The Canterbury Tales
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2007 All Rights Reserved
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The Merchant’s Prologue
The Prologue to the Merchant’s Tale
‘Weeping and wailing, care and other sorrow,
I’ve known enough of, even-tide and morrow,’
Quoth the Merchant, ‘as do others though,
Who have been wed, I know that it is so,
Too well I see that’s how it fares with me.
I have a wife, the worst sort there may be;
For even though the fiend were to wed her,
She would outmatch him, I’d truly swear.
What should I especially for you recall
Of her deep malice? She’s a shrew in all!
There is a vast and a broad difference
Betwixt Griselda’s wondrous patience,
And my wife’s exceeding cruelty.
Were I free once more, I say to thee,
I would ever again avoid the snare.
We wedded men live in sorrow and care.
Try it who will, and he indeed shall find
That I say true, by Saint Thomas of Inde! –
Speaking for most of us; I don’t say all.
God forbid that ever that should befall!
Ah, good sir Host, I have wedded been
These two months, no more than that, you see;
And yet I know, he that all his life
Wifeless has been, could in no like manner
Tell so much sorrow as I now, here,
Could tell of my wife’s cussedness!’
‘Now,’ quoth our Host, ‘Merchant, so God you bless,
Since you know so much of all that art,
Full heartily I pray you, tell us part.’
‘Gladly,’ quoth he, ‘but of my own sore
Because my heart is sad, I’ll tell no more.’
The Merchant’s Tale
Here begins the Merchant’s Tale
Once there was, dwelling in Lombardy
A worthy knight, born in Pavia he,
In which he lived in great prosperity.
And sixty years a wifeless man, was free
To pursue all his bodily delight
With women, where lay his appetite,
As do these fools who are but secular.
And when he had passed his sixtieth year,
Whether from holiness, or in his dotage
I cannot say, but he was in such a rage,
This knight, to see himself a wedded man
That day and knight he ponders all he can
Seeking for how he might wedded be,
Praying Our Lord to grant him that he
Might once know all of the blissful life
That is between a husband and his wife,
And to live in that holy bond, tight bound,
In which God first man and woman wound.
‘No other life,’ said he, ‘is worth a bean;
For wedlock is so comfortable, I mean,
That in this world it seems a paradise.’
– So said this old knight who was so wise.
And certainly, as true as God is King,
To take a wife it is a glorious thing,
Especially when a man is old and hoar;
Then is a wife the fruit of all his hoard.
Then should he take a wife young and fair,
On whom he might engender an heir,
And all his life in joy and solace pass,
While all the bachelors may sing ‘alas!’
Where they are lost in the adversity
Of love which is but childish vanity.
And truly, it is fitting it should be so,
And bachelors have all the pain and woe.
On fragile base they build, fragility
They find when they would have security.
They live but as a bird or as a beast,
In liberty and free of any leash,
Yet a wedded man in his new state
Lives a life blissful and moderate,
Under this yoke of true marriage bound.
Well may his heart in joy and bliss abound;
For who shall be obedient as a wife?
Who is so true, and caring of his life
In sickness and in health, as is his mate?
For weal or woe she will not him forsake,
She never wearies, but will love and serve,
Though he lie bedridden while on this earth.
And yet some scholars say it is not so,
And Theophrastus he is one of those.
What matter if Theophrastus choose to lie?
‘For thriftiness,’ quoth he, ‘take not a wife,
In order to spare your household from expense.
A faithful servant will show more diligence
In nurturing your estate than your own wife,
For she will claim a half of it all her life.
And if you are sick, so God me save,
Your true friends, or an honest knave,
Will help you more than she that waits, I say
To own your goods, and has for many a day.
And if you take a wife to have and hold,
You may easily end up as a cuckold.’
This opinion, and a hundred worse,
Writes the man, may God his ashes curse!
But ignore all such, it’s vanity;
Defy Theophrastus, hearken unto me.
A wife is God’s gift, say I, verily.
All other kinds of gift, assuredly –
Such as lands, rents, pasture, rights in common,
Or movables – they are all gifts of Fortune,
Which vanish like the shadows on a wall.
But doubt not, plainly I shall speak to all,
A wife will last, and in your house endure,
Longer then you may wish, peradventure!
Marriage is a mighty sacrament;
He that has no wife is good as spent;
He lives helplessly and desolate –
I speak of folk in the secular state.
And listen why – I do not speak for naught –
Because woman was for man’s help wrought.
Great God, when he first Adam created,
And saw him all alone, and belly-naked,
God of his goodness said, as He had planned:
‘Let us create a helpmate for this man,
One like himself’ – and then created Eve.
Here may you see, and so may you believe,
A wife is a man’s help and consolation,
His terrestrial paradise and salvation.
So obedient and virtuous is she,
They cannot help but live in unity.
One flesh are they, and one flesh, I guess,
Has but one heart, in joy and in distress.
A wife – ah, Saint Mary, benedicitee!
How should a man then know adversity
Who has a wife? For sure, I cannot say.
The bliss between them both, night and day,
No tongue can tell about nor heart can think.
If he is poor, she labours, every wink;
She nurtures his goods, wastes not a shell.
All that her husband likes, she likes as well.
She never once says ‘nay’, when he says ‘yes’.
‘Do this,’ says he, ‘all ready, sire,’ she says.
O blissful order of true wedlock precious,
You are so happy and so virtuous,
Commended and approved, week by week,
That every man that’s worth more than a leek,
Upon his bare knees ought throughout his life
To thank the God who sent to him a wife,
Or else should pray to God that He might send
A wife to him, to endure till his life end,
For then he can live life in security
And not be troubled, as far as I can see,
As long as by his wife’s advice he’s led;
Then may he boldly hold aloft his head.
