Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Shipman's Tale"


Fabliau, of the type most nearly represented by Le bouchier d'Abevile (Benson on reserve 282-311), but with similarities that have been suggested to indicate Chaucer's knowledge of three Italian fabliaux (RC 910).

Many excellent studies of the fabliau have been published because of the genre's relation to the modern short story, and because of its interesting problem of audience.   For a page listing studies of fabiaux in the Julia Rogers Library, click here.   This would be especially helpful for English 330 students planning papers or tale presentations, or for advanced English 211 student planning midterm or final papers.


Rhyming couplets.


The merchant of St. Denis ("Peter" l. 214), his wife, and the wiley monk, called "Daun John" (a generic name for friars).

Summary:  The merchant being called out of town, he summons his close friend, Daun John, to keep his wife company.  The merchant retires to his counting house to see if "he encressed were or noon," while his wife joins John in the Garden.  There, she tells John that her love life is a flop, so bad that she contemplates suicide.  John "confesses" her about the shortcomings of her marriage bed after assuring her that he calls her husband "cosyn" only as a sign of friendship so he could get to know her better.  Her condemnation of her husband's poor performance veers into the revelation that she has spent 100 francs on clothing to wear to Sunday Mass (c. 15 pounds sterling, "a considerable sum" RC 912).  She asks for a loan, offering "what pleasance and service / That I may doon, ryght as yow list devise" (VII.191-2).  He does and she does, but she doesn't know the 100 francs comes from her own husband, from whom the monk has borrowed the money, nor does she know the monk will tell her husband the monk has repaid the money to the wife, so now she "owes" him the money.  The wife, confronted, says she thought the 100 francs was for her clothes and offers to "paye [him] abedde" (VII.242).  Several puns on "taile" (tally and tale, i.e., butt) and "taillynge" (tallying) offer a final restatement of the tale's ongoing "sex = cash" theme, referring in passing to "tally sticks," the medieval bookkeeping tool.

Interpretive Issues:

1)  The most obvious and transforming possibility about this tale is that it may have originally been told by the Wife of Bath.  Several internal details suggest concerns reflected in the extant WoBPrologue, including a "first draft" of what women most desire (VII.174-7), an emphasis on the venality of religous orders (compare WoBT, III.864-81), a woman with a "ready answer" when faced with revelation of a sexual betrayal (VII.400-26), a woman who takes advantage of "The sely housbonde" who must pay for "oure" clothing and entertainment (VII.11-19), and a woman with a carnal appetite that matches that reflected in her own prologue.  How would her character be transformed by having her tell this tale (esp. with its definition of "what women most desire") and how does the Shipman as a teller affect this tale (esp. see GP, I.396-7)?  (Note, especially, how weird it would sound if the Shipman spoke the first 19 lines, though one critic has suggested the Shipman might be imitating a woman's voice [RC 910].)

2)   The monk's character bears a considerable resemblance to the pilgrim Monk (GP, I.165-207).  How many of this monk's attributes would fit a nobleman better than a man sworn to poverty, chastity, and obedience to God's will?

3)  The merchant's obsession with his counting house suggests that when goes there "To rekene with hymself" he may well be measuring something other than his earnings.  For instance, when his wife calls him down to dinner with Daun John, he begs off, saying that "the curious bisynesse that [merchants] have" is more important to him (VII.225).  His wife exclaims "Ye have ynough, pardee, of Goddes sonde" (VII.219).  Later, when the merchant's profitable "business" trip has made a profit of 1000 francs, his impetuous all-night love-making makes his wife cry "Namoore . . . by God, ye have ynough!" (VII.380).  How much is his libido tied up in his finances, and what effect does that have on the tale's (both senses!) economy of exchange?  How might a medieval audience understood the merchant's problem in terms of "caritas vs. cupiditas"?

4)  The "garden scene" (VII.89 ff.) evokes another famous Garden for most medieval readers, but this interview runs somewhat differently from the one held by God after Adam and Eve's fall.  To what degree does the wife's "confession" require the monk to take unusual measures, and at what point, exactly, does he cross the line between ministering to the flock and fleecing them?

5)  Parallel to the merchant's counting house mentality, the wife and merchant share a usage of "oure privetee" that we have seen earlier in the "Miller's Prologue" and "Reeve's Tale."  How does the concept of a married couple's "privetee" differ from "Goddes pryvetee"?  What are the secrets, and how does this tale make use of them?

6)  The wife tells the monk that women "naturelly / Diseren thynges sixe" (VII.173-4).  What are they, and how do they relate to the "Wife of Bath's Tale"'s version of women's desire?   Could this be read as a sign of increasing sophistication in Chaucer's thinking about the marriage group, or is it changed due to some other factor?

7)  The merchant's farewell makes his wife the steward of his house, and he establishes his feudal relationship with her in very specific terms that might be contrasted with the terms of noble homage. 

8)  When the monk takes advantage of this moment to acquire the 100 francs from the merchant to give to his wife, the Shipman uses some loaded language to name him "This noble marchant" and says he answered the monk "gentilly"(VII.281).  How does that contrast with the merchant's following statement that merchants' "money is hir plogh. / We may creaunce whil we have a name, / But goldlees for to be, it is no game" (VII.288-90).   What "field" does the merchant's money "plow," and what profit will the monk derive from it?  How might the deception being practiced here be related to the "name" of the characters involved?  (There may be a pun in "goldlees" vs. "godlees," but I don't want to go there.)

9)  The wife's and monk's night of "bisy lyf" completes the first stage of the tale's "market economy" view of sex and marriage.  How has the merchant's money circulated, and by what means will it come home again?  Note that they are said to have an "acord parfourned . . . in dede" (VII.312).  What's the "dede to franc" conversion rate?

10)  The merchant's profit is 1000 francs, and the monk manages to turn 100 francs of that to his own use.  Look up "tithe" in the dictionary.  How does this set of transactions benefit the church, and what does the Shipman probably mean by it?

11)  How does the wife's method of payment relate to the exchange arranged by the monk, and what's wrong with making the same arrangement with her husband?  Who "wins" more in this tale, the Monk, Merchant, or Wife?  By what means are we to measure "winning"?

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