|TITLE:||May in the Marketplace: Commodification and Textuality in the "Merchant's Tale"|
|SOURCE:||Studies in Philology 102 no1 27-44 Wint 2005|
We have been led by the Merchant's narrative, especially by his rhetoric, to make some emotional investment in the relationship, the juxtaposition of January and May, and I for one find it hard immediately to liquidate the investment.(FN1)
--E. Talbot Donaldson
As critics since Donaldson have noted, the Merchant's Tale affects its audience by manipulating their responses to its characters. First encouraging us to sympathize with May as her face is scratched by January's rough beard on their less-than-romantic wedding night, it then shifts its focus to reveal May as a scheming adulterer. The tale forces us to respond to its characters, but it does not allow us any firm ground upon which we can base that response. As one critic notes, the Merchant's Tale "shows that while author and reader must participate in attempts to bridge that gap [of interpretation], such attempts consistently founder."(FN2) The diction of the Donaldson epigraph highlights a second, related aspect of reading the tale: the similarity of the experience to that of an investor whose financial scheme has gone wrong. After the "Merchant's Prologue," in which the Merchant complains about his "wyf, the worste that may be,"(FN3) the reader encountering the tale for the first time would reasonably expect a tale that recounts an unhappy marriage sympathetically from the point of view of a wronged and long-suffering husband. Instead, the tale portrays no character sympathetically and discourages the reader from identifying with any one. The reader's expectations have been thwarted, and tellingly, Donaldson uses financial terms to convey this disappointment. His first use of "investment" may be conventional, an offhand remark anyone might make to describe one's attachment to nearly anything. But when Donaldson repeats the word and combines it with the financial term "liquidate," he draws attention to the way in which the tale's ability to make its readers uncomfortable is linked to the commercial world.
More recent critics have located this effect in various features of the tale. Some see it as a reflection of the Merchant's character. R. A. Shoaf, for instance, describes the Merchant's attitude toward his Tale and its reception as usurious because the Merchant insists "that he alone determine their [the words that make up his Tale] structure and their meaning."(FN4) In this view, the Merchant-narrator manipulates his audience in much the same way he might currency markets in order to maximize his profit. Other critics, such as David Aers and Lee Patterson, turn to history to locate the tale's disconcerting effect either in its portrayal of the dehumanizing medieval marriage market(FN5) or in the bourgeois Merchant's awareness of himself as out of place in a still feudal world.(FN6)
Despite their differing emphases, these critics all agree that the Merchant's Tale is mercantile; I, too, consider it to be quite commercial, but I have always been bothered by the location of that commercial sentiment. To argue, as Patterson does, that the mercantile sentiment reflects the Merchant-narrator's character and his position as a bourgeois subject(FN7) does not take into account questions raised about the tale's attribution to the Merchant.(FN8) In addition to the problems with attribution, there are no details in the telling that suggest its narrator is a merchant steeped in the complexities of medieval commerce. While there are several examples of legal diction as it pertains to the marriage market, the tale is not as concerned with the niceties of medieval finance as is, for instance, the Shipman's Tale, because the main male character is not a merchant, but a knight. Still, even if one questions the connection between the Merchant as teller and the tale as we have it, there is no denying that the tale has a middle-class, mercantile (as opposed to a courtly) feel, and that effect must be accounted for.
In this essay, I argue that the origin of the commercial ethos of the Merchant's Tale is its attitude toward textuality itself. In other words, what makes the Merchant's Tale mercantile is not that it is told by a merchant, or even that commercial terms appear in its telling, but rather that it encourages its readers to view all texts in terms derived from the marketplace. I argue that the Merchant's Tale endorses a very fluid view of textuality, suggesting that texts are more than just words on a page, but are formed in the interactions among reader, author, and language. What defines the text will depend both upon the context within which it is read and upon the position from which it is viewed by the author or audience. In this way, the tale forces us to expand our definition of a text to include any object, event, or even character that requires interpretation. This particularly capacious definition and the importance placed on perspective it suggests I connect to the process of commodification. In brief, the value of any given commodity will vary depending upon whether one is a buyer or a seller and, of course, upon the condition (level of competition or regulation, for instance) of the market. Furthermore, as commodities circulate through the market, not only is their value (that is, their meaning within the economic system) transformed, but they also appear to be productive themselves, for the exchange of commodities results in wants satisfied for the buyer and profit for the seller.(FN9) Similar transformations occur within the Merchant's Tale, most dramatically to May, who embodies all aspects of textuality. At various points in the tale, she is a text, an author, and an audience.(FN10) Through May, the tale encourages us to define textuality as fluid, and the logic underpinning this understanding, which finds a resonance in medieval approaches to translation and reading, is the same as that which explains how commodities function as markers of value in the marketplace.
