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Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Merchant's Prologue, Tale and Epilogue" from the Canterbury Tales.

The Canterbury Tales

(from Norton)

- originally conceived as a series of 120 tales x but: completed 22 tales, began 2 others

- the title: the Canterbury Cathedral was a favourite pilgrimage site, the site of murder of archbishop Thomas Becket, a famous English saint (murdered 1170)

- uses a fictitious pilgrimage as the framing device for a number of stories

<> collections of tales linked in such a way were common in the later Middle Ages (e.g. Boccaccio's Decameron with 10 narrators telling 10 tales within 10 days)

x unlike in Boccaccio, Chaucer represents a wide spectrum of ranks and occupations in his narrators

- the variety of tellers is matched by the diversity of their tales: the stories contrast in genre, style, tone and values

- some of the stories are linked by the interchanges among the pilgrims who react to the tale and sometimes quarrel

- several narrators' stories also respond to topics taken up by previous tellers

"The Merchant's Prologue"

Both the Prologue and the Tale comprise irregular stanza of varying length, rhyming aabb. This rhyme scheme reinforces the humorous effect.

The Merchant comments on the Clerk's tale and describes his own experience. He has been married for two months to a most cruel wife. The Host encourages the Merchant to tell his tale.

"The Merchant's Tale"

There was an old knight called January who decided to take a young wife to comfort him in his old age, to give him an heir and to care for him when he is sick. The knight muses on the pleasant aspects of marriage and develops a naive, almost fantastic vision of a blessed marriage. He returns to the Biblical precedent, praising God's wisdom in supplying Adam with Eve and gives examples of harmonic and mutually profitable marriages in the Bible.

The knight summons his friends to announce them his decision to marry. Himself sixty, he does not want a wife older than twenty years to ensure she would give him an heir. His friends discuss their experiences with marriage. The knight's brother Placebo agrees with his decision and admires his courage. The knight's other brother Justinus advises care and recommends to inform oneself about the character of the prospective wife before marrying her.

The knight chooses a wife but faces a serious dilemma. He believes that if he has a blessed life on earth, he will not be admitted to heaven because no man can enjoy bliss twice. Justinus suggests that his brother may change his opinion on the bliss of marriage afterwards and that his wife may eventually turn out to be his purgatory rather than heaven.

The knight marries his beautiful maid Maia. He is unaware of having a competitor in his squire Damian who loves Maia too. Damian, tortured by love, writes a love poem to give way to his emotions. The knight learns about Damian's illness, though not about its nature and cause, and sends his wife to cheer his squire up. The squire manages to slip her the love letter. The wife takes pity on the squire and responds his letter. The squire recovers.

The knight gets blind. He grows jealous of his wife and keeps on holding her with his hand to be able to guard her. The knight keeps a private garden to which only one key exists. His wife however makes a wax impression of the key. When the knight invites his wife to the garden, the squire uses the wife's copy of the key and slips in the garden with them. In the garden, the husband and the wife assure each other of their love.

Pluto the fairy king and his wife Proserpine happen to witness the scene. Pluto decides to grant the husband his sight again so that he could see when he is being deceived. Proserpine decides to grant the wife the power of speech so that she could always find an excuse for herself and her lover.

The wife pretends that she wants some fruit of the pear-tree in whose branches the squire hides himself. She climbs up the tree and when the squire makes his advances, the husband regains his sight. He falls into rage at what he sees but his wife convinces him that he only has visions caused by the medicine she gave him to cure his blindness. The knight reconciles with his wife. The merchant's tale ends.

"The Merchant's Epilogue"

The host is shocked by the tale which only confirmed his unfavourable view of women. Himself a married man, he prays never to find out all the vices his wife possesses because he fears they would be enough to make him a fool.


  • Author

    Geoffrey Chaucer. (c. 1343 - 1400). 
  • Full Title

    "The Merchant's Prologue", "The Merchant's Tale" and "The Merchant's Epilogue" from The Canterbury Tales.
  • Composed

    Between c. 1386 - 1400. 
  • Form

    Narrative verse.

Works Cited

Abrams, M. H., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: Norton, 1999.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Merchant's Prologue". The Canterbury Tales. London: Campbell, 1992.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Merchant's Tale". The Canterbury Tales. London: Campbell, 1992.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Merchant's Epilogue". The Canterbury Tales. London: Campbell, 1992.


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