (Shoaf p.190). January has a strictly mercantile interest in May, and he buys her only to spend her for Heaven on earth. The wax impression of a key May gives her lover, Damyan, allows him into her garden unbeknownst to January. He is physically blind to Damyan's entrance and mentally blind to her adultery. By way of the wax key, May controls who sees her and when. But when January "treats (May) like wax, he is, in effect, trying also to convert her into coin, so as to spend her, the living girl, on his 'fantasye,' thus littling her to a thing" (Shoaf, p.190). An argument by Thomas Aquinas seems fitting here: "Anything whose price can be measured in money is deemed to be money" (Shoaf, p.190). Therefore May is money because she can be bought. Shoaf continues, "In what is a chillingly precise 'quiting,' when Damyan comes, as it were, to borrow May, just like money, she will be ready to change hands" (190). We further identify the Merchant with January since his perspective is that of a business deal to acquire property. January's perception of May in the market-place persuaded him to buy her; now that she's his property, he can physically control her when she is in sight.

        Part of the Merchant's hatred for his wife is reflected in January's blindness to marital responsibility. Edward Wagenknecht defines January's blindness as the physical counterpart of the ignorance of marriage and of women he has shown all along: "It prevents him to the end from seeing the tree in the garden and the knowledge of evil which it represents. And the regaining of his sight wipes out even the alertness to danger which accompanied the blindness" (Wagenknecht, p.257). The audience can interpret that whether or not January's physical ability of sight is restored, his mental perception cannot be. Like January, the Merchant never truly knows what marriage is because he is blinded by his anger.

        January is not blinded by anger, but by the deception of his wife. The real irony exists in January's statement to May when he invites her into his garden: "No spot of thee ne knew I al my lyf" (l. 2146). The "contrast between his ugly passion and the romantic imagery...matches the irony of his being as unconscious of the physical spot he is even then touching as he will later be of the moral spot--adultery--when he is looking at it with miraculously unblinded eyes" (Wagenknecht, p.257). January's mental blindness to the reality of marriage parallels his later temporary physical blinding.

        The Merchant's blindness leads to the negative attitudes he develops about marriage and contributes to his bitterness:

It can also produce the more bleakly sardonic picture of a man who prides
himself on the 'realism' of his vision, but who is unaware of the extent to
which his attitude reflects a blindness on what human life can offer. It could
be said that the end of 'pilgrimage' is to explore the forms of 'blindness' by
which men and women in some measure conduct their lives, and beyond
this to indicate how their eyes may be opened, how they may be restored
to a proper sense of what really is, and to rest the conduct of their lives on
this true perception (Traversi, p.154).

The Merchant, in his disillusionment, does not advocate romantic sentiment. Instead, he makes it his sole purpose to reduce it, and plans to do so by telling a tale that will portray all wives as deceitful. "The effect of his [January's] blindness is to feed 'the fyr of jalousie' in his heart, exasperating his determination to cling, even beyond his own life-time, to his rights of possession" (Traversi, p.154). In turn, any husbands who may be listening will become jealous, and if the Merchant is successful, they will also reject romantic sentiment as he does. He is purposefully limiting the audience again by presenting a one-sided example, which continues to be a problem.

        The problem with Chaucer's Merchant is that he may be a bit reticent; by not offering enough details of his own experience with marriage, the Merchant is less believable and may appear to be more deceptive. "The Merchant's habitual refusal to tell us what we need to know in order to follow his bewildering shifts among genres, tones, directions of sympathy and antipathy, and to follow also his pyrotechnic display of an allusiveness [is] so brilliant that it seems designed to go right over any audience's head" (Dean, p.191). The Merchant appears to be "selling" his tale without being able to endorse it himself.

        An example of the Merchant's reticence occurs during the pear-tree episode with May and Damyan in his refusal to elaborate on its outcome. Just as May had an insatiable lust for a pear, the audience hungers to know if Damyan was able to complete the sexual act and if so, is May pregnant with his child? The Merchant never tells. Beidler argues that "January's folly is that he sees what he wants to see, rather than what is actually before him" (p.42). This example is much like the Merchant refusing to see that marriage is not always a paradise and his 'seeing' his wife as the only problem.

        However the Merchant may be perceived, critics agree that his voice, actions, and statements cannot be altered to prove that his wife makes a cuckold of him. Wagenknecht states,"In a word, the tale is the perfect expression of the Merchant's angry disgust at his own evil fate and at his folly in bringing that fate upon himself" (p. 203). The Merchant can't see a good marriage. Wagenknecht concludes that the Merchant "speaks in a frenzy of contempt and hatred. The hatred is for women; the contempt is for himself and all other fools who will not take warning by example" (p. 203). The Merchant becomes a misogynist because of his own emotional blindness, and eventually translates his hatred of women into a self-hatred. It is through January, who acts as an envoy for the Merchant, that I arrive at this conclusion.

