Cuckoldry in Paradise

This is an image of Chaucer, which was provided by
This is an image of Chaucer, which was provided by

Marriage and Infidelity

In The Canterbury Tales, “mariage is a ful greet sacrement” (MerT 1319); at least, it is intended to be. The union of both spouses is supposed to be special, but the lack of friendship, love, and the actions of infidelity become a problem in the marriages that play out in the tales. For example, this can be seen in “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Merchant’s Tale.” In “The Miller’s Tale,” John and Alisoun marry, but there is the lack of friendship and love within the marriage. Alisoun is also unfaithful to her husband, which is a big problem because John does not want to be made a cuckold. This exact situation also plays out between January and May in “The Merchant’s Tale.” There is the need of friendship and love in the marriage. May is also committing adultery and the last thing that January wants is to be made a fool of.

Both these marriages are supposed to be sacred, but result in being unsacred. John and January marry beautiful, young, wild, sex-crazed women. They marry these women because they want to have children that can take on their estate. Marrying younger women would be much more ideal for this set of circumstances. The only problem is that because these women are so young and wild, there is the possibility that these women will make fools out of their husbands.

In order to avoid being cuckolded, John and January restrain their wives to make sure that they are not making fools out of them. In case their wives get pregnant, this will also help them know whether or not the children are really theirs. The last thing they want is to hand over their estate to a child that is not really theirs. If this were to happen, John and January would be cuckolded to a high degree. The confinement of the wives in “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Merchant’s Tale” conveys John and January’s anxiety of being cuckolded as a way of controlling the uncontrollable female sexuality, that threatens the patriarchal objective of making sure that there is a consistent and legitimate patrilineal inheritance.

Married for Convenience

John and January are both wealthy men, but if they die, who will take on their inheritance? Marriage within “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Merchant’s Tale” is not about desire, but about convenience. Even though the marriages in both tales are professed to be sacred, it is really to cover up the real reasons as to why John and January are married to their wives. John and January are getting old and they need heirs. Marriage seems ideal now, but it is not something that they have always dreamed of, it is just time. January from “The Merchant’s Tale” tries to throw out convincible statements that can justify why he would love to marry and how scared it is to do so, but “his proffered reason to marry in order to live a holier life in his declining years is clearly an excuse, for instead, he wishes to marry for pleasure and in order to produce heirs” (Cooke 410).

John from “The Miller’s Tale” is right there with him because he is married to Alisoun for pleasure and to produce heirs. Prior to getting married, John and January did not take the time to build actual relationships with their wives and love was not incentive to choosing the women they marry. For example, in “The Merchant’s Tale,” when it comes to January, he simply picked the girl he wanted and married her. He thought about it and tried to make the best choice, but that does not do it enough justice. It is a fast process, which does not allow him time to form any relationship with May or find out whether or not he loves her. He just selected her and is going to hope for the best:

But nathelees, bitwixe ernest and game,

He atte laste apoynted hym on oon,

And leet alle othere from his herte goon,

And chees hire of his owene auctoritee;

For love is blynd alday, and may nat see. (MerT 1594-1598)

Marriage for John and January is all about the benefits that they will gain from being married. If they want to have children, they need to get married because this would be the holy way to do it. Having children out of wedlock would not align with John and January’s religious values. Plus, they also feel that they need to get married because “a wyf is Goddes yifte verraily” (MerT 1311). They cannot ignore what God is giving them because “throughout the Middle Ages men saw Christ as the divine child” (Power 12). But this is all just a cover up to the real reasons for which they marry.

Patriarchal Ideology

The married life for John and January may come with great advantages, but there are a few problems that they face. The main problem is dealing with their wives. Their wives are very young and they are old. Alisoun and May married their husbands for their own benefits as well. Due to their own religious values, it is expected that they stay pure until marriage. These young women do not just want to marry anyone, but they want to marry someone that can give them the stability that they need. These women want to get married because it is what God expects from them to do in order to live a holier life, but this also becomes a cover up for the real reasons they marry. They also want to have children because that is part of the marriage. The best way to do all these things is by marrying their older husbands that have wealth and can give them the security that they want and need.

The only problem is that through patriarchal ideology, women are seen as hypersexual human beings. This label is especially put on younger women, which would define Alisoun and May. Alisoun is very young, “Of eighteteene yeer she was of age” (MilT 3223). As for May, her age is never given, but January makes it clear that “she shal nat passe twenty yeer, certayn” (MerT 1417). In this case, “it is therefore likely that she is twenty years of age, or just under” (Cooke 409). Women at the time are degraded and are made out to be only good for reproduction. It was believed at the time that “women exist to reproduce-else another man would have been a better companion for Adam” (Bisson 195). Because they are portrayed as being hypersexual, there is the possibility that these women may not be as loyal as John and January may expect them to be in their marriages. If their husbands are not fulfilling their sexual needs, then they will be getting their needs met with other men. If this becomes the case, normally “old men with young wives will be cuckolded by younger men” (Lochrie 288). January does not meet May’s needs as “she preyseth nat his pleyyng worth a bene” (MerT 1854).


