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The Merchant's Tale

Fourteenth century Middle English
Geoffrey Chaucer

Huntington Library, San Marino, California MS EL 26 C 9, the Ellesmere Manuscript
British Library, Harley MS 7334, and many other manuscripts and printed editions

From The Canterbury Tales

In any attempt to apply for Middle English Breton lai status, or at least a Chaucerian version of one, this tale from the Merchant ticks a number of boxes: old man marrying a young woman; single episode rather than biography; frustrated love; the heroine coming out on top in the end; the involvement of a pagan Otherworld in the resolution of the story. This humorous and bawdy tale of quick thinking and glorious infidelity climaxes – if you will excuse the expression – in a pear tree, with the appearance of pagan divinities who feel compelled to intervene in what they are seeing. Perhaps most thought-provoking, however, is the suggestion from the wife, as she wrestles away in the pear tree with her young lover, that sex and procreation might be a way of restoring the old man’s lost sight to him.

This tale follows the tale from the Oxford Cleric in all versions and is another of Geoffrey’s Canterbury Tales – a collection of short stories each recounted from the mouth of a pilgrim on the way to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral.

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The Merchant's Tale


'Weping and wayling, care, and other sorwe I know y-nough, on even and a-morwe – Weeping, wailing, wringing of hands, shouting and crying – God, I know all about that!’ exclaimed the merchant. ‘And so do many others too, who are married, I’ll wager. You couldn’t imagine a worse wife than mine. She’d be able to get the better of the devil himself, even if he had his cock up her!

‘But there’s a huge difference between Griselda’s quiet patience and the cruelty of my wife. How can I begin to describe her malicious cunning? If I was a free man again... phew, what a relief that would be! I’d never get caught in that snare again. We wedded men live in sorrow and anxiety, let anyone investigate and they’ll find that I’m telling the truth. Ah, good Sir host, I’ve only been married for a couple of months, too. But I swear, by God, that the man who has never wedded wouldn’t admit, even under torture, to having suffered as many unpleasant experiences as I’ve already had.’

‘Well, God bless you, merchant, for sharing this with us, and since you know so much about it, tell us a bit more, I beg you,’ said the host.

‘Gladly,’ replied the merchant. ‘But I can’t bring myself to tell you any more about my own marriage.'

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Once, in Lombardy, there lived a respected knight who had been born in Pavia and still lived there, in great prosperity. This knight had remained unmarried for sixty years, although he was no celibate and had, in his time, indulged his sexual appetites to the full with numerous women, like many young men who are not in the clergy. But when he reached the age of sixty, whether by some desire to conform to God’s will or through the early onset of dementia, I cannot say, but he suddenly felt such a strong desire to be married that he occupied all his time looking for a suitable woman to wed, praying to God that he might come at last to enjoy that blissful life that exists under the holy bond of matrimony, through which God first caused a man and a woman to be united.

‘No other life is worth a bean!’ he suddenly declared. ‘Wedlock is so beautiful and so free of care, it must be like Paradise on Earth!’

And certainly, as sure as God is king, it’s a glorious thing for a man to take a wife, especially when he’s old and grey! A wife will be the most treasured of all his possessions, as long as he takes one who is young and beautiful, for she will provide him with an heir and allow him to live the rest of his days in peace and contentment. You won’t hear him cry: ‘Alas!’ like those bachelors do, when their love lives get complicated. And let’s be honest, it’s only right that bachelors should receive such anguish and grief, when they build on such shifting foundations and have such shifty relationships, although it always comes as a great surprise to them when it does. They live like birds and animals, free and easily, while a married man lives in orderly bliss, bound under the yoke of glorious wedlock. Who but a married man can have a woman who is accommodating to his every need, loyal and attentive, eager to administer to him both in health and in sickness, and come hell or high water will support him through everything, come what may. She won’t wear him out with sexual demands either, when he’s confined to his bed and feeling poorly, like the wife that the summoner told us about.

And yet, some religious men claim that this is not the case! Theophrastus is one of them. But what does that matter? If Theophrastus chooses to lie, so what? Have no wife to run your household – he says – and save yourself some money. A loyal servant will take better care of your property and won’t claim half of it as his own. If you become ill, God forbid, your friends and even a child will look after you better than a wife, for your wife will positively look forward to you dying, so that she can get her hands on your money. And whatever your state of health, you’ll become the unwitting victim of her extramarital affairs. But I say pooh! to such sentiments. A wife is God’s gift – really! Take no notice of Theophrastus and listen to me. All other possessions, like land, rents, fields, grazing rights, personal possessions, all these are gifts of fortune and pass like shadows on a wall. But without fear of contradiction, and in all honesty, I can say that a wife will remain in your house longer, perhaps, than you might even wish for.

Marriage is a sacrament. If a man has no wife, I consider him to be a nobody. He lives a helpless and desolate life – I don’t include clergyman in this, of course, but everybody else. And listen why: I don’t say without reason that women were created to help men, for God on high, when he made Adam and saw him standing there naked and alone, said through his great goodness: ‘Let us now make a help to this man, similar to himself.’ So he made Eve. And here is proof that a wife is a man’s help and his comfort. She is his Paradise on Earth, his greatest delight, and so accommodating and virtuous that she and her husband cannot help but live in perfect harmony together; they are of one flesh, and one flesh, I would say, has only one heart.

