Lesson 6

The Shipman's Tale

One might think that the next step should be to go on to the General Prologue. However, the General Prologue is rather difficult compared to some of the tales themselves and one can best enjoy it when he or she has a full control of the basic elements of Middle English. Working one's way through a shorter and simpler tale is the best way of attaining that control. The Shipman's Tale is brief and easily accessible to modern sensibilities (and it is fun). It is therefore a good work with which to begin. Here is a summary of the plot:

A rich merchant of Saint Denis (near Paris) has a beautiful wife and maintains a splendid household. The monk Dan John, who claims he is a cousin, is a frequent visitor. One day Dan John comes to call when the merchant is busy in his counting house. He makes advances to the wife, who says her wretched husband will not give her a hundred franks, which she needs to pay a debt; if he can give her that amount, she will show her gratitude. He says he will bring them, and he "caught her by the flanks." When the merchant must go on business to Flanders the monk borrows a hundred franks from him. He gives the money to the wife, and he takes his pleasure of her. When the merchant returns and asks for his money, Dan John says he repaid it to the wife. When the Merchant later asks his wife for the money (which she has spent), she turns the tables, telling him she spent it on clothing, since it is to his honor to have her richly dressed. She will pay him back in bed -- "score it upon my tail."

An interlinear translation of The Shipman's Tale provides a way to begin your study. But before you begin note the limitations of such translations:

These translations are for occasional reference for those beginning the study of Chaucer's language. They supply merely a pony and by no means can they serve as a substitute for the original, nor even for a good translation. Often the syntax of the interlinear translation will be awkward in Modern English, since the aim is to supply a somewhat literal translation to make clear the meaning of the Middle English words.

For the same reason there is no attempt to reproduce in Modern English the spirit and tone of the original (even if that were possible). The translation is more often "word for word" than "sense for sense."

You may find that some of the lines remain obscure even in translation, since more explanation may be needed than a bare translation can supply. This is especially true of passages dealing with technical matters such as astronomy or medicine. In such cases, consult the Explanatory Notes in an edition such as The Riverside Chaucer, or The Canterbury Tales Complete.

These translations should be used for a first reading; go carefully through the text, concentrating on the Middle English and checking your reading against the translation. Then move on to the original in whatever printed text you are using, and refer back to this text only when you encounter difficulties.

For such quick reference, once you have opened a translation use the "Find" utility on your browser to search for the line numbers of the words or phrases you want to see.

A nice demonstration of the limitations of any translation of The Shipman's Tale is apparent in its final lines:

Thus endeth my tale, and God us sende
            Thus ends my tale, and God send us
Taillynge ynough unto oure lyves ende. Amen
            Tallying (Tailing) enough unto our lives' end. Amen

The outrageous pun on "Taillynge" (which involves "tally," "tale," and "tail") is almost completely lost in any translation.

With this caveat in mind, click here to begin your study of The Shipman's Tale.

After you have gone through the interlinear text and have returned to this page, read the Shipman's Tale once more, this time in your printed text, and this time for pleasure rather than a drill on vocabulary. Read at least parts of it aloud. When you read it note especially Chaucer's good ear for conversation.

If you wish, browse through the page on  The Shipman's Tale on The Geoffrey Chaucer Website. Look at the way some other authors handled the same material, and you will be impressed with the richness of Chaucer's characters and the subtlety with which he modifies and complicates the simple story as it appears in other works.