They are so true, and withal are so wise.
Thus, if you’d live as learned men advise,
Do always as the womenfolk shall cite.
Lo then, how Jacob, as the clerics write,
By good counsel of his mother, Rebecca,
Binds the kid’s skin round his neck, a
Ploy by which his father’s blessing’s won.
Lo, how Judith, for thus the stories run,
By wise counsel, God’s own people kept,
And slew King Holofernes while he slept.
Lo, how by Abigail’s good counsel she
Saved her own husband Nabal, when he
Looked to be slain; and Esther, she also
By good counsel delivered out of woe
The people of God, and had Mordecai
Enhanced by Ahasuerus in God’s eye.
There is no rank superior, in life,
Says Seneca, to that of humble wife.
Endure your wife’s tongue, as Cato has it;
She shall command, and you must endure it –
And yet she will obey out of courtesy.
A wife is the keeper of your property;
Well may the sick man wail and weep
When there is no wife the house to keep.
I warn you, if wisely you would work,
Love your wife well, as Christ loved his Church.
If you love yourself, then love your wife.
No man hates his flesh, but all his life
He nurtures it; and therefore bid I thee,
Cherish your wife, or never prosperous be.
Husband and wife, whatever men jesting say,
Among the worldly, keep to the safest way.
They are so knit, no harm may thus abide,
And especially upon the woman’s side.
So January considered, of whom I told,
For he, when the time came that he was old,
Thought of the pleasant life, the virtuous quiet,
That is marriage’s sweet and honeyed diet,
And for his friends thus one day he sent
To tell them the gist of all his fond intent.
With grave face this tale to them he told:
‘Friends,’ he said, ‘see, I am hoar and old,
And almost, God knows, on the grave’s brink;
Now, of my soul somewhat I must think.
I have my strength wantonly expended –
Blessed be God that this may be amended!
For I will, indeed, become a married man,
And that anon, with all the haste I can.
I’ll wed some maid, of fair and tender age,
I pray you, prepare you for my marriage
Swiftly now, for I cannot long abide.
And I will try to discover, on my side,
To whom I might be wedded rapidly.
But since there are more of you than me,
You are more likely such a one to spy
Than me, one with whom I might best ally.
But of one thing I warn you, my friends dear,
I will have no old wife, no, never fear.
She shall not be more than twenty, say,
Old fish but young flesh I’d have any day;
Better a pike,’ quoth he, ‘than a pickerel,
Yet fresh veal better than old beef is well.
I’d wish for no woman thirty years of age;
Such is but bedstraw and coarse for forage.
And old widows, God knows that they float
As trickily as did Wade’s fabled boat,
Making so much mischief when they wish,
That I’d never have a moment’s peace.
For as diverse schools make subtle clerics;
Woman, of many schools, part-scholar is.
But surely, a young thing men may guide,
As warm wax in the hands, readily plied.
Wherefore, I say plainly, in a single clause,
I will have no old wife, and here’s the cause.
For if it happened by some cruel mischance
I would find no pleasure in her glance,
And I’d end in adultery, by and by,
And go straight to the devil when I die.
No children on her should I then beget;
And I’d prefer my hounds to eat me yet
Rather than that my property should fall
Into strange hands, and this I tell you all.
I am not in my dotage; I know why
Men should be wed, and furthermore I
Know that many a man speaks of marriage
That knows no more than does my page,
Of why every man should take a wife –
If he cannot live chaste throughout his life –
Take him a wife with proper devotion
And for the sake of lawful procreation
Of children, to the honour of God above,
And not for passion only or for love;
And so that he might lechery eschew,
And pay his debt when it falls due;
Or so that each should help the other
In misery, as a sister does her brother,
And live in chastity full holily.
But, sires, that is not I, by your leave;
For, God be thanked, I dare to boast,
I feel my limbs stronger are than most,
Enough to do all that a man may do.
I know best myself what I can do, too.
Though I am hoary, I am like a tree
That blossoms white before the fruit, we see,
A blossoming tree is neither dry nor dead.
And I am only hoary on my head.
My heart and all my limbs are as green
As laurel all the year is sweetly seen.
And since you have heard all my intent,
I pray that you will, to my wish, assent.’
Various men variously him told
Of marriage, gave many examples old.
Some blamed it, and some praised it again;
But at the last, and briefly to explain,
As everyday occur fierce altercations
Between friends in their disputations,
A quarrel fell out between his friends so;
Of whom the one was called Placebo,
While Justinus, in truth, was the other.
Placebo said: ‘O January, my brother,
You have little need, my lord so dear,
To take counsel of anyone that’s here,
Unless being so full of sapience,
You’d dislike, of your noble prudence,
To stray far from the words of Solomon.
This is what he said to us, every one,
“Work everything by counsel” – so said he –
‘And then you’ll not repent latterly.”
But though Solomon spoke this word,
My own dear brother and my lord,
God in Heaven bring my soul to rest,
I hold your own counsel still the best.
For, brother mine, since opinion’s rife,
Well, I have been a courtier all my life,
And God knows, though I unworthy be,
I have served with those of high degree,
Amongst lords of the highest estate,
Yet with them I never would debate.
I never contradicted them, truly;
I well know my lord knows more than me.
Whatever he says, I hold it to be right;
On the same, or something similar, I light.
A mighty fool is any councillor
Who serves a lord with high honour,
Yet dares presume, or consider he is fit
To offer advice that betters his lord’s wit.
No, lords are not fools, no, by my faith!
You have shown yourself, here today
Of such noble thought, so holy and fine,
That I agree, endorse it all with mine,
All your words and all your true opinion.
By God, there is no man in all this town,
Nor in Italy, who could have spoken better!
Christ would be satisfied with every letter.
And truly it is a noble wish I say
For any man who is advanced in age
To take a young wife; by my father’s kin,
Your heart’s hanging from a trusty pin!
Do now in this matter as you wish,
For, in conclusion, I do think that best.’
Justinus, who sat still and all this heard,
In this manner Placebo he answered:
‘Now, my brother, be patient I pray,
Since you have spoken, hear now what I say.
‘Seneca, among other words, all wise,
Says indeed that a man is well advised
To ponder where he leaves his land and chattels.
And since therefore I ought to think right well
To whom I give my goods away, truly
I should consider still more carefully
To whom I give my body for many a day,
I warn you truly now, it’s no child’s play
To marry without due consideration.
Men must enquire – this is my opinion –
If she be wise, sober or drunken too,
Or proud, or else otherwise a shrew,
A chider, or a waster of your goods,
Rich or poor, a virago from the woods –
Although it’s true as ever no man shall
Find any in this world sound in all,
No man, no beast that man could devise.
But nonetheless, it ought to suffice
For any wife, that one know if she had
More good qualities than she had bad.
And all this needs leisure to enquire.
For, God knows, I have wept tears entire
Days, privately, since I have had a wife.
Praise who will a married man’s life,
Be sure, I find in it but cost and care,
And duty, of all bliss and joy bare.
And yet, God knows, my neighbours all about,
And especially the women, I avow,
Say that I have a most constant wife,
And the meekest one that God gave life.
But I know best where pinches thus the shoe.
You can do, for my part, what pleases you.
Take thought – you are mature now in age –
Before you enter into any marriage,
Especially with a wife both young and fair.
By Him that made water, earth, and air,
The youngest man there is among the crowd
Is hard put to ensure, if he’s allowed,
His wife for himself alone. Trust in me,
You shall not please her fully years three –
That is to say, or give her satisfaction.
A wife demands plenty of attention.
With what I said, be not displeased I pray.’
‘Well, quoth January, ‘have you had your say?
That for your Seneca and your proverbs!
I care not a basketful of herbs
For scholar’s terms! Wiser men than thou,
As you know well, have assented now,
To my scheme. Placebo what say ye?’
‘I say it is a cursed man,’ quoth he,
‘Indeed, who hinders true matrimony.’
And with that word they rose, suddenly,
And they assented fully that he should
Be wedded when he wished, and where he would.
Powerful imaginings, fresh anxiousness,
From day to day, full on the spirit pressed
Of January, concerning all this marriage.
Many a fair shape, many a fair visage,
There passed through his heart, night by night,
As one who took a mirror, polished bright,
And set it there in the public market-place,
Would see many a reflected figure pace
Across his mirror; and in similar wise
Could January in his own mind devise
Images of maids who dwelt on every side.
He was unsure where preference should abide;
For if the one had beauty in her face,
Another stood so in the people’s grace
For her sobriety and benignity,
That in folk’s report most worth had she;
And others were rich, but had a bad name.
Nonetheless, between earnest and game,
He, in the end, had fixed his mind on one,
And every other from his heart was gone,
And he chose her, on his own authority;
For love is blind always, and cannot see.
And when at night he his bed had sought,
He portrayed her in his heart and thought,
Her fresh beauty, and her age so tender,
Her little waist, her arms long and slender,
Her wise discipline, and her gentleness,
Her womanly bearing and her soberness.
And when to look on her he condescended,
He thought his choice could never be amended.
For when all this he concluded had,
He thought every other man’s wits so bad,
It would be for them an impossibility
To contest his choice; that was his fantasy.
His friends he sent to on the instant,
And begged them to honour his intent
Asking them swiftly to him now to come;
He would abridge their labour, all and some.
There was no further need for them to ride;
He’d decided where his choice would abide.
Placebo came, his friends were all there soon,
And first of all he begged of them a boon,
That none should any ill contention make
Against the decision that he chose to take;
Which decision was pleasant to God, said he,
And the very grounds of his prosperity.
He said there was a maiden in the town,
Who for her beauty had won great renown,
Although it chanced she was of low degree,
It sufficed for him she had youth and beauty;
Which maid, he said, he would take to wife,
And lead in ease and holiness his life,
And thanked God that he would have her all,
And no man should share his bliss at all,
And begged them to pander to his need,
And make sure that his courtship succeed,
For then, he said, his mind would be at ease.
‘There is,’ quoth he, ‘nothing to displease,
Except one thing pricking in my conscience,
The which I will rehearse in your presence.
I have,’ quoth he, ‘heard said, a year ago,
No man can have perfect bliss, in both –
That is to say, in earth and then in heaven.
For though he keep him from the sins seven,
And from every branch, too, of that tree,
Yet is there such perfect felicity
And such great ease and joy in marriage,
That ever I am aghast now, at my age,
That I may lead now so merry a life,
Luxurious, and free of woe and strife,
That I shall have my heaven on earth here.
And yet since heaven indeed is bought so dear,
With tribulation and with mighty penance,
How should I then, living a life so pleasant,
As all married men do with their wives,
Come to bliss where Christ eternal thrives?
This is my dread; and you my brethren, say,
You two, how to resolve this question, pray.’
Justinus, who hated all such folly,
Answered at once, in silent mockery;
And as he would a longer tale abridge,
He would no clear authority allege,
But said: ‘Sire, if there’s no obstacle
Other than this, God, by a miracle
And of his mercy, may for you so work.
That ere you have the rites of holy church
You may repent of the married man’s life,
In which you say there is no woe or strife.
And God forbid He do ought but send
The married man the grace to repent
Much more often than the single man!
And therefore, sire, the best advice I can
Give you, despair not, but keep in memory
That she perhaps may prove your purgatory.