A wife! Ah! Saint Mary! God bless you! How can a man have adversity when he has a wife? I couldn’t say. No heart may express the bliss that they are in, there are no words that can do it. If he is poor, she helps him by working. She looks after all his possessions and wastes nothing. She desires everything that her husband desires. She never once says: ‘No,’ when he says: ‘Yes.’

‘Do this,’ he will say. ‘At once,’ she replies. Oh blissful institution of wedlock! You are so precious, so beneficial, so well recommended and so commendable that every man who sets his worth higher than that of a leek should spend his entire life on bended knees thanking God that he has a wife, or else asking God to find him one. For then a man’s life is secure; she will be a comfort to him for the rest of his life. And he cannot be deceived if he follows his wife’s advice – I wouldn’t imagine – so one should follow the wise and always accept the advice of a woman, for that way lies respect.

Remember Jacob, how, as these clergymen tell us, he wore a kid’s pelt around his neck through the wise counsel of his mother Rebecca, thereby winning his father’s blessing. Judith protected God’s people by killing Holofernes while he slept, as the story tells us. Abigail saved her husband Nabal when he would otherwise have been killed and look, Ester also, by her wise counsel, delivered the people of God out of their misery. There is nothing so wonderfully beneficial as a humble wife, says Seneca. Suffer your wife’s tongue, says Cato, for if she obeys you, it is out of courtesy alone, but what she says, goes. For a wife is in charge of your household affairs. Well may a sick man weep if he has no wife to look after his house for him, so I warn you, if you wish for the best, love your wife as Christ loves his Church. If you love yourself, then you love your wife, for no man hates his flesh but will always seek to do what is best for it, so I urge you, cherish your wife, or you will be lost. Joking aside, outside of the Church, matrimony is the accepted way to go. Husband and wife are so closely joined that no harm can come to them – especially to the wife.

So this knight, whose name was January, considering his advancing years and reflecting upon the advantages of marriage, as I have just explained, and the virtuous rewards of this honey-sweet existence, sent for all his friends to tell them what he had decided. With a serious expression on his face, he explained his decision to them.

‘Friends, I am old and grey and liable to fall off my perch at any moment,’ he told them. ‘Therefore, I feel that I must give some attention to my soul. Up to now, I have foolishly wasted the physical gifts that God has given me, but this shall soon be amended. I want to become a married man. I am going to marry a pretty young lady in the first bloom of youth and I want to do so as quickly as possible. So go and find me one. I shall apply myself to seeking out a suitable maiden, but there is only one of me and many more of you, so you are better placed to look than I am. But I warn you, my dear friends, I won’t accept an old lady. She mustn’t be more than twenty years old. I like mature fish but young flesh, that’s what I like. Better a cod than a codling, a pike rather than a sprat, but better tender veal than a tough old piece of beef, better lamb than mutton. I won’t have any woman who is thirty years old and dry as bean straw and hay, that’s for sure! And also, these old widows, God knows, they know too much country folklore and the harmful magic which goes with it. I could never live easily with that. A diversity of interests makes for cunning scholars, and women with such a broad range of knowledge can almost equal these scholars. A young woman. however, can be instructed, just as a man can mould warm wax in his fingers.

So to be plain and brief, I don’t want an old woman. If I had the misfortune that I wasn’t able to have any pleasure with her, I would have to commit adultery to find sex and go straight to the devil when I die! And also, she wouldn’t be able to give me any children, and I would rather be eaten by dogs than have my estate fall into someone else’s hands, I can tell you this now.

'I'm quite sure that I know why men get married, and I’m also certain that many people speak about marriage when they know no more about it than does my servant lad. If a man cannot remain chaste all his life, let him fall in love with a woman, marry her and produce lawful offspring, to the honour of God. But that they should curb their sexual desires and only make love once in a while, or that they should act towards one another like a sister and brother and live in holy chastity – well, sirs, I am not one of those! For God be thanked, I can boast that all my appendages are in full working order and I have a man’s appetites in plenty. I know my own body better than anyone and although my hair has lost its colour, I’m like a tree in blossom before the fruit appears; I may be pink and white on the top but my heart and all my limbs are as green as the freshest laurel, which stays fresh throughout the year.

'So now that you know all my plans, I hope I can count upon your support.’

The people who were there listening to this enthusiastic announcement now felt inspired to give January their advice and to recall some old tales concerning marriage. Some cast blame, others praised it, but at last, to cut a long story short, they argued amiably with one another for most of the day and found that opinions were largely divided into those expressed by two of his brothers. One was called Placebo and the other Justinus.

‘Oh January, my brother,’ said Placebo. ‘You really didn’t need to call us all together to discuss this matter at all. It's only that you are so full of wisdom, my dear lord, that you didn’t want to go against the counsel of Solomon, who said: “Do everything through the advice of others.” But although Solomon said this, my dear brother, it is wiser for you to do as you wish. Accept this advice from me: do what you think is best for yourself.

