Albert H. Silverman - "Sex and Money in Chaucer's Shipman's Tale"

A view of the Shipman's Tale as a cynical if humorous story of married life, close in spirit to the Merchant's Tale though not so virulent, was suggested long ago by Tatlock.1 Subsequent critics of this tale, however, have been more kindly in their reactions to the good wife's treatment of the merchant of St. Denis. For example, Gardiner Stillwell finds the tale devoid of any idea save making us laugh, although in his study of the tale's analogues and other evidence, he finds considerable fun being made of bourgeois seriousness.2

In his detailed examination of analogues for the Shipman's Tale, John W. Spargo characterizes Chaucer's tale as "striking a note of relative innocence and turning what are essentially sordid elements into a story of bright sunlight . . . . "3 In addition, Spargo finds Chaucer simplifying the plot of his source -- whatever that source may have been -- rather than complicating it, although he sees in Chaucer's tale a more complex characterization.4

Both Spargo and Stillwell, I think, are disposed to neglect the less usual cynical side of Chaucer, and their inclination has, in my judgment, resulted in their overlooking several significant differences between Chaucer's Shipman's Tale and the other "Lover's Gift Regained" fabliaux. Moreover, as I shall try to show, these differences tend in the direction of an increasing sardonicism rather than, as these critics imply, toward the mellowing of a sordid tale.

My attention was directed to a reconsideration of the predominant tone of the Shipman's Tale by the interesting possibility of a very coarse pun in the final couplet:

Thus endeth now my tale, and God us sende
Taillynge ynough unto our lyves ende.
(VII, 433-4)5


1 The Development and Chronology of Chaucer's Works (Chaucer Society, 1907), p. 205.
2 "Chaucer's Sad Merchant," RES, xx (1944), 1-18.
3 John W. Spargo, Chaucer's Shipman's Tale, The Lover's Gift Regained (Folklore Fellow's Communications No. 91, 1930), p. 55.
4 Ibid., p. 12.
5 This quotation and succeeding Chaucer quotations are from Robinson's edition.

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The possibility is that by Taillynge the Shipman means not only tallying' (incurring or paying debts) but also 'sexual intercourse.' Only a few lines earlier there is a clear pun on the noun `tally,' when the merchant's wife offers to pay her husband with her body for the hundred francs she unwittingly cheated him out of: "I am youre wyf; score it upon my taille" (VII, 416). There taille means both `account' and the modern slang word for `pudendum.' That this slang word was prevalent in Chaucer's day seems to be clear from the Wife of Bath's use of it, when she describes the effects of her taste for wine: "A likerous mouth moste han a likerous tayl" (III, 466).

Attention has previously been focused on the fact that Robinson in his notes recognizes the final couplet of the Shipman's Tale as a kind of blessing at the end of the tale, appropriate to its theme, but that although he detects a reference there to the Wife of Bath's conception of sexual debtorship, he does not recognize the possibility of the more precise pun on Taillynge or even the pun on taille (reading it strictly as `tally').6 It has also been properly pointed out that there is no proof that the sexual meaning of Taillynge was known to Chaucer or his contemporaries, although this, it is admitted is a negative argument against the possible innuendo by the Shipman.7

If the two puns at the end of the tale involving the double entrendre of money and sex really hold, they express with apical concision the chief ironic point of the Shipman's Tale: the commercialization of the marriage relationship. In the light of the merchant's wife's act of prostitution with the monk, the irony of her offering herself afterward to her own husband for money must appear rather bitter, especially since, to the reader or listener, this seems also to be the merchant's compensation for his unwitting graduation to cuckoldom. Now it is just this twist in the ending that embodies the chief difference between the Shipman's Tale and its numerous analogues. Far from simplifying the narrative of the "Lover's Gift Regained," as Spargo has suggested, Chaucer has added another significant plot element. In most of the analogues the gift of the lover is simply regained. The lover loves free of charge and the husband suffers no _____________________________________________________________

6 Claude Jones, Chaucer's Taillynge Ynough," MLN, LII (1937), 570.
7 Robert A. Caldwell, "Chaucer's Taillynge Ynough, Canterbury Tales, B2 1624," MLN, LV (1940), 262-5.

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loss; it is the wife who is the real victim, for she loses virtue and gains nothing. In the most prominent analogues, Boccaccio's8 and Sercambi's,9 no complications between the wife and husband ensue; the wife is merely compelled to admit that she had received the money and, apparently, she must return it to her husband. In Chaucer, however, the wife, herself victimized, easily and cleverly turns her defeat into victory and makes her husband the real victim, for he becomes a cuckold, loses his money, and ends up ridiculously accepting his own wife's favors as compensation.

In comparing the Shipman's Tale to the Decameron, VIll, 1, Spargo concludes -- since the wife in Boccaccio has inordinate desires -- that "Chaucer does not depict the wife as miserly or sordid in any way, but as just the reverse."10 I grant that Chaucer is perhaps more subtle than Boccaccio in steering away from the external characteristics of an outright act of prostitution, but there are certainly numerous sordid implications underneath. Not only does the ending make a marriage conducted on a commercial basis the final reality but the dramatic irony of the tale up to the conclusion, as well as certain plot and character elements, points in this same direction; in short, this identification of sex with money informs the entire tale in a meaningful way.

