Sex in a tree…

chaucer portrait merchants tale

…how can that be?

My apologies to Dr. Seuss, but surely he wouldn’t have objected to being confused with Geoffrey Chaucer.   I’m thinking of  Hop on Pop’s line, “three fish in a tree?”  The Merchant’s Tale involves exactly that, in a tree. Sex, that is.

I haven’t read Chaucer since college, but I picked up a copy of The Canterbury Tales in a bookstore, and was enthralled.  The Middle English takes a while to get used to, you can’t get every word, and I don’t know how to pronounce it, but the rhythm of it carries you along nevertheless.  The edition I bought has the most obscure words glossed in the margin, and the hardest phrases explained at the page’s foot so you don’t have to be flipping to a glossary in the back all the time.  The link above is to an interlinear translation, but I find that annoying to read.

Oh yeah, back to the sex, er…the story.  The pilgrims tell stories to pass the time on the way to Canterbury.  The merchant tells one about a rich old man, January, who finally decides to get married.  Of course, he is set on marrying a young and pretty woman, and he takes the time to find just the right one, named May.  She consents – that’s the way things worked in those days.  It’s not all that clear just how well the old guy performs in bed with his well formed young wife.

Things being what they were, and are, she and a young man in the household develop some feeling for one another.  The old man goes blind, but he keeps up his favorite custom of making love to his wife al fresco in his walled garden with a gate.  Nobody there but the two of them,

And May his wyf, and no wight but they two;
And thynges whiche that were nat doon abedde,
He in the gardyn parfourned hem and spedde.

and they did things there that they didn’t do in bed.

The girl and her lover get a copy of the key to the garden, and the next time she goes there with the old man, the young one is waiting in the tree’s branches.  The tree is a fruit tree, a pear tree.  January, May.  A walled garden with a fruit tree, Eden and the apple (or was it a pear) tree?  A blind man, without knowledge of his wife’s adultery.  But they will eat of the tree.

The girl says she absolutely must have some pears, and the old man curses the absence of his servants to fetch her some.  She has an idea – he bends down and she steps on his back and climbs up into the branches to get the fruit.  Yes, she gets the fruit all right.  Up in the tree, her love is waiting, and he

Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng.

In case you missed it, throng is the past participle of thrust. Once again, the tree of knowledge has brought its bitter fruit to bear on man.  I wonder also if this is an allusion to a famous passage in Augustine’s Confessions in which he recounts his youthful sin of stealing pears from a neighbors orchard.  And the image of a woman stepping on an old man’s back calls to mind another medieval image of man humiliated by woman.

Meanwhile, Pluto and Prosperine are observing the entire business from a corner of the garden.  Pluto vows that if May cheats on January, he will give the old man his sight back.  He wants men to be able to see the evil things woman do to them.  Prosperine, his wife, scoffs at his male chauvinist drivel, and sticks up for women.  If Pluto gives him his sight back, she will make sure that May can talk her way out the impasse.

January gets his sight – the scales drop from his eyes? – and he is infuriated.  May is ready with an answer.  You didn’t see what you think you saw.  After being blind for so long, it takes a while to get used to sight again.  You’re confused.  Really, you should thank me for being up here wrestling with this man – that’s what cured you!  I was told that is the way to restore your sight!

Nothing doing, cries January!

He swyved thee; I saugh it with myne yen,
And elles be I hanged by the hals!”
[He screwed thee; I saw it with my eyes
And else may I be hanged by the neck!]

May is a quick-witted girl.  She replies that if this is what he saw, then her cure wasn’t as good as she had thought.  Obviously, he still has vision problems.

So there we have it.  A little sex farce set in a modern (for then) Eden.  Woman tempts man again, the tree of kowledge brings sight, but having knowledge isn’t such a great thing all the time. Or do we really have the knowledge we think we do?

11 Responses to Sex in a tree…

  1. Man of Roma says:

    Very well written and very interesting [I am adding you to my blogroll].

    On a side note, I have never understood this ‘tree of knowledge thing’, no matter its fascination, which is great, beyond doubt. I know there are many possible interpretations. I’ve always seen it as anti-humanistic: man must remain ignorant, since the source of every knowledge and virtue – the Bible argues endlessly in other books – is the fear of God, seen as the only true guide of every wise man.

    It’s like God ( = the clergy) wants to keep us weak and obedient. What do you think?