WHO'S READING WHOM IN THE MERCHANT'S TALE?
One of the most critically vexing passages in the tale comes in its beginning: the encomium to marriage that occupies the bulk of the opening section. This passage has generated a significant amount of commentary because the identity of the speaker of these lines is not clear. The voice is the narrator's, but the ideas expressed blur together with January's sentiments (sentiments that the Merchant of the tale's prologue, who believes that "wedded men lyven in sorwe and care" [IV.1228], no longer holds). This confusion further complicates readings that rely on the Merchant's character as an interpretive key. Even if we assume a narrative voice consistent with the Merchant of the General Prologue, within the tale itself the voice is so changeable as to be quite unreliable.(FN11) A second effect of this confusion over voice is to introduce at this early stage of the tale a sense of the potential fluidity of textual meaning. If, as readers, we use the identity of a speaker as one means of interpreting the text he or she produces, it is difficult for us to comprehend these lines when we cannot be sure who is speaking them.
For my argument, however, the identity of the speaker is not paramount, but the content of his speech is, especially the explicit link between marriage and commerce that many critics have noted. Nowhere is this commercialization more apparent than in the comparison of the wife January seeks to types of property:
A wyf is Goddes yifte verraily; Alle other manere yiftes hardily, As londes, rentes, pasture, or commune, Or moebles--all been yiftes of Fortune That passen as a shadwe upon a wal. But drede nat, if pleynly speke I shal: A wyf wol laste, and in thyn hous endure Wel lenger than thee list....
This mercantile sentiment pervades the Tale. Like so many other characters on the road to Canterbury, this speaker views the world in commercial terms and sees wives as the ultimate commodity. Nor is he the only voice within the Tale who espouses a commercial view of marriage. Even Justinus, who, his name would suggest, functions as the just or balanced view among January's advisors, appeals to the aged knight's commercial instincts; before marriage, "a man oghte hym right wel avyse / To whom he yeveth his lond or his catel" (IV.1523-25).(FN12) Justinus does express concern over the fate of his friend's "body" (IV. 1529), but his first and overriding concern is property.
This concern continues throughout the opening section recounting the marriage arrangements in which May herself is treated as property. As Aers correctly notes, January buys May as his mate,(FN13) but interestingly, the narrator uses occupatio to reveal this information to his audience: "I trowe it were to longe yow to tarie / If I yow tolde of every scrit and bond / By whiche she was feffed in his lond" (IV. 1696-98). If occupatio is a figure intended to reveal information by pointedly not mentioning it, this example is surprisingly direct. Unlike a union between two aristocratic families, the marriage between a Lombardian knight and a woman "of small degree" (IV. 1625) would not have generated that much legal paperwork.(FN14) By mentioning "scrits" and "bonds" and by using the verb "feffed in," the narrator has given us all the relevant information in only two lines.(FN15) Typically, Chaucer's use of the figure more closely resembles a catalog; he lists for several lines the information he won't be telling us.(FN16) In its extended form, the figure calls attention to itself, insisting that we understand it as a joke. Here, however, humor is lacking, and the rhetorical figure acts more like a direct statement: this marriage is a commercial transaction, and May is a piece of property. This statement is made even more emphatic by the fact that the occupatio falls between the first line giving May her own name and lines describing the sacrament itself. The priest blessing the bride in a church may be the socially acceptable portrayal of marriage, but at its heart lies the legal and commercial world. This desire to give the marriage an acceptable face is one reason the narrator gestures at occupatio here, but I would also like to suggest another, more abstract reason that connects this view of marriage as commerce and women as property with textuality.
Occupatio works by producing language while pretending not to say anything. Cast in the commercial idiom of the Merchants Tale, occupatio might be described as a linguistic figure that seeks to efface its productive character, and May's status as a commodity illuminates this use of occupatio. Within the tale, May fulfills different roles for the male characters and the narrator. As Deborah Ellis has pointed out, she enters the tale as a blank upon which the men can write their desires.(FN17) This is also characteristic of a commodity, an object that can be valued differently by different consumers. Both May and the commodity can fill these different roles because they are blanks, but if either one were to give clear signs of its origin, it could no longer be that plastic. Once May has a history, she cannot be as malleable as January imagines her to be.(FN18) Similarly, a commodity that is tied to its place of production cannot circulate effectively in the market; because it bears the signs of being made and used by someone else, it cannot easily conform to the desires of another.(FN19) Thus, it is not surprising that, as several critics have pointed out, May is not named for nearly one hundred lines after January has chosen her as his potential mate. The longer she remains unnamed, the longer she is unmarked, able to embody any man's desire. A similar movement toward effacing origins underwrites occupatio, and in this sense it is the perfect conjunction between textuality and commodification: both are productive--the rhetorical figure of textual meaning, the circulation of commodities of wealth--but both are also concerned with concealing the origins of that production.
