Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - The Modern and Mediaeval Merchant's Tale

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The Modern and Mediaeval Merchant's Tale

"The Merchant's Prologue and Tale" is mainly concerned with the infidelity of May while she is married to Januarie. Infidelity is undoubtedly a popular topic for discussion in modern times and is often the subject of magazine or television stories. Despite the concern with marriage and the status of men and women within such a relationship keeping the story applicable to the audience even more than 600 years later, there are many elements of the Prologue and Tale which root them in a mediaeval context. The reasons to marry and the opinions cited show the attitudes of the mediaeval period as do the references to mythological figures such as "Ymeneus, that god of wedding is".

Symbolising how the mediaeval and modern aspects of the Tale can be easily combined is the story of Pluto and Proserpina. Although Pluto captures his wife, she is able to spend much of the year away from Hades. This is symbolic of the greater liberty that many women can enjoy in the modern world. Opposing this modern link is the relationship between Januarie and May which is shown to have followed mediaeval tradition to a greater extent concerning the actual marriage and the mercantile nature in which it is brought about. Rather than the freedom for Proserpina agreed between herself and Pluto, Januarie desires a wife of "warm wex" that he can control, ultimately causing May to betray him.

Januarie's reasons for marrying are seen as improper both in the mediaeval and modern contexts. He wishes to be married simply because he is old and society seems to say that he should. There is no consideration of love, only of lust as he declares, "I wol noon oold wyf han in no manere". A mediaeval audience would have been aware that an emphasis on carnal pleasure was displeasing to God, while this would be less of an issue to a modern audience. As marriage was considered by the mediaeval audience to be an embodiment of Christ's devotion to the Church, the theme of infidelity would be apparent to the modern audience, but without the ironic details obvious to the earlier audience. In addition to this, the simple fact that Januarie's friends are prepared to find "to whom [he] may be wedded hastily", rather than let Januarie look for himself roots the Tale in a mediaeval context as such an idea is almost inconceivable in the year 2000.

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