The Merchant, pictured in the Ellesmere Manuscript (San Marino, CA, Huntington Library, MS EL 26 C 9, f. 102v, detail). Image from Wikimedia Commons.
Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale has a reputation for crude and explicit sexual content. An elderly bachelor, January, seeks out a much younger bride, May, in the fond belief that her youth will make her a biddable partner as well as an excellent producer of heirs. Proving that it is not only millennials and their juniors who are in dire need of kink positivity, he proudly introduces her to his walled sex-garden, specially kitted out for the purposes of those sex acts which – intriguingly – are ‘nat doon abedde’. May, however, has fallen in love with a young squire in the household, one Damian, and she swiftly hatches a plot to cuckold her husband. Taking advantage of January’s recent blindness, she and her would-be lover counterfeit the key to the garden, and Damian enters and conceals himself in a convenient pear tree. Pretending to have a craving ‘to eten of the smale peres grene,’ May reminds January that a woman in a delicate condition should always be indulged. Assuming, delightedly, that his wife is coyly announcing a pregnancy, January hastily bends down to help May clamber up into the pear tree in search of a fruit to satisfy her appetite.
Arboreal constraints notwithstanding, May and Damian promptly set to, just as the god Pluto intervenes, restoring January’s sight and revealing an x-rated scene before him. Horrified, he begins to kick up an uproar, but quick-witted May intervenes with fluent excuses. Medical science, she explains, has taught her that there is no better cure for blindness than for a husband to see his wife ‘strugle with a man upon a tree’.
The impressive ingenuity and sheer cheek of May’s response more or less concludes the tale. There is no threat of repercussions for the lovers and no great sympathy for the foolish old man. Yet, as Carissa Harris points out in a brilliant paper on obscenity (you can find it in Essays in Medieval Studies, Vol. 27), there are actually several lacunae in Chaucer’s account where the seemingly feisty May is silent about her own sexual desires. May is given no direct speech during any of the sex scenes, and although at first reading the tale seems replete with blunt and bawdy descriptions of sex, it is also oddly euphemistic in the details. What exactly are those sex acts ‘nat doon abedde’? What does January see, when May convinces him he’s looking at a ‘strugle’ in a tree?
Two lines offer particularly concentrated ambiguity. As May climbs into the tree, we’re told – without textual or sexual preamble – ‘sodeynly anon this Damyan/ Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng’. The verb thringen – a fine old Anglo-Saxon term – means something slightly ruder and more vigorous than ‘to penetrate,’ with connotations of speed, vigour, and possibly even violence. But, although female readers might deplore the apparent lack of sexual preamble, in textual terms the line leaves far more to our imagination than it discloses. Whose smock does Damian pull up – his own, or May’s? In where does he ‘throng’? With what? Further complicating the issue is the location, which offers not only logistic, but also connotative, problems. As Penny Simons has observed, the medieval phrase faire le poirer (‘to make the pear’) means to stand on one’s head with one’s legs in the air: pear-tree sex hardly allows for the missionary position associated with approved marital sex in the Middle Ages.
Harris’s analysis of this text shows that fifteenth-century scribes were – perhaps much like us – divided in their responses between enthusiastic desire to know more, and shocked impulses to censor. One scribe expands Chaucer’s modest two lines to give May a spirited and cutting customer review of her two lovers. Damian, so we’re now told, thrusts in ‘a grete tente’ (a substantial rod), which May declares to be the ‘meriest fit’ she had ever enjoyed. By contrast, January’s aging manhood calls to mind the limp, drooping remnants of the saddest salad drawer ever: ‘he may not swyve [fuck] worth a leek’. It’s true that, as Harris argues, this revised version of Chaucer’s original gives May far more of a voice, allowing her to appraise and rank her lovers in a thoroughly liberated fashion.
But the rewritten version also – I’d argue – closes down an option tantalizing possibility in Chaucer’s original. As the Merchant, the narrator of the tale, approaches the climax of his text, he breaks off to address his audience of pilgrims. ‘Ladyes, I prey yow that ye be nat wroth,’ he excuses himself, before trailing off with the unfinished interruption ‘I kan nat glose, I am a rude man …’.
The interpolation – the Merchant’s claim that he cannot ‘glose’ or ‘euphemise’ the description that is to follow – might be interpreted as mere titillation, a bit of textual foreplay leading to a damp squib of a sex scene, which at least one scribe chose to rewrite in a raunchier key. But that’s to miss a pun. The word ‘glose’ means not only ‘euphemise’ but also – if we take the Latin root literally – glossa, or ‘tongue’. The proximity of ‘glose’ to the sexual verb ‘throng,’ with its aural and visual echoes of the Middle English word ‘tunge,’ hint suggestively towards the nature of the sex act that is never quite described. A passage lacking in the specific sexual detail promised is ghosted with hints of a sex act other than the traditional PIV later scribes boldly imagined. As May claims to seek satisfaction for her oral desires in the form of a pear, it is perhaps a ruder oral satisfaction she receives.
A casual perusal of medieval smut would suggest that cunnilingus isn’t that popular a sex act to describe – it’s not up there with, say, the arse jokes that resound through the Miller’s Tale or line the rims of exquisite Psalters – although, of course, this may have something to do with our own preferences and blind spots as scholars, as we draw particular pages and passages to attention and miss other possible puns and innuendos. The ambiguity of the passage places us in January’s position, squinting at the text and attempting to make out the nature of the act we see with only partial clarity. While it’s possible to presume – along with the fifteenth-century scribe who rewrote the text – that all sexual euphemisms must involve a male member, I’d suggest Chaucer leaves open the possibility of more varied sexualities, even those which interrupt a male-voiced narrative to address the desires of the ‘ladyes’.