The story deals with a wealthy old man named Januarie (often modernized as "January") who marries a young woman named May. One of Januarie's servants, a young man named Damyan (often modernized as "Damian") falls in love with May and she agrees to have an affair with him, although it is difficult for the two to spend any time alone with each other because Januarie watches May jealously. When Januarie suddenly goes blind, he becomes even more jealous and never allows May to go anywhere unless she is holding his hand. However, May and Damyan conspire to meet in Januarie's garden, a place which Januarie believes he alone can access. The fairy king magically restores Januarie's sight, allowing him to see his wife's infidelity, but the fairy queen magically gives May the ability to give her husband a convincing, and perfectly innocent, explanation of what she was doing.
In Italy, there lives a wealthy gentleman named Januarie. He has many servants, lives in a large house and takes special delight in his walled garden, a garden which is so beautiful that it is often visited by the king and queen of the fairies, Pluto and Proserpina themselves Januarie keeps the key to his walled garden on him at all times and does not allow anyone else to take it.
Although he has had relations with many different women, Januarie has never married. When he reaches the age of sixty, he suddenly decides that he needs to take a wife and that she should be a woman who is much younger than he is. Although Januarie's friend Justinius advises against the marriage, all of his other friends support the old gentleman's decision and help him to search for a suitable bride. Januarie soon announces that the search is at an end and that he will marry May, a young woman from a humble family.
During the wedding feast, Januarie's young servant Damyan suddenly falls in love with May. Sick with love for May, he spends three days alone in his bedroom. When Januarie notices that Damyan has not served him for three days, he makes inquiries about the young man. Hearing that Damyan is sick, Januarie says that he will visit the young man later and asks May to do the same. While May is in Damyan's room, he hands her a note and asks her to keep its contents a secret. In the note, Damyan explains that he is in love with May and hopes that she will return his affections. May keeps the note a secret from her husband by throwing it into the privy after she has read it She writes a note in reply, saying that she is willing to become Damyan's lover, and hands it to Damyan in secret. However, because Januarie keeps a careful watch over his young wife, May and Damyan do not have any opportunity to be alone together.
The situation becomes worse for Damyan and May when Januarie suddenly goes blind. Januarie's blindness only increases his jealousy. Although Damyan and May are able to pass notes to each other and make signs to each other with greater ease than before, Januarie does not allow May to go anywhere unless he is holding her hand. However, May is able to take an imprint of the key to Januarie's walled garden in some soft wax, enabling Damyan to have a copy of it made.
One summer day, Januarie and May enter the walled garden. Januarie is not aware that Damyan has uses his secret copy of Januarie's key to come into the garden as well. Unseen and unheard by all of the mortals, the fairy king and queen Pluto and Proserpina arrive in the garden too. Knowing what Damyan and May plan to do, Pluto says that he will give Januarie back his sight, so that the man can see his wife being unfaithful to him. Proserpina replies that if he does that, she will give May the ability to give her husband a convincing, and innocent, explanation of what she and her lover had been doing. Proserpina adds that all other women will have the same ability afterwards. Pluto begins to speak ill of May and of women in general. Proserpina tells him that he is wrong to do so, explaining that there is nobody, either male or female, who is perfect and that there have been many examples of noble women in history. Pluto agrees but says that, as a king, he cannot go back on his word. Proserpina replies that, as a queen, she cannot go back on her word either.
Damyan climbs up a pear tree. May tells Januarie that she is desperate to have some fruit from the tree. She asks Januarie to help her climb up it, telling him that she is going to pick some pears. As he had promised, Pluto restores Januarie's sight in time for him to see May and Damyan having sex with each other. Januarie screams at his wife, demanding to know what she had been doing. Thanks to Proserpina's magical gift, May announces that she is delighted that the cure that she tried for Januarie's blindness has worked. She says that she was told that her husband's sight could be restored if she struggled with a man in a tree. Januarie replies that the two were not struggling but May says that if Januarie saw anything else, that means that the cure has not completely worked.
May goes on to say that, just as people do not see clearly when they first wake up in the morning, it is natural that her husband, who has been blind for some time, saw things that were not really happening when he first got his sight back. Januarie accepts her explanation. May comes down from the tree and they return to Januarie's home together.
"The Merchant's Tale" is faithfully adapted as one of the segments in Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1972 Italian anthology film I racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales). In Pasolini's film, Januarie is played by the Welsh actor Hugh Griffith, May is played by the American actress Josephine Chaplin, Damian is played by Oscar Fochetti, Pluto is played by Giuseppe Arrigo and Proserpine is played by Elisabetta Genovese. Both Pluto and Proserpine are completely naked, apart from crowns of leaves on their heads, in all of their appearances in the film.
"The Merchant's Tale" is one of the three tales adapted in "Arrival at Canterbury", the second episode of the animated mini-series The Canterbury Tales that was co-produced by BBC Wales, Christmas Films of Moscow, Russia and HBO. The episode features the voices of Bill Nighy as the Merchant, David Bradley as Januarie, Abigail Cruttenden as May and Hayden Gwynne as Proserpine. It was first shown in Modern English on BBC 2 in the United Kingdom on December 22, 1998. It was repeated the following day in a Middle English version.
- Sound file of the opening lines of "The Merchant's Prologue" in reconstructed Middle English pronunciation
- ↑ Pluto and Proserpina are the god and goddess of the underworld in Roman mythology. Their Greek equivalents are Hades (who was also called "Pluto" in Greek) and Persephone. Although Chaucer describes them as the rulers of Fairyland and not as deities in "The Merchant's Tale", he refers to legends about them which were told by Roman authors
- ↑ A privy was an early form of toilet
- ↑ Other segments in the film are based on the "General Prologue", "The Friar's Tale", "The Miller's Tale", "The Wife of Bath's Prologue", "The Reeve's Tale", "The Pardoner's Tale" and "The Summoner's Tale"
- ↑ The episode also includes adaptations of "The Pardoner's Tale" and "The Franklin's Tale"