A rich merchant from St. Denys has an unusually beautiful wife. Their splendid house is often filled with guests. One of the most frequent guests is a handsome, young monk named Sir John. Sir John is on exceptionally friendly terms with the merchant and tells him that he and the merchant are cousins or closely related. The merchant vows he will always regard the monk as his brother.
The merchant invites Sir John to his home for a few days. During this visit, the monk encounters the merchant's wife in the garden. Noticing her pallor, he questions her. She agrees to tell him her problems of marital neglect if both swear themselves to total secrecy; then she tells him her story and pleads with him to loan her one hundred francs to buy clothes that her frugal husband denies her. Sir John agrees to bring the money when the merchant leaves for Bruges. Then he draws the wife to him, kisses her madly, and confesses his desire for her.
After dinner that night, the monk draws the merchant aside and asks him for a loan of one hundred francs to purchase cattle. The merchant gladly gives Sir John the money. The next day, the merchant leaves for Bruges. Soon after, the monk arrives at the merchant's home, and in, exchange for the money, the wife agrees to spend the night in bed with the monk.
Sometime later, the merchant stops by the monk's abbey to pay a social call. The monk volunteers the information that he has repaid the one hundred francs to the merchant's wife only a day or two after he had borrowed it. When the merchant returns home, he chides his wife for not telling him that the loan was repaid. She explains that she used the money to buy fine clothes and promises to repay him — not with money, but in bed. Seeing no point in scolding her further, the merchant concludes, "Well, I forgive you what you spent / But don't be so extravagant again." ("Now Wyf," he sayde, "and I foryeve it thee; / But, by thy lyfe, ne be namoore so large.")
This and the next tale present a "debate" on the role of position and power in this world. The opening lines of The Shipman's Tale establish this theme. "Once there was a merchant in St. Denys who was rich and was highly respected as wise" ("A marchant whilom dwelled at Seint Denys, / That riche was, for which men helde hym wys.") The tale itself concerns a rich merchant who has a certain authority over those around him because of his apparent wealth. He also has a wife who has a merry and companionable air. (A wyf he hadde of excellent beautee; / And compaignable and revelous was she."), but these excellent qualities cost the merchant dearly.
The modern reader may be perplexed, for example, why the merchant refuses his lovely wife money but gladly and readily lends Sir John one hundred francs. Again, the theme of position and power comes to play. In the medieval times, even though Sir John is a monk, he holds a social position higher than the merchant. Sir John is knighted. Thus, the merchant considers it an honor and is flattered to be claimed as a relative to a person of a higher position in the social order.
Sir John is generous; he always brings some gift or money to everyone in the household, even down to the least page, and the servants love him for his gifts. Thus Sir John gives two type of gifts: when he calls the merchant "cousin," giving him a gift of prestige, and when he brings presents to the household, "they were as glad of him comyng / As fowel is fayn when that the sonne up riseth."
There is a question, however, about why Chaucer assigned this tale to the Shipman. We would have expected a tale more ribald and lusty from a man of the sea who has been to many ports. Furthermore, at the beginning of the tale are some puzzling lines:
The silly husband always has to pay
He has to clothe us, he has to array
Our bodies to enhance his reputation,
While we dance round in all this decoration.
(The sely housbonde, algate he moot paye,
He moot us clothe, and he moot us arraye,
Al for his ownene worshipe richely
In which array we daunce jolily)
The use of the first person plural pronoun "us" in the phrase "he has to clothe us" clearly suggests that Chaucer intended to assign this story to one of the female members of the party, and due to the subject matter it could have been no one other than the Wife of Bath. Apparently Chaucer wrote this story for her and then changed his mind, forgetting to eliminate the inconsistent passage.
Saint Denys a city in northern France.
Bruges (Brugges) an important commercial city in Flanders, north of Brussels.
Ganelon of France the traitorous character in the French national epic, Chanson de Roland.
Que la meaning "Who's there?"
"Score it on my tally" loosely, "add it to my debt." A tally was a stick that was marked, or scored, to show the amunt of a creditor's debt.