The Merchant’s Tale

Discuss how this short passage represents the theme of age and show the significance of that theme within ‘The Merchant’s Tale’

The extract of ‘the Merchant’s Tale’ takes place nearing the story’s premise.  The protagonist of the story- a knight called Januarie, has gathered all of his friends to announce his desires to marry a younger bride.  Using work from Neuse’s ‘Marriage and the Question of Allegory,’ and Wentersdorf’s ‘Theme and Structure in the Merchant’s Tale: The Function of the Pluto Episode,‘ I will be arguing how ‘the Merchant’s Tale’ defuses and uses common stereotypes of age to the effect of presenting it as a social construct.  I shall also be considering attitudes towards marriage and sex in mediaeval times, as well as how youth can equate with sexual lust.

Within Neuse’s ‘Marriage and the Question of Allegory,‘ he argues that ‘marriage is always a “mismatch” of youth and age […] the near certainty that expectations will have to be adjusted to realities.’ [1] I agree with this, because of how despite Januarie completely ignores Justinus’ warnings that a younger wife would cuckhold an older husband.  This quotation depicts a contrast between stereotypes in age.  As May is significantly younger than Januarie, she would be expected to make foolish decisions, attributed to traits commonly associated with youth, such as naivety and impulsiveness.  However, by choosing to marry May, despite being told she may cuckhold him, it is in fact Januarie who exhibits these characteristics, when Januarie would be expected to act with the wisdom associated with his age.  This contrast in age stereotypes displays the ‘“mismatch”’[2] Neuse is referring to, but it also represents the theme of age, as a social construct.  The stereotypes of age that social actors were expected to follow were entirely created out of the mind-sets of others-thus being constructed by society.  This then leaves scope for such social actors as Januarie and May to rebel against these stereotypes.

I argue that the theme of age is represented in both the passage and the entire tale, as a notion which is not to be underestimated.  For this reason, it can be considered ironic, that when Janaurie talks to his friends, he explicitly states ‘I wol non old wyf han in no manere.’ (TMT, l.1416) This quotation offers a simple expression of how Januarie believes that he can use May’s young age to exploit her.  However, it is May who in fact uses her youth to exploit Januarie in the tale.  Wentersdorf argues that Chaucer has compared Januarie’s anticipation of his marriage to Adam’s experience in the Garden of Eden and that this “idyllic vision will thus foreshadow May’s role in destroying her husband’s paradise.”[3] I argue that this quotation implies that May had a premeditated role in choosing to cuckhold Januarie and as she was forcibly married to the elderly knight, I argue that this is a logical conclusion.  A conclusion that relates back to Justinus’ warnings that Januarie would be cuckholded by a young wife, especially if he cannot satisfy her sexually.

Age plays a significant role within ‘the Merchant’s Tale’ in terms of how it results in that many characters being objectified.  Primarily, Januarie objectifies May, because of her age.  However, I argue that Januarie is objectified to a further extent than May, because of his age.  Initially, even though Januarie only lusts after May, within the latter half of the text he does develop feelings towards her: “nor wolde he that she were love ne wyf.” (TMT, l. 2079) This quotation reveals that Januarie may actually care about May, as he is afraid to lose her.  Alternatively, Januarie is exhibiting two characteristics that are commonly associated with old age: fear of loneliness and sentimentality.  However, this would still imply that for a sentimental attachment to exist, Januarie is emotionally attached to May.  Furthermore, May deems Januarie to be sexually useless: “she preyseth nat his playing worth a bene.” (TMT, l. 1854) Another common characteristic of elderly man is sexual impotence and it is in this action of Januarie’s, or inaction, as the case may be, which causes May to begin objectifying him, so she can get what she wants from Damien. The key example of this is when May objectifies Januarie by effectively using him as a ladder to reach Damian: “so my foot myghte sette ypon youre bak.” (TMT, l. 2345) This portrays a role reversal, through how Januarie has become objectified because of his age.  Due to his old age, he cannot perform for May sexually; she uses him to find other ways of being sexually fulfilled.

The age dynamic between May and Januarie is significant within ‘the Merchant’s Tale’, especially the notion that age does not always equate with control and power.  Initially, Januarie is in control as he forces May to marry him.  Within their act of sexual intercourse, he states “a man may do no sinne with his wyf” (TMT, l. 1839) which implies that just because Januarie is the older male, he thinks he is entitled to do whatever he wants to May.  However, this power dynamic is reversed nearing the text’s end, where Januarie becomes blind and completely dependent on May: “this Januarie, as blynd as is a stoone/with Maius in his hand, and no wight mo.” (TMT, ll. 2156-2157) This quotation implies that Januarie now views May as a support structure, or even as a walking sick, which is tool that is commonly used by the elderly.  Due to Januarie’s dependence on May, putting her into a position of power, their relationship has transformed from husband to wife to a daughter looking after her elderly father.  This then puts May, the young female, in a position of control, as the elderly Januarie is reliant on her.

Age is a significant theme within ‘The Merchant’s Tale,’ both within the actual passage and the tale as a whole.  It explores how different stereotypes of age can lead to different perceptions of the concept and how these perceptions are not always based in the truth.  Most importantly, it portrays how age can be perceived as a social construct, through the portrayal of certain stereotypes and how they are only voluntary.   If a character fits in with a stereotype, this does not mean that they have to conform to it.

Word Count: 1067


Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales, 2nd edn, e.d by V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson (New York: Norton, 2005)

Neuse, Richard, ‘Marriage and the Question of Allegory in the Merchant’s Tale,’ The Chaucer Review, 24, (1989), 115-131 (116)

Wentersdorf Karl P., ‘Theme and Structure in the Merchant’s Tale: The Function of the Pluto Episode’, PMLA, 80, (1965),522-527 (522)

[1]              Richard Neuse, ‘Marriage and the Question of Allegory in the Merchant’s Tale,’ The Chaucer Review, 24, (1989), 115-131 (116)

[2]     Neuse, 116

[3]              Karl P. Wentersdorf, ‘Theme and Structure in the Merchant’s Tale: The Function of the Pluto Episode’, PMLA, 80, (1965),522-527 (522)

*Author’s Notes*

This is the second essay that I wrote for my Introduction to Literary Studies II module.  It is a textual analysis of this extract from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: 

‘But o thing warne I yow, my freedes dere,

I wol non old wyf han in no manere.

She shal nat passe twenty yeer, certain.

Old fish and yong flesh wolde I have fayn.

Bet is, quod he, a pyk than a pickerel

And bet than old boef is the tender veal.

I wol no woman thritty yeer of age;

It is but ben-straw and greet forage.’

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