Within the Merchants Tale, May provides a similar means for thinking through the connection between textuality and commodification because she exists as both text and commodity. The circumstances surrounding her marriage attest to her status as a commodity, but her role as text remains to explored. She enters the story as a text written out of the material of January's imagination, and the tale stresses this textual origin by introducing her not as a complete character, but as a series of idealized features imagined by January.(FN20) The scene represents an author inventing his material. Lying in bed, January thinks of
Hir fresshe beautee and hir age tendre, Hir myddel smal, hire armes longe and sklendre, Hir wise governaunce, hir gentillesse, Hir womanly berynge and hire sadnesse.
He parses his prospective wife in much the same way a reader might an unfamiliar text. However, these features are anything but original; as Elaine Hansen reminds us, this list is quite conventional, replicating medieval standards of beauty.(FN21) Of course, January is completely unaware of the origins of his desires. They seem to be self-generating because he denies that anything outside of his self, even something he might have read, can influence him. The tale reinforces this solipsism by suggesting that all of the potential mates he considers are nothing more than self-reflections. The women pass
thrugh his herte nyght by nyght As whoso took a mirrour, polisshed bryght, And sette it in a commune market-place, Thanne sholde he se ful many a figure pace By his mirour....
This famous image of "the mirror in the marketplace" certainly does reveal the extent of January's self-regard, but it also reinforces the connection between women and commodities. For January, women are the same as commodities; both reflect only the value he gives them.
This same limited view extends to texts, as the lines just before the description of May make clear. After contemplating several alternatives, January "atte laste apoynted hym on oon, / And leet all othere from his herte goon / And chees hire of his owene auctoritee" (IV.1595-97). "Auctoritee" is, of course, the same term used to describe an authoritative text, one upon which a medieval author based his own writing, but the text January is working from, his "fantasye" (IV. 1610), is somewhat less than authoritative. The tale drives this point home by completing the couplet begun in line 1597 with "Love is blind alday, and may nat see" (IV.1598). In addition to foreshadowing January's eventual physical blindness, the rhyme of "auctoritee" with "may nat see" links the notion of textual authority with a blindness to alternatives, since January goes on to refuse any advice that might "amend" (IV.1606) his choice. The only text January will acknowledge is one of his own composition, as his dismissive response to Justinus's quotations makes clear: "Straw for thy Senek, and for thy proverbes" (IV.1567). January's view of texts is inflexible; he can see them only from the author position.
If January's view of textuality is one sided, the tale as a whole presents the opposite view. As important as texts might be to the plot, the tale's attitude toward texts is always ambivalent. The tale stresses the centrality of texts in the world the characters inhabit by referring to a variety of writings, from love letters to legal documents, but in doing so, it reveals a split approach to texts: on the one hand, it shows words to be incapable of influencing the characters' lives, and on the other, it suggests that no action can take place without being generated by a text. As more than one critic has noted, the Merchant's Tale is long on rhetoric but short on plot.(FN22) But even the tale's rhetoric, not normally the most free-flowing of textual phenomena, stagnates. (That is, rhetoric, as exemplified in the classical tradition, follows a structured development; in this tale, it is ultimately revealed as pointless.) If the counselor's main function is to convince his audience of the rightness of his position, then January removes this basic function when he demands that his advisors reinforce his inclination without debate: "And syn that ye han herd al myn entente, / I prey yow to my wyl ye wole assente" (IV.1467-68). With these few words, January makes the scenes in which he calls on his advisors to advise him unnecessary and emphasizes the lack of connection between the characters' speeches and the plot. Again, we see January refusing to acknowledge any text he has not authored himself. However, if this first part of the tale suggests words have no effect on the characters, later moments show texts to be integral to the characters' achieving their desires.
The fabliau plot, minimal and conventional as it may be, is driven by an exchange of letters between May and Damian. Physical contact between the two is brief, but their letters seem to multiply as the tale progresses (IV.1880, 2104, 2215).(FN23) One of the first acts of this plot is Damian's borrowing a "penner" and writing a complaint to May (IV. 1879). But Damian's merely writing his complaint will not advance his cause. A text unread, like a commodity that doesn't circulate, has no value. Thus, Damian's gesture of placing the complaint in a silk purse by his heart devalues his text as a means of communication. Like all authors, he must have an audience and be able to influence it. He does gain his desired audience, but how much his text influences her remains open to debate. When it comes time to describe why May has fallen for Damian, the narrator obfuscates: "Were it by destynee or by aventure, / Were it by influence or by nature, / Or constellacion .... I kan nat seye" (IV.1967-69, 1974). In the end, he can offer up only a Chaucerian platitude, delivered here with a healthy dose of irony: May has sex with Damian because "pitee renneth soone in gentil herte!" as she is an example of the "excellent franchise" of women (IV.1986-87), the implication being, of course, that the adultery has nothing to do with gentility and everything to do with women's fallibility.