One early bit of dramatic irony11 is found in Chaucer's description of the monk's generosity to both the servants and the master of the house upon his numerous visits to the merchant's home (VII, 43-51). Now at first glance this irony is taken merely in the light of his later generosity to the mistress of the house, both monetarily and sexually. But if one looks further it becomes evident that Chaucer means for us to contrast the monk's generosity with the merchant's niggardliness, testified to later by the wife in her confession to Dan John. And it is interesting to note that -- also on the wife's testimony -- the merchant's lack of generosity to his wife has its sexual counterpart in a corresponding lack of virility.

This deprecation of her husband's sexual powers first occurs after _________________________________________________________________

8 Decameron, VIll, 1.
9 Novella, No. 19.
10 Spargo, p. 12.
11 A brief general discussion of dramatic irony in the Shipman's Tale is found in Germaine Dempster, Dramatic Irony in Chaucer (Stanford University, 1932), pp. 39-42. I am aware of her remarks and may be repeating some of the same instances, although I am enlarging on these and adding others that seem to me clear.

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the monk's playful suggestion that the wife's morning paleness may be a result of her husband's having labored her overmuch during the night. The wife is quick to deny this:

In all the reawme of France is ther no wyf
That lasse lust hath to that sory pley.
(VII, 116-117)

But before she launches an attack on her husband's nygardye, she remarks, still apparently talking about her sex life, that though she doesn't like to give away secrets, yet this much she will say:

As helpe me God, he is noght worth at al
In no degree the value of a flye.
(VII, 170-171)

Of course we cannot take the wife's testimony about her husband's parsimony and lack of manliness as factual. The merchant is very careful and shrewd in business affairs, but there is no indication, apart from the wife's confession to the monk -- which may be merely an attempt to enlist sympathy -- that the merchant is stingy in household and wifely expenses. He is hospitable and apparently has a well-provided kitchen; before he leaves for Bruges he assures his wife that she lacks no array, provisions or money (VIII.245-8), and to him she does not deny this fact. It is much more likely that the wife's extravagance in buying clothes, rather than the merchant's close-fistedness, has run her into debt. And the merchant's playful activity at the end of the tale does not bear out her intimations about his sexual weakness or callousness.

The significance of these claims by the merchant's wife, then, lies not in their truth but in the fact that, like the Wife of Bath, she treats material welfare and happy sexual relations as going hand in hand. And the effect of this double confession on the monk, Dan John, has clear implications -- if he can supply the hundred francs, the other goes without saying -- although later the wife does say it outright (VII, 188-194).

Another striking instance of dramatic irony which bears upon the commerce-sex amalgamation in the Shipman's Tale occurs somewhat later. When Dan John asks the merchant for the hundred francs -- which he intends to use to buy the merchant's wife -- the merchant says:

Now sikerly this is a smal requeste
My gold is youres, whan that it yow leste,
And not oonly my gold, but my chafffare.
Take what yow list, God shilde that ye spare.
(VII, 283-6)

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This remark makes the same identification between finance and sexual favors, for it is impossible not to connect the merchant's generous offer with the monk's seemingly literal interpretation of it to include the wife as part of the merchandise (chaffare).

These are still other instances of the sex-money identification: the double entendre on dettour (VII, 397), when the husband, near the end of the tale, warns his wife to keep him abreast in the future of payments made in his absence; the excuse which the wife gives for spending the money -- that she thought it was given her for the good cheer that the monk had so often had in the merchant's house; finally, the merchant's admonition at the very end,

But by thy lyf, ne be namoore so large.
Keep bet my good, this yeve I thee in charge.
(VII, 431-2)

with the double entendre on large `lavish' and good `property.'

That the merchant's wife associates monetary bestowals with sexual favors is, of course, immediately apparent from the naive readiness with which she rewards the monk, but it is also exemplified in the cuckolding of the merchant through the wife's financial necessity (albeit extravagance on her part). The monitory section introducing the Shipman's performance forewarns of this contingency. If the husband fails to provide properly for his wife,

Thanne moot another payen for oure cost,
Or lene us gold, and that is perilous.
(VII, 18-19)

In such an atmosphere it is only natural for the wife to offer to compensate her husband for the hundred francs with daily installments of her bodily delights (VII, 423,4). This time the association of sex and finance is made in the rhetorical terms prevalent in the Wife of Bath's Prologue, using the Wife's metaphor for the physical relations between man and wife as that of debtor to creditor (III, 129-132), here turned around.

The introductory monitory section of the Shipman's Tale launches an exemplum whose theme is, I think, best stated aphoristically as follows: a husband had better be free with his wife or others will be free with her. The advantage of this statement of the theme is that it allows a double entendre on both " free's"; that is, both the monetary and sexual meanings attach to the word in both places. The theme is easily recognizable as a favorite one of the Wife of Bath, whose cynicism always makes the inevitable connection between money matters and sexual matters, one being the sine qua non of

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the other. The Wife of Bath's Prologue (e.g., III, 407-412) shows us that the Wife has not been averse to using her body as hostage in order to gain some material end from her husband.

