Studying Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale from The Canterbury Tales as part of A Level English is, undoubtedly, a daunting prospect for any Year 12 or 13 student. It is intimidating reading unfamiliar Middle English aloud in class (e.g. ‘fetisly’ – elegantly; ‘chidestere’ – nagging woman). However, despite initially seeming inaccessible, Chaucer is anything but elitist. In fact, the challenges of studying his work is what makes it continually surprising and rewarding. Stephanie Gartrell, Second in English KS4 at Wimbledon High School, explores the challenges and delights of studying Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ in Sixth Form…
English students face the challenge of identifying a clear moral from the competing narrative voices throughout The Canterbury Tales. The frame narrative establishes the central plot: a socially diverse group of pilgrims travelling from Southwark to the tomb of Thomas Becket. En route, they initiate a rather profane tale-telling competition to liven up what is, ostensibly, a journey of spiritual reflection and penitence. The prize for the best story? A free meal at the Tabard Inn, Southwark, on their return. Thus, from the outset, a conservative framework of Catholic ritual is subverted by a much more anarchic series of interrupted tales. Many tales are replete with ribald vulgarity typical of the fabliau genre; others use Estates Satire to expose institutional corruption; several puncture courtly pretensions of more high-status literary genres or forms (fin amor, chanson de geste, sermons…).
Our text falls in the so-called ‘Marriage Group’ in which the Wife of Bath, Clerk, Merchant and Franklin share tales that directly rebut and challenge one another’s views on marriage. This further destabilises a clear moral message about what constitutes the ideal marriage or marital partner. Some critics, such as George Lyman Kittredge, perceive the Franklin’s final message of mutual love and respect to be closest to Chaucer’s own views (‘We need not hesitate, therefore, to accept the solution that the Franklin offers as that which Geoffrey Chaucer the man accepted for his own part…’). However, there is a residual sense of irresolution on the matter. There is no authorial intrusion or omniscient narrator to clarify our ‘take-away’ message before the Tales move on.
Chaucer also builds a tantalising pattern of parallels and contradictions within The Merchant’s Tale itself. For instance, the Merchant’s Prologue reveals the Merchant to be unhappily married for ‘Thise monthes two’, describing marriage as ‘the snare’ and yearning to be ‘unbounden’. Nevertheless, his tale begins with a disconcerting eulogy lasting 135 lines in praise of marriage. This eulogy is generally perceived as a ‘mock encomium’, satirising the foolish naivety of the aged knight January whose idealised and blinkered view of matrimony as a ‘hooly boond’, echoes the Merchant’s earlier image of wedlock as a binding ‘snare’ or trap, transforming it into a sacred tie. Similarly, January’s vision of a wife as his ‘paradis terrestre’ (earthly paradise) ironically subverts the Merchant’s description of his ‘wyves cursednesse!’ The fact that large sections of the mock encomium are neither direct nor reported speech further blurs to what extent we are reading a filtered version of January’s beliefs, or whether the ironically inappropriate Old Testament examples of female virtue (Eve, Judith, Abigail…) are supposed to express the Merchant’s misogyny to the reader.
To summarise the plot of The Merchant’s Tale very roughly: after 60 years as a promiscuous bachelor, January finally decides to marry a teenage bride named May. Whilst his concerns are partly economic (to beget an heir), his primary motive is to legitimise his lustful desires and protect himself from sin. January is comically specific in his ideal bride: ‘She shal nat passe twenty yeer’ and he refuses to marry any ‘woman thritty [thirty] yeer of age’, who he dismisses as ‘bene-straw’ [dried bean-stalks]. Chaucer swiftly debunks any notion of January embodying chivalric values of spiritual refinement, repeatedly applying the ironic epithets ‘gentil’ [refined] and ‘noble’ to his protagonist, highlighting the absence of these stereotypical knightly qualities. Might this partly reflect some of the Merchant’s own social anxiety – a nameless member of the trading classes aggrandising his fictional self to the status of a knight? Or is the Merchant attempting to expose the fiction of aristocratic nobility to comfort his own wounded pride? Again, it could be neither or both!
In any case, January’s young bride May quickly establishes an affair with their servant Damyan. When January is unexpectedly struck blind, they capitalise on this opportunity to consummate their affair in a pear-tree in January’s private garden, at which point January miraculously regains his sight. With a bit of female ingenuity, May explains that his sight is still impaired and not to be trusted. The gullible knight accepts her explanation and continues to live in a state of prelapsarian Edenic bliss with his ‘paradis terrestre’ – remaining blind figuratively, if not literally…
One of the main pleasures of teaching and studying The Merchant’s Tale is because it is difficult. Ambiguities abound. For instance, who is in the ‘snare’ of marriage by the end of The Merchant’s Tale: May, who is largely voiceless and objectified, or January, the architect of his own trap, likely to raise an illegitimate son as his heir? Why would the Merchant present January as such a contemptible lecher if his main moral were to vilify wives? And are we imposing 21st values onto a 14th century text by casting May as a proto-feminist figure struggling for sexual autonomy?
And if that weren’t enough of a challenge, students compare The Merchant’s Tale to Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband – a divergent text in form and context. An Ideal Husband was first performed on stage in 1895 for the Victorian elite at the Haymarket Theatre, whilst The Canterbury Tales is a narrative poem from the 1390s. However, despite the 500 year gap, both texts share a prescient (and hopefully timeless) interest in exposing individual folly and abuses of institutional power – whether religious or political. They mock moral hypocrisy and the false ideals perpetuated by those guilty of self-deception or duped by sentimental dogma.
Since all of these concerns are as pertinent today as they were for Chaucer and Wilde, it seems vital that students continue to engage with the delightful, troubling complexities of Chaucer’s work.
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