But the passage does more than confirm the narrator's misogyny--it also demonstrates the tale's attitude toward figurative language. Absent from the list of possible reasons for the adultery is the power of Damian's "compleynt" (IV.1881). Once read, his text winds up in pieces in the privy (IV.1954). Here again, we can see a connection between texts in this tale and commodities in the marketplace. Just as one commodity might be one person's treasure, another's trash, in the tale, a text that is Damian's treasure, once concealed in a silk purse close to his heart, is May's waste. The fate of Damian's text reminds us once again that for both commodities and texts, the consumer/reader's perspective determines value. The identification "compleynt" suggests that the text Damian has written is an impassioned plea, but May treats it as a memo, to be scanned and discarded. A similar disregard is shown toward nearly all examples of rhetorical language throughout the Merchant's Tale.(FN24) The Tale demonstrates this disdain by showing how easily language can be manipulated to serve the characters' selfish ends. All of the main characters, some more successfully than others, use texts as a means to further their aims. As we have seen, Damian pens his ultimately successful but hardly memorable complaint. January, in a move that reinforces the mercantile view of marriage, attempts to bind May to him by endowing her with his land, and he cements that bond by drawing up the appropriate legal documents (IV.1697-98, 2173).(FN25) In both these instances, the characters' use of texts fails to gain them the desired end. In January's case, this failure is quite clear; no matter how much property he may bestow on her, May will never be the ideal wife he imagines in the Tale's opening. Damian's failure is more subtle. Certainly, he gets what he wants, May, but there is a dissonance between the romantic ideal implied in describing his letter as a "compleynt" and their eventual coupling in the pear tree.(FN26) Damian does achieve his desire, but perhaps not in the idyllic form he initially imagined.
Both Damian and January fail in their attempts to control May because they adopt a one-sided approach to texts. For one, they do not recognize the extent to which context can influence interpretation. Damian may have poured his heart out in his complaint, but if his audience cannot contrive to read it in a location other than the privy, then as a love letter, this complaint lacks romance. January's "scrit[s] and bond[s]" might work as a sign of commitment in an equal partnership, but in the spring-winter match of a fabliau, they only serve to ridicule him further. Most importantly, both Damian and January fail to consider the potential gap between their intentions regarding their texts and the audience's use of those texts. As we have seen, that audience, May, does follow the letter of the texts. She has sex with Damian and is bound to January, but, the tale suggests, only because it suits her. Damian and January fail to control May on their own terms because they view themselves mainly as authors, not as readers and certainly not as texts to be read themselves. This failure to consider any other perspective means that they have a hard time crafting their texts to meet the demands the reader may place on them. Only May moves freely among all three positions, and we must now turn to her in order to examine more fully the connections between commodification and textuality in the Merchants Tale.
The circumstances surrounding her introduction into the tale and her marriage to January attest to her status as a text and as a commodity. As I argued above, she is both a text written out of January's imagination and a commodity to be purchased on the medieval marriage market. But we also see May writing and interpreting texts.(FN27) The first text she produces is her letter to Damian indicating that she will "unto his lust suffise" (IV.1909). We are given no further detail of the letter's contents, but the circumstances of its delivery are described:
To visite this Damyan gooth May, And sotilly this lettre doun she threste Under his pilwe; rede it if hym leste. She taketh hym by the hand and harde hym twiste So secrely that no wight of it wiste.
At first, Damian's decision to read the letter is presented as a choice--he can read the letter if it pleases him. But immediately afterwards, May grabs Damian in a gesture most likely meant to convey affection, but which also helps to direct his reading of the letter. As if slipping the letter beneath his pillow were not sign enough that its contents were important, May reinforces the message that the letter should be read immediately by literally twisting Damian's arm. As an author, May is certainly aware of the importance of influencing her reader's responses.
As an audience, Damian does not need much coercion in order to read May's letter. May faces a different, if not greater, challenge in controlling the reading of texts that she herself has not written. January's garden and the events that take place within it serve as prime examples of such texts. The Tale emphasizes the garden's textual nature by comparing it to the garden depicted in the Romance of the Rose; the beauty of January's garden exceeds even that of the most fabulous gardens ever imagined. Although the tale does indicate the garden's purpose, a private space in which January can have sex with his young wife, it does so euphemistically:
And whan he would pay his wyf hir dette In somer seson, thider wolde he go, And May his wyf, and no wight but they two; And thynges which that were nat doon abedde, He in the garden parfourned hem and spedde.
