English, Department of


Date of this Version

Summer 1961


Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Summer 1961), pp. 259-263.


Published by University of Texas Press.


The problem of Chaucer's reason for having his Merchant tell a tale about an Italian from Pavia is little closer to solution now than it was when Skeat expressed bafflement before it. The Merchant seems to bear a positive hatred for his character; he projects all the marital evils which he knows on him and makes him suffer stupidly and innocently. A proper explanation of the Merchant's motives must not only account for his interest in Italy but for his animus toward Italians or, at least, toward Lombards from Pavia. When the Merchant begins his prologue, the Clerk has just told his idealistic story about an Italian nobleman and the Job-like sufferings of his wife. The Merchant, however, is more impressed with the Clerk's picture of modern marriage (IV, 1 177- 1212) than with his stylized picture of ancient virtue. After the Clerk finishes, he breaks into a diatribe against his own marriage, a marriage particularly modern. When he is asked by Harry Bailey to continue and make clearer exactly how things are at home, he reflects, and coming to himself, turns to take up the subject of Italy and Italian marriages. As the Clerk has told about a Lombard from Saluzzo, he makes his subject a Lombard from nearby Pavia. The important thing here is that the tale is about a Lombard. The Clerk tells us how he came to know his Lombard tale : he has studied with Petrarch in Padua ; the Merchant does not let us know how he came by his Italian information. Yet it is not difficult to guess. In one occupation and one alone, Englishmen and Lombards in Chaucer's period met on familiar and competitive ground : that of the combination wool merchant and banker who dominated fourteenth-century English commercial life.