The Shipman's Tale
A rich merchant, who lived at St. Denis, foolishly took a beautiful woman for his wife. She drained his income by demanding clothes and other fine array to make her appear even more beautiful. There was also a fair, bold young monk, perhaps only thirty years old, who was always at the merchant’s house. Indeed, he was as welcome there as it is possible for any friend to be. The monk was generous with his money, and always brought gifts for his lord and for the servants, according to their degree.
One day, as he was going to make a journey to Bruges, the merchant invited John to visit him and his wife before he departed. The monk and the merchant had a merry time together, eating and drinking for two days. On the third day, on which the merchant was ready to depart for Bruges, he awoke early and went to his counting-house to balance his books. John was also awake early and went into the garden to pray. The wife went into the garden, worried that something was bothering the monk. He in turn worries about her; he thinks that she did not sleep well, for the merchant kept her up all night having sex – and she admits, in turn, that in fact she has no lust for her husband. John realizes that there is more to this, and promises to keep everything she tells him secret.
The wife complains that her husband is the “worste man that ever was sith that the world bigan” (the worst man ever to have existed since the world began”). She also tells him that she owes a debt of one hundred franks, which, if she does not pay (and her husband finds out about it) will disgrace her. The wife begs the monk to lend her the money.
The noble monk tells the wife that he pities her, and promises to “deliver” the wife “out of this care”, and bring her one hundred franks. With that, he caught her by the thighs, embraced her hard, and kissed her many times. The two then parted, and the wife went to her husband in his counting-house, begging him to leave his accounts. The merchant refused, explaining to her that it was essential that he managed his business carefully, as many merchants went bankrupt.
The three dined together that evenings, and after dinner, the monk took the merchant to one side, and asked him to lend him one hundred franks – and the merchant humbly and generously agreed, telling him to pay it again when he could afford to. He fetched the sum and took it to the monk, and no-one in the world but the two of them knew of the loan. That evening, the monk returned to the abbey, and, the next morning, the merchant travelled to Bruges to conduct his business.
The next Sunday, the monk returned to St. Denis, with head and beard all clean and freshly shaved, and – to get to the point – the wife agreed with the monk that, in exchange for the hundred franks, the monk could have sex with the wife all night, a promise which the two of them eagerly fulfilled. The next morning, the monk rode home to his abbey, or wherever pleased him.
The merchant returned home, and, delighted to see his wife, told her about his business transactions - and, when he came into town, he went straight to see his friend, the monk. The monk was delighted to see him, and, after talking about his business trip, the monk told the merchant that he had left his thousand franks with his wife. The merchant went home happy, and his wife met him at the gates – and the two of them had a happy night in bed, until the wife waylaid him, teasing him wantonly. Finally, the merchant told her he was a little angry with her because she had not told him she had received his money from the monk.
However, the wife was not frightened or taken aback by this, but said quickly and boldly that she had indeed received gold from the monk. The wife then argued that she should be allowed to keep the gold, to pay for good hospitality and to do with as she pleased; and, in return for him giving her his money, she would give him her body: “I wol nat paye yow but abedde”. And the merchant saw that there was no other option but to agree.
The merry words of the Host to the Shipman and to the lady Prioress
“Wel seyd”, the Host compliments the Shipman, cursing the monk, and warning the men in the company to beware of similar tricks. The monk, the Host interprets, tricked both the man and his wife. Moving forward, the Host then looks for the next tale-teller, and courteously asks the Prioress whether she might tell the next tale: “Gladly”, she assents, and begins her tale.
Despite its relative brevity, the Shipman’s Tale interrogates and complicates several key issues raised in earlier tales. After the darker reaches of the Physician’s and Pardoner’s Tales, the Shipman’s Tale returns to fabliau origins, presenting a reasonably simple “trick” story, complicated by Chaucer in the telling.
Primarily, the tale continues the idea, previously raised in The Wife of Bath’s tale, that money, sex, and women are closely inter-connected. It is interesting that, in the second fragment, the Shipman promises to tell his tale, mentioning his “joly body” (attractive figure). Scholars have argued that, in fact, the lines about the Shipman’s “joly body” were intended to be adapted into the mouth of the Wife of Bath, and it is the Wife of Bath’s Tale which immediately follows the Shipman’s promise. The bawdy fabliau of the Shipman’s Tale is usually assumed to have been intended to be The Wife of Bath’s tale before the version we currently have was composed.
Moreover, the Shipman’s would not be an unlikely tale for the Wife to have told. At the end, when the Host concludes that the monk tricked both the merchant and his wife, he seems not to have realized the victor at the very end of the tale. Rather like in the Miller’s and the Franklin’s Tales, we are asked to consider each of the participants at the very close of the tale, and decide who we think has come off best. It is clearly not the merchant, though he has made huge profits in his business dealings, and had his loan repaid, and, though (as the Host argues) the monk has had sex with the wife, remained friends with the merchant, and got off scot-free, it is the wife herself who seems to triumph. Not only has she had enjoyable sex with both the merchant and the monk, but she is one hundred franks better off; and she coerces her husband into agreeing to “pay” in return for sleeping with her.
Like the Wife of Bath, this wife has realized the inherent value of her sexual attractiveness: and in a way that seems to a modern reader uncomfortably close to prostitution, she bears out the Wife’s dictum that the “bele chose” is in fact an excellent bargaining tool for women to get what they want from men. As the Man of Law’s Tale suggested, the female is a pawn in business transactions, and yet, what the Wives (of bath, and of the merchant in this tale) realize that Constance never even considers, is their own potential profitability. If women’s bodies are valuable, these two women seem to say, then why shouldn’t we be the ones to profit from our bodies?
One also notices the importance attached in these business dealings to giving one’s word, to agreements sealed with kisses and with handshakes, and of one thing being verbally exchanged for another before the words become actions – a reminder, perhaps, of the issues of contracts raised by the Franklin’s Tale.
Chaucer ties up these concerns, as so often, in a single pun: “taillynge”, which means “credit” (and which the narrator wishes upon the company at the end of the tale) is a close relation to “telling” (i.e. telling a tale) but also punningly relates to “tail”, Middle English slang for the female genitals. A woman’s “tail” becomes an endless credit note: she will pay her husband, she says, in bed. Women, in this tale, and in the Wife of Bath’s are playing by patriarchal rules in order to beat the men; and the fact that they do beat the men might have been an uncomfortable shift of powers to many of Chaucer’s medieval readers.