Comparing this description of sex with the directness of the encounter between May and Damian in the pear tree reveals the extent to which the tale initially hyperbolizes and idealizes the garden. This treatment of the garden reflects January's own conception of it. His amalgamation of lines from the Song of Songs (IV.2138-48) suggests the degree to which he has romanticized it. For January, the garden is not just an outdoor bedroom: it is a classical garden, a status symbol, the possession of which elevates him, in his view, to the rank of a king (see IV.2027). Like all texts, this garden is as valuable as its readers make it.
We are soon reminded, however, that January is not a king, but an elderly knight from the rather mundane region of Lombardy.(FN28) His garden is out of place in his world, and only May (and through her prodding, Damian), it seems, can strip away the euphemism and see the garden for what it is. January may be the author of this particular text, but May is the better reader.(FN29) Once the three characters are in the garden, May directs the action by moving both men into position--January hugging the base of the pear tree and Damian in it. Through her signs to Damian, she reinterprets the garden and the events within it to suit her purposes. The most dramatic instance of this reinterpretation is, of course, the tale's ending. When January recovers his sight, May substitutes her interpretation--she only "struggled" with Damian in the pear tree to restore January's sight (IV.2371-75)--for the source text of January's eyewitness account. May accomplishes this substitution by supplying an overwhelming amount of explanatory detail. January's accusation is quite pointed: "'Strugle?' quod he 'Ye, algate in it wente!'" (IV.2376). May's response, on the other hand, begins by first relying on the argument that her "entente" was good and that therefore her action was good (IV.2375) and then casts doubt on January's perception (IV.2381-83, 2396-2410), and eventually, when these logical appeals fail, seems to silence her husband's objections by outtalking him. Her reading of the events in the garden triumphs in the end simply because she is able to produce more linguistic raw material than January.
Of course, May does not accomplish this victory totally unaided: at the key moment, Proserpina intervenes. The debate between Pluto and Proserpina has received much critical commentary, but the arguments that interest me most are those that link Proserpina, a figure the tale attributes to the land of "Fayerye" (IV.2227), to the mercantile world. For instance, Shoaf writes that "previous scholarship has long recognized the mercantile-money relevance of Proserpina; according to one gloss 'Proserpina significat pecuniam.'"(FN30) Ellis argues that the figure of Proserpina "functions as [a] personified medium of exchange, a figure ... who deifies commerce, sex, and language."(FN31) Proserpina's role, then, is to bring back into focus the tale's commodification of marriage and to link that commodification to its other focus, the ability of language to persuade. In doing so, she also reminds us of the fluidity that the use of both commodities and texts requires. Proserpina is herself a sign of flux: her presence in Hades causes the onset of winter, while her return to the surface restores summer. And through her critique of the textual authorities that Pluto adduces, she reveals that texts themselves are not stable entities but are open to constant reinterpretation. For instance, after Pluto cites Solomon as an expert on women's fickle natures, Proserpina rebuts her husband's argument by calling into question Solomon's character:
What make ye so muche of Salomon? What though he made a temple, Goddes hous? What though he were riche and glorious? So made he eek a temple of false goddis How myghte he do a thyng that moore forbode is? Pardee, as faire as ye his name emplastre, He was a lecchour and an ydolastre, And in his elde he verray God forsook.
Patterson compares Proserpina's intervention to that of a historicist critic, undercutting authority by revealing its subjective origin, but I think we might draw a more general point from the scene.(FN32) All interpretive acts depend upon some measure of supression, and what one chooses to suppress or highlight changes the nature of the text being interpreted. Thus, for Pluto, Solomon's saying becomes the very locus of authority, while for Proserpina, the same utterance is nothing more than the rantings of a dissolute old man. Proserpina recognizes that the meaning of any text can be questioned if one is willing to consider it from different perspectives. The textual manipulation that Proserpina exhibits in her brief appearance, May embodies in the main narrative as she reads and writes various texts throughout the tale.
In fact, May can be seen as mastering all three textual functions. She is a text that reflects male desires. She is an audience, not only for Damian's complaint, but also for January's speeches and legal documents. And finally she is an author writing her own texts, both literal, as in her letters to Damian, and figurative, as in her reinterpretation of the garden scene. Of course, these three positions are not completely discrete; as she is rereading the events in the garden to January, she is also writing her own text. Being a reader and being a writer are inseparable in the tale's conception of textuality, and this fact forms yet another link between textuality and the circulation of commodities. For commodities to circulate and have value, they must have both buyers and sellers, and within the marketplace an individual often occupies each role.(FN33) Within the Merchants Tale, the characters function as both readers and writers as they attempt to convince each other to accept their version of reality. In this contest, May would seem to be the most successful. Through Proserpina's gift of eloquence, May is able to turn the tables on January--she gets to possess the property with which he intended to purchase her fidelity and enjoy her Damian as well, and she does so by being a text, an author, and, in the end, a superior reader.
