“The Merchants tale” like many of the tales within “The Canterbury Tales” is written in Fabliau, ridiculing the conventions of courtly love responds sensitively to the tone and attitude in Merchant’s Tale, noting how the poetry suggests and counteracts various possible assessments of January, May, and the Merchant, leading to a complex sense of humorous effects and conceptions of courtly love.
The passage of debate of whether January should marry, with Justinus and Placebo is a passage full of humour which ridicules the conventions of courtly love. From the very beginning of the scene field lexis is employed to heighten the tone, evidently January has married May for “gret ease and lust in marriage”. At the beginning, January’s words connotates marriage as either sexual “whan him lust” has lead him to find a woman of “fair schap and fair visage” or as a religious connotation “to lede in ease and holynesse his lyf”. Despite the sexual and religious connotations of this passage, there is no simple connotation of the most important element of a marriage, simply love. Chaucer ridicules this passage as January, does not attempt to adhere to the usual courtly romance procedure meaning he is not in love but merely in love with “beaute” and “fair schap”.
The wedding passage is full of religious and courtly satire. The humour is that this “high brow” vocabulary only ridicules the procedure further: despite all the “solmpnitee” and pompous tone describing the ceremony, January will be cuckolded anyway. Marriage in the middle ages was very much a contract for political or economic gain on the part of the man: in the passage Chaucer satirises how Januarys marriage is a legal contract just as much (or even so) than of any religious importance:
“I trowe it were to longe yow to tarie/ If I yow tolde of every scrit and bond”. The language also supports the medieval anti-feminist view that women are just material goods to be transacted. A negative effect plays a key role in the play as the narrator is the merchant, a tradesman. His agenda is to exemplify whether a wife is a bargain or not, a good deal or bad deal. A sense of materialism in the tale is portrayed through the narrator; love is simply a financial exchange.
The garden scene is another passage where the conventions of courtly love are humoured. This passage is compared to the secular expectations of the Romance of the Rose, a simple gesture of courtly romance to portray a man’s love for his lady. Chaucer was very familiar with this text as his first experiment was an attempt to translate a few parts of the 13th-century French love-allegory (The Romance of the Rose) and the work itself exercised a profound influence on him. This allegory ridicules the tale of a representation of a knight winning his lady by plucking a rose for her. However, irony has taken it’s toll once again as it is not January who is seen to pluck a rose for May, but Damian, January’s squire. May is seen to fallen for the traditional courtly romance with Damian and we now feel empathy for January.
The gender roles have broken down and because Chaucer has ridiculed the courtly love conventions he now challenges the concept of love itself. At the beginning of the tale May was the “fressche” and meek character and as January longed for “lust” from her, May was “still as stone”. Now, May has taken control it is her that “thrusts” with Damian and January is left behind. In this passage the Merchant has reached his purpose of his tale that of which women are “deceitful” and cunning. They are in no match compared to the Virgin Mary, even though no woman can be like her. As the Merchant reverses the audience of perception, we feel a sympathy swap for January whom now, “only for the love I had to thee”.
Ridiculing courtly love conventions and challenging love itself is clearly not the only way in which Chaucer creates humour in the Merchants prologue and tale but also by religious and courtly satire. However, it is effective in doing so, as Chaucer is able to employ many different devices to parody contemporary values and conventions.