The Luxury of Gender: Piers Plowman and The Merchant’s Tale
Chaucer composes the Merchant’s Tale as a response to the themes of gender and appropriate marriage partners rehearsed by L in B.9. Both poets condemn excessive sexual appetite as transgressive, though L attempts to distinguish between covetousness (sexual or otherwise) and the need of deprivation. In the Castle Caro passage, women are subsumed into categories of the socially helpless along with dependent men and children, suggesting that gender designates a “luxury,” a non-essential category of human being. In figuring Mede as female, the object and vehicle of both wealth and desire, L critiques the civil and ecclesiastical institutions where she circulates but where she lacks real power of her own. Similarly, as the object of January’s luxuria, May is consistently objectified and treated with the same indifference as Mede, who is animated only by those who use her. Wit’s critique of “unkynde” marriages is caricatured in the figure of January, who consistently misconceives and violates the ideal of “kyndely similitude” between men and women. The particular interest L shows in the A text for secular concerns such as marriage and family, as well as the use of more gender-inclusive terminology and exempla, suggests that women formed part of the intended audience for his earliest version of the poem.