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Chaucer's Merchant's Tale, one of several Canterbury Tales containing a woman beloved of two men, is generally thought to be one of the poet's harshest stories.(1) Certainly contributing to the tale's cruel overall tone is the gap in age between the lascivious old husband, January, and his young, frolicsome bride, May; her joyful fornicating in a pear tree with her young lover, Damian, literally over her blind husband's head; and her brazen, ironic reply, at the story's end, that what the husband, whose vision is miraculously restored, sees was meant to cure his blindness! In that famous conclusion that makes the so-called pear tree episode such a tour de force, a number of things have led to speculation about whether or not May is pregnant, most notably May's expressed longing to eat the green pears because, she insinuates, women in her condition crave such fruit, and January's intimately placing his hand upon her womb after her descent from the branches of the pear tree where she has received Damian's sexual embrace.
Milton Miller, Emerson Brown, and Peter Beidler have all contributed to the speculation and M. Teresa Tavormina is doubtless correct when she states, "The delicate question of whether May has conceived by Damian or not appears to be irresolvable."(2) It is, nonetheless, tempting to enter the dialogue on this point, for quite neglected or unnoticed in the scholarly discussion is the fact that among the substances traditionally used by early doctors to prevent conception was the pear. There may, therefore, be hitherto unappreciated irony in May's longing to eat pear right before her ascent into the branches of the pear tree and the arms of her lover waiting there for their illicit sexual frolic. There is 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. January has evidently learned about the concoctions for potency in Constantine the African's De Coitu. Before the wedding night,
He drynketh ypocras, clarree, and vernage Of spices hoote, t'encreessen his corage; And many a letuarie hath he ful fyn, Swiche as the cursed monk, daun Constantyn, Hath writen in his book De Coitu; To eten hem alle he nas no thyng eschu.
Having presumably decided to turn away from the amorous courts of love of his youth, old January now subscribes to the orthodox view of "the cause why / Men sholde wedde" (ll. 1441-42):
If he ne may nat lyven chaast his lyf, Take hym a wyf with greet devocioun, By cause of leveful procreacioun Of children to th'onour of God above, And not oonly for paramour or love.
He insists on marrying a young woman, "nat passe twenty yeer, certayn" (l. 1417), rather than someone his own age, so that his marriage may include the possibility of children. The desire for offspring, however, clearly has nothing to do with May's rendezvous with Damian in the pear tree. Indeed, Chaucer's placing the adulterous lovers in a pear tree is not unique in medieval literature. There is something of a tradition behind the literary use of the pear tree to define an adulterous relationship, and the motif is found not only in the many Continental analogues of Chaucer's tale but in less closely related oriental sources as well. The context for the pear tree episode as a whole can be briefly sketched before exploring evidence for the contraceptive properties of the pear.
Among the analogues for Chaucer's pear tree scene are a late-thirteenth century or early-fourteenth century Italian novellino of the blind husband/fruit tree type and tales (of the "Optical Deception" category) such as the Comoedia Lydiae and Decamerone VII, 9.(4) In the light of the possibility that Chaucer was utilizing the contraceptive properties of the pear in his tale, it is interesting that one scholar has seen a medical thread connecting Chaucer's tale and Boccaccio's. Peter Beidler states, "It is possible that Chaucer may have taken the suggestion for May's pretending to be a doctor from Boccaccio's Lidia."(5) He reminds us that not only does May claim "to heele" (l. 2372) his blindness and refer to "my medicyne" (l. 2380), but she also presents herself as particularly learned about blindness:
Right so a man that longe hath blynd ybe, Ne may nat sodeynly so wel yse, First whan his sighte is newe come ageyn, As he that hath a day or two yseyn. Til that youre sighte ysatled be a while There may ful many a sighte yow bigile. (ll.2401-6)(6)
Boccaccio, who has written an even crueler story than Chaucer, depicts Lidia as performing dental extraction on …