Throughout the history of Western civilization, the idea of a very old man marrying a very young girl, usually 18 or younger, has been a constant source of comedy and the subject of many comic masterpieces. Most often these stories deal with the clever and manipulative ways in which the young wife is able to deceive her old husband. Even today, this situation has not changed, and in all cases, the audience is delighted by the manner and methods used to bring about this deception.
The basic assumption of this type of story or fabliau is that, if an old man is fool enough to marry someone much younger, the old fool deserves to be fooled. (A fabliau is a story, most often in verse, which has rather bourgeois characters involved in an often obscene plot narrated rather realistically.) Another characteristic of this standard plot is that the old husband is domineering and jealous and often locks up his young bride or keeps her under such close scrutiny that there is no chance of being deceived. Therefore, the delight of this type of story lies in the clever methods the wife uses to deceive the husband or, in some cases, the "poetic" justice involved in having a domineering husband brought to his knees.
The seducer is always much younger than the husband, much better looking, and always more sexually virile. The position of the seducer can vary widely: a boarder in the old man's house, a person of the village, or, in some cases, a stranger passing through (as in the more modern traveling salesman jokes).
The Miller's Tale
While Chaucer told many tales that fit into the category of the fabliau, The Miller's Tale fits the concept perfectly and is generally considered the best told fabliau in any language. Here we have the old carpenter, John, married to the young wife, Alison, whom he keeps very tight reins on. But he is foolish; he allows a virile young student, Nicholas, to live in a room in his house, wrongly assuming that nothing can happen because he does his carpentry at home and has his young wife under constant surveillance. Although Alison acts surprised and angry when Nicholas initially grabs her, the two are attracted to each other. At first, this attraction is only physical, yet a stronger bond develops as they contrive a most intricate and elaborate plot to get the carpenter out of the house so that they can have sex.
The comedy lies in the intricacy of the plot, which is complicated by the interference of another admirer, Absalon. As with all fabliaux, the obscenity involves how Nicholas and Alison play an obscene trick on the unsuspecting, delicate young man and force him to commit an obscene act — kissing her arse — that is especially repugnant to him. Absalon's retaliation, sticking a hot poker up Nicholas' arse, brings about the denouement of the story in a marvelous bit of madness.
Part of the charm of The Miller's Tale is that each of the males gets what he deserves. John the Carpenter, for having married a young lass and keeping her so confined, is awarded for his stupidity and pride by becoming even more of a laughing stock than he was before. The scheming young scholar, Nicholas, is left with a severely burned "arse," and the persnickety church clerk, Absalon is left with a foul taste in his mouth. Only the young bride, Alison, is left untouched by the events.
The Merchant's Tale
The Merchant's Tale presents another view of the old man and his very young bride. This tale gives to the Western world the name that characterizes this type of union. January is a very old man who has married a lovely young lass named May: Today a January-May union simply means an old man married to a woman much younger than himself. In The Merchant's Tale, the cuckolding of the old man by his young bride and her young lover differs from The Miller's Tale in that there is a significance difference in the social class. January is no obscene carpenter whose gullibility is credible because he is not of the class associated with the intellect. Instead, in The Merchant's Tale, we have a knight who has been involved in many trysts and who should be experienced in dealing with such matters. And while the trick played on the carpenters by Alison and Nicholas is far more complicated and imaginative, the trick played on the old doddering January was found in popular tales of the time and is commonly referred to as the "Pear-Tree episode."
While old January was able to perform successfully on his wedding night, he has seemingly spent himself entirely and cannot satisfy his young wife anymore, or at least, not often enough. Thus, as in all stories of this type, our sympathy lies with the young bride. The reader, early in the story, assumes that, because the older man has trouble coping with his young wife in bed, he will be cuckolded by a younger, handsomer, more virile young man. The suspense lies only in when the young man will show up and how the tryst will be arranged. As with The Miller's Tale, where the choice of the names is important, here the choice of names support the Merchant's point-of-view. "January" (old with white hair like snow) marries May (young and as beautiful as the unpacked spring flowers).
Chaucer has given us excellent character sketches in January and May. Now in his dotage, having expended his youth on wild exploitation of young females, and wanting male heirs to inherit his title and lands, January bargains for more than he is capable of. And thus, young May is left in difficult situation. Ultimately then, like Alison, May's predicament is not of her own making, and it is not her faithlessness that concerns the audience, but her clever intrigue and her supreme audacity when she is caught. Thus The Miller's Tale and The Merchant's Tale share another commonality: Old John in The Miller's Tale is cuckolded in his own home while foolishly believing that a new Noah's flood is descending on the world, and old January's cuckolding takes place in his secret and private garden — a foolish sort of Eden or a fool's paradise. Both tales share a sense of high comedy and not immorality.