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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE SHIPMAN'S TALE

A rich merchant with a beautiful wife loves entertaining guests, one of whom is a young monk who grew up in the same village as the merchant. During a visit, the monk comes across the wife in the garden while the husband is in the countinghouse. Swearing him to secrecy, the wife tells how miserable she is, lacking the things women want in their husbands (health, wisdom, riches, generosity, affection, and sex). She then asks the monk to lend her 100 francs that she can't get from her stingy husband. He agrees on the condition that she promise to sleep with him while the husband's away. Before the merchant leaves, the monk asks for a 100-franc loan, which the merchant gladly gives. The monk passes the money to the wife, who goes to bed with him.


Later, the merchant visits the monk, who says he's repaid the money to the wife. Returning home, the merchant scolds the wife for not telling him about the returned loan; the wife replies she didn't know it was a loan and spent the money on clothes. The merchant decides he has no choice but to forgive the wife.

The tale, a fabliau like the Miller's and Reeve's tales, may have originally been intended for a female pilgrim. There's certainly a connection between the wife's words on husbands and the Wife of Bath's question about what women want. But the crass language and heavy dose of sexual punning fits the character of the shady Shipman; so does the assumption that it's okay for the monk to violate his vow of celibacy and take advantage of the merchant's friendship.

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