The Principle of Exchange in The Shipman’s Tale

The_Shipman_-_Ellesmere_Chaucer

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 he had stolen a good deal of wine from a merchant in Bordeaux, this 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 (recall the early definition of justice in Plato’s Republic).

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).

Saint_Denis_Félix_Benoist_1844_1845
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.

The Story of French Impressionism, Part VII: Edgar Degas

Edgar Degas (1834-1917) (pronounced “day-dahs” but in later life he changed the pronunciation to “day-gah”) never wished to be called an “Impressionist” instead preferring to be called a “Realist.” In his paintings he was obsessed with motion, particularly of dancers, which occupied nearly half of his works.

Degas was raised in an upper middles-class family. He studied art from a young age, and was classically educated, though his father wanted him to study law. He started as a copyist and history painter, where he met Édouard Manet, until the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 which paused the momentum of the Parisian arts community. He enlisted in the National Guard.

After the war he visited family in New Orleans, Louisiana, but soon returned to France upon the death of his father. Degas’s brother had accumulated significant business debts, so Degas sold his inherited art collection to pay off his brother’s debt. For the first time in his life, Degas’s financial security was dependent upon the sale of his artwork.

During the 1870s, he joined up with the young Impressionist movement in rejection of the Salon, but he found himself in constant conflict with other Impressionists about the exclusiveness of the group. Degas had always wanted to include other non-Impressionist painters in the revolution. He also despised their rapid and unfinished style. Degas took careful time, working for extended periods of time, and he took a more classical approach to his works.

Edgar Degas - The Bellelli Family - Google Art Project.jpgThe Bellelli Family (1858-1867) -a massive and early masterpiece by Degas. It is a portrait of his aunt, uncle, and two young cousins. Like in Velázquez’s Las Meninas, Degas employs odd framing techniques. One of his cousins stares directly out of the painting at the viewer, while the two parents appear divided. Emotional and physical distance between the sexes is a theme Degas explores in many of his works. The portrait hanging on the back wall is of Degas’s recently deceased grandfather, while the family dog appears in the lower corner of the frame.

Interior (1869) - Edgar Degas
-Sometimes called “The Rape” it is one of Degas’s most dramatic and mysterious paintings.

Musicians in the Orchestra (1872)

The Dance Class (1873-1876) -it depicts his friend Jules Perrot and his ballet dance class. Unlike other Impressionists who were focused on landscape “en plein-eir” artworks, Degas moved inward, focusing on particular subjects indoors.


Rehearsal on Stage (1874) – note: Degas had an extreme sensitivity to light in eyes.

L’Absinthe (1876)

Dancer with a Bouquet of Flowers (Star of the Ballet) (1878)

Stage Rehearsal (1878–1879)

As time went on, Degas became increasingly isolated, focusing on his painting, sculpture, and photography. He started going blind and lived like a recluse. He had a fiery personality with strong opinions, and he was friends with Mary Cassatt, another strong personality, for many years, but they eventually had a falling out over his antisemitism with regard to the Dreyfus-Affair. He believed an artist should live alone. He never married. He died alone at age 83.


Self-Portrait (1895)

Treason in the Acharnians

Aristophanes’s Archanians is his third comedy, and his earliest surviving play that has come down to us from antiquity. It won first prize at the Lenaia in 425BC, under the production of Callistratus, as Aristophanes was a young dramatist at the time.

Like The Clouds, The Acharnians begins with a lone soliloquy. A rustic arrives very early at the Pnyx (the hill for the Athenian assembly). He is Dikaiopolis, whose name means something like “the just citizen” a rustic who has been compelled by the war to live within the gates of Athens (recall Thucydides’s descriptions of the constant attacks by the Peloponnesians and the Boetians on the rural demes of Athens, forcing the farmers to dwell within the city gates). Dikaiopolis is determined to discuss nothing but peace at the assembly of Athens, for he is a Music man, that is, a lover of the Muses, and he wishes to end the war so he can return to his rural deme because the city of Athens has brought him only four pleasures, but brought innumerable pains. Finally everyone arrives for the assembly.

At the assembly, Amphitheros, an immortal who speaks for the gods, wants to bring about peace with Sparta, but the assembly quickly brushes him aside for a series of absurd alliances: first the ambassadors to Persia return and describe large, luxurious events in Persia, alienating themselves from the daily life of war in Athens. Thus, Dikaiopolis arranges for Amphitheos to go to Sparta to make peace just for himself, since Athens (the city) is too addicted to war. Then ambassadors from Thrace arrive with similar objectives for paying mercenaries. Athens has made alliances with barbarians.

