HS3250: Chaucer, Milton, and the Bible Term Paper Athulya Raj Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale and its Departure from the French Fabliaux Tradition Introduction In the Shipman's Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer, through nine smooth sequences, presents a cynical and humorous story of a married couple typical to fourteenthcentury mercantile society. Lacking a preface or introduction, it is a tale limited in plot but rife with information. Some Chaucerian scholars consider the Shipman's Tale a true fabliau, the brief bawdy tales in verse revolving around deception and trickery that flourished in thirteenth-century France (Nicholson 583). The Shipman's Tale is believed to be based on the basic story of "Lover's Gift Regained," a motif that frequently occurred in fabliau collections. Spargo explains its skeletal plot as: "The lover borrows money from the husband with which to purchase the favour of the wife, later telling the husband that the money was returned to the wife during the absence of the husband (McGalliard 1)." Since this tale is set in France, unlike Chaucer's other tales and uses French phrases, it is considered Chaucer's earliest work in the genre ("The Shipman's Tale"). Though the Old French fabliau, regarded as Chaucer's immediate source, has been lost, most critics believe that the Shipman's Tale has its analogues in Boccaccio's Decameron, VIII, 1, and No. XIX of Sercambi's Novelle (McGalliard 1). However, Shipman's Tale's relationship to the fabliaux genre is quite complicated, as it deviates from the conventions of the genre in several ways. It lacks the customary bawdiness of a typical fabliau; its plot develops contrary to the audience's expectations, and it showcases pervasive verbal humour that conflates the imagery of commercial and sexual exchange (Nicholson 583). The concept of exchangeability of sex and money runs throughout the tale, with the "exchanges" highlighting the effect of the commercial economy on social institutions of marriage and the church, as well as social connections between classes, genders, and occupations. This paper shall aim at exploring how Chaucer renders the Shipman's Tale original and noteworthy by simultaneously drawing upon the features of the fabliaux tradition- the motif of "Lover's Gift Regained" story, social pretences, tricks and well-tested conventions of style, as well as, especially departing from it by superscribing his own literary features- complex characterizations inspired from medieval England, inherent moral values, and system of double entendre that highlights the sex-money alliance, thereby redefining the genre itself. In particular, the paper will critically engage with the detailed analysis of the Shipman's Tale conducted by Fichte in relationship to a corpus of fabliaux that made the differences in Shipman's Tale's conception and execution readily apparent. The Fabliaux and the Bourgeois Populace The tale opens by introducing two typical fabliau characters, a "riche" bourgeois merchant from Saint-Denis and his wife, a woman "of excellent beautee," sociable enough to receive the attention of other men who can provide her with finery, denied to her by her allegedly austere husband. “A marchant whilom dwelled at Seint-Denys, That riche was, for which men helde hym wys. A wyf he hadde of excellent beautee; And compaignable and revelous was she Which is a thyng that causeth more dispence Than worth is al the chiere and reverence.” (Chaucer 1-6) The action of the tale begins when the merchant plans a business trip to Brugges and invites his friend, a "Yonge," "fair," and "boold" (Chaucer 25-28) monk, to "pleye / With hym and with his wyf a day or tweye" (Chaucer 59-60), completing the usual fabliau triangle. On the third day of the visit, the merchant shuts himself in his countinghouse to reckon his accounts while the monk strolling in the garden meets with the merchant's wife. As the merchant gravely takes stock of his business "on his nedes sadly hym avyseth" (Chaucer 76), the monk and the wife parallelly make an amateur effort at striking a bargain to consider their own mutual needs, respectively satisfy sexual desire and money to repay a loan. Such a parallel plot exposes the barren and materialistic nature of the relationships between sworn friends, and husband and wife (Fulton 318). Fortunately, Woods argues that the social background of the tale, called "scene" by Kenneth Burke, provides a rationale for the character's actions (Woods 139). The Wife's Roles and Domestic Economy Cathy Hume explains that the Shipman's Tale has been long admired for offering a realistic account of the late medieval mercantile society. Although such commentaries acknowledge the merchant's wife as an interesting character fitting the description of