Marrying young women is a huge risk for John and January because their wives may be unfaithful to them at some point in their marriages. They are aware of this because they are part of the patriarchal ideology that portrays women to be hypersexual human beings. Plus, January is warned by Justinus in “The Merchant’s Tale” when Justinus tells him, “I warne yow wel, it is no childes pley / To take a wyf withouten avysement” (MerT 1530-1531).

If these women have affairs, how will John and January know whether or not these children are really theirs? They will not be able to know that for sure and this is a problem right there. This can ruin the patriarchal objective, which for men is to have legitimate children as their heirs and carry on the patrilineal inheritance.

If these wives are unfaithful and have children that are not really their husbands, then there will be no consistent or legitimate patrilineal inheritance. Children that are not really John’s or January’s would be taking on their estate and that is what they want to avoid from happening. This then results in John and January getting anxiety from being cuckolded. John and January do not want to be made a mockery of and they need to make sure that if and when their wives get pregnant, the children will actually be theirs. They want legitimacy, but in order for that to exist, they need to find a way to make sure that their wives won’t commit adultery.

Confining Alisoun

In “The Miller’s Tale,” John tries to control Alisoun’s sexuality by confining her. His way of doing this is by locking her up in their home:

Jalous he was, and heeld hire narwe in cage,

For she was wylde and yong, and he was old

And demed hymself been lik a cokewold.

He knew nat Catoun, for his wit was rude,

That bad man sholde wedde his simylitude. (MilT 3224-3228)

He does not want her to be seen or to be known, so “the house is John’s private world because it contains Alysoun” (Woods 166). In Medieval Women by Eileen Power, women worked during the Middle Ages in order to make a living. They could be alone or married, but they worked. John takes all of that away from Alisoun just to make sure that she will not cuckold him. When he is away for business he would keep her in the house and she is not allowed to go out. He restricts her from everything and she isn’t allowed to have a social life. This is his way of making sure that she is not committing adultery because he has the anxiety that she will. She is very well capable of doing it so he has to confine her.

If she finds out that she is pregnant, this confinement will allow him to know that the child will actually be his. If he does not confine his wife and allows her to be free when he is away for business, she may just have multiple affairs and get pregnant. It is rather likely that the child will not be John’s and she may not say anything because she will not want him to know about her affairs. If he passes down his estate to this child, Alisoun will have cuckolded him well. The only way to avoid this now is through the restrictions and limitations that John puts on her. He tries really hard to control her sexuality by closing her off from the world, but that may not be enough.

Confining May

In “The Merchant’s Tale,” January also confines his wife with the attempt to try and control May’s sexuality. Throughout their marriage, he is always with her. When he becomes blind, it gets worse because then he is literally by her side at all times. He becomes extremely possessive of May during this time. She does not voice her annoyance of him being by her at all times because “implicit obedience was part of the ideal of marriage set out in the majority of didactic works addressed to women” (Power 8). Women need to listen to their husbands and pretty much allow them to do what they want without complaining.

If May decides to be disobedient and tell January what to do he could punish her, as “disobedient wives were liable to correction by force” (Power 8). January possesses more power and it is because of his sex and as for May, being a woman makes her “inferior to man” (Power 2). Therefore, she has to put up with his very consistent companionship. Because he cannot see anymore, his anxiety of being cuckolded grew even more, and the only way of making sure that she will not make a fool out of him is by being right by her side. If she is not by his side, then there would be no way of him telling what she is up to because he cannot see. His anxiety is far worse than John’s because even though he is with her, he still does not know what she is doing because he is blind.

People on the grand journey, which was provided by
People on the grand journey, which was provided by

Cuckolding John

John and January are trying to control uncontrollable female sexuality. It is impossible to control it and even though they try as hard as they do, they will never be able to control it. Alisoun commits adultery in John’s home that he thought was safe enough for her not to do it in. Nicholas, who is a student renting a room in John’s house becomes entangled with Alisoun. This happens because Alisoun “learns to enjoy her narrow confinement with the enthusiastic aid of the young scholar, who finds in her an escape from the social inversion implied by the little room he rents from a rich peasant” (Woods 168).

Alisoun and Nicholas want to have sex, but they have to plan it out because Alisoun says her husband is a really jealous man. If he found out about her encounter with Nicholas, he would kill her. Nicholas and Alisoun form this plan where they tell John that a flood is coming and if they want to survive, John must get three tubs where each one can stay in and have them hung. Once the flood comes, they can release the tubs in order to float and not drown. However, this is all a scheme to wait for John to fall asleep in the tub while he is in it and hung high so Alisoun and Nicholas can climb down and have sex without him knowing.