When the assembly is barely dissolved, Amphitheos arrives in return, but he is chased by a wild group of Archanians, rural farmers who are demanding revenge against Sparta for their destruction. They do not want peace to be made in the war. They mistake Dikaiopolis for Amphitheos, and Amphitheos is never heard from again in the play.

The Acharnians is a light comedy about the heavy issue of treason. The Acharnian men, old Marathon fighters whose property has been destroyed by the war, demand Dikaiopolis’s execution, but he persuades them that he has hostages, and he points to the higher justice beyond the city’s blind patriotism. Thus he must disguise himself not in the form of a strong, emblazoned fighter, but rather as a pitiable character to arouse the Acharnians compassion. He goes to the home of Euripides, who will have to suffice in the absence of Aeschylus, and he dons the outfit of a beggar. Much of the play, in general, reads like a parody of a Euripides tragedy. While tragedy must not mingle with comedy, Comedy can and sometimes must borrow from tragedy. Just as Dikaiopolis disguises himself knowingly, and the audience knows that he becomes Aristophanes, comedy becomes the most effective disguise for wisdom.

He goes before the crowd and blames the abduction of “three whores” kidnapped by Megarians for the war. Thus he draws a distinction between this war and the Persian War, which was fought over noble origins. He succeeds in convincing half of the Acharnian mob and thus the war for them becomes internal, civil, and Dikaiopolis is freed. He goes on to a feast and a drinking party as his life is safe for now. He has escaped treason by wearing the disguise of tragedy in a comedy play -of discussing serious things in ridiculous rags. In many ways, the Acharnians is Aristophanes’s apologia to the city for Cleons recent lawsuits against Aristophanes for defamation in his earlier plays mocking Cleon, and it is Aristophanes’s defense of comedy.


For this reading I used the Loeb Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.

The Harsh But Forgiving Prairie in O Pioneers!

I recently detoured from reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels to venture into the harsh but pleasantly forgiving fields of Willa Cather’s prairie pioneers.

Bierstadt_Albert_Nebraska_Wasatch_Mountains
“Wasatch Mountains and Great Plains in distance, Nebraska” by Albert Bierstadt in 1877

When Willa Cather was thirty-nine years old she wrote her first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, which was published as a serial collection in McClure’s Magazine in 1912. It was a tragic story about a bridge failing in Canada, while a group of oblivious oligarchs drank tea and engaged in various affairs with one another. The novel was ultimately a dud, and Cather knew it from the moment it was published. Like other writers of the day, she had tried to copy the style of Henry James or Edith Wharton by writing about refined people in London and New York, while her heart remained on the Nebraska prairie. After the book was published, she went on a trip through the American desert to gather herself. Shortly thereafter she took heed of the great maxim: “write about about what you know” and she quickly produced her second, and far superior novel: O Pioneers!

The novel is an extraordinarily beautiful, yet heart-wrenchingly tragic romance of a lone woman and her family as they make their livelihood on the remote Nebraska prairie. Many of the characters are based on Willa Cather’s friends and neighbors from her time growing up in Nebraska. Cather’s poetry of the golden rolling fields has no analog in the pantheon of great American literature, and the novel reads like a series of memories from Willa Cather’s personal life. It is told in five parts: Part I: “The Wild Land” Part II: “Neighboring Fields” Part III: “Winter Memories” Part IV: “The White Mulberry Tree” and Part V: “Alexandra”.


The novel opens with a young but confident Alexandra Bergson, and her crying little brother Emil, who go to town in Hanover, Nebraska (a fictional town). They are Swedish immigrants (“Bohemians”) making a westward living for themselves under the Homestead Act. While in town, Emil’s cat crawls away, and gets stuck up a telegraph pole, only to be rescued by Alexandra’s paramour, Carl Linstrum (foreshadowing future events in the novel). Meanwhile, Emil plays with Marie Tovesky in the general store. The Bergson father, the family patriarch, is at home dying in bed. He has bequeathed management of their family farm to Alexandra, and he has asked his two other sons, Lou and Oscar, to work the fields, steward of their land, and honor Alexandra’s business-minded leadership .

We are introduced to Ivar, a quirky but devout man who lives on his own acreage. He is an outsider who lives in harmony with his land. He never wears shoes, he sleeps in a hammock, and he does not believe in harming any living creature whatsoever. As a harsh winter comes and John Bergson dies, many neighbors begin selling off their Nebraska farms, including the Linstrums, and thus Carl leaves. Alexandra decides to keep her family’s farm while buying up the adjacent properties, against her brothers’s wishes. Ivar comes to live with Alexandra as his farm goes under.

