The Shipman is a western man, perhaps hailing from Dartmouth (as Chaucer suggests in the “General Prologue”). He is a modest man, riding a cart horse, and wearing a wool cloth with a dagger around his neck. He is a “good felawe.” On his way to the pilgrimage had stolen a good deal of wine from a merchant in Bordeaux – his conscience is tainted. He is a bold and well-traveled mariner: “many a tempest hadde his berd been shake.” His ship is called the “Maudelayne.”
His tale is a bawdy story about a French merchant who is cuckolded by his friend, a monk named Don John. Whereas the “Pardoner’s Tale” labels greed as a cardinal sin, the Shipman sees a nuanced perspective. The merchant in the tale is obsessed with tallying his money and settling his debts, though surely this is no way for a just man to live. Justice and a happy marriage cannot simply be the mere paying and collecting of debts (an early definition offered of justice in Plato’s Republic Book I).
The form of the “Shipman’s Tale” takes its roots from the French comedy fabliau genre. The ridiculousness indicates to us that Chaucer has concealed something important – delineating lowly things from high-born things. The tale touches on other recurrent themes in the tales: the question of a happy marriage, or the satire of the clergy. However, on a much deeper level the idea of currency, debts, commerce, and exchange is at the heart of the story. Underlying the principle of exchange in the city is a certain degree of trust, credo, or fraternity. However, wealth is an inferior past-time when considered in contrast to honoring a marriage or a friendship. Unfortunately the merchant has chosen the path of riches, and he ends up being cuckolded.
The “Shipman’s Tale” tells the story of this unnamed merchant from Saint-Denis, the region located just north of Paris known for its abbey where nearly every French king was buried between the 10th and 18th centuries. It was also a cloth-making hub -perhaps the Shipman trades in cloth. At any rate, people consider the merchant wise and he has a beautiful wife who is fond of revelry and socializing -an unfortunate expense for the good merchant. The tale is told in the first-person tense: who is the true narrator of the “Shipman’s Tale?”
“Swiche salutaciouns and contenaunces
Such salutations and courtesies
Passen as dooth a shadwe upon the wal;
Pass away as does a shadow upon the wall” (8-9).
The merchant also has an intimate friend, a monk named Don John. One day, the merchant decides to take leave for business in Bruges (the Netherlands was the mercantile hub of Medieval Europe) and the monk travels to his home with malmsey wine and white wine and fowl, to celebrate with the merchant before he leaves. While the merchant is busy counting his money, the monk and the merchant’s beautiful wife confess their love for one another in the garden. The merchant’s wife is persuaded when Don John invokes Saint Martin of Tours, one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages.
The merchant’s wife complains about her husband’s miserliness, because everyone knows there are six things that women desire in a man (per the wife): hardy and wise, rich and generous, obedient unto his wife and fresh in bed. She says she will sleep with Don John if he pays her one hundred francs, and he promptly agrees. Just before the merchant’s departure for Flanders/Bruges, Don John asks the merchant to lend him one hundred francs, to which Don John also agrees.
The merchant’s wife trades sex for money, money which Don John borrows from the merchant, and when the merchant returns he goes to collect his debt from Don John, but Don John says he has already given the money to the merchant’s wife. The merchant returns home but the merchant’s wife says she has already spent the money and will offer him lewd favors instead as repayment of the debt. The tale closes with a crude play on the idea of “tallying.”
At the end of the tale, the Host exclaims that the story is ‘well said’ and he wishes well for the shipman while criticizing monks, like the monk in the tale. Next, he asks the Prioress to tell a tale.
For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. Here one may read a Middle English text that is closer to what Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst, actually wrote than in any other modern edition.