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There is no doubt that immoral people can spring from all walks of life, Tall, short, rich, poor and everything in between – any of these can fall victim to the vices of the human spirit. When sex and money mix, a potentially dangerous (but exciting, at least for an outside observer) spectacle can occur. But what happens when that bomb just fizzles? Geoffrey Chaucer is certainly a master of depicting the profane and seedy side of human nature, but as he demonstrates through The Shipman’s Tale of The Canterbury Tales, sometimes a quiet murmur can pack just as hard of a punch as a big explosion. The Shipman’s Tale does not need a large confrontation or a public burning to make statements about the morality of human desires and the quest for them. Instead, a discussion between a married couple in bed as well as an interesting twist on a marriage vow culminates a story that has a lot to say about the nature of debt – monetary and otherwise – and the marriage of sex and money.
The Shipman’s Tale is a tale that is scant in plot but rife with details. The story of an unfaithful wife and her clueless husband both being duped by her lover is not new; in fact, speculation on Chaucer’s source material will be discussed later. However, it is in the delivery of the tale – the details given and left out, the attitude towards the infidelity, the assigning of blame or lack thereof – that rocket the Shipman’s Tale into the realm of scholarly study. The Shipman ranks the importance of details in the story in a way unfamiliar to those avid listeners of bawdy tales. There are lengthy descriptions of the merchant’s generosity towards his friends, especially the monk – how he frequently entertains them in his home, gives them gifts, and so on. However, the scandalous extramarital affairs (that, on technicality, turn the merchant’s wife into a prostitute) are given as much fanfare as a grocery list. Instead, the plot seems not for the excitement of illicit affairs and “wykked wyves”, but instead as a vehicle for extended puns and double-entendres.
Some Chaucer scholarship has flagged the Shipman’s Tale as straight-up fabliaux – that is, following the formula of the bawdy trickster tales popular in France where either a clever trick is pulled successfully or a frequent trickster gets his or her due punishment. Peter Nicholson, however, argues that the Shipman’s Tale cannot be strict fabliaux for these same reasons that the story itself is subject to academic scrutiny. The fact that the bawdy affair has been “nearly smothered by details in the lives of the characters completely extraneous to the plot” drives the audience’s attention away from the affair itself and towards the other details of the story, such as the abundance of description of the friendship between the monk and the merchant. (Nicholson 583) For example, there are six lines total that deal with the actual affair (lines 313-319) plus two lines earlier that mention lustful kissing (lines 202-203). Even just in the text located between those two passages, there are twenty-four lines (lines 224-248) of the husband lecturing his wife about business and money, and a thirty-five line conversation (lines 257-292) in which the merchant and the monk discuss their friendship and the monk asks for money. Even in the brief taboo scenes, Chaucer does not appeal to the voyeuristic audience; he adopts a method reminiscent of a Greek tragedian describing an off-stage death of a minor character. The plot-critical affair is almost an afterthought. One of the most striking parts of this story, says Nicholson, is the “structure in which the commercialization of sexual dealings, not the conventional triumph of one character over another, seems to be the major point.” (Nicholson 583) No character at the end of the story is painted to be “right” or “wrong” – the tale’s teller seems hesitant to assign blame to any party
Another reason to shy away from a strict fabliaux label is the extended puns and double-entendres, says Nicholson, which are not present in the typical Fabliaux model. For example, the discussion between the monk and the merchant right before the merchant leaves for Flaundres gives birth to a string of increasingly dirty double-entendres, made more amusing by two facts: one, the conversation is entirely serious; two, the husband is oblivious to the meaning beyond the surface. One such example is that Daun John tells the merchant that he needs to borrow money “for certein beestes that I moste beye” (line 278) when he is really planning on using the money to barter with the merchant’s wife for sex. As a buyer for the monastery, it is perfectly reasonable for Daun John to purchase quantities of cattle; however, Chaucer here is referring to purchasing satisfaction for animalistic desires (Daun John’s lust and the wife’s greed). The merchant is, of course, clueless, and happily lends him the money before going out of town.