The humorous part about this is that they have sex in John’s bed and right under John as he is in his tub that is hung right above the bed. Right then and there, John is cuckolded. To make matters worse, the incident that Nicholas has with Absolon makes John wake up and think the flood is here, which makes him cut the tubs loose, but this results in him getting hurt. All the neighbors come out to witness what is going on because of all the ruckus, but John is made to look crazy. He explains the reasoning behind the tubs and everything about the flood, but Nicholas and Alisoun state that they do not know what is going on and that he made that up on his own. Alisoun has now made a fool out of her husband even more. She makes him seem crazy and everyone labels him as that.

Cuckolding January

May is also able to cuckold January and she does it right above him. January’s confinement of being possessive and being by her side at all times still does not stop May from being unfaithful. Damien and May form a relationship and they plan to have sex. May and Damien decided they would make copies of the key to the garden so they could go in there and have sex. One day, January went with May to the garden so they could have sex and Damien showed up. He climbed onto the pear tree in the garden and waited for May to climb up as well so they could have sex on the tree. This would be the only way to do it because January would not leave her side.

May said she wanted a pear and so she would need to climb the tree to get it. January helps her get up there and as soon as she is up on the tree, Damien and May waste no time and begin to have sex. As they are having sex, January actually gains his vision back and sees what is going on which really upsets him. He was able to completely see May cuckolding him. The only thing is that May is able to convince January that what he sees is not what he thinks, but January knows that what he sees is what he thinks. In this scene, “she tries to write another story, create another sign for him to interpret” (Schrock 600). So she gets him to believe that in order to help restore his vision, she had to struggle with Damien on this pear tree. It seems odd, but it gets January to act as if it never happened.

By these actions, it is safe to say that “January is destructively foolish and May is reprehensibly shrewd” (Schrock 602). He was cuckolded and this does threaten his objective of having legitimate children because there is the possibility that May is pregnant by this point. He got lucky here if she is pregnant, it would be his child because Damien and May just had their sexual encounter. Her craving of the pear is what insinuates to the readers that she may be pregnant. However, if she is not, then her craving and eating of the pear is her way of using a contraceptive to not get pregnant by Damien, as “traditionally used by early doctors to prevent conception was the pear” (Heffernan 31). This does make sense as “there is a reason to think that May may be as keen to avoid conception in the sexual embrace of her young lover as her sixty-year-old husband is eager to produce offspring” (Heffernan 32). It is impossible to control female sexuality and through “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Merchant’s Tale,” it becomes clear that John and January can try to control it as much as they want, but it is uncontrollable. They are cuckolded no matter what.

Confinement Failure

While John and January make themselves believe that they want marriage for the right reasons, it is really for all the wrong reasons. It is not about building a relationship and falling in love. Marriage for them is mainly to produce children so they can have heirs because they are older and are not getting any younger. The companionship and the sex are also a bonus, but their main objective is the children. They are in that age where they need to start planning for their future and what will become of their estate. They need children to inherit everything they have and in order to produce these children, they need to do it the way God would want them to. God would want them to get married first and then produce. The only problem with that is that John and January cast their wives as sex-crazed human beings, which threatens the patriarchal objective of producing children that are actually theirs.

The anxiety that John and January get from being cuckolded results in the confinement of their wives. John and January become afraid of the fact that Alisoun and May can commit adultery and this might damage the patrilineal inheritance. Alisoun can have children, but what if they are not really John’s? Same thing goes for January and May. If John and January pass down their estate to their heirs, who happen to be children that are not really theirs, it would make them the laughing stock of the nation. They do not want that to happen so they do their best to confine their wives, but they cannot control this no matter how hard they try. They are still cuckolded through the adultery that both wives commit within their confinements, and “the fabliau logic is so ineluctable that it operates with the deterministic force of an algebraic function: old man + young (wife + man) = cuckold” (Lochrie 288). Alisoun and May find their ways to still do what they want even if it means they have to do it within the same area in which their husbands are in.

Works Cited

Bisson, Lillian. Chaucer and the Late Medieval World. New York: St. Martin’s, 1998. Print.

Cooke, Jessica. “Januarie and May in Chaucer’s ‘Merchant’s Tale.'” English Studies 78.5 (1997): 407-416. Academic Search Complete. Web. 12 April 2016.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Miller’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales, Complete. 3rd edition. Ed. Larry Benson. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Print.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Merchant’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales, Complete. 3rd edition. Ed. Larry Benson. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Print.

Heffernan, Carol Falvo. “Contraception and the Pear Tree Episode of Chaucer’s ‘Merchant’s Tale.'” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 94.1 (1995): 31-41. JSTOR. Web. 21 April 2016.