Then, in Part II, it is sixteen years later. Emil comes home from college to find the farm prospering but his young love interest has been married in a hurry to a foreigner, Frank Shabata. She is now Marie Shabata. Also Carl Linstrum unexpectedly arrives after being away for thirteen years and stays with the Bergsons. This causes a rift between Alexandra’s brothers who worry that Carl is trying to steal the heart of their sister, and therefore their property and their childrens’ inheritance, as well. Carl sees the political reality and he leaves for a new business venture in Alaska. Alexandra’s brothers also leave and they never speak to her again. Then Emil, deeply troubled by Marie’s marriage, also leaves for Mexico. Alexandra is left alone and sorrowful on the prairie again. She befriends Marie Shabata, runs her farm, and goes to church, while drawing inward, hoping for a savior but unwilling to leave her farm.

Finally, Emil returns from Mexico with wild stories, and all the women of the church are fascinated with Emil. The church kids play a game where they turn out the lights and kiss in the dark, Emil kisses Marie for the first time. They awkwardly confess their love but Marie says it can never happen because of her loveless marriage to the drunkard, Frank Shabata. Emil then decides to leave for Michigan for law school, but one of his friends dies and the town holds a funeral. Emil goes to Marie one last time and finds her in the Shabata orchard alone. He crawls up to her and they embrace until Frank Shabata, drunk, comes home to find Emil’s horse at his house. He goes out to the orchard and before he can realize what he has done, he kills both Emil and his wife Marie in a rage. He then flees to Omaha before he can be caught and tried in court.


Let us pause for a moment and consider the masterful way in which Willa Cather explains this scene and its palpable tension:

“When Frank Shabata got home that night, he found Emil’s mare in his stable…Since noon he had been drinking too much, and he was in a bad temper…He went into his bedroom and took his murderous 405 Winchester from the closet. When Frank took up his gun and walked out of the house, he had not the faintest purpose of doing anything with it… Frank went slowly to the orchard gate… In the warm breathless night air he heard a murmuring sound, perfectly inarticulate, as low as the sound of water coming from a spring, where there is no fall, and where there are no stones to fret it… Resting the butt of his gun on the ground, he parted mulberry leaves softly with his fingers and peered through the hedge at the dark figures on the grass, in the shadow of the mulberry tree… He began to act, just as a man who falls into the fire begins to act. The gun sprang to his shoulder, he sighted mechanically and fired three times without stopping, stopped without knowing why…He peered again through the hedge, at the two dark figures under the tree. They had fallen a little apart from each other, and were perfectly still – No, not quite; in a white patch of light, where the moon shone through the branches, a man’s hand was plucking spasmodically at the grass. Suddenly the woman stirred and uttered a cry, then another, and another…She was dragging herself toward the hedge! Frank dropped his gun and ran back along the path, shaking, stumbling, gasping. He had never imagined such a horror” (Part IV: “The White Mulberry Tree”, Chapter VII, pp.144-145).

Distraught, Alexandra travels to Omaha to visit Frank, now imprisoned, with the hope of reconciliation. She quietly returns to her family farm without her lover, her son, or her brothers. Far away, Carl gets word and he returns to Nebraska one final time for Alexandra. When he arrives, Carl and Alexandra embrace. They decide to get married and remain together on the Bergson farm in Nebraska.


Thoughts on the Novel
Part of the national myth of the United States is the celebration of the rugged pioneer, the westward cowboy, the rural “self-reliant” individual. In O Pioneers! Willa Cather continues this due celebration, with a nuanced exploration of the Bohemian prairie. Remotely, out on the harsh but beckoning “Divide,” no one can escape the demands of the civilized world. Concerns of inheritance, education, stability, and family still remain as they would in the city. On Willa Cather’s prairie, she accepts Aristotle’s claim that ‘man is a political animal’ as in the case of Alexandra and her complicated web of alliances, balancing her resentful brothers with her own love for Carl Linstrum; or also in the case of Emil who is torn between his love for Marie and the political reality of her marriage to Frank Shabata. Though people come and go from Hanover, Nebraska, some never vanish. Some remain anchored to the land.

In the novel, the land plays an important character, informing the decisions of the characters who dwell upon it. The climate and the hills of Nebraska are personified -the harsh winters bring death and loneliness for Alexandra, while the golden summers bring fond memories of love and friendship. The seasons are important to the pioneers. They are a complex group of adventurers and traditional farmers.

Today, O Pioneers! is considered the first book in Willa Cather’s “Great Plains” trilogy, followed by the Song of the Lark (1915), which takes place largely away from the great plains, and My Ántonia (1918), which is her most celebrated novel of the heartland.


Here are some of my favorite passages from the novel -a series of impressions of life on the prairie:

“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away…The dwelling houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight for the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them” (Opening lines of the novel).

