While there is no question that love and physical compatibility are of paramount importance for a healthy marriage, they are not exclusive requirements. In “The Merchant’s Tale”, Geoffrey Chaucer presents readers with problems that arise when necessary virtues are missing from a marital relationship. Through their distrust and betrayal of one another, Januarie and May reveal the necessity of honesty, each with himself and the other, in a healthy and fulfilled marriage.
Januarie’s motivation for finding a wife is dishonest and self-serving. His desire is not to find a wife who will be a partner in marriage with him, but to find a young wife who will serve his physical need for pleasure, thus subjugating her to his will. In speaking of his search for a wife, Januarie explains his dubious reason for not taking one closer to his age:
For if so were that I hadde swich myschaunce
That I in hire ne koude han no plesaunce
Thanne sholde I lede my lyf in avoutrye
And straight unto the devel whan I dye (221-24).
Januarie must take a young wife because he would not be attracted to an older woman, which would lead him into the sin of adultery. Januarie’s motive for marriage is dishonest because it does not recognize the true reason for marriage. He wants a wife only for his physical pleasure and satisfaction. He believes himself justified, then, in insisting on taking only a young wife because he would not be attracted to an older woman, and would therefore be unable to satisfy his physical needs with her. Those needs are more important than any other possible reason to marry. Januarie believes his reasoning not only sound, but sacred. He has no choice but to take a young wife because an older woman could not satisfy him physically, which would lead him to commit adultery. For him, marrying an older woman is just as surely a sin because he knows what the outcome would be. His motivation for finding a wife is dishonest from the very outset because it fails to consider that marriage is a commitment between two people to love and care for one another equally, placing the needs of neither husband nor wife above those of the other. Healthy marriages are rooted in those honest desires and are made with those honest motives, but Januarie is concerned with and motivated only by his needs and desires. Physical compatibility is certainly important for a marriage to be fulfilling, so Januarie is blameless in his desire for a wife whom he is physically attracted to. However, if that need was also accompanied by a desire to find a wife who is wise, caring, intelligent—who was more his equal without the sole prerequisite for youth and beauty, then he would spend less time crippled by jealousy (861-4) and more time enjoying the pleasure of a bride whom he truly loved. It would be dangerous enough if he were the only spouse with dishonest motivations, but May’s intentions were also less than pure.
While the depth of May’s deception becomes clear much later in the poem, Chaucer foreshadows the trouble ahead when he describes the efforts which Justinius and Placebo must undertake to secure the marriage agreement from May.
I trowe it were to longe yow to tarie,
If I yow tolde of every scrit and bond
By which that she was feffed in his lond,
Or for to herknen of hir riche array (484-7).
Unlike the agreement between Walter and Griselda’s father in “The Clerk’s Tale”, the arrangement that Januarie’s brothers make is directly with May. She is of “low rank” (413), but she is not ignorant. She certainly knows that there will be very little which Januarie can offer her in the way of physical satisfaction at his age, but he does have land and wealth, which she negotiates as her price for agreeing to the marriage. Like Januarie, May is motivated only by her personal needs and desires. She does not truly want to marry him, but she does want more than what her low social status can offer, and marrying into it would be the only way to attain it. Her lust for wealth are so powerful that they overcome any hint of honest motivation where marriage is concerned. Just as her new husband expects her youth and beauty to be sufficient in cultivating a healthy marriage, May expects her newfound wealth and social prominence to take the place of love and devotion. She betrays the spirit of her marriage vows before she ever speaks them, which ultimately leads to her physical betrayal of them. She seeks to satisfy only her physical need for wealth and makes a marriage arrangement which completely ignores the most basic human need. Her dishonest motives for marrying Januarie are an even bigger betrayal because they not only deny her of what she truly needs, but they also deny him a wife who wants to make their marriage work.
Januarie and May are guilty of dishonest motives and intentions for marrying one another. Though their dishonesty leads to betrayal of their marriage vows on both a physical and spiritual level, the importance of honesty in marriage is revealed in the end. Had Januarie been motivated by more than just a desire for a wife of youth and physical beauty, he would have likely found one, perhaps older than he wanted, but who could provide him with an equal partner rather than what amounted to a mistress. Likewise, if May had been motivated by something other than a desire for wealth and higher social status, she would have likely found a husband who, though perhaps not wealthy, could provide a fulfilled marriage which surpassed her more temporal needs. Through Januarie and May, Chaucer provides readers a lesson on the importance of mutual honesty in creating a healthy marriage.