Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 10402
  • Author(s)/Creator(s): Everest , Carol.
  • Contributor(s):
  • Title: Paradys or Helle: Pleasure and Procreation in Chaucer's "Merchant's Tale"
  • Source: Sovereign Lady: Essays on Women in Middle English Literature.  Edited by Muriel Whitaker.  Garland Publishing, 1995.  Pages 63 - 84.
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Essay
  • Subject (See Also): Chaucer, Geoffrey, Poet- Canterbury Tales- Merchant's Tale Literature- Verse Orgasm Pregnancy Semen, Female Sexuality
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 14
  • Related Resources: "Carol Everest's essay studies a fictional representation of an arranged marriage in Chaucer's "Merchant's Tale." "'Paradys or Helle': Pleasure and Procreation in Chaucer's 'Merchant's Tale'" focuses on a key question in the tale: is May pregnant before (or after) she meets Damian in the tree? The author asserts that, according to medieval medical authorities, this would have been impossible, for conception could occur only through the mingling of both male and female seed which were only emitted during orgasm. (64) The assumption is that May could not have had an orgasm because she took no pleasure in her husband's lovemaking. The text, however, is ambivalent concerning her receptivity and her response. We are told that January "labored until dawn" on their wedding night and that May, although she thought his "playing" not worth a bean, kept to her room for the next three days as was customary for new wives. The next passage that describes them in bed together is also ambivalent. The narrator states that he cannot tell "how he wrought" or whether she thought it paradise or hell. Everest cites an impressive array of medical and ecclesiastical authorities attesting to the two-seed theory. Dante, however, followed Aristotle in believing the active and formative principle to be contained in the male seed, the female being passive. In Canto XXV of PurgatorioStatius explains to Dante the process of human generation (ll. 43-51). The commentary of Charles S. Singleton, drawing upon Bruno Nardi, gives Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas as Dante's sources for the passage. The essay is informative and very useful, especially in its views on sexuality and generation. To conclude that May becomes pregnant after the tryst in the pear tree certainly provides an ironic ending to January's hope for an heir and is quite possible, but this can only be a tentative conclusion." From the review written by Elizabeth Walsh of "Sovereign Lady," "Medieval Review" (TMR ID: 96.12.11). [Reproduced by permission of the "Medieval Review."].
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  • Year of Publication: 1995.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: Not Available
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