Sex in a tree…

October 24, 2009

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?