Structure and Summary of the the Merchant’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Merchant’s tale is the 10th tale of the Canterbury tales which was preceded by the Clerk’s tale. The Merchant’s tale is as Chauncer would have it, a story about one of his fellow travellers. The Merchant was marked out as a successful foreign trader, his ‘forked berd’ (Book IV, Line 270) defined the man’s deceitfulness though it can also be viewed as a means of fashion, the line ‘[t]her wiste no wight that he was in dette’ some scholars regarded as a suggestive of a dubious dealer. Although merchants were regarded as being dubious, they played a crucial role within the social hierarchy during the medieval times such that Chauncer perceived Merchants as being the embodiment of financial management. This story was written during the peak of the Merchant class and was especially prevalent since merchants played such a defined role that they were classed as some of the wealthiest people in society during the 14th century.

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Short Summary

The Merchants Tale explores the traditional life drawn from folktales of familiar theme which is known as a fabliau due to its comedic, sexual content. It begins with Januarie, an old merchant who is deceived by his young wife, May who committed adultery with Damyan after he went blind. Before this he was a bachelor who decided to get married after a discussion with his friends. As the adultery was being committed in a pear tree where their plan was designated for, the God Pluto, filled with rage with what he witnessed instantly restored Januarie’s sight. This led to Januarie witnessing the ordeal though he was deceived again, explaining that “Your eye sight isn’t very good. We were only struggling”. The story is littered with connotations, these include January which symbolises winter and old age, May which symbolises spring and youth, Garden of Eden and the sexual energy, and blindness which symbolises January being blinded by lust for his young wife.


The Merchant’s tale is a great instance of Middle English when it’s fully utilised. Within the paragraph of “About an old knight who wants to marry”, several Middle English characteristics such as archaic terms, inflections, spelling, grammar and semantics etc. Archaic terms were highly prevalent in Middle English, and is especially true for this tale since at least 30% of the text were written in them. Some examples includes “thilke”, “whilom”, “bitwixe”. These archaic terms possess some sort of disparity in spelling compared to Late Modern English though their semantics usually conforms to its source.

In a morphological sense, the passage contains a plethora of inflections which is prevalent through the whole text which conforms to the Middle English standard during the 15th to 16th century. Some words such as “sey-e”, “our-e”, “lyv-e” all contain suffixes, these suffixes were mostly used to indicate tense. When indicating tense “-ed” and “-s” were substituted with “-yd”, “-e” were used while plurals remain the same as Late Modern English. This is especially apparent with words such as “wom-man” and “wyflees”, where there’s a clear indication of a free morpheme. There are also some exceptions such as “o-other” where a prefix is used though this mostly correlates with spelling.

A standardised spelling system for Middle English was never established. This meant that there was a lack of consistency between words, such that the occurrence of a duplicated word in the same passage could be written incorrectly, which is evidenced by the Canterbury tales where “yong” (The Merchant’s Tale, Line 74) is spelt differently “yonge” (The Clerk’s Tale, Line 80). Other spelling differences to Late Modern English include the missing letters and extra letters which is prevalent through the whole context of the passage. This signifies that there was lexical development and that the language itself was still evolving. Substitution was also commonplace when translating, where a letter such as “y” is used in place of “i” and “e” to reproduce the /ɪŋ/ or /ə/ (i.e “Hyr” for “Her”) sound.

The passages in the Merchant’s tale is comprised almost completely of coordinating conjunctions rather than subordinating. There were a high proportion of “And” being used which isn’t prevalent in the previous tale which means that this tale is exclusively utilising it due to its satirical, comedic and sexual nature of fabliau; the extract itself is written almost completely in third person though there are definitely evidence of first person elements though. The selection of third person serves as a basis for telling stories of others whilst the selections of first person allows for a poetic nature. When speaking in first person it rhymes in an AABB pattern which can be seen here. This rhyming scheme is used satirical.

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