  2. Man of Roma says:


    My knowledge of the Bible is superficial, even if I have used it as an easy text for learning languages like Greek, Latin and German. There seems to be connections with the Greek myth of Prometheus.

    I am preparing the post I told you on the Roman Jews.

  3. lichanos says:

    Re: Tree of Knowledge – I can’t see it as anti-humanistic since humanism as we know it hardly existed in 1000BC, the earliest date for the narrative tradition, I think.

    …man must remain ignorant, since the source of every knowledge and virtue – the Bible argues endlessly in other books – is the fear of God…

    I guess there’ that, but I see the fundamental idea of the story as being beyond religion and dogma. It’s a statement about the condition of being human. (Is that humanist?) With knowledge comes a loss of innocence and endless pain. The end of blissful ignorance,the beginning of the need to be independent, make hard choices. The end of childhood. The beginning of toil, (alienated) work. The presence of culture (clothing) as a mediating force separating people from one another and from nature. The end of Nature’s happy embrace – the walled garden – the beginning of Nature as something fearsome. Animals don’t fear nature because they have no knowledge of it.

    Regarding PS: I think the image of mankind being fashioned from clay is common to many ancient traditions. I think it’s in the Epic of Gilgamesh too. That one is worth a read!

  4. mark says:

    I agree with lichanos that it goes deeper than just the matter of obeying god, but certainly that is one consequence of the myth. And obeying god (clergy) to be virtuous is the catchcry of the platonic society – ruled by the initiates to the mystery. Self-knowledge and awareness is a threat to this power structure because it creates needs and wants. It creates self-interest. It creates, therefore the desire for a self-defined happiness. Think, for example of the driving insistence and anarchic power of sexuality. Not a good force to give anything approaching unfettered expression in a virtuous culture – it will seek to transgress any and every rule. Who is it in our societies who seek most to control sexuality, and why?
    By the way, I am not making up these somewhat opposing categories of happiness v virtue. They appear in much political philosophy, clearly presented as the foundational priciples to be satisfied. The OT is a formulation that is along way towards the virtue end of the viture/happiness scale. Most westerners live a pretty long way towards the happiness end of the scale. But just as a virtue based society does not necessarily create virtue, neither does a happiness-based society necessarily create happiness.

  5. lichanos says:


    Good point – the knowledge of self as something distinct and problematic is the mirror consequence of the knowledge of the world.

    It’s a myth about the pain of separation into self, couldn’t you say?

  6. mark says:

    Lichanos: Spot on, I reckon.

  7. Man of Roma says:

    I understand what you both mean. My reasoning was at a different, less deep, level.

    Getting in fact back to:

    I can’t see it as anti-humanistic since humanism as we know it hardly existed in 1000BC,

    I sometimes like to use historically-related terms – such as romantic, classic, or, in this case, humanistic – as universal categories outside their context.

    In this sense, to me, the Bible is anti-humanistic, if we consider humanistic any conception where man has the courage to live without religions and superstitions, without fear of any god, having faith only in his humanity. Finding the meaning of life in ourselves, in shared human values, cooperating for a common good, is humanistic to me and, after all, it is at the base of the ‘modern’ world and its secularisation.

    I never really reflected much on the Bible. Probably a certain aversion to the Christian religion has impeded me to do so.

    • lichanos says:

      …a certain aversion to the Christian religion has impeded me to do so.

      I have often wondered what it would be like to have been raised in a Christian/Catholic milieu and to have rejected it. As a boy I had a friend with whom I traded classical music records. He was Belgian, and he said his mother wouldn’t let him play Bach’s organ music because it reminded her of church.

      Wow! She must have some memories!!

  8. mark says:

    I suspect we are all in agreement. If only there was a shared table and a bottle or two of wine, we might all at this point pause for a moment, clink our glasses together, and quaff!

  9. Man of Roma says:

    Oh yes, Pancime, so you both come to Rome, and we’ll drink and eat at Giggetto, the Jewish restaurant at the Roman Ghetto!

  10. Man of Roma says:

    There are a lot of misconceptions regarding how people feel the Catholic religion: the way we Italians live it, compared to the Southern Germans, the Polish and the Irish, is totally different (no idea about the Belgians.) We generally are not that religious. We are more attached to Catholicism as an institution coming from Rome. My mother though happened to be deeply religious … long story, not to be told here. I have some memories too, in the sense you said, but that is not too typically Italian. Very complicated stuff.

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