THE SHIPMAN’S TALE
This story is set in St. Denis, France, where there was once a rich Merchant
whose wife was of unparalleled beauty. They lived in a sumptuous house which was always filled with guests.
On one occasion, they had as one of their guests a handsome young Monk who
enjoyed the Merchant’s hospitality. Through conversation the Merchant and the Monk discovered that they were born in the same town so they must be related and be cousins.
The Merchant was thrilled at this prospect and they called one another brother.
It was necessary for the Merchant to leave on business to Brussels, but
before he left he locked himself up in his counting room in order to review his financial situation.
The Monk was taken with the Merchant’s wife’s beauty and took the
opportunity, in the Merchant’s absence, to get to know her better.
The Monk noticed that she looked pale and wondered if perhaps her husband
had kept her awake all night at play. The wife protested and said that relations with her husband were not good, and she was close to taking her own life. The Monk encouraged the wife to confide in him
and she agreed to tell him concerning the marital neglect she suffered provided he kept it a secret. The Monk takes the opportunity to tell the wife that he doesn’t regard himself as related to her
husband. The wife goes on to say that her husband does not give her any money and forces her to lead a frugal life.
She begs the Monk to loan her some money so that she can buy some necessities for herself. The Monk agrees to do this and then he kisses the wife passionately.
Before the Merchant departs to Brussels, the Monk asks for a loan from the
Merchant of 100 francs. The Merchant gladly agrees.
When the Merchant has gone, the Monk calls on the wife and gives her the
money in exchange for a night in bed.
On the Merchant’s return home, he stops at the Monk’s Abbey to see how he
fares, not to collect the loan. The Monk advises the Merchant that he repaid the money to his wife a few days after the Merchant had left for Brussels.
On returning home, the Merchant scolds his wife for not having told him that
the loan had been repaid. He notices that she has bought some fine clothes and forgives her the extravagance.
Chaucer launches another attack against the Ecclesiastical community by
having the Shipman portray a Monk in a most unsavory light.
The Monk breaks his vows with God and he shows himself as a manipulator by falsely claiming that he is related to the Merchant. Not content with taking advantage of the wife’s desperate position regarding money, he betrays her confidence, and his actions risk her unfaithfulness being revealed. He seems to profit from his liaison with the Merchant and his wife, and the joke is on them.
There is a theory that Chaucer constructed the Tales first and then assigned
them to the characters later.
If we look at lines 11 – 19, these relate to a woman’s point of view,
“the unfortunate, husband at any rate, he must paye!
he must us clothe and he must us arraye
all for his owne worship, richly –
in which array we dance jollily!”
In other words, husbands want their wives to be hardy, wise and good in bed.
Scholars suggest that this tale was originally allocated to the Wife of
Bath, but then Chaucer changed his mind and decided that the Shipman (Pirate) should tell the tale, and forgot to eliminate these lines which are inconsistent.
The reader may wonder why the rich Merchant was quite happy to lend money to
the Monk, but kept his wife short of money.
The Monk actually holds a high position of power at this time, and is in fact Knighted, and called Sir John. Therefore, the Merchant was clearly honored, firstly to be a relative, and then to be asked for a loan.
In contrast, the Merchant views his wife almost as a glorified servant, and
sees no return in lavishing money on her to spend on frivolous behavior.
The Host calls upon the Prioress to tell a tale, and she starts by singing
the praises of the Virgin Mary.
“O Lord, our Lord, thy name how marvelous
is in this large world widespread,
for not only thy praise precious
performed is by men of dignitee,
but by the mouth of children thy bountee
performed is: for on the breast suckinge
sometime shewn they thine heryinge (praise).”