the French fabliau women, her unique socioeconomic situation has received far less attention (Hume 138). Thus, Chaucer transforms the narrative from a lover’s tale to distinctively focus on the wife's endeavours to pay her debt without her husband's knowledge, through the ingenious manipulation of the roles she was expected to play as a wife (Hume 139): - Hostess: The merchant is said to rely heavily on his wife's "compaignable" character to put a "chiere and good visage" (Chaucer 230) and a front of hospitality. It was arguably the wife's hospitable inquiry after the monk's welfare as a hostess that led to an increasingly personal exchange between the two. Thus, only in the Shipman's Tale does the infidelity occur in a social context demanded by the husband (Hume 139-141). - Social Networker: In the tale, since the two men came from the same village, the monk is not just a guest but also "cosyn" to the merchant (Hume 141). As a medieval wife was expected to befriend her husband's friends, the familial relationship gives the merchant's wife and the monk a secondary reason to have a conversation (Hume 142), where the wife addresses the monk as "deere cosyn myn" (Chaucer 98), and he, in turn, calls her "nece" (Chaucer 100). - Housekeeper: The wife seems to hold an apparent authority over the general management of the household and is not afraid to confront her husband, unlike the women in the analogues (Hume 146). So, Hume assumes this to be the reason behind the household servants' silence on their mistress' adulterous affair (Chaucer 321-22) because if anyone dared to expose her, she would have made sure of their dismissal. - Status Symbol: As the wife was expected to enhance the merchant's status by exhibiting his wealth and maintain a respectable propriety, she arranges the adultery while trying hard to meet social expectations and avoiding exposure or dishonour (Hume 149). Therefore, she approaches the monk, whose clerical status made him someone she could speak alone to, in her own garden, rather than a public spot or a private chamber, to conduct business without attracting scandal (Hume 151). Moreover, her excuse for spending money as necessary for her husband's status (Chaucer 419-420) made the bargain between her and the monk acceptable, as it was not based on mere lust or greed anymore and put the merchant under pressure to forgive her expenses (Hume 152). - Business assistant: While interrupting the merchant's accounting, the wife expresses her disapproval by saying, "The devel have part on alle swiche rekenynges!" (Chaucer 218). It can either be her moral disapproval at his rapacity or, as Jill Mann reads it, "conscious feminine impatience" with a business she little understood (Hume 152). Nonetheless, as Hume argues, the merchant may have expected his wife to at least accept payment of debts in his absence. However, when she fails to do that, and the merchant loses his money, her business incompetence becomes her alibi as she gets to claim confusion (Hume 152-153). Moreover, she borrows money to pay a loan she had incurred by buying expensive clothes, which suggests that she had at least some level of financial independence. So, while her counterparts in the analogues may have had no economic power at all, the Shipman's Tale's wife manages transactions on her own terms, reflecting "a new era of marital finances" (Hume 156). Moreover, in the climax, when the wife is in the threat of exposure, she coolly adopts her husband's language, and instead of repaying the money, she pays off her loan through marriage debt. Thus, the wife in the Shipman's Tale was an intelligent businesswoman who exploited the contemporary expectations of wives and emerged as uncensured at the end, unlike the traditional fabliau wives. Ambiguity and Stereotype in the Character of Daun John Chaucer's monk is a unique and complex individual who is best viewed in the context of a stereotype promoted during medieval England. It is believed that financial sophistication was the major component of the clerical stereotype, with historical evidences showing that monks could exploit monastic wealth, despite having other forms of income such as "rents, tithes and vineyards" in addition to their general income (Pardee 67). This explains the monk's "largesse" and the reason why the lover in the Shipman's Tale is a monk rather than an ordinary parish priest, like in the other fabliaux. Critics have always had difficulties in assessing Chaucer's perception of the monk's motivations because although Daun John does not behave morally in the conventional sense, he cannot be considered just another crude trickster either, because the text does not support the assumption that Daun John planned the seduction of the merchant's wife (the trick) in advance (Pardee 69-70). Instead, it