She may be God’s means, and God’s whip;
Then shall your soul up to Heaven skip
Swifter than does the arrow from the bow.
I hope to God hereafter you may know
That there is none so great a felicity
In marriage, nor nevermore shall be,
That could deprive you of your salvation,
Provided you use, with skill and reason,
The pleasures of your wife, temperately,
And that you please her not too amorously,
And that you keep from every other sin.
My advice is done, for my wits are thin.
Be not aghast at it all, my brother dear,
And let us turn from this matter here.
The Wife of Bath, if you can understand
Her view of the business we’ve on hand,
Has declared it clearly in little space.
Farwell now; God have you in His grace.’
And with that Justinus and his brother
Took their leave, and each one of the other.
For when they saw that it needs must be,
They so wrought, by wise and cunning treaty,
That this maiden, named fair May, she might
As swiftly as ever should appear right,
Be wedded to this old man January.
I think too long you’d need to tarry,
If I told you of every deed and bond
By which she was endowed with his land,
Or to detail all her rich array.
But finally we reach the wedding day
And to the church both of them now went
There to receive the holy sacrament.
Forth the priest, with stole about his neck, there,
And bade her be like Sarah and Rebecca,
In wisdom and in the truth of marriage,
And said the orisons, in common usage,
Signed them with the cross, and bade God bless,
And made all sure enough with holiness.
Thus were they wedded with solemnity,
And down to the feast sit he and she,
With other worthy folk on the dais.
All full of joy and bliss is the place,
And full of instruments, and plenty,
The most delicious food in all Italy.
Before them stood instruments whose sound
Was such that Orpheus, nor Amphion
Ever made such a perfect melody.
With every course there came loud minstrelsy
That never trumpet blared with Joab near,
Nor Thiodomas, never was half so clear,
At Thebes when the city was in doubt.
Bacchus himself poured wine all about,
And Venus smiled sweetly at the sight,
For January had become her knight,
And now would test out all his courage
As he had done in liberty, in marriage,
And with her firebrand in her hand about,
Danced before the bride and all the rout.
And for sure, I dare in truth say this:
Hymen that the god of marriage is,
Never saw so merry a married man.
Hold your peace, now, poet Marcian,
Who describes that same wedding merry
Of Philology the bride, to Mercury,
And then writes the songs the Muses sung!
Too shallow your pen, too weak your tongue,
To tell the story of this marriage.
When tender youth is wed to stooping age,
There is such mirth it can’t be written.
Try it yourself, and you’ll be bitten,
Tell me if I lie, in this matter here.
May sat: her looks were so benign and clear,
To see her was to see the world of faery.
Queen Esther never looked so meekly
On Ahasuerus, never such eye had she.
I may not tell you of all her beauty;
But this much of her beauty tell I may,
That she was like the bright morn of May,
Filled with every beauty was her glance.
Old January was ravished, in a trance
Every time he looked upon her face.
But in his mind he menaced her apace
With how that night in his arms he’d strain
Her tighter than Paris Helen did constrain.
But nonetheless, he felt it a great pity
That he must offend her that night, and he
Thought to himself: ‘Alas, O tender creature,
Now would to God that you may endure
All my passion, so sharp and keen, again
I am aghast lest you shall it not sustain.
God forbid that I do all that I might!
Would God though that it were truly night,
And the night last for evermore, and so
I wish these people were about to go!’
And finally he set himself to labour
As best he could, while careful of his honour,
To hasten them from the meal in subtle wise.
The moment came when it was time to rise,
And after that they danced and drank, at last
Spices all about the house they cast,
And full of joy and bliss was every man –
All but a squire whose name was Damian,
Who carved for the knight full many a day.
He was so taken with this lady May
He was nigh mad with the pains of love.
He almost swooned and fainted where he stood,
So sore had Venus hurt him with her brand
That she bore, while she was dancing, in her hand.
And took himself off to bed hastily;
Of him no more at this time will I speak,
But leave him there to weep and to complain,
Till fresh May shall take pity on his pain.
O perilous fire, that in the bed-straw gathers!
O household foe, who his ill service proffers!
O treacherous servant, with false homely hue,
An adder in the bosom, sly, untrue!
God shield us all from your base acquaintance.
O January, drunken in the dance
Of marriage, see how your Damian
Your own squire, from birth that was your man,
Intends to do you now some villainy.
God grant that this household foe you see!
For in this world there’s no worse pestilence
Than a household foe daylong in your presence.
Perfected had the sun his arc diurnal;
No longer might the body of him sojourn,
All on the horizon in that latitude.
Night with her mantle that is dark of hue
Had overspread the hemisphere about,
At which departed all the merry rout
Of guests, and with thanks on every side.
Home to their houses merrily they ride,
Where they do whatever they think best,
And when it seems due time, take their rest.
Soon after that, our restless January
Desires his bed; he will no longer tarry.
He takes hippocras, and sweet wine laced
With spices hot, to make the spirits race,
And many a potion drinks he, as fine
As those the cursed monk Constantine,
Has written of in his book De Coitu;
He quaffed them all and nothing did eschew.
And to his private friends thus said he:
‘For God’s love, as soon as it may be,
Have the house cleared in courteous wise.’
And they did exactly as he did advise;
Men drank a toast, the curtains then were drawn,
The bride was brought abed, as still as stone;
And when the bed had by the priest been blessed,
Out of the chamber everybody pressed.
And January fast in his arms did take
His fresh May, his paradise, his mate.
He calms her, he kisses her full oft;
And with the bristles of his beard un-soft,
Like to dog-fish scales, and sharp as briars –
For he has freshly shaved as it transpires –
He rubs her all about her tender face,
And says thus: ‘Alas, my spouse, for a space
I must injure you, and greatly you offend,
Before the morning when we shall descend.