“‘Isn’t it queer: there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before; like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over for thousands of years'” (Part II: “Neighboring Fields”, Chapter IV, pp.67 -Carl speaking to Alexandra after he has returned to the Bergson farm).

“Winter has settled down over the Divide again; the season in which Nature recuperates, in which she sinks to sleep between the fruitfulness of autumn and the passion of spring. The birds have gone. The teeming life that goes on down in the long grass is exterminated. The prairie-dog keeps his hole. The rabbits run shivering from one frozen garden patch to another and are hard put to it to find frost-bitten cabbage stalks. At night the coyotes roam the wintry waste, howling for food. The variegated fields are all one color now; the pastures, the stubble, the roads, the sky are the same leaden gray. The hedgegrows and trees are scarcely perceptible against the bare earth, whose slaty hue they have not taken on. The ground is frozen so hard that it bruises the foot to walk in the road or in the plowed fields. It is like an iron country, and the spirit is oppressed by its rigor and melancholy. One could easily believe that in the dead landscape the germs of life and fruitfulness were extinct forever” (Part III: “Winter Memories” – opening lines, Chapter I, pp. 103).

“There were certain days in her life, outwardly uneventful, which Alexandra remembered as peculiarly happy; days when she was close to the flat, fallow world about her, and felt, as it were, in her own body joyous germination in the soil… There had been such a day when they were down on the river in the dry year, looking over the land… The river was clear there, and shallow, since there had been no rain, and it rain in ripples over the sparkling sand. Under the overhanging willows of the opposite bank there was an inlet where the water was deeper and flowed so slowly that it seemed to sleep in the sun. In this little bay a single wild duck was swimming and diving and peening her feathers, disporting herself very happily in the flickering light and shade. They sat for a long time, watching the solitary bird take its pleasure. No living thing had ever seemed to Alexandra as beautiful as that duck” (Part III: “Winter Memories”, Chapter II, pp. 111-112 -a memory Alexandra and her brother Emil frequently return to).


O Pioneers! O Pioneers! By Walt Whitman
The title of O Pioneers! is in reference to to the title and chorus of a Walt Whitman poem, Pioneers! O Pioneers! written in 1865 in Leaves of Grass and transcribed below. It is an ode to celebrate America’s courageous pioneers during the westward expansion of the nation.

Come my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

From Nebraska, from Arkansas,
Central inland race are we, from Missouri, with the continental blood intervein’d,
All the hands of comrades clasping, all the Southern, all the Northern,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O resistless restless race!
O beloved race in all! O my breast aches with tender love for all!
O I mourn and yet exult, I am rapt with love for all,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Raise the mighty mother mistress,
Waving high the delicate mistress, over all the starry mistress, (bend your heads all,)
Raise the fang’d and warlike mistress, stern, impassive, weapon’d mistress,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

See my children, resolute children,
By those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or falter,
Ages back in ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

On and on the compact ranks,
With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the dead quickly fill’d,
Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and never stopping,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O to die advancing on!
Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour come?
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill’d.
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the pulses of the world,
Falling in they beat for us, with the Western movement beat,
Holding single or together, steady moving to the front, all for us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Life’s involv’d and varied pageants,
All the forms and shows, all the workmen at their work,
All the seamen and the landsmen, all the masters with their slaves,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the hapless silent lovers,
All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and the wicked,
All the joyous, all the sorrowing, all the living, all the dying,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, picking, wandering on our way,
Through these shores amid the shadows, with the apparitions pressing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Lo, the darting bowling orb!
Lo, the brother orbs around, all the clustering suns and planets,
All the dazzling days, all the mystic nights with dreams,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

These are of us, they are with us,
All for primal needed work, while the followers there in embryo wait behind,
We to-day’s procession heading, we the route for travel clearing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you daughters of the West!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Minstrels latent on the prairies!
(Shrouded bards of other lands, you may rest, you have done your work,)
Soon I hear you coming warbling, soon you rise and tramp amid us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Not for delectations sweet,
Not the cushion and the slipper, not the peaceful and the studious,
Not the riches safe and palling, not for us the tame enjoyment,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Do the feasters gluttonous feast?
Do the corpulent sleepers sleep? have they lock’d and bolted doors?
Still be ours the diet hard, and the blanket on the ground,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Has the night descended?
Was the road of late so toilsome? did we stop discouraged nodding on our way?
Yet a passing hour I yield you in your tracks to pause oblivious,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Till with sound of trumpet,
Far, far off the daybreak call—hark! how loud and clear I hear it wind,
Swift! to the head of the army!–swift! spring to your places,
Pioneers! O pioneers!


Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! New York, Vintage Books a division of Random House, 1992 (reissue edition).