He rood upon a rouncy, as he kouthe,
In a gowne of faldyng to the knee.
A daggere hangynge on a laas hadde he
Aboute his nekke, under his arm adoun.
The hoote somer hadde maad his hewe al broun.
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."
Students reading this text for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful.
The Shipman's Tale is a fabliaux. Its setting in France and even its use of French phrases, perhaps as a touch of "local color," distinguish it sharply from works such as the Miller's and Reeve's Tales, which are clearly set in Chaucer's own place and time. For this reason, the Shipman's Tale has sometimes been regarded as Chaucer's earliest work in this genre, closer to his French models than his later fabliaux. However that may be, the tale provides a good beginning example for a study of Chaucer's use and redefinition of the genre. The basic story in the Shipman's Tale -- "The Lover's Gift Regained" -- is ancient and widespread, and it remains in circulation today as an orally transmitted "dirty joke." Chaucer's version may well have been based on some oral version, or he may have drawn on one of a number of written versions. Typical of the medieval versions is that in Boccaccio's Decameron , Day 8 Tale 1.
There are countless variations on this popular story. For a number of examples see Benson and Andersson, The Literary Context of Chaucer's Fabliaux. Two French fabliaux are especially relevant: The Priest and the Lady, makes explicit the relationship between sex and money that is latent in all versions of the traditional tale; as the author says at the end of his tale, "It is a matter of buying and selling."Eustache d'Amiens, The Butcher of Abbeville, develops the basic story and the characters to an extent unusual in a fabliaux before Chaucer took up the genre.
On the matter of the economics of sex in the tale and the more general problem of the relation of the tale to its present and probable previous tellers (the Shipman and the Wife of Bath) see Albert H. Silverman, "Sex and Money in Chaucer's Shipman's Tale," Philological Quarterly, XXXII (July, 1953), pp. 329-336.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Shipman's Tale (and Fragment VII generally) click here.