Week 9: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

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The Tale of the Sailor

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 900 words.

The sailor tells a story about a rich merchant and his not-very-faithful wife. His wife is beautiful, but very demanding, and the merchant has a hard time finding money for all the things she wants. There was a young monk, named Dan John, who was from the same village as the merchant, and they were good friends. They called each other "cousin" although they were not related. The monk would come and stay with them at their house, and he was always a welcome guest... especially as far as the wife was concerned!

A merchant, dwelling, once, at Saint Denis,
Was rich, for which men held him wise, and he
Had got a wife of excellent beauty,
And very sociable and gay was she,
Which is a thing that causes more expense
Than all the good cheer and the deference
That men observe at festivals and dances;
Such salutations and masked countenances
Pass by as does a shadow on the wall;
But woe to him that must pay for it all.
The foolish husband, always he must pay;
He must buy clothes and other fine array,
And all for his own worship, wealthily,
In which, indeed, women dance jollily.
And if he cannot thus, peradventure,
Or cares not such expenses to endure,
But thinks his money wasted or quite lost,
Why then another man must pay the cost,
Or else lend gold, and that is dangerous.

This noble merchant had a worthy house,
To which, each day, so many did repair,
Since he was generous and his wife was fair,
'Twas to be wondered at; but hear my tale.
Among his many guests of great and small
There was a monk, a handsome man and bold,
I think that he was thirty winters old,
Who was for ever coming to that place.
This youthful monk, who was so fair of face,
Was so far intimate with the worthy man,
And had been since their friendship first began.
That in the house familiar was he
As it is possible for friend to be.
And in as much as this same goodly man
And too, this monk of whom I first began,
Were both born in the village they'd lived in,
The monk claimed him for cousin, or such kin;
And he again, he never said him nay,
But was as glad thereof as bird of day;
For to his heart it was a great pleasance.
Thus they were knit by endless alliance,
And each of them did other one assure
Of brotherhood the while their lives endure.

Free was Dan John with money and expense
When in that house; and full of diligence
To please all there, whatever be his age.
He ne'er forgot to tip the humblest page
In all that house; according to degree
He gave the master, then the company,
Whene'er he came, some kind of honest thing;
For which they were as glad of his coming
As bird is glad when the new sun up-rises.
No more of all this now, for it suffices.

It so befell, this merchant, on a day,
Prepared to make all ready his array,
Since to the town of Bruges he was to fare
To purchase there a quantity of ware;
To which end he'd to Paris sent someone
With messages, and he had prayed Dan John
That he should come to Saint-Denis to pay
Him and his wife a visit for a day,
Said 'twas a thing he certainly must do.
This noble monk, whereof I'm telling you.
Had from his abbot, when he wished, license,
Because he was a man of great prudence,
An officer, indeed, who out did ride
To see to barns and granges, far and wide;
And now to Saint-Denis he came anon.
Who was so welcome as my lord Dan John,
Our cousin dear, so full of courtesy?
With him he brought a jug of rare malmsey,
And still another full of fine vernage,
And wild fowls, too, as was his long usage.
And so I let them eat and drink and play,
This monk and merchant, for a night and day.

Upon the third day this good trader rises,
And on his needs discreetly he advises;
And up into his counting-house goes he
To reckon up his books, as well may be,
For the past year, to learn how matters stood
And what he'd spent, and whether it were good,
And whether he were wealthier than before.
His books and bags, all that he had in store,
He put before him on his counting-board;
He was right rich in goods and rich in hoard,
For the which cause he bolted fast his door;
He'd have no one disturb him while before
Him stood his books and monies at that time;
And thus he sat till it was well past prime.

Dan John had risen with the dawn, also,
And in the garden wandered to and fro,
Having said all his prayers full reverently.
Then came this goodwife, walking secretly
Into the garden, walking slow and soft.
And kissed him in salute, as she'd done oft.
A little girl came walking at her side,
Was in her charge to govern and to guide,
For yet beneath the rod was this small maid.

"O my dear cousin, O Dan John," she said,
"What ails you that so early you arise?"

"Dear niece," said he, "surely it should suffice
To sleep for five full hours of any night,
Unless 'twere for some old and languid wight,
As are these married men, who doze and dare
About as in the form the weary hare,
Worn all distraught by hounds both great and small.
But, my dear niece, just why are you so pale?
I must suppose of course that our good man
Has you belaboured since the night began,
And you were forced to sleep but scantily."

And with that word he laughed right merrily,
And, what of his own thoughts, he blushed all red.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • how did the merchant and the monk become friends?
  • what was the merchant busy doing one day, so that he locked himself away?
  • when Dan John sees that the merchant's life is looking pale, what does he say to her in jest?

Source: The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. Modern English translation (name of translator not given). Website: Litrix Reading Room

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM