The Deliberate Ambiguity of Chaucer’s Anxious Merchants

  • Roger A. Ladd
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Geoffrey Chaucer’s General Prologue Merchant reveals only indirectly the conflict between the residual antimercantile ideology developed in early response to an increasingly complex money economy, and the more conciliatory ideology emerging by Chaucer’s time.1 Indeed, this chapter will be in part an exploration of the Chaucerian critical tradition, as the poet himself avoids unequivocal adherence to either ideology, and generally refuses to be pinned down on his attitudes toward his birth-estate. His merchants do incorporate elements of the antimercantile ideology of his estates satire and penitential sources, but Chaucerian merchants also reflect the mercantile estate’s own responses to fears and expectations of damnation. This adaptation of both pro- and antimercan-tile traditions in Chaucer’s merchants suggests that the critical tradition of Chaucerian merchants has been so confused because Chaucer himself subtly negotiates between pro- and antimercantile treatments of merchants, thus supporting both readings. His deliberate ambiguity concerning merchants, though by no means central to the overall movement of the Canterbury Tales, does provide some insight into Chaucer’s much more central concern with the efficacy of satire, because he ultimately uses satiric material to charge merchants with discursive inadequacy. I focus initially on the site of the critical battleground of the General Prologue’s, description of the Merchant, and will then briefly follow the trajectory of Chaucer’s adaptation of antimercantile satire in the Tales, where Chaucer carefully structures his ambivalence toward merchants as a subtle criticism of their relations with texts.


English Reader Negative Reading Medieval Literature Canterbury Tale English Merchant 
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© Roger A. Ladd 2010

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