But to conclude that May is the character who emerges on top in the Merchant's Tale ignores the text she unwittingly creates in her reinterpretation of the garden scene, a retelling of the Fall from Eden.(FN34) In this text, she plays the role of Eve, a character hard to reconcile with the mastery May's manipulation of the other characters would imply. Eve may have manipulated Adam into eating the apple, but she paid a terrible price. At the end of the Merchant's Tale, any punishment for May is deferred as January accepts her story. Of course, a fear of this female mastery going unremarked is precisely why the narrator implies May is another Eve. Portraying May as Eve serves the narrator in two ways. First, as Eve she is a known quantity and can be fitted into the narrator's misogynistic worldview. Second, it allows him to ridicule further January's misguided notions about marriage. Both these goals, however, are in turn themselves undercut. Besides the reenactment of the Fall in the final scene, the narrator's misogyny can be most clearly seen in his musings on the reasons behind May's adultery that were discussed above. May commits adultery because of women's generous natures; they can't say no to someone in need. The narrator bases his opinion that all women are fickle on May's behavior and then cites May's behavior as the example that proves the rule. He backs up his misogyny with some strong rhetoric, if not the strongest logic, and in this example of circular reasoning, we see the antifeminist view the narrator espouses beginning to unravel. Using May to ridicule January, however, poses a different dilemma. In order for May to do something more than merely embody January's list of ideal characteristics, she must be given space in which to demonstrate the gap between the real (her behavior) and the ideal (January's idea of a wife) within the world of the Tale.
May uses that gap to construct her own interpretation of the tale (in which the much-wronged wife is triumphant) that closely, but not perfectly, matches the reading offered by the narrator (in which the scheming adulteress rightly punishes her foolish husband). The events and outcome of the .plot remain the same, but the interpretations drawn from it differ. However, the narrator tries to keep control over the interpretation of his heroine by keeping her as flat a character as possible. In describing her, he reduces her to a tautology:
But thus muche of hire beautee telle I may That she was lyk the brighte morwe of May, Fulfild of all beautee and plesaunce.
If May can only be described as a May morning, she becomes one-dimensional, and so her role in the story can easily be controlled by the narrator. This description functions in much the same way that the implied comparison of May to Eve does, turning May into an identifiable character. But, as I have been arguing, May is also a text, written out of January's imagination, and a commodity, and as such, she always has a double existence: at once a blank on which the male characters, including the narrator, can attempt to write their desires and an already-written text with its own contradictions that resist interpretation. Furthermore, as both text and commodity, May is creative in her own right and is thus difficult to control in the way the narrator wishes. As she circulates among the men in the story, she creates value. In a perfect illustration of the process of commodification, this value is expressed in different forms: she can provide sexual pleasure, perhaps an heir and thus a sense of potency for January, and wealth for herself as she gains January's property. As a text, she is also creative. In response to her, Damian writes his complaint and January constructs his garden, and in turn, she produces texts in response to those of the men. In other words, like the commodity/text the tale insists she is, May has a dual existence: she is both a created thing herself and creative of things beyond herself.
COMMODIFICATION AND MEDIEVAL READING
The ability to be simultaneously a product and productive links Mayas-text not only to commodities but also to medieval theories of reading. Indeed, May might be read as the quintessential medieval text because she moves from being only a text to both creating her own texts and controlling others' interpretation of texts. Reading May (and reading for May) is, in good medieval fashion, productive of further texts. Many critics have noted the productive nature of medieval reading. Medieval thinkers understood reading not as a passive enterprise, but rather as an active one, with readers creating their own texts each time they read. Thus, just as within the Merchant's Tale, in which the characters move between author and audience roles, in the medieval understanding of reading the functions of author and reader were not as clearly demarcated as our modern conceptions might lead us to believe.(FN35) At first blush, this slipperiness would seem to present a problem for medieval readers. In a culture that valued the authority of a received tradition, the possibility that every subsequent reader could alter that tradition would seem to undermine the notion of a tradition itself. However, rather than presenting a problem for medieval readers, this productive character, especially when it came to Scripture, was seen as a positive aspect of textuality. For instance, according to Augustinian hermeneutics, the more meanings a text can contain, the better that text represents God's bounty.(FN36) From Augustine's perspective, discourse must be multivalent because, like all signs, it is charged with meaning imparted by God; to limit meaning is to limit God's power. A second advantage to the productive nature of texts is that the text is flexible enough to meet the demands different readers place upon it. Even texts from the pagan past could be recuperated for consumption by a Christian audience through this process of active reading. As Rita Copeland writes, "even though medieval commentary works around the text, alongside the text, as addenda to the text, it can take on a primary productive character: it continually refashions the text for changing conditions of understanding."(FN37)
