The Principle of Exchange in The Shipman’s Tale

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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).

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A 19th century sketch of the basilica at Saint-Denis

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. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

From Russia With Love

From Russia With Love (1963) Director: Terence Young

The upper centre of the poster reads "Meet James Bond, secret agent 007. His new incredible women ... His new incredible enemies ... His new incredible adventures ..." To the right is Bond holding a gun, to the left a montage of women, fights, and an explosion. On the bottom of the poster are the credits.

★★★★☆

The second James Bond film was again directed by Terence Young (he was the director of several early Bond films). After the tremendous success of 1962’s Dr. No, United Artists quickly pushed for a sequel to be released by Eon, and the film was rushed to completion by October 1963. Ian Fleming’s novel of the same name was his fifth Bond novel, actually preceding the novel for Dr. No (and fleming thought it might be his last at the time). He wrote it at his “Goldeneye” estate in Jamaica. His typical writing pattern was to write for three hours in the morning, and then again for an hour in the evening. He never looked back at what he wrote or did much editing prior to finishing the book, and that way he could write about 2,000 words per day. It was only after the book was complete that he went back and edited the text. The novel was published in 1957. President John F. Kennedy once named From Russia With Love in his top ten of all time (as published in Life magazine) which was a top inspiration for creating the film. It was also the last film President Kennedy saw at the White House before he left for Dallas and was then tragically assassinated.

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The story for From Russia With Love is a Cold War classic. The film opens at a vast estate – Bond is on the run through a hedge maze until he is attacked and caught by “Red Grant” (played by Robert Shaw, famous for his portrayal of Henry VIII in A Man For All Seasons and Quint, the old shark-hunter in Jaws). “Red Grant” is a ruthless assassin employed by the criminal organization known as SPECTRE (called “SMERSH” in the novels). The training grounds for SPECTRE in the film were inspired by the set of Spartacus. The lights come up and we learn this is merely a drill, with a man in a mask pretending to be Bond in a training exercise. A global chess master and top leader at SPECTRE (named Kronsteen but called “Number 5”) has devised a plan to steal a Lektor (the machine was ironically called “spekter” in the novel), a cryptographic machine, from the Soviets and sell it back to them while luring Bond and taking revenge on him and MI6 for killing their agent from the previous film, Dr. No. The Chief Executive of SPECTRE (“Number 1” who we later learn is the infamous Ernst Blofeld) devises an espionage plot to be carried out by the sadistic “Number 3” or Rosa Klebb, a former Soviet military leader. Klebb then hires the assassin “Red Grant” (from the outset) to tail Bond and then kill him after retrieving the Lektor device, and she also hires a Soviet clerk from Istanbul named Tatiana Romanava, played by Italian actress, Daniela Bianchi, most famous for this role and whose accent was so thick it required over-dubbing throughout the entire film. Back in London, M informs Bond that Romanava has defected to Great Britain but will only defect directly to Bond. He senses a trap, but he travels to Istanbul anyway. A wild attack scene ensues with the Bulgarians (Bond is saved by a secret sniper shot from Grant) and then Bond and Romanava begin an affair (in which she rapidly falls for him). Bond tails Romanava to the Hagia Sophia and (thanks to Grant killing the Bulgarian operative so that Bond would receive secret plans) Bond takes the secretive consulate plans. In a great train scene, Bond and Romanava escape aboard the Orient Express with the Lektor they have stolen. In a surprise to Bond, the assassin Grant (now undercover on the train) drugs Romanava at dinner and then overpowers Bond in a great hand-to-hand combat scene. Grant explains that the whole plot was not a Soviet plot, but rather the plan of SPECTRE. In a somewhat silly and unbelievable move, Bond tricks Grant to open his suitcase which he has booby-trapped. Bond stabs and strangles Grant, and then escapes with a barely-conscious Romanava into the getaway car that was supposed to be for Grant.

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Back at SPECTRE, “Number 1” (or Blofield) confronts Klebb and Kronsteen for their terrible failure. Kronsteen is surprisingly executed on the spot with a poison-tipped switchblade hidden in a shoe. Klebb is offered one last chance to redeem herself and recapture the Lektor. Meanwhile, Bond and Romanava are escaping via Grant’s planned escape route. They destroy a helicopter and commandeer a boat off the coast of Croatia and destroy several SPECTRE boats in a dramatic boat chase scene. Bond and Romanava reach a hotel room in Venice, but Klebb suddenly appears disguised as a hotel maid. She tries to steal the Lektor but, still believing Romanava is working with her and the Soviets, Romanava betrays Klebb by shooting her. Bond and Romanava float away on a romantic gondola, as Bond tosses the intended blackmail film from Grant into the canal.

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The film is notably the first to officially feature Desmond Llewelyn as Q, a role he would reprise for 30+ years in every future Bond film (save for two) until his death at the time of The World Is Not Enough in 1999. From Russia With Love was the second of seven Bond films to star Sean Connery, the greatest of all the James Bond actors. The same actor who played the mischievous R.J. Dent from Dr. No also plays the infamous “Number 1” in From Russia With Love. Rumors abound regarding a secret cameo of Ian Fleming in the film appearing outside the train in a grey sweater, as he once visited the set and saw the Orient Express. The theory has never been confirmed nor denied. Apparently, Alfred Hitchcock was originally considered to direct the film, but after Vertigo tanked at the box office, they looked elsewhere for director -imagine that! There is an amusing underground fan theory that Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Bond is actually “Red Grant” reborn (based on their similar appearances).

The plot is difficult to track at times with the competing narratives of MI6, the Soviets, and all the double-crossing between them and the secret organization known as SPECTRE. However, From Russia With Love is a wild and entertaining Bond film, one of the best of all time. In the film, we only see the back-side of “Number 1” or Blofield as we learn in later films, the infamous, cat-petting Bond villain and executive of SPECTRE who is satirized as Dr. Evil in Mike Myers’s Austin Powers series. Critically, From Russia With Love is often considered the best, or at least one of the best Bond films of all time, along with Goldfinger and Dr. No. It is rumored to be Sean Connery’s favorite Bond film, and it was the last Bond film released while Ian Fleming was still alive.