        January serves as a vehicle for the Merchant, whose attitudes, opinions, and perceptions of women classify him undoubtedly as a motley-clad misogynist. Characteristically, he is a fool. January is developed as a vehicle through the connection of teller to tale, textual implications of misogyny, and the limited sight (faulty or deliberate) experienced by key characters.

        The Merchant is blind, January is blind, and in some ways, May is blind; however, the audience is not. The Merchant is an active participant in January's blindness because his own perceptions are the basis for the creation of January's. May's blindness is a result of the limiting of her character by Chaucer--the tale focuses on January; therefore, May's opinions are only expressed in her speech. Her perceptions are textually inaccessible to the audience. The Merchant does not realize that through his participation, he is revealing his own blindness to the true experience of marriage and opening the audience's eyes to it. The Merchant "participates in the blindness of his creature January in not realizing the extent to which he is talking of his own sore in the tale. The creator of January is evidently a converted idealist, and the bitterness of his cynicism is the measure of his former folly" (Wagenknecht, p. 259). However, the Merchant has made sure to alert the audience that his tale is not autobiographical: 'of myn owene soore, For soory herte, I telle may namoore" (ll. 1243-4). It is his declaration that the tale is not about his own experience that leads the audience to believe that it, indeed, is. It is also the Merchant's admittance of his marital difficulties that provoke the audience to connote January's marriage to May as the Merchant's original idea of matrimony.

        The Merchant's misogyny is a product of his marital disillusionment. His misery and resulting hatred could be likened to purchasing a faulty product, or falling victim to false advertisement. One could assume, in a manner of speaking, that he bought more than he bargained for when he entered into marriage. The Merchant has a "special view of the male-female relationship and to the theme of 'sight'- of the way in which men 'see' what their desires condition them to 'see'- which is a recurrent theme in the general plan" (Traversi, p.137). The tale, then, is the story of an old man who thinks of his marriage in terms of possession, and suffers from his outlook. This outlook would confirm that January operates as a surrogate for the Merchant, who perhaps bought his wife as a possession, and then crashed into the reality of marriage as a partnership. The audience's ability to see the faults of each character leads it to question how the text reflects the substitution of January for the Merchant:

        Perhaps the most upsetting feature of The Merchant's Tale is January's failure, at the end, to recognize his folly. For those who identify January with the Merchant, there emerges in consequence a psychologically complex fiction in which the narrator acts out his own senile delusions and lecherous self-indulgence without holding himself morally accountable. According to this essentially modern interpretation, the reader is asked to trust the tale, not the teller (Wagenknecht, p.126).

        If the reader trusts the tale, the fact that the Merchant hates women can be textually supported. Whether or not January represents him can still be questioned. However, "Chaucer creates an original aesthetic express the cynicism of the Merchant-narrator, whose consciousness of the difference between words and reality would perhaps be all the keener for a man who, while in debt, was sownynge alwey th'encrees of his wynnyng" (Burger, p.108). It makes sense that the Merchant would fall victim to Chaucerian irony, because as a merchant, he should know well the difference between an object's appearance and its actual worth.

        The previously cited passage in which January is seeking a bride is significant because it plays on the theme of sight and reinforces the connection of the Merchant to January. In the passage, January "shops" for his bride by scouring the market-place, much like a merchant would comparison-shop to evaluate his options before purchasing a specific item. January is relying solely on his sight to select his bride. The mirror that he sets up in the market-place can only reflect the physical appearance of the women who pass it, not their intelligence, opinions, or personality.The connection of teller to tale is reinforced again; a merchant would obviously purchase an attractive item rather than a disheveled one.

        If January is a usurer, as Shoaf suggests, then he is searching for what a wife can bring him in return in terms of personal gain. The bride he eventually selects, "fresshe May", is much younger than January, but serves two purposes for him. In the tale, January states that he wishes to be married because it is God's gift. His view of women at this point in the tale is that they are "Goddes yifte verraily" (l.1311). This view, however, is not the only reason he seeks a wife; January's selection of a younger bride in his old age reveals his desire for an heir. January realizes that his time to find a wife and to sire an heir to his property is limited, and this forces him to seek marriage.

        The theme of sight is important when we consider January's desire for marriage and the effects of the outcome that marriage will have on him. "His lust for pleasure and his desire for salvation combine in the first consultation scene to blind him to the danger inherent in taking a young wife" (Wagenknecht, p.256). It can be interpreted that the only danger January foresees is that so much felicity in marriage will ruin his chance of a blissful afterlife: "Yet is ther so parfit felicitee/ And so greet ese and lust in mariage.....That I shal have myn hevene in erthe heere. How should I thanne, that lyve in swich plesaunce.....Come to the blisse ther Crist eterne on lyve ys?" (ll.1642-52). January's lust blinds him to reality.

