April 7, 2015, by Harry Cocks

Chaucer and the Merchant

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…Thanne longen folk to goon pilgrimages.”  So begins Geoffrey Chaucer’s immortal Canterbury Tales (c.1387-1400).  One of those on Chaucer’s famous journey was an unnamed merchant, “with a forking beard, And motley [a patterned fabric] dress,” wearing a Flemish beaver hat and “daintily buckled boots.”  He was, Chaucer tells us, “expert at dabbling in exchanges…stately in administration, In loans and bargains and negotiation [chevyssaunce].”  The Merchant goes on to warn his fellow pilgrims against the travails of marriage by telling the tale of January the Knight, who is struck with blindness but has his sight restored only to find that the first thing he sees is his faithless wife May copulating in a pear tree with his squire Damian.  In a new article, Richard Goddard, Associate Professor of Medieval History at Nottingham, notes that many historians have seen Chaucer’s depiction of the Merchant as a negative one, part of a broader contemporary critique of commerce and its inevitable shady dealings.  In that view, Chaucer’s Merchant, with his shifty beard and apparent boasting of his success, falls into the genre known as “estates satire,” a form that drew attention to the disparity between the ideal and actual qualities of those occupying the various medieval social groups.

At first glance it would seem that medieval theology often expressed a distrust of merchants, as an unchristian desire for wealth might make them prey to avarice, not to mention cheating, lying and the sin of usury.  However, by the late fourteenth century, with war against France and the wool trade vital to secure Flemish allies and provide tax revenue, Goddard argues that men like Chaucer’s Merchant were “being held up as the kingdom’s potential saviours.”  Medieval theology also frequently sanctioned mercantile methods including charging for the cost of transport and other risks.  Moreover, estates satire only attacked dishonest practices, not the merchant class per se.  By the fourteenth century, even theological attitudes to usury had softened, Goddard suggests, and “reasonable” rates of interest were permitted.  The Merchant’s “chevyssaunce” therefore probably refers less to shady practices and more to everyday transactions.  Also, Chaucer himself was immersed in mercantile culture and would have had experience of many of the capital’s traders in his job as controller of the wool customs at the Port of London between 1374 and 1386.  In that role he would have had extensive experience of the use of credit, and also used it himself in his own life – he was sued five times between 1388 and 1399 for failing repay debts to London grocers and innkeepers.

Although many critics have seen the Merchant as a figure satirizing a new class, Goddard argues that there was nothing strikingly new about the Merchant, except perhaps his fashionable beard and hat.  Instead, he participated in the wool trade and its monetized economy that had been going on across the Channel since at least the tenth century.  Credit to fuel that trade had been available since the late twelfth century.  In that context, Goddard says, Chaucer’s Merchant fits with contemporary ideas of an “ideal, honest merchant, working within the law, whose work is essential to the efficient running of the state.”


Richard Goddard, “The Merchant,” in Stephen H. Rigby with Alastair J. Minnis, Historians on Chaucer: The ‘General Prologue’ to the Canterbury Tales (Oxford, OUP, 2014), pp. 170-186. http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199689545.do


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