was the wife who took the initiative by "walkynge pryvely / Into the gardyn" (Chaucer 92-93) while the monk was praying in the garden courteously (Chaucer 91). Even though the monk's bawdy joke about how the wife spent the night (Chaucer 10-11) may have revealed his sexual preoccupations with her, it does not necessarily reveal prior intent since he recoils by blushing spontaneously and involuntarily (McGalliard, 3). The second problem that arises while interpreting the monk's motives is his decision of unnecessarily lying to the merchant about repaying the money to his wife instead of deflecting the question or simply repaying the loan, which would have enabled him to maintain the relationship if sex were his sole object (Pardee 71). So, according to Shiela Pardee, Chaucer may have wanted the monk to purposefully incite a conflict to inform his victims that they had been duped and to consider the probable implications of their lifestyle, accepting a night's pleasure as his' interest (Pardee 72). However, the harm resulting from his trick was negligible as neither the husband nor the wife learns their lesson, and without any conflict, they make a zestful reconciliation. The Interdependence of Pun and Structure of the tale The extended puns and double entendres1 are so crucial to the Shipman's Tale that they inform its structure in their "own structural pattern of multiple, distinct, and ironically reversed meanings (Abraham 326)." For example, the monk's conversation with the merchant right before the latter travels to Flaundres gives rise to a series of provocative double-entendres, which are rendered hilarious by the husband's ignorance of their intrinsic meaning. Daun John asks the merchant for money "for certein beestes that I muste beye" (Chaucer 278), which in reality he intends to trade for sex with the merchant's wife. Thus, it seems to both equate the wife with an animal and hint at an act that could lead to the satisfaction of animalistic desires, the wife's avarice and the monk's lust (Richardson 304). While replying to the monk's request, the merchant unknowingly blurts out words containing outrageous double meanings-"chaffare," "plogh," "game," "lith in youre ese," that adds to the tale's humour (Nicholson 590). As demonstrated earlier, "Cosyn" is a frequently evoked kinship claim between the merchant and the monk, which automatically extends to the wife. According to David H. Abraham, "cosyn" and similar terms appear sixteen times in the Shipman's Tale but only eight times in the remainder of the Canterbury Tales (Abraham 320); thus, he reflects Ruth Fisher's argument that cosyn should be seen as a pun on the term "cozen," which means "cheating" or "mistress." 1 A term or phrase that may be interpreted in two ways, one of which is generally sexually suggestive (Abraham 319). The next punning instance appears when the merchant warns his wife to keep him informed about future transactions and admonishes her by saying, "If any dettour hath in myn absence/ Ypayed thee (Chaucer 397-398)." She responds by overlaying the literal sense of the words "dettour" (one who owes money) and "ypayed" (paid) with their sexual meanings, implying that she will compensate him with sexual amenability (Scattergood 224-225). However, it is in the final couplet of the tale that Chaucer attains the epitome of coarse punning"Thus, endeth now my tale, and God us sende Taillynge ynough unto our lyves ende. Amen." (Chaucer 433-434) Fichte rightly notes that "fabliau action and mercantile philosophy meet and combine in this decisive scene" (Fichte 65). By Taillynge, the Shipman meant not only "credit" but also “sexual intercourse.” This pun is clearly applied in the line, "I am youre wyf; score it upon my taille" (Chaucer 416), where the merchant's wife offers to compensate him with her body in lieu of the hundred francs that she owed him (Silverman). However, one observes not merely a double but a triple entendre, as taillynge in written pun can also mean "tales", referring to the narrator looking forward to the next tale (Fichte 66). Therefore, the numerous puns of Chaucer enliven the Shipman's Tale because they serve as a "bridge between what we see taking place and what lies well beyond the limits of their style" (Nicholson 590) and when we consider the relationship between pun and structure in this tale, the originality and precision of Chaucer's art becomes all the more prominent and impressive. Shipman’s Tale in the context of French Fabliaux Tradition Though Shipman's Tale belongs to the group of Chaucerian fabliaux, many critics consider it the most typical Chaucerian representative of the fabliaux genre, despite the apparent deviations (Fichte 51). To prove the statement wrong, Joerg O. Fichte conducted a closer analysis of the Shipman's Tale