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The motif of the woman as a healer and/or cure (as a nurse, interceding saint, or beloved lady) occurs across medieval literary genres from romance to hagiography. This article explores the ways in which the character of May in Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale reflects and parodies the figure of the female healer. The first section explores the healing women of romance and hagiographic traditions, as well as the frameworks of magic and saintly intervention which underpin them. The second section applies a framework of disability studies to the enfeebled body of May’s husband January, and his attempts to reconstitute his chivalric masculinity through his marriage to a young wife, the use of medicines and aphrodisiacs, and finally attempting to recreate paradise in an enclosed pleasure garden. The failure of all of these strategies identifies January as a subject in need of supernatural healing. The third section addresses May through the romance framework of the “leche,” the beloved woman of romance whose healing powers combine magic and medical knowledge, in this case seen through May’s “healing” of her lover Damien. The fourth and final section reframes the finale of The Merchant’s Tale, in which May “cures” January of his blindness by fornicating with Damien in the aged knight’s pleasure garden, as an act of intercessory healing, parallel to that practiced by the female saints of the hagiographic tradition.


Chaucer, fabliaux, healing, leche, masculinity, medicine, The Merchant’s Tale