Those animalistic desires and the animal imagery in general is one of four major realms of imagery outlined by Janet Richardson in The Facade of Bawdry: Image Patterns in Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale . The four “image clusters” (Richardson 304) are animals, diet, trade and sex. It is through the interaction of these four spheres in such a way as to bring about the overarching theme as identified by Nicholson, which is the commercialization of sex. Richardson takes a slightly broader tack for her interpretation of the ultimate theme: trade is the ultimate image to which the other three relate, because the story focuses so strongly on the materialism permeating the world of the bourgeoisie. It is the links between these different image sets that bring to light the delicacies of a tale that at first glance can come off bland.
Though there are many connections that Richardson has pulled from the text, I would like to focus on one in particular, and that is the interaction between the image lexicon of sex and the image lexicon of trade. As Richardson notes on page 306, the “cosynage” (though not of blood) between the merchant and the monk is well-documented throughout the tale; it is given significantly more lines than the major plot points (i.e., the adultery scene). Clearly, this relationship is something that Chaucer wants to use as a device for his commentary. The goals of the two men differ: the merchant desires money and material wealth; and the monk desires sex, specifically sex with his friend’s wife. They are both given the same offer by the wife – sex in exchange for the money that she owes. Without the traditional fabliaux ending in which some morality, however questionable, is enacted, these two men are left on the reader’s palate as moral equals. The monk essentially represents the animalistic, lustful nature of the human spirit and the merchant represents the greedy, materialistic side of the human spirit. Since they are given identical situations, Chaucer is equating lust and greed – trade and sex.
The equating of trade and sex seems out of place in the bourgeoisie world of the merchant and his wife. They are accustomed to hosting his business guests for dinners and banquets, no matter how she protests that he is stingy with his money. She definitely is not lacking in the basics for living, i.e., food, shelter and clothes (though she may beg to differ on the latter.) The linking of trade and sex (and the bastard child from that union, prostitution) is has long been associated with the lower classes; women who need the money selling their bodies for money for food and shelter, or to care for children. Instead, we have a bored housewife who feels neglected in the bedroom and wants money for frivolities such as fancy dresses, selling her body to a member of the clergy and then to her own husband.
The amusement of a high-class woman selling her body not once, but twice (and to her own husband as well!) can be found in several similar stories that may have been source material for Chaucer. The two most commonly noted by scholars are tale 31 of Sercambi’s Novelle and Day VIII, tale I of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Robert A. Pratt carefully outlines the differences amongst the three, and they are surprisingly similar . For example, the husband in Boccaccio’s tale does not request prompt repayment of the sum, while Chaucer and Sercambi’s husbands do. The most notable difference is in the endings. Sercambi’s and Boccaccio’s wives repay their husbands, but with money, not sex. Chaucer’s wife has spent her money, so she must repay her husband with sex instead. It is not a stretch to suggest that Chaucer may have “borrowed” heavily from these sources while molding and modifying the story’s delivery to give a different kind of morality upon closure. Many stories in Boccaccio, for example, are closer to the true Fabliaux form; they are told by Italian nobles who may have been familiar with the tradition. Chaucer, however, exploits the expectations that readers familiar with the popular fabliaux tale bring to the table to have an unlikely resolution and unusual commentary. He has tried this trick ever since the very beginning of the Canterbury Tales in which a gorgeous springtime setting sets the stage not for romantic, epic love, but instead a long religious trip with some very unusual characters.
The delightfully vapid characters of The Shipman’s Tale lend an amusing twist to a cast of characters who, at first glance, do not seem to have anything that is that interesting about them. By excluding a “big trick” from the plot, we are forced to apply the same lighthearted, humorous attention to ideas that are not necessarily lighthearted or humorous, such as greed, lust, and prostitution. It is for these depths of literary and cultural readings that Chaucer has earned a spot in the group of authors known for the their keen understanding of human nature and mankind – authors whose works teach us a little more about ourselves and others, whether it is our first time through or our one-thousandth. The underbelly of humanity always has a new trick to teach.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales Complete. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000.
Nicholson, Peter. “The “Shipmans Tale” and the Fabliaux.” ELH Winter 1978: 583-596.
Pratt, Robert A. “Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale and Sercambi.” Modern Language Notes February 1940: 142-145.
Richardson, Janet. “The Facade of Bawdry: Image Patterns in Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale.” ELH September 1965: 303-313.
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