The Shipman - Ellesmere Chaucer

Image of the Shipman from an early manuscript of The Canterbury Tales which is now in the Huntington Library, San Marino, Californoa.

"The Shipman's Tale" (Middle English: "The Shipmans Tale" without an apostrophe; also known in Modern English as "The Skipper's Tale", "The Sailor's Tale" and "The Sea Captain's Tale") is a bawdy comic short story in verse from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The tale describes how a monk tries to take advantage of a wealthy merchant and his wife by borrowing money from one to pay to have sex with the other. However, it is the merchant's wife who ends up having the last laugh.

The fact that the words "we" and "us" are used to refer to women in some lines early in the tale, which describe a husband's duties, has led some to speculate that the tale was originally intended for the Wife of Bath. Indeed, there is nothing in the story which ties it specifically to a sailor.


In the town of Saint Denis near Paris live a wealthy merchant and his beautiful wife. The merchant's wife has extravagant tastes, spending a lot of money on clothes, and enjoys parties. Many visitors often come to the merchant's house to enjoy his hospitality and to see his lovely wife. One of those frequent guests is a young monk called Don John. The monk comes from the same town as the merchant and, for that reason, is able to claim that they are related. He and the merchant become close friends.


Don John and the merchant's wife. Illustration from a 1782 edition of Chaucer's works.

Shortly before the merchant leaves on a business trip to the city of Bruges, he obtains permission from Don John's abbot for the monk to spend a few days with he and his wife. On the morning of the day before the merchant is due to leave, both Don John and the merchant's wife are up early and meet each other in the merchant's garden. Don John remarks that the merchant's wife looks tired and quips that her husband must have exhausted her the night before. She replies that that is not the case because her husband is inattentive to her and also stingy. She apologizes to Don John for speaking about one of his relatives in this manner. The monk tells the merchant's wife that he is not really related to the merchant and only claimed that he was so that he could get closer to her. The merchant's wife appears happy to hear this. She tells Don John that she owes someone one hundred francs and that, if he could give give the money to her, she would do anything the monk wanted in return.

That evening, Don John asks the merchant to lend him one hundred francs, which the merchant happily does.

A few days after the merchant leaves for Bruges, Don John goes to his house. He gives the merchant's wife the one hundred francs. In return, she spends the night with him.

After the merchant returns from Bruges, he goes to see Don John. He remarks to his friend that he owes some people twenty thousand crowns. The monk says that he cannot give the merchant twenty thousand crowns but he has already paid back the one hundred francs, having given it to the merchant's wife.

When the merchant asks his wife for the one hundred francs, she tells him that Don John was at fault for not having told her that the money was repayment for a loan. She says that she assumed that the money was a present and has already spent it. She reassures her husband that she will repay him in kind with her lovemaking.

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