'I have been a courtier all my life and God knows, although I am unworthy, I have mixed with the finest in the land. I have conversed with lords and noblemen of the highest estate, and yet I have never once entered into an argument with any of them over how they should act, and I have never contradicted them, for I know well that they understand things much better than I do. Whatever a duke says, I hold it to be correct and I agree with him, or at least I profess to hold broadly the same opinion as he does. A counsellor is a fool if he serves a lord of high honour and then dares to presume, even to entertain the thought, that his advice might be worth giving. Lords are no fools, by my faith! You have yourself shown, here today, such a fine understanding, and explained the matter so completely, that I find myself in agreement with everything that you have said. By God, there is no man in this town, not in the whole of Italy even, who could have said it better! May Christ himself choose to applaud you. Certainly, it is courageous for a man in advancing years to take a young wife and, by my father’s kin, you have chosen to hang your heart on a jolly coat peg, that’s for sure! But do what you want, for I think it’s a splendid idea.

All this while, Justinus had been sitting and listening, but now he spoke up:

‘Placebo, be patient, I urge you,’ he said. ‘You have given us your opinion, but now hear mine. Seneca, among his other words of wisdom, said that a man ought to be careful about who he gives his land and possessions to, so how much more care should he take when giving away himself? It is never easy to choose a suitable wife. Men must get a good idea of her first – is she intelligent or a bit dim? Is she sober or perhaps a little too fond of the bottle, is she broad-minded or conceited and opinionated, is she caring and good-natured or a cunning little bitch? Is she a scold? Will she spend all your money? Is she rich or poor? Is she a closet lesbian?

‘For although it’s true than no man can ever expect to find perfection, neither in animals nor in people, it’s still wise to endeavour to find a wife who has more favourable points about her than ones that are going to be unfavourable, and all this takes time to find out. God knows, I’ve wept many a silent tear myself since I got married. Praise it as you might, the life of a married man can be one of anxiety, expense and suffocating routine, with nothing of any joy in it at all. And yet, God knows, all my neighbours, and particularly the women, say what a wonderfully meek and steadfast wife I have, although I would have thought that I would know best where my shoe’s pinching me.

‘But don’t let me dissuade you. You are old enough to decide for yourself, so go and marry a young girl if that’s what you want to do. But by he who made water, earth, fire and air, even the youngest man has his work cut out keeping a wife to himself alone, trust me, and after three years she will grow tired of you. You won’t be able to satisfy her. A wife is a very demanding creature, so I wish you luck.’

‘Well, is that it?’ replied January. ‘I don't give a straw for Seneca, nor for any of your proverbs and school terms. They’re not worth a sack of parsley! Placebo – you have the final word.'

“I say that a man is cursed if he fails to marry.’

With this, they all arose and agreed that he should get married, to whichever girl he wanted and whenever he liked.

Wild ambitions and strange fantasies began to seize the heart of January as he thought about his marriage. Many an astonishing pair of breasts passed through his thoughts and many a beautiful face, night after night. Like a man who takes a mirror, brightly polished, and sets it in a common marketplace so that he can view all the ladies passing by, so January’s mind reflected upon all the lovely maidens who lived in the vicinity. He couldn’t decide which one to choose. If one had a beautiful face, another had influence, good standing or a reputation for intelligence and virtue. Some were rich but disreputable. But at last, however, after careful thought and carefree imaginings, he alighted upon one young lady and let all the others fall from his heart. He made his choice, for love is blind and cannot see.

When he went to his bed, he mused, in his head and in his heart, about her beauty, her tender years, her delightful figure, her long and delicate arms, her good sense, her courtesy, her bearing and her feminine poise, and when he thought these thoughts, he knew that his mind was made up. She was the one. If any man argued against his choice, then he was a fool and his opinion wasn’t worth listening to. This was his fantasy. He sent for all his friends and told them not to bother looking any more, he had found her. The job was done.

Placebo arrived, then all his other friends and relatives, and January urged them not to argue against his choice but to accept it. He said there was a maiden in the town who was renowned for her beauty, and although her social standing was not high, her prettiness and her youth were quite enough to make up for this.

'She is the one I want to marry,' he said. 'She is the one I want to live the rest of my life with, in comfort and in a way that is pleasing to God. And I thank Christ that she will shortly be mine. Nobody will be able to have her except for me.'

January then asked them all to help to bring this about, and to make it happen, for then, he said, his spirit would be at ease. ‘I have no other concerns,’ he said, ‘except for one, and it is pricking my conscience, so let me explain: I have heard it said, a long time ago, that nobody can hope to experience bliss twice, that is, on Earth and also in heaven. Even if a man steers clear of the seven deadly sins, and all of the minor ones as well, yet there is such perfect happiness, contentment and satisfaction in marriage that by leading such a blissful life here in this world, so free from all worry, I shall have heaven here on Earth. But heaven is bought at a great price, with suffering and penance, so how can I, who shall be in such ecstasy, as all married men are with their wives, come at last to that eternal bliss that Christ has prepared for us? This is my fear. You, my two brothers – please reassure me on this question.’

