A MARCHANT was ther with a forked berd,
In mottelee, and hye on horse he sat;
Upon his heed a Flaundryssh bever hat,
His bootes clasped faire and fetisly.
January, a noble sixty-year-old bachelor, determines he must marry and beget an heir; he insists on a young wife and settles upon the fair and youthful May. The issue of January's marriage is debated by Justinus, who argues against it, and Placebo, a flattering courtier who agrees with January's determination to marry. January loses his sight, and May conspires with a young squire to cuckold him, which she does in a pear tree. Pluto restores January's sight; Prosperine gives May the wit to convince the old man that he should not believe what he has seen with his own eyes.
(Students reading this text for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful).
The central episode of the Merchant's Tale is like a fabliaux, though of a very unusual sort: It is cast in the high style (LINK), and some of the scenes (the marriage feast, for example) are among Chaucer's most elaborate displays of rhetorical art.
The most important sources of the Merchant's Tale appear among the Canterbury Tales themselves. The debate on marriage draws upon the Prologue of the Wife of Bath, which is itself cited by Justinus (VI.1685), and January's idea of a good wife seems to be based on the Clerk's Tale (cf. IV.2345-46 and IV. 351-57). Some of the ideas set forth in the debate on marriage echo those in the Parson's Tale (see n. 1441-55, p. 886 in The Riverside Chaucer) and the good wives cited are those listed in the Melibee (VII. 2551-74). St. Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum, especially his argument against marriage, is cited almost as often here as in the Wife of Bath's Prologue. And there are some similarities between the Merchant's account of his own unhappy marriage and the discussion of marriage in the Roman de la rose: Marriage in Le roman de la rose.
The main section of the tale -- the 'Pear Tree' story -- is a widely known tale that could have come to Chaucer in many forms, including simple oral tradition. It is based on the cleverness of women, who can convince husbands to reject the evidence of their own eyes. Two such are:
Marie de France's fabliaux
Guèrin's The Priest who Peeked
The story of the blind man and the pear tree commonly circulated as a fable of "Aesop." Here is a late fifteenth-century version by William Caxton: Caxton's Story of the Blind Man
Somewhat closer to Chaucer's version of the tale is that found in an early Italian collection, the Novellino: A Rich Man and His Wife
Boccaccio's much more elaborate version is often compared to Chaucer's story, but they do not have all that much in common although Boccaccio's tale is fun to read: Decameron; Seventh Day, Ninth Tale.
The intervention of Pluto and Proserpine into the action of the Merchant's Tale has its analogue in the appearance of God and St. Peter in the "Rich Man and His Wife" listed above; the assignment of the pagan gods to these roles seems to have been Chaucer's own invention.
There has been considerable critical disagreement over the degree to which this tale is dramatic -- how much (if at all) the tale reflects the Merchant's own unhappy experiences with marriage. Some critics have found the tale darkly and deeply ironic; others have been troubled by the mixture of style and genres and the apparent violation of decorum (esp. IV.1685-87).
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Merchant's Tale click here.