Lochrie, Karma. “Women’s ‘Pryvetees’ and Fabliau Politics in ‘The Miller’s Tale.'” Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 6.2 (1994): 287-304. Print.

Power, Eileen. Medieval Women. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. Print.

Schrock, Chad. “The Ends of Reading in ‘The Merchant’s Tale.'” Philological Quarterly 91.4 (2012): 591-609. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 April 2016.

Woods, William F. “Private and Public Space in ‘The Miller’s Tale.'” The Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism 29.2 (1994): 166-178. JSTOR. Web. 12 April 2016.

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  1. “The Canterbury Tales” are the medieval equivalent of listening to a bunch of people on a road trip, sharing racy stories. These stories would have been quite scandalous for their time, and the common thematic element of infidelity in this selection of tales were designed to entice and tantalize. When viewed not as some founding literary work, but as the 14th century’s “The Hangover,” it truly changes the context and probably brings the modern reader more in line with what Chaucer intended.

  2. I absolutely love Chaucer, my only regret with his tales are that they were never finished. We can learn so much from each of the characters.

  3. Kaye Hsu

    Chaucer has a great wit and a keen insight into this topic. Great job on analysis it.

  4. Chaucer was a man ahead of his time and understood how to make his work more accessible, which is a reason I think The Canterbury Tales is still so widely read today.

  5. I decided to read this article to find out, whether the original Canterbury Tales by Chaucer are something worth reading. They, in fact, are. So I will now proceed to reading the tales.

  6. Munjeera

    It has been years since I read Chaucer but thanks to your article I might try reviving my interest.

  7. Ka Mundy

    I appreciate Chaucer’s story-telling ability, but let’s face it, the world was different then, and someone who was at the top of their game back then would barely make the team today. This is nonetheless a good read as a historical curiosity, and as a major element in the foundation of English literature.

  8. I have always enjoyed reading Chaucer. I just wish I could find better translations, since the original English can be a bit difficult to understand.

  9. When I enrolled into a class about Chaucer at university, I didn’t expect much of it but once I got into the stories and understood their character I liked it better with every story. It is something I cannot quite grasp that fascinates me about it. It is unique and I think only someone who has overcome the language barriers and fully committed to reading a medieval text can understand that.

  10. Chisholm

    Very nice analysis. I’ve never been a big Chaucer fan myself but that doesn’t mean I can’t understand him to be both an amazing poet and (where I feel he’s at his best) highly skilled at characterization.

  11. Canterbury Tales is ruly a masterpiece–not just of Brit Lit, but of Western Civ.

  12. Elahe Almasi

    thank you for such a good conclusion because I was going to say something about such a misogynistic article but at the end you have mentioned that January and John want marriage for wrong reasons. actually their own flaws eventuated to these kinds of marriages.

  13. The Miller’s Tale is my favorite!

  14. Cherish It

    I liked the stories, some better than others.

  15. Longoria

    I enjoyed the stories of the Knights in love, and the difficult challenge of the knight who had to choose between a beautiful lover by day and a hag by night, or vice versa.

  16. SearSinger

    Reading The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer from beginning to end is quite an exhilarating experience!

  17. danielle577

    You did a wonderful job of focusing on only 2 of the tales that embody the theme rampant throughout all of the tales. In doing so, you break down key themes without overwhelming the reader. Nicely done…I love Chaucer!

  18. Chaucer is a genius.

  19. Joleen Shumaker

    The Canterbury Tales are perhaps one of the greatest love-hate relationships known to high schoolers everywhere.

  20. The tales are quite modern despite their date of origin.

  21. Cantwell

    I can’t wait to reread The Canterbury Tales.

  22. I think you fall into a somewhat simplistic understanding of late Medieval gender roles, particularly in Chaucer. You say, “Women at the time are degraded and are made out to be only good for reproduction.” While women faced a pretty narrow range of social expectations, it’s not quite fair to imply that no other concept existed in the Medieval consciousness. Just look at the Wife of Bath. You also argue that women were expected to “listen to their husbands and pretty much allow them to do what they want without complaining.” The is the very idea rendered absurd by the Clerk in his narration, in which Griselda defies her husband precisely by doing everything he says. I mean to say that these things are pretty nuanced. Also, I think you could stand to distinguish between the characters’ expectations for women and those imposed by the fabliau genre. Don’t forget, the wives of John and January ARE hypersexual and instantly disloyal. Chaucer, for his part, is totally aware of the unfairness of these norms, and draws constant attention to them.

  23. SarahPhilip

    An interesting read. As TKing says the Wife of Bath is a good counter example. She has five husbands and the fifth is younger than her and harder to control.

  24. Joseph Cernik

    A good essay. An interesting way of looking at older guy/young girl weddings–and what was assumed about young wives.

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