Justinus, who was wholly against this foolish endeavour and had been so from the start, dived in first with a quick repost: ‘Just confess it all before you die! Sir, there should be no obstacle, for God, in his infinite wisdom and through his unceasing mercy, has so arranged things that when you make your last confession you can repent your married life. However, my best advice is that you have no need to worry at all because this marriage is likely to end up being your purgatory, rather than your heaven. This girl may be God’s instrument of retribution, God’s whip, and you will probably deserve to go swiftly up to heaven when you die, faster than an arrow from a longbow! I expect you to discover that the joys of marriage are not so great that they affect your chances of going to heaven in any way, provided that you do everything that marriage allows in moderation, don’t overindulge in anything and keep away from all the other sins. This is all I want to say. I’m not a scholar, but I advise you not to worry, brother dear. Let us say no more about it – for the Wife of Bath has already spoken on this matter expertly, if you understood her – so farewell, and may God protect you.’

With this, Justinus and his brother departed, and seeing that January's mind was made up, they arranged, through some cunning and intelligent negotiation, that she, this maiden, whose name was May, should be married to January as quickly as possible. It will take too long to explain the details of the contract and all the ins-and-outs of it. I shall not mention the clothes that she chose to wear at her wedding. But finally, the day arrived. Off they went to church, to receive the holy sacrament. Out came the priest, in all his vestments, and urged May to be like Sarah or Rebecca in the wisdom and honesty of her marriage; he said his prayers, as the service required, made them kneel, asked God to bless them and made everything secure in holiness.

So January and May are now solemnly married.

At the wedding feast they sat with all their close relatives and town dignitaries at the top table. The hall was full of joy and bliss, and full of food and the sound from musical instruments as well, the finest in all of Italy. The music was more wonderful than could have been played by Orpheus, or the Theban king Amphion. Every course was accompanied by minstrels striking up on their instruments, so loudly that it equalled anything Joab might have sounded on the trumpet, or Theodomas at Thebes when the city was under attack. Bacchus himself kept the wine goblets filled and Venus laughed with every guest; January had become her knight and she danced in front of the happy couple with a firebrand. Certainly, I dare say this, that Hymen the god of weddings never saw a newly married man so happy, and don’t say a word about this wedding, you poet Martianus Capella – you who wrote about Mercury’s delightful marriage ceremony and about the songs that the nine Muses sang – your tongue would be unequal to the task, and so would your pen. When tender youth has married stooping age, there is so much mirth that it cannot be described! Judge for yourself whether I am lying or telling the truth.

May sat with such a happy countenance that she looked like someone from the land of Faerie. She gazed at her new husband as meekly and alluringly as Queen Esther did at Ahasuerus. I cannot adequately describe her beauty, except to say that she was like a May morning, a fresh, sunny May morning. January was spellbound every time he looked at her, and his expression gave her a clear warning of what she might expect as soon as they retired to bed. But, in fact, January was feeling anxiety and pity for her, worrying that he might hurt her that night as he took away her maidenhead. He thought: 'Alas! Tender creature, may God give you the courage to endure my ardour, for it is so sharp and keen that I’m frightened you won’t be equal to it. But God forbid, I must be gentle. I wish it was bedtime already. I wish all these people would go away!’

At last, as subtly as he could and in a way that did them no dishonour, January did his very best to drive his guests from the tables. The time has come for them to leave the food and to dance, and to drink some more. Spices are placed all around the hall and everybody is getting very merry; except for one young squire called Damien, who has served at January’s table for a long time. He has so fallen for May that the pain is driving him mad. He can barely stand because of it. Venus has burnt him so badly with the torch that she’s been waving about in front of the dancers that he feels compelled to retire to his bed. I shall say no more about him for now. I shall let him moan and weep; but be warned, May might well feel that she has to take pity upon him later.

Oh perilous fire that smoulders in the bedstraw! Oh familiar enemy, summoned as always, a deceitful servant with a smiling face, an adder concealed in a bosom. God shield us all from your acquaintance. Oh January, drunk with wine and desire, see how Damien, your own squire, is planning to do you villainy! May God allow you to see what he’s up to, for there is no pestilence in this world worse than harbouring a hostile servant in your house.

The sun completed his daily course through the sky and could no longer dally above the horizon – not at that latitude, anyway. Night, with his coarse, dark cloak, began to overspread the hemisphere and to the cries of good wishes and thanks, all the guests made ready to depart. They rode quickly home to their houses, to do those things that it pleased them to do, and then to go to bed.

As soon as they were gone, January was eager to be in bed himself. He drank cordial, wine mixed with honey and Italian wine mixed with hot spices that might fortify him, as well as many a concoction that the cursed monk Constantine has written about in his book de Coitu; he consumed all of these, leaving nothing to chance. Then he said to his closest friends: ‘For God’s love, say all your goodbyes as quickly as you can and then kindly leave.’ And they did as he wished. Men drank, then drew the screen and the bride was brought to the marriage bed where she lay as still as a stone. When the bed had been blessed by a priest, they all left.

