Written By: Samantha Bertolino
Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales traverses themes from religion to social convention, relativism, and liminality. While most of these are tied to a clear moral mission, others have been largely indeterminate.
One of the most inconsistent narratives involves women in their relationship with men. While some of these tales transcend their time, others fall into canonical traps. Though Chaucer appears at times a highly informed proto-feminist, at other points this vantage is unclear.
The Merchant’s Tale paints women in a less than pleasing light. In the Prologue, the Merchant describes his relationship with his wife, a woman he—seldom—holds in high regard and—barely—seems to love. He goes on to recount his story, wherein an older man, named January—it’s very on the nose, I know—is a “worthy” knight.
As this tale progresses, January declares he will only take a young wife, for “bet than old boef is the tendre veel.” Gross, I know. It’s unsurprising, then, when he takes a young and beautiful lady to be his wife. Her name is May, and yes, that’s a commentary on the months of the year. He’s old and cold and, well…you get the point.
May is not as sweet as she first appears, though. Quickly falling for the young and handsome lord Damyan, she sets her foot upon January’s back to literally reach the lord’s hand and copulate with him in a tree. Weird move, Chaucer.
This act of treachery seems to be a statement on all of womankind. Her betrayal exceeds forces of just one, but two things are taken together—adultery and deception. And we’re forced to ask: What are the morals of this story? When women are held above flaw, are they destined to fail? Or are they simply, intrinsically wicked? Is he—man—a blind fool, or a victim?
Whatever Chaucer intended, the answer remains unclear. And though his true stance is unknown, I’d like to believe Chaucer was something of a feminist. After all, he “that wolde lyve parfitly” does not exist.