The Shipman in The Canterbury Tales: Description & Quotes

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine the Shipman from Geoffrey Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales.' This character is a tough, experienced traveler with a well-hidden soft side.


Think about somebody you know with a hard exterior that has a surprising, gentler side. In Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the Shipman is a rough-and-tumble, wild man of the sea, but he is thought to be a good man that tells a tale that is a departure from his character. The Shipman is also referred to as the Sailor in some versions of The Canterbury Tales. This collection of stories is about a group of pilgrims that end up on the same journey to Canterbury. They decide to pass the time by taking turns telling stories. Let's examine the character of the Shipman from this collection.

The Prologue

In the Prologue, the narrator describes the Shipman. The Shipman is seen riding through town on a horse with a dagger strapped around him. The narrator says, 'The summer's heat had burned his visage brown; And certainly he was a good fellow. Full many a draught of wine he'd drawn, I trow, Of Bordeaux vintage, while the trader slept.' This thick-bearded, weathered man is likely to steal a drink if he has a chance.

Further, he has little conscience. 'If that he fought and got the upper hand, By water he sent them home to every land.' In other words, the Sailor would throw men overboard to their death if he bested them in a fight. While he doesn't exactly sound like a Boy Scout, the narrator has a great deal of respect for him.

He is well-travelled and knows his business. 'He knew well all the havens (harbours), as they were, From Gottland to the Cape of Finisterre, And every creek in Brittany and Spain; His vessel had been christened Madeleine.' With this tough exterior, the reader has expectations that his story will be of wild adventures.

The Shipman's Tale

After the Lawyer's Tale, the host tries to get the Parson to preach a sermon, but the Shipman interrupts. 'Nay, by my father's soul, that shall he not!' Replied the sailor; 'Here he shall not preach, Nor comment on the gospels here, nor teach. We all believe in the great God.' Instead, he launches his own tale, which he thinks will be much more entertaining.

The Shipman's tale is about a monk who befriends a merchant who is so stingy with his wife that she sleeps with the monk in exchange for money. The monk borrows the money from the merchant claiming he will use it to buy cattle. When the merchant leaves town, the monk and the merchant's wife make the exchange. The next time the monk sees the merchant, he explains that he repaid the loan to his wife. When the merchant confronts his wife, she admits that she has spent the money on new clothes and will only be able to repay him with favors in the bedroom.

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