January took May into his arms, his Paradise, his wife. He caressed her and kissed her and rubbed the thick bristles of his stubble all over her face. His chin was like the skin of a dogfish, as sharp as a briar, for he'd had a full shave that morning. He rubbed around her tender skin and said: ‘Alas! I must trespass upon your beauty here for a while before I venture down below. But nonetheless, consider this: there is no workman, in any trade, who can do a job both quickly and well. This will be a perfect job, done at leisure. It doesn’t matter how long we make love for, we are husband and wife and blessed be the yoke that binds us, for nothing we can do together is sinful. A man can do no sin with his wife, any more than he can assault himself with his own knife.’ This is what he believed.

So he sweated and laboured until dawn broke, then ate some bread soaked in claret, sat upright in bed, broke into song, kissed his wife and started caressing her once again. He was like a colt, full of energy and as chirpy as a starling. The slack skin under his throat wobbled and shook as he sang and hummed and crooned. God knows what May thinks to herself as her husband sits upright in his shirt, wearing his nightcap and showing off his scrawny neck, but I don’t think she’s rated his lovemaking very highly. ‘Now I will take my rest,’ he said. ‘Day has come and I must get some sleep.’ He laid down his head and slept until the middle of the morning.

May, however, remained in their chamber until the fourth day, as was the custom; for every labour needs time for rest and recovery, otherwise a thing may not survive for very long, whether it be an animal, a bird, a fish or a human.

But now I must speak of the lovesick Damien, who languishes forlornly. He is desperately in love with May, and I shall admonish him in this way: ‘Oh silly Damien! Alas! Tell me this, how are you going to let May know of your affliction? If you confess to her in private, she will just tell you to be quiet. And if you speak openly, the whole place will know about it. God help you! I can say no more.’

Chancing everything, feeling that he had no choice, Damien secretly procured pen, ink and paper and wrote down everything that he felt in the form of a complaint, or a lay, a poem addressed to the object of his love. He burns so fiercely in Venus’s fire that he thinks he’s going to die, and lays the verses in a silken purse and hangs them from his shirt next to his heart.

The moon, that at noon on the day of January’s wedding had been in the sign of Taurus, was now gliding into Cancer. All this time, May had been confined to her chamber, as is the custom with the nobility, for a bride shall not eat in the hall until four days have passed, or three at least – then let her go to the feast! At noon on the fourth day, after High Mass was heard, January sat in the hall with his new wife May, who looked as fresh and bright as a summer morning. After a while, January happened to remember Damien and exclaimed: ‘Saint Mary! Why isn’t Damian in attendance? Has he been ill these last few days?’

All the squires standing nearby made excuses for Damien, saying that the reason he couldn’t perform his duties was that he was, indeed, sick.

‘This is very unfortunate,’ said January. ‘He is a noble young man and if he died, it would be a great shame. He’s intelligent, and as sensible and discrete as anyone I know of his age. He’s strong and fit as well, takes a pleasure in his work, makes a great success of everything he does and promises to become a fine individual. After we’ve finished eating, as soon as I can, I will go and see him, and I’ll bring May along with me too, and see if there’s anything we can do to make him feel better.’

Everyone thanked January for this and blessed him for showing such concern and compassion for a squire. ‘Madam,’ said January. ‘After this meal, when you are back in your room, take all your ladies and go to see Damien. Be kind to him, and tell him that I will be along to see him as soon as I have rested a little, for he is a noble young fellow. I’ll wait on the bed until you’ve returned.’

January called the squire who was in charge of his hall and gave him instructions. The beautiful May went with her ladies straight to the room where Damien lay.

May sat on the edge of Damien’s bed and tried to comfort him as best she could. This young man, sensing the unfolding of a rare opportunity, reached for his purse and the poem that it contained and passed it into May’s hand with a deep sigh. Then, in order to caution her to be discrete, since he had laid bare all his desires in it, he whispered: ‘Mercy! Please don’t divulge the contents of this to anybody, or I am a dead man.’

May slipped the purse into her bosom and left him. This is all I will say.

She walked into the bedchamber where January was sitting on the side of the bed. He took her into his arms and kissed her, then lay down and went to sleep. She pretended that she needed to go to the lavatory. When she had read the poem, she tore it into little pieces and threw the bits gently into the latrine.

Who now is staring wistfully into space? May lay beside her husband, old January, who was sleeping soundly; then he coughed and woke himself up. He asked her to take off all her clothes, for he wished to have some pleasure with her and her clothes would get in the way. She obeyed, knowing that her own wishes counted for nothing, but for fear of being indelicate or offending the squeamish, I will not describe what happened next, nor how they carried on together nor whether she thought that it was like being in heaven or in hell. I shall leave them to their arduous work until the bell for evensong is rung and they will have to leave their bed.

Whether by chance or through destiny, or by some natural law, or because of a serendipitous conjunction between a constellation and some planet or other, I cannot say – let God alone decide this, for nothing acts without a cause, I will say no more – but for whatever reason, it was an excellent time to give a love poem to a lady. Everything has its propitious moment, according to the learned, and the lovely May was so impressed with this poem which Damien had given to her that she could not drive from her heart the desire to bring some comfort to this lovesick young man. ‘I don’t care who this might displease,’ she thought. ‘Certainly, I could love this young squire more than anybody, even if he had only a shirt to his name.’