But nonetheless, consider this,’ quoth he,
‘There is no workman, whosoever he be,
That can work well, and also hurriedly.
This must be done at leisure, carefully.
It matters not now how long now we play;
Coupled in wedlock were we two today
And blessed be the yoke that we are in,
For in our actions we can do no sin.
A man can commit no sin with his wife,
No more than hurt himself with his own knife,
For we have leave to play, so says the law.’
Thus he laboured till daylight, as before,
And then he took some bread in spiced wine,
And upright in his bed sat so to dine,
And after that he sang out loud and clear,
And kissed his wife, and wanton did appear.
He was all coltish, folly in his eye,
And full of chatter as a pert magpie.
The slack of skin below his neck did shake
While he chanted, bawled, and song did make.
God knows what poor May thought in her heart,
When she saw him in his shirt upstart,
And in his night-cap, with his neck all lean;
She thought his dalliance not worth a bean.
Then said he thus: ‘My rest shall I take
Now day is come; I cannot keep awake.
And down he laid his head and slept till prime.
And afterward, when he thought it time,
Up rose January; but fresh May
Kept to her chamber till the fourth day,
As wives do, they think it for the best.
For every labourer must sometimes rest,
Or else the labour may not long endure –
That is to say, of any living creature,
Be it of fish or bird or beast or man.
Now will I speak of woeful Damian,
Who languishes for love, as you shall hear.
Therefore I’d speak to him in this manner:
I’d say: ‘O foolish Damian, alas!
Answer my question, in this pretty pass:
How shall you to your lady, fresh May,
Tell your woe? She will ever say you nay.
And if you speak she will your woe betray.
God be your help! That’s all that I can say.’
This sick-hearted Damian in Venus’ fire
So burned that he was dying of desire,
And so he chose to put his life at venture.
No longer could he in this wise endure;
But secretly a pen-case he did borrow,
And in a letter wrote out all his sorrow,
In the form of a plaint or of a lay
Unto his fair and fresh lady May.
And in a purse of silk hung it with art
Inside his shirt, laid against his heart.
The moon in two degrees, at noon, the day
That January wedded his fresh May,
Of Taurus, into Cancer now had ridden
So long had May in her chamber hidden,
As is the custom with these nobles all.
A bride should never eat in the hall
Until four days, or three at the least
Have passed; then she may go and feast.
The fourth day complete from noon to noon,
When the high Mass was over and done,
In the hall sat January and May,
As fresh as is the bright summer’s day.
And so it befell that this good man
Recalled his faithful squire Damian,
And said: ‘Saint Mary, how may this be,
That Damian attends not here on me?
Is he sick, or what else may betide?’
His squires, who stood there by his side,
Excused him on the grounds of sickness,
Which excluded him from any business;
No other cause would make him tarry.
‘Sorry I am for that,’ quoth January,
‘He is a noble squire, a gentle youth.
If he should die, ‘twere pity then, in truth.
He is as wise, as secret and discrete
As any of his rank whom you may meet,
And courteous too, willing to serve at table,
And to be a worthy man he is right able.
But after meat, as soon as ever I may,
I will visit him myself, and so shall May,
To give him all the comfort that I can.’
And, at his words, blessed him every man,
That of his nobility and his kindness
He would go comfort in his sickness
His squire, for it was a gentle deed.
‘Dame,’ quoth this January, ‘take good heed,
That after meat you, with your women all,
When you reach your chamber from this hall,
Go along and see our Damian.
And entertain him; he’s a gentleman.
And tell him I shall pay him a visit,
When I have rested for a little bit.
And speed you fast, for I will abide
Until you sleep soundly by my side.’
And with those words he began to call
For the squire who was marshal of his hall,
And told him certain things that he wished.
Fresh May straight made her way after this,
With all her women, to see Damian.
Down by his bed she sat, and began
To comfort him as well as she may.
Damian, saw his chance, as there he lay,
And secretly his purse and his petition,
In which he had told of his condition,
He put into her hand with nothing more
Than a sigh both wondrous deep and sore,
And softly, to her, right thus said he:
‘Mercy, and do thou not expose me,
For I am dead if this thing be espied!’
The purse she does in her bosom hide,
And goes her way – of that no more from me!
But unto January comes she finally,
Who on his bedside sits full soft
And clasps her then and kisses her full oft,
Then lays him down to sleep, and that anon.
She pretended she must needs be gone
Where everyone we know must go at need.
And when she of the note had taken heed,
She rent it all to pieces at the last,
And into the privy softly did it cast.
Who deliberates but fair fresh May?
Adown by old January she lay,
Who slept till his cough woke him abed.
Then he begged her strip herself naked;
He would, he said, take pleasure at a chance;
And said he found her clothes an encumbrance.
And she obeyed, whether she would or not.
But lest prudish folk be me with wrath,
How that he wrought, that I dare not tell,
Nor whether she thought it paradise or hell,
But here I leave them working in their wise,
Till evensong when they were due to rise.
Whether by destiny, or at a venture,
By starry influence, or merely nature,
Or by some configuration of aspects straight,
The heavens then appeared more fortunate
To present petitions full of Venus’ works –
For each thing has its time, so say the clerks –
To any woman to obtain her love,
I cannot say; but the great God above,
Who knows that no event is causeless,
Let Him judge all, for my pen will rest.
But true it is, that on our fresh May
Such was the impression made that day
By him, and by her pity for Damian,
That from her heart there is no way she can
Drive out the need to do him ease.
‘And then,’ she thought, ‘whoever it displease,
I care not; for I shall him assure
That I will love him best of any creature
Though but his shirt has he, at the start.’