This textual flexibility was often cast in commercial terms by medieval thinkers and the classical sources they drew upon. For instance, Cicero, when discussing translation, writes that "I did not hold it necessary to render word for word, but I preserved the general style and force of the language. For I did not think I ought to count them [words] out to the reader like coins, but to pay them by weight, as it were" ["In quibus non verbum pro verbo necesse habui reddere, sed genus omne verborum vimque servavi. Non enim ea me adnumerare lectori putavi oportere, sed tamquam appendere"].(FN38) In this passage, Cicero sees language as currency that can be paid out either piecemeal or in a lump sum. To pay out his words piecemeal would be miserly and, worse yet, risk misrepresenting the source text. Instead, to stay with his pecuniary metaphor, Cicero regards translation as the conversion of large sums. This approach to translation, in which the translator's task is to provide the sense of the source text rather than rendering it verbatim, marked one pole of a debate among medieval translation theorists, and thus this connection between textuality and commerce would have been current in medieval discussions of literary theory.(FN39) In particular, Cicero's passage suggests an attitude toward textuality similar to that displayed by the Merchant's Tale. This similarity takes two forms. First is the changing nature of the text under different contexts. The same text can be broken into small change or kept as a lump sum; it can be a passionate complaint or a memo to be scanned while on the privy. Second is the productivity implied in Cicero's metaphor. Just as a moneychanger may take a percent when changing currency, the translator, if he or she follows Cicero's injunction to give the sense of the source, will necessarily make some changes. Both processes--the exchange of currency for the moneychanger, the translation of a new text for the translator--are productive. And as we have seen, the various exchanges that occur in the Merchant's Tale are equally productive.
This productive nature of texts exemplified in May and implied in medieval theories of reading tie both to a process of commodification. The circulation of commodities through the marketplace creates value just as the circulation of language when reading a text creates meaning. Furthermore, both texts and commodities are flexible enough to meet the demands different contexts place upon them, whether it be different monetary values or different meanings for different generations of readers. The Merchant's Tale reveals this same process happening as the characters shape and reshape their texts. By encouraging us to think about texts in these commercial terms, the tale reveals a link between textuality and commodification, and even if it had not come down to us as a tale told by a merchant, the similarity it suggests between texts and commodities would still make it a mercantile tale.
SAINT XAVIER UNIVERSITY
1 Donaldson, "The Effect of the Merchant's Tale," in Speaking of Chaucer (New York: Norton, 1970), 43. (Emphasis mine.)
2 Gwen Griffiths, "Receding Images of Initiators and Recipients--Yet Another Reflection on the Merchant's Tale," Papers o01 Language and Literature 25 (1989): 243.
3 Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson, 3d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), IV.1218. All subsequent citations are from this edition and will be cited parenthetically within the text.
4 Shoaf, Dante, Chaucer, and the Currency of the Word (Norman: Pilgrim Books, 1983), 208; cf. Griffiths, 262-63.
5 Aers, Chaucer, Langland, and the Creative Imagination (London: Routledge, 1980), 152.
6 Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 334.
7 Ibid., 338.
8 When the narrator describes January as one of "thise fooles that been seculeer" (IV.1251; cf. IV. 1322), he suggests he may be in orders and thus gives rise to the conjecture that the tale as we have it was originally destined for the Monk. This disjunction presents a problem for a dramatic reading of the tale, one, that is, that views the Merchant of the General Prologue, the Merchant's Prologue, and Tale as being consistent. While I do believe it is possible to draw some conclusions about the character of the narrator of the tale, I do not necessarily connect that narrator with the Merchant as he is presented in the General Prologue. See Robert R. Edwards, "Narration and Doctrine in the Merchant's Tale," Speculum 66 (1991): 342-67, and C. David Benson, Chaucer's Drama of Style: Poetic Variety and Contrast in the "Canterbury Tales" (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986). Edwards emphasizes that we should not connect the tale with the General Prologue portrait, but we should link "the narrative with the voice that speaks it" (345). Benson also recognizes the strength of the narrative voice, but he warns that because it "speaks in such a range of contradictory styles," we must be cautious in using it to ground our interpretations (127).
9 See Karl Marx, Capital: Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Vintage, 1977), esp. chapter 3, "Money, or the Circulation of Commodities."
10 For a reading of the tale that reveals these different positions, see Griffiths, "Receding Images," in n. 2 above.
11 See Edwards, "Narration and Doctrine," and Benson, Chaucer's Drama of Style, in n. 8 above.
12 Aers, Creative Imagination, 152.
13 Ibid., 153.
14 For a discussion of the complexities surrounding marriage between aristocratic families, see Georges Duby, Medieval Marriage: Two Models from Twelfth-Century France, trans. Elborg Forster (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978). Duby notes that marriage negotiations and contracts were so complex because they involved the future of generations of two large, extended families, both of which had a stake in the arrangement (5). In the Merchant's Tale, no mention is made of January's family, and May is clearly socially inferior to her prospective husband, making it unlikely that members of her family, if any were involved in the marriage arrangements, would have had a strong bargaining position.
