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The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Shipman's Tale

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of The Shipman's Tale from Geoffrey Chaucer's collection of stories The Canterbury Tales.

The Canterbury Tales | The Shipman's Tale | Summary



There is no prologue to the Shipman's tale, but in the Epilogue of the Man of Law's tale, the Shipman objects to the Host's proposal to have the Parson go next and demands to tell his story instead. Then he begins.

There once was a rich merchant who had a lovely wife and enjoyed entertaining guests. One of their regular guests was a young monk named Sir John, a close friend of the merchant.

The merchant invites Sir John to stay for a few days. During the visit the merchant shuts himself up in his office to work on his business accounts. While he is working, Sir John walks in the garden. The merchant's wife comes out and tells Sir John that the merchant is a neglectful husband. Advancing toward Sir John, she asks him to lend her 100 francs, and he promises he will, holding her close and kissing her. Later, after dinner, Sir John asks the merchant to lend him 100 francs. The merchant willingly agrees, and Sir John sets off for his abbey.

While the merchant is off on a business trip, Sir John visits the merchant's wife. He lends the 100 francs to her, and in return she sleeps with him. After the merchant returns, he makes a friendly visit to Sir John. Sir John remarks that he repaid the merchant's loan, giving the money to the merchant's wife. Later the merchant asks his wife about the money, and she tells him she spent it on pretty clothes. She says she will pay him back in bed. He asks her to be less extravagant in the future.


This tale is another fabliau, with the amorality characteristic of the genre. Its style—plain storytelling without much commentary from the storyteller—is similar to the Reeve's story and the Miller's story. However, there are a few differences from the Reeve's tale and the Miller's tale that are worth consideration. For one thing the "other man" this time is a monk, not a young clerk or student. This is in keeping with the characterization of many other clergy in The Canterbury Tales who seem to lack morals. In addition, the merchant, unlike the carpenter and miller of the previous stories, is a generous and trusting man. In general the characters in this tale lack the rudeness of the characters in the earlier ones.

Business transactions figure prominently in this story. The merchant is consumed with tallying up his accounts, goes off on a business trip presumably to make some financial deals, and continues to talk mainly of money after he returns home. His relationship with his wife seems mostly financial. He gives her money to run the household, advises her to be thrifty, and asks her to be more careful with money after he finds out about the loan. For her part she seems to treat sex as a financial transaction, agreeing to have sex with the monk in order to secure the loan from him and then offering to repay the loan to her husband in bed.

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