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Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale and its Departure from the French Fabliaux Tradition

HS3250: Chaucer, Milton, and the Bible
Term Paper
Athulya Raj
Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale and its Departure from the
French Fabliaux Tradition
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,
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."
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.
(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
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.
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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