The Carnal Letter
in Chaucer's Earthly Paradise
The woman, hearing in the external way the serpent's
suggestion, failed to read the internal book that was open
and quite legible.... She kept her mind on the external
book instead.... [The man], too, turned to the
external book and to perishable good.
DURING THE LATER Middle Ages, lay poets continued the originally monastic project of dramatizing the Fall as a scenario for language, while raising questions that eventually sundered the earlier medieval synthesis of doctrine and poetry—questions about the function of signs, the ambiguities of writing as a fallen medium, and the ultimate end of the book.These and other problems of language and the Fall are richly figured by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Merchant's Tale, a fairly late addition to the poet's Canterbury cycle.The tale satirizes Augustine's garden by treating the Fall as a fabliau and by combining the typology of Genesis 3 with an ancient comic narrative, the pear tree story.In this comedy of eros, a squire (Damyan) uses secret signs and letters to seduce the young, newlywed wife (May) of his master, an old and sensual knight (January). Their literary foreplay culminates when the lovers literally fornicate in a pear tree in the old knight's pleasure garden, an act that dramatizes Augustine's glosses on the Fall as an abuse of writing, speech, and signs in general.As recounted by the cynical Merchant, a very unreliable narrator, the tale offers a dark vision of fallen society, marriage, and language alike.But the Merchant does not have the last word, and his tale variously resists his own dire interpretation, as