"Litel kanstow devyne the curious bisynesse that we have" : conflicting terms of marriage in Chaucer's Shipman's Tale

WCU Author/Contributor (non-WCU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Corrie Werner Greene (Creator)
Western Carolina University (WCU )
Web Site: http://library.wcu.edu/
Brian Gastle

Abstract: Chaucer bases the marriage in the Shipman’s Tale on the ethical and social systems of the medieval merchant class, yet criticism of the marriage and the wife’s extra-marital transaction especially, often falls squarely in the realm of ecclesiastical, moral ideology. A moral reading of the mercantile-based Shipman’s Tale presupposes that an accommodation can be negotiated between the mercantile and the ecclesiastical. I argue that Chaucer’s construction of marriage in the Shipman’s Tale allows for no accommodation. Chaucer creates a purely mercantile marriage that relies upon the ethical standards of business to determine its strength. This thesis examines the intersecting ecclesiastical and mercantile terms within the Shipman’s Tale. Chapter one examines the assertion that money perverts the marriage of the wife and the merchant. To refute these claims I examine the medieval church’s views on marriage, the Pauline “marriage debt,” adultery, and the conflicts within this ideal as they relate to and inform the marriage of the wife and merchant. The marriage between the merchant husband and his wife in the Shipman’s Tale is strengthened by its adherence to mercantile ethics, and stands as a legitimate partnership, not as a perversion. In Chapter two I focus on the determination that the wife in the Shipman’s Tale is “unfaithful, aggressively self-centered, and mercenary.” The particular assertion of “mercenary” interests me, since it is based on attempts to calculate a financial exchange rate in order to accuse the wife of over-selling herself to the monk. If the wife over-sells her body then she reaps a usurious profit, a practice condemned by both ecclesiastical and secular fourteenth-century courts. I analyze terms and financial transactions specific to usury and find that the wife conducts an ethical trade based on fourteenth-century mercantile law. She trades her body for the amount of currency the market will bear, therefore she is free from the charges of mercenary over-selling and moves out of the shadow of her merchant husband and into the role of independent merchant. In Chapter three I confront the “redemptive innocence” extended to the merchant husband and the refusal to extend such redemption to the wife. I investigate the specific mercantile terms related to the bill of exchange model used by both the husband and wife in the Shipman’s Tale, in order to show that the wife in the Shipman’s Tale is an ethical merchant in her own right and therefore worthy of the same “redemptive innocence” offered to her husband. I conclude that the merchant’s marriage typifies the medieval mercantile business model, that ecclesiastical marriage ideology is incongruent to this business model, and that the wife’s movements must be evaluated under the terms of mercantile ethics. I find the wife in the Shipman’s Tale to be an ethical merchant and an exemplary participant in the mercantile marriage provided by the text.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2015
Chaucer, Commodifcation, Marxism, Mercantilism, Shipman's Tale, Zizek
Chaucer, Geoffrey, -- -1400. -- Shipman's tale -- Criticism and interpretation
Literature, Medieval -- History and criticism
Tales, Medieval -- Themes, motives
Marriage in literature

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