The Canterbury Tales The Merchant's Tale Summary
The Merchant follows the Clerk by announcing that he knows all about weeping and wailing caused by marriage – in fact, if his wife married the Devil himself, she would weep and wail louder than he. He has been married two months and has hated every minute of it. But since he cannot tell his own story (he says), he will tell another one.
The Merchant’s Tale is about a knight named January, who had lived for sixty years without a wife. One day, however, he decided to marry. He called for his friends and asked them to find him a wife no older than twenty, who would do whatever he wanted. His friends get into a lengthy list of arguments for and against marriage, but the core of the argument is between Placebo and Justinius. Placebo tells January to marry a young wife, exactly as he’s planned. Justinus cites Seneca and argues that January should be more thoughtful when choosing his wife and that he should choose one closer to his own age.
January chooses his bride, a young woman named May, and they are married. Venus, the goddess of love, laughs at the wedding to see that January, an old man, has become one of her “knights.” They drink lots of spiced wine and then go to bed, where the married couple has sex until dawn – although the narrator notes that young May finds her old husband fairly useless in bed.
At the wedding, everyone is happy except Damian, January’s squire. Damian is madly in love with May and writes her a love letter telling her so, which he keeps in a silk bag inside his shirt. One day, when May goes to tell the squires that her husband isn’t feeling well, Damian slips the love letter to May. She reads it, then tears it up and throws it in the toilet so it cannot be discovered. She writes a love letter back to Damian and slips it under his pillow.
As time goes by, January’s age catches up to him, and he becomes almost totally blind. January’s house had a lovely garden, in which January would frequently have sex with his young wife – much to the consternation of Damian, who wanted to be able to sneak into the garden to see May. Damian makes a secret copy of the key to the garden and hides there in a pear tree. When January and May enter the garden, May offers to climb the pear tree to get a pear for her husband, then hoists herself into the tree and begins having sex with Damian.
Suddenly, January’s sight returns to him. He spies May and Damian having sex in the tree and demands to know what they’re doing up there. May says that she has heard the best way to restore January’s sight is to “struggle” with a man in a tree. When January points out that they’re not “struggling,” they’re having sex, May says that he isn’t seeing clearly yet. She persuades January that he didn’t see what he thought he saw, and January rejoices at having regained his sight.
As the tale ends, the Host prays aloud that God will keep him from such a deceitful wife. But he stops himself from telling more stories about his own wife, fearing that one of the pilgrims will tell on him.