        January and May's marriage is an institution; she is his property. January will never be able to see May's adultery because he has never been able to perceive her as anything other than his possession. This perception of a wife as property for the owner's pleasure directly links the Merchant to January. "Where January moneys imagination or 'fantasye' only for his sensual pleasure, the Merchant moneys imagination out of spite and envy. It is important to note here that the medieval etymology of 'invidia' (envy) is 'in-videre,' or 'not to see'" (Shoaf, p.200). Shoaf suggests that the sight emphasis in "The Merchant's Tale" is owed to the Merchant's envy. The Merchant's jealousy leads him to taint the views of others by providing a one-sided argument that women are all shrews:

        And so it is that the Merchant tries to stamp the wills of his audience, to impose his stamp upon them, so that they will become coins of his "fantasye": if they become such coins, he can spend them, use them, to validate and valuate his poisoned view of human
sexuality and, indeed, of human creativity itself (Shoaf, p.200).  If the pilgrims agree with him, he has limited their vision as he has limited their opinion of January. January is right, May is wrong and it is all her fault.

        May does not necessarily represent the Merchant's wife, but she does represent his hatred of her and for adulterous women. Early in the tale, the Merchant quotes Theofrastus' Golden Book on Marriage, a direct attack on matrimony:

"Ne take no wyf," quod he, "for housbondrye,
As for to spare in houshold thy dispence.
A trewe servant dooth moore diligence
Thy good to kepe than thyn owene wyf,
For she wol clayme half part al hir lyf" (ll. 1296-1300).

If the Merchant has been reading Theofraste, it can be assumed that he had adopted some ideas of antifeminism. By reading a book that overtly attacks the sacrament of marriage, the Merchant identifies himself with those who embrace misogynistic ideas and promote them. Also, the Merchant is characteristically concerned with property, and how the taking of a wife will diminish it: "The Merchant's furious indignation at his wife only exacerbates his desire for property. Because his private property has betrayed him -one gathers that his wife was something more than wax- he desires more property all the more vehemently, property which, because he owns it, will reinforce his sense of self" (Shoaf, p.200).

        Perhaps the best way to support the continuing theme blindness as it relates to January and the Merchant is to examine a statement that January makes before taking May to the garden: "A man may do no synne with his wyf,/ Ne hurte hymselven with his owene knyf" (ll. 1839-40). Each man has convinced himself that his disillusionment is truth. Because both men rely on their own perception and only outside sources that confirm their pre-established beliefs, their vision can never be truly clear nor open to correction. The Merchant's refusal to allow his perceptions to be changed is a character flaw that prevents him from having true marital bliss. Both the Merchant and January are given opportunities to adjust their visions (January through his discussions with Justinius and Placebo, and the Merchant through his profession and his studies) but both refuse them. In effect, the Merchant refuses correction for them both because it is he who fashions January's perceptions. The Merchant's self-blindness is an unconscious choice, and because of his inability to recognize it, he will remain blind. The pilgrims will never be able to fully evaluate the Merchant's character because their vision is limited as well; how is his character fully developed when he purposefully leaves out details of his own marriage? January's inability to analyze May's deceit is essentially his refusal to accept it, making him the perfect surrogate for Chaucer's misogynist Merchant.


Beidler, Peter G. "The Climax in the Merchant's Tale." The Chaucer Review. (1971): 39-43.

Bowden, Muriel. A Commentary on the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. New York: Macmillan,1948.

Burger, Douglas A. "Deluding Words in The Merchant's Tale." The Chaucer Review. 12 (1977) : 103-9.

Dean, James M. and Christian K. Zacher, eds. The Idea of Medieval Literature. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992.

Jacobs, Kathryn. "Rewriting the Marital Contract: Adultery in The Canterbury Tales." The Chaucer Review 29 (1995) : 337-47.

Kellog, Alfred J. Chaucer, Langland, Arthur. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1972.

Kelly, Henry Ansgar. Love and Marriage in the Age of Chaucer. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975.

Neuse, Richard. "Marriage and the Question of Allegory in The Merchant's Tale." The Chaucer Review 24 (1989) : 115-31.

Robertson, D.W. Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspective. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963.

Shoaf, R.A. Dante, Chaucer, and the Currency of the Word. Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1983.

Stevens, Martin. "And Venus Laugheth: An Interpretation of the Merchant's Tale." The Chaucer Review 7 (1972) : 118-131.

Traversi, Derek. The Canterbury Tales: A Reading. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983.

Wagenknecht, Edward, ed. Modern Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1959.

Text copyright ©2001 Stephanie A. Tolliver. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium through express written permission.

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