Pity comes most easily to a gentle heart. Here you can see a woman’s natural generosity, which is often used to placate some tyrant who, without her influence, would rejoice in his cruelty – and there are many of these about, men with a heart of stone who would rather see a man die than release him from prison. So this gentle May, her heart full of pity, wrote a letter to Damien agreeing that his desires should be met, and that it remained only to set a day and a place for this to happen.

When an opportunity arose, she went to see Damien once more and slid this letter under his pillow. Let him read it if he wishes. She took his hand and squeezed it, so discretely that nobody noticed, wished him a full recovery and left the room. When January sent for her, she went to him.

Damien arose the next morning, in perfect health and as happy as a lamb. He combed his hair, trimmed his eyebrows and his fingernails, cleaned them, did everything that his lady would expect him to, and then bowed as low to January as a dog does to its bowl. Damien was so pleasant and courteous to everybody – a valuable talent, for those who have been blessed with it – that nobody had anything but good to say of him, and his lady May was very pleased. I will let Damien busy himself with his duties for the moment, and proceed with my tale.

Some learned men hold that happiness is found only in pleasure, and showing himself to be in full agreement with this sentiment, noble January, honestly and to the best of his ability as befits a knight, had chosen to live in luxury. His accommodation and his clothes, without seeming too presumptuous, were the equal of a king’s. Amongst other delights, he had constructed for himself a garden, surrounded by a stone wall, and I know of no other garden like it. Without any doubt, I am sure that the author of the Romance of the Rose couldn’t have found words to describe it. Priapus wouldn’t be equal to the task, and he is the god of gardens! – but even he could not fittingly describe the beauty of this place, or the loveliness of the spring that trickled out from beneath an evergreen laurel tree. Often Pluto and his queen, Proserpine, and all their Otherworldly entourage, would dance about this spring to music, as men have told.

This noble knight, old January, so loved to be in this garden that he refused to let anybody else have access to it. The only way of entering was with a silver key that fitted a small door in the stone wall that only he could open. When he wished to make love to his wife on a pleasant, sunny day, here he would go, with May and with nobody else. And those things that he couldn’t do with her in bed, he would perform with her here, in this garden. In this way, January and his wife May spent many a merry day. But worldly joy cannot last forever, neither for January nor for anybody else.

Oh inconstancy! Oh sudden catastrophe! Worldly joy, you paint your gifts in the colours of steadfastness and loyalty when all the time your only intention is to deceive! You are like a scorpion, seemingly friendly but with your tail poised and filled with deadly venom, ready to strike. Oh Earthly bliss, why have you tricked January, who took you so fervently to be his friend? For now you have taken away the sight in both his eyes. He is so miserable that he wants to die.

Alas, noble January is now stricken with blindness. He weeps and wails, and tortures himself with the flames of jealousy so much that, fearing that his wife may succumb to folly, he wishes that someone would strike both of them dead. He hates so much the idea of her being with somebody else, after his death or before it, that he wants to imagine her clothed in black for evermore, mourning him as does the dove when she has lost her mate.

But at last, after a month or two, his anguish became somewhat less, to tell the truth, and he realised that he just had to learn to live with his blindness. He patiently tried to, except that jealousy so burned in his heart that he forbade his wife to go anywhere without him, and made her hold his hand in their hall and in every other house that they went to. She could go nowhere by herself. May wept because of this, for she dearly loved Damien and would rather have died than not be able to give expression to this love. Often it felt as though her heart was going to burst.

For his part, Damien quickly became the saddest young man that the world has ever seen, for he couldn’t speak a word in private to his beloved May, neither by day nor by night. He could say nothing to her that January could not hear, for her husband’s hand was always on her. Nevertheless, by the backwards and forwards of letters, and by discrete signs and gestures, each of them understood clearly how the other felt.

But Oh, January, how would it help you, even if you could clearly see a sail on the horizon, because a man with all his faculties can be deceived no less than one who is blind. Argus had a hundred eyes and could see everything, yet he was tricked! And God knows, so have many others as well who had no idea what was going on behind their backs. But let’s stop talking about this. It’s a relief to move on.

The beautiful May, whom I was just speaking about, has already pushed the key into warm wax, the one that opens the door to the garden, and made an imprint of it. Damien, who understands her intent, has made a copy of this key. What more is there to say?

Something miraculous is going to happen soon, because of this key, which you will all hear about if you let me finish.

Oh noble Ovid, what truths you have revealed! What trickery is there that has never been used before, however arduous and dangerous it is to see it through? Take the story of Pyramus and Thisbe: they were strictly kept apart, but found a way of speaking to one another through a tiny chink in a wall, where no one could hear them. But I'll move the story on.

Little more than a week had passed since their plan was concocted, and it was not yet July, when January, through the subtle encouragement of his wife, became so keen to frolic with her in his garden that he said to her one morning: ‘Rise up my wife, my love, my darling, for the doves are cooing. It is midsummer’s day and the winter, with all his dampness and rain, has vanished entirely. Come to me, my little columbine. How much more lovely than wine are your silky breasts! My garden is secluded and fully enclosed, so bring your eyes to me, my energetic spouse, for although you have never, ever hurt me in any other way, you have wounded me in the heart. So come to me and let’s have some fun together, my little plaything.’