Lo, pity swiftly flows in gentle heart!
Here may you see the generosity
Of woman, when she ponders carefully.
Some there may be, many such are known,
Tyrants with a heart as hard as stone,
That would have seen him perish in that place,
Rather than granting him a moment’s grace,
And rejoiced then in their cruel pride,
Careless of being thought a homicide.
But gentle May, filled full of pity,
In her own hand a letter wrote she,
In which she granted him her true grace.
There only lacked the time and place,
That might, to satisfy his wish, suffice;
For it must be just as he would devise.
And when she saw her chance one day,
To visit our Damian went May,
And surreptitiously the letter thrust
Under his pillow – read it then he must.
She took him by the hand and gave a squeeze,
So secretly that no one else could see,
And bade him be well; and off she went
To January when for her he sent.
Up rose Damian the next morrow;
All past was his sickness and his sorrow.
He combed his hair; groomed himself and dressed;
He did all that his lady might like best.
And then to January as meek does go
As ever a dog following the bow.
He is so pleasant to every man –
Being sly does all, for those who can –
That everyone spoke well of him, who should,
And fully in his lady’s grace he stood.
Thus I leave Damian, busy with his need,
And in my tale forth I will proceed.
Some scholars hold that felicity
Consists in pleasure, and certainly,
This noble January, with all his might,
In honest ways, as became a knight,
Set out to live most luxuriously.
His household, his dress, was as finely
Tailored to his degree as is a king’s.
And amongst the rest of his fine things,
He had a garden, walled all with stone;
So fair a one, I’d say, was never known.
For sure, I would not easily suppose
That he who wrote the Romance of the Rose
Could capture its beauty to the life;
Nor would Priapus himself suffice,
Though he is god of gardens, to tell
The beauty of that garden, and the well
That stood beneath a laurel, always green.
Many a time had Pluto and his Queen
Proserpina, and all her band of faery,
Sported there and made their melody
About the well, and danced, or so men hold.
This noble knight, January the old,
Took such delight in walking there, that he
Would suffer no one else to have the key
Save he himself; for of the small wicket
He bore the silver key that would unlock it,
Which, when he wished, he often did do.
And when he would pleasure his wife too,
In summer season, thither would he go,
With May his wife, so none would know.
And anything they had not done in bed,
Was done in the garden there instead.
And in this wise many a merry day
Lived this January and fresh May.
But worldly joy may not always endure,
For January, or for any other creature.
O sudden chance, O Fortune the unstable,
Like the scorpion endlessly deceitful,
Feigning with your head when you would sting,
Your tail is death, through your envenoming!
O fragile joy, O sweet venom’s taint!
O Monster that so subtly can paint
Your gifts with the hue of steadfastness,
So that you deceive both great and less!
Why have you January thus deceived?
You had him as your true friend received,
And now have bereft him of his sight –
For sorrow of which he would die tonight.
Alas, noble January, the worthy,
Amidst his pleasure and prosperity
Is stone blind, and that quite suddenly.
He weeps and he wails piteously;
And with it comes the fire of jealousy,
Lest his wife should fall into some folly,
That so burns his heart he would again
Prefer some man both her and him had slain.
For neither after his death nor in his life
Would he have her a lover or a wife,
But as a widow live, clothes black as fate,
Solitary as the dove that’s lost its mate.
But after a month or two had passed away,
His sorrow began to ease, truth to say.
For when he saw that nothing else could be,
In patience he accepted adversity;
Save that, indeed, he had not foregone
His jealousy: in that all days seemed one.
Which jealousy of his was so outrageous
That not to the hall, or any other house,
Nor to any other place here below,
Would he suffer her to ride or go
Unless he had his hand on her always.
At which treatment often wept fresh May,
Who loved Damian so graciously,
That she must either die suddenly,
Or else must have him: at the worst,
She thought her very heart would burst!
And on his side, Damian was then
One of the most sorrowful of men,
That ever was, for neither night nor day,
Might he speak one word to his fresh May,
And as to his purpose no such matter,
For January would overhear their chatter,
Who had his hand upon her, as you know.
Yet nonetheless, by writing to and fro,
And secret signs, he knew what she meant,
And she knew too the gist of his intent.
O January, what would it you avail
Though you could see as far as a ship’s sail?
As well be blind, and then deceived be
As be deceived when the eye can see.
Lo, Argus, who had a hundred eyes,
For all that ever he could peer or pry,
Yet was he blind; and many more, God knows,
Who thought for certain that it was not so.
I’ll pass on, in relief, and say no more.
Fresh May, whom I’ve spoken of before,
In warm wax impressed the key, her mate
Old January carried, of the little gate
By which into his garden he oft went.
And Damian, who knew all her intent,
Forged a counterfeit, all secretly.
There is no more to say, but presently
A wonder will occur thanks to this gate,
That you shall hear about, if you will wait.
O noble Ovid, you spoke true, God knows!
What stratagem is there, despite its woes
Love will not in its own way discover?
In Pyramas and Thisbe see the manner:
Though they were strictly watched overall,
They made a plan, by whispering through a wall,
No one could have guessed their cunning ways.
But to our purpose now: before eight days
Had passed, ere the month of June, it befell,
January so desired – his wife did well
For she had egged him on – to go and play,
In the garden, and no one there but they,
That one morning unto his May said he:
‘Rise up, my wife, my love, my lady free!
Hear the turtle-dove, my sweet, my pet,
Winter is gone with all its cold and wet.
Come forth, now, with those dove’s eyes of thine!
How much more lovely are your breasts than wine!
The garden is enclosed all about;
Come forth my white spouse! Out of doubt,
You have wounded me in my heart, O wife;
There is no stain on you, on my life.
