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The Shipman's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

The Shipman is an interesting character who has traveled a great deal, and he doesn't have an idealized view of the clergy or marriage. In this lesson, we'll learn about the Shipman and summarize his tale about adultery and sex as currency.

The Shipman in the General Prologue

Like ''The Physician's Tale,'' ''The Shipman's Tale'' doesn't have its own prologue. However, we learn about the Shipman in the General Prologue. He's an experienced sailor from Dartmouth, England, with a tan and a beard. Like the Franklin and the Physician, the Shipman is a member of the newly-emerged mercantile or medieval middle class. However, the Shipman probably isn't as wealthy as the other two.

The Shipman is extremely skilled. He's knowledgeable about tides, currents, and English and Spanish geography. He can navigate a ship through dangerous waters and storms, and he's good at combat. He does like to sneak drinks of wine when the trader isn't looking!

The Shipman in The Canterbury Tales, from the Ellesmere manuscript
The Shipman in The Canterbury Tales, from the Ellesmere manuscript

The Shipman's Tale

''The Shipman's Tale'' is about a rich merchant in Saint-Denis (near Paris, France). His wife is beautiful and outgoing, and enjoys throwing and attending lavish balls. She spends a great deal of money on clothes and entertainment.

An oil painting of a masquerade ball by Suddeutscher Meister
An oil painting of a masquerade ball by Suddeutscher Meister

The merchant has a close friend, a handsome monk named Dan John, who visits often and who claims to be his cousin. Dan John treats the merchant and his servants well, always brings gifts with him, and is well liked by everyone.

One day, the merchant plans to go to Bruges (in northwestern Belgium) to buy wares. He invites Dan John to visit him and his wife at home beforehand. The monk brings fine wine and fowl with him, and the three enjoy themselves. The next morning, the merchant locks himself in his ''counting-room'' (office) to do routine financial bookkeeping.

Portrait of a Merchant by Jan de Gossart (1530)
Portrait of a Merchant by Jan de Gossart (1530)

Dan John rises early, too, and says his prayers in the garden. The merchant's wife joins him there, bringing with her a little girl to whom she is governess (female tutor and guardian). The outwardly vibrant wife says she's so unhappy that she's contemplating suicide. The monk offers to give her confidential advice, and she confesses her love for him. Dan John reveals that he is not really her husband's cousin, and says he loves her too.

The wife complains that her husband isn't wealthy enough and that he's stingy. She asks to borrow one hundred francs, promising that she'll repay him in whatever manner he likes. Dan John says he'll bring her the money when her husband leaves for Belgium, and the two share illicit kisses.

The wife goes to her husband's office, complaining about how long he's spending on his books. The merchant tells her she doesn't appreciate how careful he needs to be about their finances. He asks her to be careful in her spending while he's in Bruges. A Mass is said, and the household eats their midday meal. Afterward, Dan John asks the merchant to lend him a hundred francs to buy cattle and asks him to keep it a secret. The merchant agrees, and leaves for Belgium.

A medieval monk tasting wine---much as the Shipman likes to do
A medieval monk tasting wine---much as the Shipman likes to do

While her husband is gone, the wife agrees to sleep with Dan John in exchange for the money he's promised her, and the two enjoy illicit sex all night. He leaves the next morning without giving her the money. When the merchant returns, he visits Dan John and conversationally explains that he has a loan of twenty thousand crowns to repay, without intending to ask the monk for it. Dan John says he wishes he had it to give him, and mentions that he has repaid the hundred francs he borrowed from the merchant and given them to his wife.

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