“To take a wyf”

Marriage, Status, and Moral Conduct in “The Merchant’s Tale”

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Natalie Hanna The University of Liverpool n.hanna@liv.ac.uk

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Across the eighteen Canterbury Tales that deal in some way with marriage, the language of “The Merchant’s Tale” is most concerned with the role of a “wyf” and a concept of “taking” a wife. By contrast, the text appears to show little concern for the status “housbonde,” but the limited use of the term is in fact a means to scrutinize the correlation between these medieval marital roles. Using a corpus of The Canterbury Tales, this article reveals how Chaucer semantically distinguishes Januarie’s position as one who wishes only to be served by his wife, from “housbondes” that are in partnership with their wives. The study shows that, through terminology and phraseology, Januarie’s status is connected to Walter’s of “The Clerk’s Tale,” to highlight the underlying abusive traits of men who treat marriage as an economical transaction for their own gain, rather than as a union of love.

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