The Delta


Of all the bawdy tales, or fabliaux, in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Cl), the Shipman's Tale (ShT) tends to alienate the most readers and critics, many of whom find it lifeless and plain compared to other, more colorful tales like the Miller's (MilT), Reeve's (RvT) and Merchant's (MerT) tales. Read as it usually is, as a fabliau that reduces sexual relationships to the level of commerce, the ShT seems flat and lacks a moral standard by which to judge the characters--anticlimactic and amoral, it is neither a tale of "most solaas" nor of "best sentence." However, Herry Bailey, who judges each story based on these criteria, lauds the tale, and so we must dig deeper than the surface to unearth its moral and entertainment value. I suggest an alternative approach to the straightforward reading of this fabliau: rather than the substance of the tale, the fabliau serves as the form. By telling a story of trade in the familiar guise of a fabliau, which the audience would inevitably associate with deception and adultery, the Shipman takes a stand on the morality of financial exchange, relegating it to the realm of japing and swyving, which elevates the tale to a level of "best sentence" that is absent from the fabliau on its own. Further, the Shipman, by drawing a comparison between merchants and monks who cheat their friends both financially and sexually, all while apparently presenting an honest and just merchant as the hero of his tale, quytes the Merchant pilgrim, who represents the class of his biggest business rivals. In this way the tale also acquires a playful aspect of "most solaas," and becomes a valuable contribution to the pilgrims' tale-telling contest.