Come forth, and let us enjoy our sport;
I chose you for my wife, and my comfort.’
– Lewd words, from an ancient text, used he.
To Damian a signal then made she
That he should go before them and wait.
So Damian went and opened up the gate,
And in he slid, and that in such a manner
That no one saw him, or heard him, there;
And he sat still, under a bush, alone.
Old January, as blind as is a stone,
Holding May’s hand, and walking so,
Into the fresh garden he did go,
And clapped the wicket to, and firmly.
‘Now wife,’ quoth he, ‘here’s only you and me,
You are the creature that I best love.
For, by the Lord that sits in Heaven above,
I would rather perish by the knife,
Than offend you, my true dear wife!
For God’s sake, consider how I chose
You, not from covetousness, suppose,
But only for the love I bore to thee.
And though I am old and cannot see,
Be true to me, and I will tell you why.
Three things, surely, shall you win thereby:
First, love of Christ, and to yourself honour,
And all my property, of town and tower,
I give you – draw the deeds up, as is best,
We’ll sign tomorrow, ere sun goes to rest,
As God Himself may bring my soul to bliss!
I pray that first, to seal it, you me kiss.
And though I may be jealous, blame me not;
You are so deep imprinted in my thought
That when I consider of your beauty,
And then the ill-matched age of me,
I may not, for certain, though it kill me,
Bear to be out of your company
For love, indeed; I say without a doubt.
Now kiss me wife, and let us roam about.’
Fresh May, when she these words heard,
Graciously January she then answered;
But first and foremost she began to weep.
‘I have,’ quoth she, ‘a soul from sin to keep
As well as you, and also my own honour,
And of my wifehood too the tender flower.
Which that I entrusted to your hand,
When the priest to you my body bound.
Wherefore I will answer in this manner,
By your leave, I pray, my lord so dear:
I pray to God that never dawns the day
Or may I die as foul as woman may,
That ever I bring my kin that shame,
Or else so impair my own good name
As to be false; and if I do, alack,
Strip me then and put me in a sack,
And in the next river do me drench.
I am a gentlewoman and no wench!
Why speak you so? – But men are ever untrue,
And women are forever blamed by you.
You’ve no other way of speech, I believe,
But talk distrust, reproach to us, to grieve.’
And as she spoke, she saw where Damian,
Sat in the bushes, and coughing she began,
With her fingers, to make signs, that she
Wished Damian to climb into a tree
Which was charged with fruit, and up he went;
For truly he knew all of her intent,
And every sign she made, as I relate,
Better than January who was her mate,
For in a letter she had told him all,
Of this matter, and how it might befall.
And thus I leave him sitting in the pear-tree,
And January and May roaming merrily.
Bright was the day, and blue the firmament;
Phoebus his streams of gold downward sent
To gladden every flower with his warmness.
He was at that time in Gemini, I guess,
But little way from greatest declination
In Cancer which is Jupiter’s exaltation.
And so it befell, that bright morning-tide,
That in that garden on the farther side
Pluto, who is the King of Faery,
And many a lady of his company,
Following his wife, Queen Proserpina,
Whom he once ravished out of Etna,
While she gathered flowers in the mead –
In Claudian the story you may read,
How in his dreadful chariot he her snatched –
This King of Faery then adown him sat
Upon a bench of turf, fresh and green.
And right anon thus said he to his Queen:
‘My wife,’ quoth he, ‘no one can gainsay,
For experience proves it so, every day,
The treachery that woman shows to man.
Ten hundred thousand tales tell I can,
Recorded, of your untruth and lightness.
O Solomon, wise and richest in riches,
Full of sapience and worldly glory,
Your words are fit to be held in memory,
By every man of wit, who reason can!
Thus you praised the goodness of man:
“Among a thousand men I yet found one,
But among women all I found none.”
– So says the king who knew your wickedness.
And Jesus, Son of Sirach, I suggest,
Seldom says aught of you in reverence.
A wild fire and corrupting pestilence
Fall upon your bodies then tonight!
See you not how this honourable knight,
Because, alas, he is now blind and old,
His own servant shall render him cuckold?
Look, where he sits, the lecher in the tree!
Now will I grant, of my great majesty,
Unto this old, blind, worthy knight,
That he shall have again his true eyesight,
And when his wife would do him villainy.
Thus shall he know all of her harlotry,
Both a reproach to her, and others woe.’
‘You will?’ quoth Proserpine, ‘And will you so?
Now by my mother’s sire’s soul I swear,
That I shall give her sufficient answer here,
And every woman after, for her sake –
And though they be caught in their mistake,
With bold face their guilt they shall excuse,
And bear him down who would them accuse.
For lack of answer none of them shall die.
Though a man see it with his naked eye,
Yet shall we women outface him boldly,
And weep, and swear, and scold subtly,
So that men look as foolish as do geese.
What care I for your authorities?
I know well that this Jew, this Solomon,
Found fools among us women, many a one.
But though he discovered no good woman,
Yet were there found by many another man
Women true, and good, and virtuous.
Witness all those that dwell in Christ’s house:
With martyrdom they proved their constancy.
The Roman tales preserve the memory
Of many a true and constant wife also.
But sire, be not wrath though it be so,
Though he said he found no good woman;
I pray you, know the meaning of the man:
He meant thus, that supreme constancy
Belongs to God alone, not he or she.
Ay, for God indeed why take such a one,
And make so much of your Solomon?
What though he made a Temple, God’s House?
What though he were rich and glorious?
Thus made he a temple for the false gods!
What could he do that more outrageous was?
Oh, though you may whiten him with plaster,
He was a lecher still, and an idolater,
And in his old age he the Lord forsook.
And if God had not, so says the Book,
Spared him for his father’s sake, he would
Have lost his kingdom sooner than he should.