It has often been observed that the Shipman's Tale was originally intended for the Wife of Bath, the chief evidence being in the opening of the tale, where the Shipman not only temporarily identifies himself with wives and refers to himself as a woman, but also, as I have already mentioned, dispenses one of the Wife's favorite arguments (VII, 10-19). This clear evidence of Chaucer's failure to complete his revision or readaptation makes it possible to understand the tale as still being at a stage where it is characterized by an ambiguity of theme, so that not only is the tale, looking one way, an exemplum of the Wife of Bath's thesis, but, looking the other, it is also a satire by the Shipman on a merchant or merchants.

The appropriateness of assigning the second theme to the Shipman is supported by two points: in the General Prologue the Shipman is depicted as deceiving the chapman by pilfering his wine while the latter is asleep (I, 397-8); some enmity between merchants and shipmen seems to be traditional in the fourteenth century, as evidenced by the ease with which a merchant could be ruined by piracy.12

The aphorism -- a husband had better be free with his wife or others will be free with her -- with its cynical and humorous overtones, is then, as I see it, the theme which Chaucer meant the Wife of Bath to illustrate with the exemplum that he later assigned to the Shipman. Because the merchant is the dupe, the tale serves the Shipman adequately, if not as well as it would have served the Wife of Bath. It may be that this tale is an even stronger argument for the Wife's principles as stated in her Prologue than her "Tale of the Loathly Lady." One possibility is that Chaucer gave her another tale because "The Lover's Gift Regained" is more easily used as a negative argument, showing the adversity that befalls the husband that treats his wife ill, while "The Tale of the Loathly Lady" argues positivelty, showing the reward to the husband who bows to female sovereignty. Too, the Wife needs a more pleasing tale to counteract the effect of her cynical and revealing Prologue, and certainly the Shipman's Tale does not fit that requirement, having _____________________________________________________________

12 See Manly's article on the Shipman in Some New Light on Chaucer, (New York, 1926), pp. 169-181.

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much in common on this count with the Merchant's Tale, though it is not nearly so bitter.

Looked at from the Shipman's point of view, this tale takes as its theme a satire upon the merchant's serious, sober, business-like manner of living. The merchant of the Shipman's Tale is not unlike the Merchant of the General Prologue, "Sowninge alwey th'encrees of his wynnyng" and "So estatly ... of his governaunce / With his bargaynes and with his chevyssaunce." The merchant's wife denounces his spending so much time in the counting house. Telling about the merchant's activity in Bruges, the Shipman makes a point of his sober behavior:

He neither pleyeth at the dees ne daunceth,
But as a marchaunt, shortly for to telle,
He let his lyf, and there I lete hym dwelle.
(VII, 304-6)

There is a mild note of derision here, especially since a few moments later the Shipman uses the same expression to apply to Dan John's activities with the wife: "In myrthe al nyght a bisy lyf they lede (VII, 318).

The most devastating satirical point in the tale, however, is in the ending. While the merchant has been such a careful, serious business man, singlemindedly pursuing commercial ends, the basis of his own marriage has become commercialized, and the tale ends with the wife paying off her monetary debt to her husband in the same way she rewarded the monk who gave her the hundred francs -- like a prostitute. The alliance of commerce and sex is climaxed in the puns on taille and Taillynge, each of which finds a single verbal equivalent for the two activities, sexual and commercial, which, in the tale, are no longer distinct. The Shipman's blessing, wishing the company Taillynge ynough, implies his approval of the merchant's fate.

Some resemblances of the Shipman's Tale to the Merchant's Tale are interesting. The same satiric foreshadowing of the central character's being falsely valued is found in both:

Thus sayde this olde knyght, that was so wys. (IV, 1266)

A merchant whilom dwelled at Seint Denys,
That riche was, for which men held him wys.
(VII, 1-2)

The harshness of tone in both tales is partly accounted for by the fact that neither the old knight nor the merchant knows what is happening to him. Moreover, they are both seen as unconsciously encouraging

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their wives' lovers and being responsible for bringing the lovers together. And finally both become kindly and forgiving to their wives at the end of the tale.

The additional twist given by Chaucer to the ending, whereby the wife deflects to her husband the trickery visited upon herself, puts the Shipman's Tale in the company of Chaucer's many observations upon the married state. For whereas the analogues focus upon the act of adultery and make what fun they can out of the treachery and insincerity of such an act, Chaucer's tale begins and ends with dramatic insights into the husband-wife relationship against a background of adultery. His technical device for pointing up the cynical relationship between husband and wife is the double entendre, upon which turn the many variations on the theme of the sex-money alliance.13 _____________________________________________________________

13 I am indebted to Professor R. M. Lumiansky for many helpful suggestions in preparing this paper.
First published in Philological Quarterly, XXXII (July, 1953), 329-336. Printed here withn permission of the author.