January continued in this foolish vein, while May signalled to Damien to go ahead of them with the key that he had copied. He did so, opened the gate and darted into the garden so quickly and silently that nobody saw him or heard anything at all. Once inside, he hid in a large bush.

January, who was as blind as a stone, lead his wife by the hand and they went, alone, into the garden. He shut the gate with a click behind him. ‘Wife,’ he said, ‘there is nobody here but you and I and you are the one that I love. By the lord who sits in heaven, I would rather be stabbed to death than do anything to hurt you. Consider why I chose you – not for your dowry, that’s for sure! I chose you because I love you. Although I am old and blind, be faithful to me, for by doing so you shall earn three things: the love of Christ, an honourable reputation and all my wealth as well – I offer it all to you, all my towns and my buildings, draw up as many legal charters and deeds as you wish, they shall be drawn up tomorrow, before sunset if you like. And may God bring my soul to bliss but kiss me now as a covenant to this agreement. If I seem jealous, take it in good part, but I love you so much and you are so deeply etched into my heart, and this is the truth, that when I think of your beauty and my crippled old age, I cannot bear you not to be with me at all times. Now kiss me, wife, and let us walk around the garden together.’

The beautiful May began to weep and replied gently to her husband: ‘I have a soul as well, you know, and an honour to preserve, as well as the tender flower of my wifehood, which I passed into your hands when the priest gave possession of my body over to you, so I shall answer you in this way, with your permission: I pray to God that I may be killed in the most horrible way imaginable if I ever so shame my family or sully my reputation as to be unfaithful to you. If I do, strip me naked, put me in a sack and drown me in the nearest river. But why do you say this? I am a gentlewoman, not a serving maid! Men are always being unfaithful, yet you never stop warning us not to be.’

As she said this, her eye caught sight of Damien in the bush. She pretended to cough and, under this cover, made a sign to him with her finger to climb one of the trees. It was laden with fruit and up he went at once, for he understood her plan. She had smuggled a letter to him explaining what he should do. I shall leave him sitting in this pear tree, while January and May walk happily and sedately around the garden.

The day was bright, the sky was blue and the sun shone warmly on all the flowers. Phoebus, the sun, was in the constellation of Gemini and almost ready to enter the sign of Cancer, I think, where Jupiter has his exaltation, and it happened, on that lovely morning, that at the other end of this garden appeared Pluto, who is the king of the Otherworld, along with Proserpine, and many other ladies following them, one after another in a line. Proserpine was gathering flowers – you may read the story in Claudian how she was doing this when Pluto first grabbed her and carried her off in his grisly cart. While Proserpine was gathering flowers, this King of the Otherworld sat down on a bench of turves, on the fresh green grass, and said to his queen: ‘My wife, nobody can possibly dispute it, for it is proved every day that women are constantly deceiving men. Look over there at that young man hiding up in that tree. I could tell a million stories about the infidelity of women. Oh Solomon, paragon of wealth and wisdom, your words should be recalled by everybody with intelligence enough to understand them. You praise the goodness of man with these words: “Amongst a thousand men I could at least find one or two who were good, but amongst all the woman in the world, I could find none at all.” Jesus, son of Syrak, couldn’t say anything nice about you either. Do you see that honourable old knight over there, blind as he is, about to be made to look a complete fool by his own squire? I’m going to give this worthy knight his sight back, through my great majesty, the moment that his wife chooses to indulge in this dreadful act that I can see is imminent; then he’ll know what she’s up to.’

‘Oh you will, will you?’ replied Proserpine. ‘Then on my maternal grandfather’s soul I swear that I shall provide her with an instant riposte, and every woman after her as well, so that however guilty they are they will always be able to talk their way out of it and face down any man who dares to accuse them, however rightly. None of them shall die for lack of an excuse, I’ll make sure of that! Even if a man sees them in the act with his own eyes, we’ll put a brave face on it, weep, make light of it all and throw subtle counter-accusations until you men are as confused as geese.

‘And what worth do I place on your authorities? I am well aware that Solomon thought us all fools, but although he claimed not to know any good women, many others have found them in plenty. What about those who now dwell with Christ and who suffered martyrdom for their faith? And there are numerous classical stories of true and loyal wives. Although Solomon said that he had found no good women, take his remark in context: that in overall goodness there is none as high as God, who sits in Trinity. But oh! For the sake of the one true God, why do you go on so much about Solomon? He made a temple that was God’s house – so what! He was wealthy and glorious – so? He also made a temple to false gods and how could he do a thing which was more forbidden than that? By God, how generously you depict him, but the truth is that he was a lecher and an idolater and in his old age he even denied God! If God hadn’t spared him for his father’s sake, as the Bible tells us, he would have lost his kingship. So I don’t give a butterfly for all the slander and innuendo that he wrote about women. I am a woman, and I will defend our name until my heart breaks. He said that we are gossips and chatterboxes, and as long as I have my beauty I shall not let courtesy get in the way of hurling all the filth and harm that I can at him.’

