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The Merchant's Tale of January and May

One of Chaucer's Canterbury's Tales that tells of marital infidelity

By John WelfordPublished 2 years ago 5 min read

The Merchant’s Tale is the last of the “marriage group” of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. These deal with different aspects of the theme of authority in marriage and include the Wife of Bath’s argument for the sovereignty of wives and the Clerk’s Tale of what can happen when a husband demands complete obedience from his wife. The Merchant turns the tables again with a story of a young wife deceiving an elderly husband.

We know from the General Prologue that the Merchant has every appearance of being successful, wearing fine clothes and boots and talking about how well he is doing in his business. His is a type that has lasted right down to the present day! However, Chaucer also lets slip that he is in debt and that therefore much of what we see is a sham.

After the Clerk has told his tale the Merchant lets it be known that his own marriage is far from happy. He has only been married for two months, after many years as a bachelor, but he greatly regrets having made such a mistake, his wife being a “shrew” who treats him with malice and cruelty, although he gives no details about how this is manifested.

The Merchant’s Tale is based on a piece of folklore that had appeared in many forms before Chaucer made use of it. However, in Chaucer’s version the simple plot is richly elaborated with description, comment and characterization, plus a bit of mythology for good measure.

The Tale

An old man, named January, decides that it is high time he got married. He will have to take a young wife because he wishes to produce an heir. He thinks long and hard about this, to the extent of 450 lines of verse before the wedding takes place, including a survey of marriage in the Old Testament, discourses on the subject from a number of classical writers, and consultations with his two brothers. January does not plunge into marriage on a whim!

Having decided to marry, January looks around for a possible candidate. Eventually the choice falls on May, who is young and pretty. He finds the wedding and the feast that follows to be too long-winded for his liking, as he wishes to bed his new wife as soon as possible. However, his squire, named Damian, has also been smitten with the sight of young May.

Damian becomes sick with love and writes a letter to May, but can find no way of getting it to her. When January and May first eat together in the hall, January notices that Damian is not there. He asks May to go, with her maids, to Damian’s bedside to wish him well. Damian takes advantage of this visit to pass her his letter, which she reads after she has returned, and then destroys.

When she can, May writes a reply to Damian and delivers it to him in person, squeezing his hand as she does so. This is enough to make Damian well again.

January has a walled garden, to which only he has the key. He now uses this garden as a private love-nest to which he takes his wife when he feels so inclined.

As time passes, January loses his sight, but he cannot now bear to have May out of his reach, being jealous of some possible suitor, although he knows nothing about Damian’s passion for May or May’s feelings for Damian.

May makes a copy of the garden key, which she gives to Damian. When January next asks her to go with him to the garden, she motions Damian to slip through the gate before them, using his key, and to wait for her signal. As January and May make speeches affirming their love, sincere on one side but not on the other, she gives a sign to Damian to climb into a pear tree.

Unknown to any of them, the garden is also being visited by two characters from mythology, Pluto and Proserpine (Pluto/Hades is god of the underworld and Proserpine/Persephone, goddess of growth, is his wife for half the year, returning to the upper world in Spring and back down again in Autumn). Pluto takes pity on January and vows to restore his sight. Proserpine takes May’s side and vows to give her the power to defend herself when the truth comes out. There is a very strange element in this conversation, as the two figures from Greek/Roman mythology talk about the wisdom of Solomon and the “true God that is but one”!

When January and May reach the pear tree, May insists on climbing up to reach some pears, at which Damian immediately grabs her and starts to ravish her. Pluto instantly restores January’s sight, enabling him to see exactly what is going on. Proserpine now makes good her vow, and puts words into May’s mouth, along the lines that somebody who has just had their sight restored cannot trust what they think they see.

This appears to satisfy January, and the story ends there.

So what are we to make of it?

A foolish old man is successfully hoodwinked by a clever young woman, albeit one who takes advantage of her husband’s disability. The debate on who shall have “mastery” in marriage has not been settled, and this is something of a “score draw”. Also, the wicked characters in this story get away with it. There is no punishment for May or Damian, which sits oddly with the Merchant’s expressed views on the wickedness of women, as one would have expected him to tell a tale that redressed the balance.

As a tale, the thought must be that it would have been told very differently by a modern writer. All those lines at the beginning of the story about the benefits and drawbacks of marriage are tedious to read, and have only a limited bearing on the story that follows. Once the denouement is reached, the tale comes to a close almost immediately, giving the impression of a somewhat unbalanced piece of work.

The tale does not bear comparison, as entertainment, with the Miller’s Tale, which is on a similar theme but is better told and has much more life to it, with more attractive characters. However, it has left English literature with a name, January and May, for the theme of the old husband who is cuckolded by a much younger wife.


About the Creator

John Welford

I am a retired librarian, having spent most of my career in academic and industrial libraries.

I write on a number of subjects and also write stories as a member of the "Hinckley Scribblers".

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