I set at naught all the villainy you cry
Of women, it’s not worth a butterfly!
I am a woman; and must have my say,
Or else I’ll swell till my heart shall break.
For since he has said we’re villainesses,
As ever I shall live to shake my tresses,
I shall not refrain, out of false courtesy
To speak him harm that does us villainy.’
‘Dame,’ quoth Pluto, ‘be no longer wrath;
I yield! But since I swore a sacred oath
That I would grant him his sight again,
My word shall stand: this I tell you plain.
I am a king; it is not meet I lie.’
‘And’ quoth she, ‘the Queen of Faery, I!
An answer shall she have, I’ll undertake.
Let us have no more words, for my sake;
For now I will no longer be contrary.’
So let us turn again to January,
Who in the garden still with his fair May
Sings more merrily than a popinjay,
‘You love I best, and shall, and other none.’
So long about the alleys is he gone
Till he is come again to that pear-tree
Where Damian is sitting merrily,
On high among the fresh leaves so green.
And then fresh May, the bright and serene,
Began to sigh, and said: ‘Alas, my side!
Now, sire,’ quoth she, ‘whatever may betide,
I must have one of the pears I see,
Or I must die; I long so utterly
To eat one of those small pears, so green.
Help, for Her love that is of Heaven Queen!
I tell you, sire, a woman in my plight
May have for fruit so great an appetite,
That without it she’ll go to her grave.’
‘Alas!’ quoth he, ‘that I have not a knave
To climb up, here! Alas! Alas! quoth he,
‘That I am blind.’ ‘No matter, sire,’ quoth she;
‘Yet if you’d vouchsafe, for God’s sake,
The pear-tree now in your arms to take –
For I know well how you mistrust me –
Then I could climb it well enough,’ quoth she,
‘If I could set my foot upon your back.’
‘Certainly,’ quoth he, ‘you shall not lack,
Had I to aid you with my own heart’s-blood.’
He stooped down, and on his back she stood,
And caught hold of a branch, and up she goes –
Ladies, I pray you, be not wrath, suppose
Me uncultured, I speak as best I can –
And suddenly anon, this Damian
Pulls up her smock, and in he’s gone.
And when Pluto saw this shameful wrong,
To January he gave again his sight,
And let him see as plain as ever he might.
And when he had his vision back again,
Never was man more happy, that is plain.
But on his wife his thought was fixed too;
And up to the tree he cast his eyes two,
And saw that Damian his wife addressed
In such a manner it may not be expressed,
Unless I were to speak discourteously.
He gave a roar and shouted out as loudly,
As a mother does if a child should die.
‘Out, help! Rape! Alas!’ he began to cry,
‘O brazen lady bold, what do you do?’
And she answered: ‘Sire, what troubles you?
Be patient and be rational of mind.
I’ve helped to doctor both your eyes blind;
On peril of my soul, without a lie,
I was told that for healing of the eye
Nothing was better: it would make you see,
If I struggled with a man up in a tree.
God knows, I did it all with good intent.’
‘Struggle!’ quoth he, ‘yes, and in it went!
God send you both a shameful death to die!
He had you: I saw it clearly with my eye,
Let me be hanged by the neck or else!’
‘Then,’ quoth she, ‘is my remedy false;
For certainly if you could truly see,
You would not utter these same words to me.
You have some vision, yet not perfect sight.’
‘I see,’ quoth he, ‘as well as ever I might,
Thanks be to God, with both my eyes so!
And by my troth, I think he did you though.’
‘You’re dazed, dazed, good sire,’ quoth she,
‘These are the thanks for curing you, I see!
Alas,’ quoth she, ‘that ever I proved so kind!’
‘Well dame,’ quoth he, ‘erase it from your mind.
Come down, my love, and if I may have said
Aught wrong, God help me, forgive instead.
But by my father’s soul I thought I saw
That Damian enjoy you, and what’s more
Your smock was gathered round your breast.’
‘You, sire,’ quoth she, ‘may think as suits you best.
But sire, a man that wakes out of his sleep,
Cannot grasp all at once the things he sees,
And cannot see what he looks on perfectly,
Until he has awakened more completely.
And so a man that has been blind, well he
May not all at once, nor clearly, see
When his new sight has first come again,
As he that has a day or two seen plain.
Till your sight has settled for a while,
Full many a sight may you still beguile.
Be careful, I pray, by Heaven’s King,
Many a man believes he sees a thing,
And finds it different to what it seems.
He who misperceives, chases dreams.’
– And with that she leaped down from the tree.
And January, who so glad as he?
He kissed her, embracing her full oft,
And her belly stroked he then full soft,
And to the house he lead her then, I’ll add.
Now good men, I pray you all be glad;
Thus ends here my tale of January;
God bless us, and his mother too, Saint Mary!
Here ends the Merchant’s Tale of January
The Merchant’s Epilogue
‘Ey, God’s mercy,’ said our Host, ‘Lo,
God keep me from such a wife, though!
See what cunning tricks and subtleties
These women use; ever busy as bees
They are, us foolish men to deceive.
And from the truth ever away will weave;
This Merchant’s tale does the proof reveal.
For without doubt, as true as any steel
I have a wife, though poor she may be.
But of her tongue a blabbing shrew is she;
And she has a heap more of vices, know.
But no more of that – let such things go!
Yet know you what? – In secret be it said –
I sorely rue the day that we were wed.
Though, if I were to reckon every vice
She has, it were a foolish exercise.
And why? Because it would reported be,
And told to her, by some in this company –
By whom, there is no need now to declare,
Since women know how to show such wares.
Also my wits suffice them not to tell you
All the tale; wherefore my tale is through.’
The end of the Merchant’s Epilogue