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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Shipman’s Tale Summary

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Last Updated November 10, 2022.

The Shipman’s Tale

A merchant in Saint Denis has a beautiful wife, but he does not enjoy purchasing clothing and other finery for her. A monk frequently visits the merchant’s home, claiming kinship with the merchant. The monk, named John, is a young man and handsome, and he develops a strong friendship with the couple.

The merchant is constantly examining his finances, for he is something of a miser, and he is focused on increasing his wealth. The merchant is at his money-counting one day when his wife and the monk meet in the garden. The monk wonders why the woman is so pale and distressed. She has a problem, she tells him, one that is so horrible that she is thinking of killing herself. The monk offers all the advice and help in his power, and they both vow to keep each other’s secrets.

The young woman tells the monk that she has suffered much from her husband. The monk reveals that he is actually no kin to the merchant but has pretended to be so in order to get close to her, for he loves her. The woman accepts that declaration of love and laments that her husband is stingy. She owes a hundred francs, she continues, and she asks the monk to lend them to her. The monk promises her the money, and he understands well her offer to “repay” him.

The woman meets her husband, who is still working on his books, and calls him to Mass and dinner. The merchant explains the great dread he has over his business affairs and the great caution he must exercise. Then he announces that he must go to Flanders. He expects his wife to be thrifty while he is gone. After supper, the monk approaches the merchant and asks for a loan of a hundred francs, promising to pay him back promptly. The merchant hands over the money.

The merchant sets out on his journey, and the monk visits the wife and gives her the money. They have sex in exchange. The merchant returns in a bit of financial difficulty. He needs to borrow some money and would like the monk to pay back his loan. The monk tells him that he has given the money to his wife along with certain “tokenes,” implying that the money was repayment for the loan.

The merchant asks his wife about the matter. He is a bit annoyed by what has happened and says that she should have told him at once. The wife tells her husband that she will not give him the hundred francs but that she will repay him in bed. The merchant accepts that repayment but does ask his wife to be more careful with money in the future.

The Shipman-Prioress Link

The Host announces that both the monk and the wife deserve plenty of bad luck and that people should not invite monks into their homes. He then turns to the Prioress and asks her to tell the next tale.

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