‘Madam,’ replied Pluto. ‘Calm yourself. I give in. But since I swore an oath that I would return this man's eyesight to him, I cannot go back on it now. I am a king and cannot be seen to be a liar.’

‘And I,’ said Proserpine, ‘am Queen of the Otherworld. She will have an answer ready as soon as her husband looks at her, I swear. So let this be an end of the matter. I’m not going to argue with you any more.’

So let us turn now to January, in his beautiful garden, with his beautiful wife. He is chattering away to her, happier than a parrot, while walking up and down the paths between the flowerbeds: ‘I love you more than anything,' he is telling her, 'and shall always do so, you and no other woman.’

As he was saying this, they passed some shrubberies and then came to the pear tree where Damien was sitting joyfully amongst the green leaves. When they reached this tree, the beautiful, delectable May suddenly began to sigh and said: ‘Oh, my back! Alas! I would give anything to be able to eat some of those pears. I must have one of those small, green pears, or I shall die! Help me, for the love of Our Lady! I tell you, a woman in my condition can develop such a hunger for fruit that she may die if she doesn’t get any.’

‘Alas, that I am blind!’ exclaimed January. ‘Alas, that I haven’t brought a boy who could climb this tree for you!’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said. ‘But if you were to put your arms around this pear tree – for I know that you don’t trust me – then I could climb into the branches myself, if I can stand on your back.’

‘Certainly, my darling,’ he said. ‘I would do anything for you, even if it meant losing my heart’s blood.’ He stooped down and May climbed onto his back, grabbed hold of a small branch and hauled herself up into the tree. Now ladies, please don’t be angry with me but I’m an uneducated man and cannot describe what happened next more delicately than that suddenly, Damien appeared, pulled up May’s skirt and thrust himself hard into her. When Pluto saw this grievous wrong taking place, he immediately gave January back his eyesight. January could suddenly see as well as he had ever done before, and when he realised that he could see again, he was ecstatic with joy. But all his thoughts were for May, so he looked up into the tree and saw at once how Damien was doing things to his wife that may not be described for fear of appearing coarse and indelicate in this mixed company. He cried out like a mother who is witnessing the death of her child! ‘Out!’ he roared. ‘Alas! Oh audacity! Oh grievous audacity! – lady what are you doing?’

‘Sir, what is the matter?’ May replied at once. ‘Have patience, and see how I have restored the sight to both of your eyes. God knows, I’ve done it for you and for no other reason. I swear upon my soul that I was told that there is no surer way of helping you to regain your eyesight than to struggle with a man up a tree.’

‘Struggle?’ cried January. ‘I don’t see you struggling. You don’t seem to be doing anything to stop him thrusting it in and out! May God give you both a shameful death! He’s having sex with you, I can see it with my own eyes!’

‘Then my medicine hasn’t worked,’ she replied. ‘If you were able to see things as they are, you wouldn’t be accusing me of this. Your vision must still be a little defective. You are not seeing properly.’

‘I can see as well as I’ve ever done, thank God, with both my eyes, and I know what he’s doing to you!’ screamed January.

‘You are becoming incoherent, good sir. Is this the thanks I get for restoring your eyesight to you? Alas, why have I been so kind?’

‘Then we'll let the matter drop,’ said January. ‘Come down at once. If I was mistaken then I apologise. But, by my father’s soul, I was sure I saw Damian holding your skirt up around his chest and having sex with you.’

‘Sir, you can believe what you like, but a man who awakens suddenly out of sleep cannot understand everything he sees in a glance and needs a few moments to adjust. In the same way, a man who has been blind for a long time cannot be expected to see perfectly again the very instant that his sight is restored to him, but needs a while to get used to his new vision. Until your eyes have settled in, you may see things that are not really there. Be cautious, I urge you, for by the King of Heaven, many men claim to see a thing, but it’s entirely different to what they think it is. He who misinterprets, misunderstands.’

At this, she jumped down from the tree. January was delighted. He kissed her and hugged her, stroked her belly softly and led her back to his hall. Good men, I urge you to be glad. Here ends my tale of January. May God and his mother Mary bless us all.


‘Hey! God’s mercy!’ exclaimed our host. ‘Lo, may God protect me from a wife like that! The deceptions and tricks there are in women! They’re always as busy as bees, working out subtle ploys to use against us foolish men, and would sooner speak a falsehood than a truth, as this merchant’s tale shows. Certainly, as true as steel, my wife, although she’s poor, has a tongue that’s so full of cunning and slander – and she has a heap of other vices too – that between you and me, I’m sorry I ever married her; although if I told you the whole truth about our marriage I’d be an utter fool, because some of you would blab and she’d get to know what I'd said. Women find a way of bringing everything out into the light of day. You couldn’t help yourselves.’

'But never mind this, let it pass. Anyway, I don’t have the wit to describe her, so that’s all you’re going to get from me.’

Translation and retelling of Chaucer's Merchant's Tale copyright © Richard Scott-Robinson, 2016

may blossom