15 In an interesting contrast, Criseyde rejects any "scrit" or "bille" from Troilus expressing his desire for her, explaining quite clearly that she feels that by conveying such communications, Pandarus does not show proper respect for her social position: "To myn estate have more reward, I preye, / Than to his lust" (2.1130, 1133-34). May does not have even the tenuous social standing of Criseyde and thus can voice no objections at all.
16 As just one example, see Canterbury Tales 1.875-91, in which the Knight claims that he won't tell the story of the Theban conquest of the Amazons, gives us seven lines of detail, and then, after this lengthy detour, ends with a few more lines explaining that to say any more would make the tale too long.
17 Ellis, "The Merchant's Wife's Tale: Language, Sex, and Commerce in Margery Kempe and in Chaucer," Exemplaria 2 (1990): 614.
18 January wants a young wife because he believes that "a yong thyng may men gye, / Right as men may warm wex with handes plye" (IV.1429-30).
19 Marx, Capital, 208. This is true unless, of course, the commodity's origin gives it its value, such as in the case of works of art. However, within the Merchant's Tale, May is valued not for her uniqueness (she has none), but for her conformity.
20 Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 250.
21 Ibid., 252.
22 See, for instance, Douglas A. Burger, "Deluding Words in the Merchant's Tale," Chaucer Review 12 (1977): 103, and Karla Taylor, "Chaucer's Reticent Merchant," in The Idea of Medieval Literature: New Essays on Chaucer and Medieval Culture in Honor of Donald R. Howard, ed. James Dean and Christian Zacher (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1992), 198.
23 Shoaf emphasizes that the marriage between January and May is brought about through the use of written signs (Currency of the Word, 198). We should also note that the adultery between May and Damian is an equally textual affair.
24 Burger, "Deluding Words," 107.
25 Shoaf, Currency of the Word, 195.
26 To realize how significant a clash there is between the rhetoric surrounding the affair and its consummation, we might compare the parallel moment in the Miller's Tale. Although the Miller's Tale is certainly not reticent when it comes to are descriptions, it does not present sex in terms quite so stark. Alison and Nicholas are described whereas going to bed and lying all night "in bisynesse of myrthe and on solas" (I.3654), whereas the Merchant Tale's description focuses almost pornographically on the physical act itself: "this Damian / Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng" (IV.2352-53). Cf. Donaldson, "Effect of the Merchant's Tale," 42.
27 As Christine Rose points out, "May's primary relation to language in this part of the tale is not speaking, but writing" ("Women's 'Pryvete,' May, and the Privy: Fissures in the Narrative Voice in the Merchant's Tale, 1944-86," Chaucer Yearbook 4 [19971: 63).
28 As Shoaf points out, Chaucer's audience would have associated Lombardy with moneylending and usury because of the prevalence of Lombards in the English banking trade (Currency of the Word, 185). The Lombardian setting would not have evoked the romanticism that January's description suggests.
29 Carolyn P. Collette, "Umberto Eco, Semiotics, and the Merchant's Tale," Chaucer Review 24 (1989): 137.
30 Shoaf, Currency of the Word, 197. He is quoting Paul A. Olson, "The Merchant's Lombard Knight," Texas Studies in Language and Literature 3 (1961): 212.
31 Ellis, "Merchant's Wife's Tale," 617-18. See also Elizabeth Simmons-O'Neill, "Love in Hell: The Role of Pluto and Proserpine in Chaucer's Merchant's Tale," MLQ 51 (1990): 389-408.
32 Patterson, Subject of History, 341.
33 Marx writes that "being a seller and being a buyer are ... not fixed roles, but constantly attach themselves to different persons in the course of the circulation of commodities" (Capital, 206). The same truism applies to readers and writers in a culture that relied on manuscripts as a means of textual dissemination.
34 Patterson, Subject of History, 340. See also Lorraine K. Stock, "'Making it' in the Merchant's Tale: Chaucer's Signs of January's Fall," Semiotica 63 (1987): 171-83. Stock argues that Chaucer's use of "a deliberate concatenation of various verbs of facture" turns the tale into a reenactment of the Fall (172).
35 Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, et. al., The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory, 1280-1520 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 110.
36 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson Jr. (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 3.27.38; Eileen Sweeney, "Hugh of St. Victor: The Augustinian Tradition of Sacred and Secular Reading Revised," in Reading and Wisdom: The "De doctrina Christiana" of Augustine in the Middle Ages, ed. Edward D. English (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame 37Press, 1995), 67.
37 Copeland, Rhetoric, Hermeneutics, and Translation in the Middle Ages: Academic Traditions and Vernacular Texts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991),