within the framework of the French fabliau tradition by deriving a narrative model consisting of four major categories: communicative situation, province of meaning, authorial intent and audience reception (Fichte 55). The first category constitutes a frame narrative in which personae function as narrators. However, in this tale, the narrator's persona has believed to have changed since the original teller was probably the Wife of Bath (Fichte 61), as evidenced at the beginning of the tale, where the Shipman not only identifies with wives and refers to himself as a woman, but also furnishes several arguments in favour of the merchant's wife. “He moot us clothe, and he moot us arraye, Al for his owene worshipe richely, In which array we daunce jolily.” (Chaucer 12-14) Some believe that the triviality of the tale's subject was not appropriate for the hardy captain (Chapman 5), whereas others felt that the Shipman was the appropriate narrator because only a captain would have the ability to effortlessly incorporate a foreign form (French fabliaux), financial terms and mercantile ethos into the tale's narrative. Nevertheless, Nicholson correctly states that "the tale's meaning depends less upon its assignment than it does on its content and presentation" (Nicholson 594). The second category explains that the authors of typical fabliaux rarely use realistic details because they tend to create an impression of familiarity using minimal characteristics found in the milieu (Fichte 57). However, Chaucer in Shipman's Tale presents a myriad of nuanced projections of medieval England using references to the accounting techniques; monastic transactions; the degraded social position of women; and the pervasive medieval stereotypes about different classes, genders and occupations. According to the third category, fabliaux tend to entertain rather than teach as the world of fabliaux lacks ethical values and is unfit for moralization (Fichte 58-59), unlike that of Shipman's Tale, which is embedded in a fabric of secular values. Through the relationship among all three characters in the tale, Chaucer portrays the barren and parasitic nature of human connections in commercial societies; thus, provoking the audience into re-examining contemporary societal principles. The fourth and final category expounds on how Chaucer could have used the conventional characterizations found in the fabliau but instead departs from it (Fichte 63). Instead of portraying his merchant as a laughable poor dupe, Chaucer shows him as "a loving husband, a true friend, and a shrewd but honest businessman." In the end, the husband remains unaware of the deception practised on him, successfully reconciles with his wife without any peripety and suffers only a negligible material loss; thus, he had little in common with a typical cuckold. As explained earlier, though Daun John is a wicked opportunist, he does not conform to the stereotype of the immoral priest. Furthermore, far from being the typical fabliaux victim who, in the end, gains nothing and is left morally condemned, the wife in the Shipman's Tale faces no decisive revelations, which allows her to keep the money and emerge unscathed. Therefore, Shipman's Tale clearly shows noticeable differences in all four structural elements of the fabliaux model. Conclusion As discussed above, the poem takes form through the juxtaposition of the two opposing realms of experiences, one derived from the fabliaux and the other essentially bourgeois (Nicholson 586). Through the mercantile setting, the complex and multi-faceted characters, the harmonious yet unexpected resolution in the climax, the circumstances that lead to it, and the discrepancies between the narrative model and the outcome, Chaucer takes the Shipman's Tale entirely out of the established fabliau context. Furthermore, he enlarges the domain of the fabliau using a manner of presentation and logical faculty characteristically his own. As for the imperfections of the tale, they need not be explained and add to its marvellous qualities because the Canterbury collection is, as William W. Lawrence says, "after all only a fragment of the projected work, in part unrevised and unretouched" (Lawrence 68). Despite all the sombre overtones and moral nuances, Chaucer, at the end of the Shipman's Tale, brings an aura of good feeling on everyone's part, without showing the conventional triumph of one character over another (Nicholson 583). He even leaves the principal characters unnamed, except for the monk whose name "Daun John" is practically a generic term for a cleric (Scattergood 214), to show how the focus is not on the characters but the portrayal of their ways of life with a good-humoured observation of the most uncritical manner. 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