The Skipper Quotes in The Canterbury Tales

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

The Skipper's character, as well as the tale he tells, make important points about the relationships between wealth, religiosity, and character. Chaucer is very interested throughout ''The Canterbury Tales'' in hypocrisy, and we see this theme in many of the Skipper's quotes.

Character Background

The Skipper character in The Canterbury Tales stands in stark contrast to many of the other characters, particularly the religious characters, insofar as he is much more down-to-earth and much less hypocritical. When he is introduced at the beginning of the work, along with the other pilgrims, we learn that he 'of nice conscience took he no keep'. He is described as being a learned and capable skipper, but someone who enjoyed drinking and would quickly take revenge on anyone who got in his way. So much of The Canterbury Tales deals with the hypocrisy of various religious figures that the character of the Skipper stands out as someone who makes no claims to leading a pure and virtuous life, but is exactly as he appears.

The Skipper's Prologue

The Skipper announces before his tale that he will 'not preach' nor instruct on any gospel, adding:

'My jolly body shall a tale tell, And I shall waken all this company; But it shall not be of philosophy, Nor of physic, nor termes quaint of law; There is but little Latin in my maw (belly).'

There is a lot to unpack in this quote, both about the Skipper himself and the rest of the company he is traveling with. First, he uses words like 'jolly' and 'waken', which emphasize that he himself, as well as his tale, lack the seriousness of many others in his company and their tales. Like the Skipper himself, this tale will be fun and somewhat lewd. He goes on to say that he is not going to include serious topics such as philosophy, law, etc. in his tale, because those subjects are just not a part of his character. The reader should take this not as an admission of inferiority to those who enjoy mastery of these subjects, but in fact the opposite: the Skipper will speak honestly and frankly. With this character, the reader does not have to worry that high language and subject-matter is concealing a baser character.

Commentary on the Merchant

The Skipper begins his tale with a description of the main character, the Merchant:

'A Merchant whilom dwell'd at Saint Denise, That riche was, for which men held him wise.'

Immediately after this line, the Skipper goes on to describe the Merchant's Wife without commenting on the assumption that the Merchant must be wise because he is rich. And in fact, the Skipper does not have to provide any commentary on this point, because the rest of the tale does this: we learn that the Merchant loans money to a Monk, who uses the loan to sleep with the Merchant's Wife. Clearly the Merchant is not terribly wise, regardless of how much money he may have. This is an important social commentary: although the Skipper may be lower born than other characters, his tale demonstrates that wealth and wisdom do not necessarily go hand in hand.

Poor Judge of Character

The Merchant appears to be a terrible judge of character as well, since the Monk who uses the loan to seduce the Merchant's Wife is supposedly his best friend:

'Thus be they knit with etern' alliance, And each of them gan other to assure Of brotherhood while that their life may dure.'

We are reminded several times during the tale that the Merchant considers the Monk to be like family. Given that the Monk takes the Merchant's money in order to seduce his wife, it is safe to assume that the Merchant has poor judgment in the company he keeps -- both in terms of his wife and his best friend. Again, this stands in contrast to the Skipper himself, who, as the omniscient story-teller, has a keen grasp on character and human behavior.

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