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How does the tale of the Merchant reflect the character of the Merchant himself?

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Introduction

How does the tale of the Merchant reflect the character of the Merchant himself? Soumik Datta, Essay 4, 10 December, 2003 By including a merchant among the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer brought to bear across the entire interpretive range of his poem, an aspect of his personal experience of London that had deep resonances for an England in the process of developing its own mercantile character and accommodating itself to the burgeoning of fourteenth century continental mercantilism. Chaucer underscored the contemporary conditions in which through social station and occupation he was personally enmeshed, by including in various tales, characters who are merchants. The careful punctuation of the Canterbury Tales with figures with figures representative of the merchant class should alert modern readers to the social, political and moral tensions that permeated fourteenth century London society resulting from emerging market conditions. It is no accident that the 'Merchant's Tale' like the 'Clerk's Tale' is set in Lombardy. One can see in the relationship of the two tales, at least three kinds of association: hearing the 'Clerk's Tale' might simply have caused the merchant to think of the story he knew about the Lombardy in his experience. ; the behavior of Walter and Griselda might also have reminded him by contrast rather than comparison of his own Italian tale of marriage; finally the Merchant might have consciously balanced the Clerk's account of aristocratic values and behaviors against his own account of the business-like deportment of January. ...read more.

Middle

The Merchant follows the words quoted above with a lengthy and impassioned discourse on the benefits and drawbacks of taking a wife. His commercial language continually reveals the devaluation of women as property even as he professes to speak on the inestimable worth of wives: 'A wyf is Godess yifte verraily;/ Alle other manere yfte hardily, /As londes, rentes, pasture, or commune, /Or moebles-alle been yftes of Fortune/ That passen as a shadwe upon a wall'. When he finally returns to his account of January' search for a wife the Merchant provides a list of requirements for a wife which January recites to his friends. Here the narrative even while shifting voice remains within a world of male assessment of prospective female property. Chaucer forcefully underscores this fact by sustaining here, as elsewhere in the tale, references to eating, to the woman as food and the husband as consumer - he who both eats and spends wastefully. January himself reflects that 'bet than old boef is the tender veel'. The eating imagery becomes directly tied to January's concern about heirs when he remarks that 'were me levere houndes had me eten/ Than that myn heritage sholde falle/ In straunge hand'. It is January's assumption that the world of marriage arrangements like the world of commerce is one in which one must eat or be eaten: it is the role of the powerful male to provide for his appetites and to protect his possessions. ...read more.

Conclusion

of his experience with trade and his familiarity with the language of commerce - in turn drawing attention to the fact that the air in fourteenth-century England was full of different conceptions of social order that traversed traditionally understood categories in uncomfortable ways and could not be neatly compartmentalized. If feudal hierarchies and sexual boundaries and religious discourse and classical social systems were to some extent becoming brittle, fragmented, or even supplanted in Chaucer's world, one can imagine that for the poet it would be precisely the voice of the Merchant-with his professional experience of the world - that could highlight this disintegration by negotiating the spaces in between and thereby challenging these inherited systems. In his own social position, Chaucer must have experienced firsthand the collision of different ways of imagining social relations. He probably saw in mercantile interactions a powerful demonstration of the possibility that new market based social relations could transect, puncture or even replace feudal and religious social assumptions in ways previously unimaginable. For Chaucer the public citizen and employee of the crown the social role of merchants may have put into high relief the potential for enormous social flux which Chaucer the poet would seek to engage imaginatively through the voice of the 'Forked Berd[ed]' Merchant. Aers, David Chaucer 1986 Knapp, Peggy Chaucer and the Social Contest 1990 Strohm, Paul Social Chaucer 1989 Thrupp, Sylvia The Merchant Class of Medieval London 1948 ...read more.

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