Week 9: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

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The Tale of the Sailor, cont.

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

Although the monk Dan John was joking with the merchant's wife about her husband keeping her up all night, she replies to him in all seriousness that her sex life with her husband is terrible! In turn, Dan John explains he really is not related to her husband at all, and he tells her that he loves her. She, in turn, asks him to loan her a 100 francs that she needs to give to her husband, promising that she will do whatever he wants in return.

This pretty wife began to shake her head,
And answered thus: "Aye, God knows all!" said she:
"Nay, cousin mine, it stands not so with me.
For by that God Who gave me soul and life,
In all the realm of France there is no wife
Who has less lust for that same sorry play.
For I may sing 'Alas!' and 'Welaway
That I was born!' but to no man," said she,
"Dare I to tell how this thing stands with me.
Wherefore I'm thinking from this land to wend,
Or else of my own life to make an end,
I am so fearful and so full of care."

This monk began, then, at the wife to stare,
And said: "Alas, my niece, may God forbid
That you, for any care or fear morbid,
Destroy yourself! But tell me of your grief;
Perhaps I may, whatever the mischief,
Counsel or help, and therefore do tell me
All the annoyance, for 'twill secret be;
For on my breviary I make oath
That never in my life, though lief or loath,
Shall I your secret whisper or betray."

"The same to you again," said she, "I say;
By God and by this breviary, I swear,
Though men this body of mine a-pieces tear,
No I will never, though I go to Hell,
Betray a single word that you may tell,
And this, not for our kinship and alliance,
But verily for love and true reliance."

Thus are they sworn, and thereupon they kissed,
And each told other such things as they list.
"Cousin," said she, "if I had time and space,
As I have not, and specially in this place,
Then would I tell a legend of my life,
What I have suffered since I've been a wife,
From my husband, though he is your cousin."

"Nay," quoth the monk, "by God and Saint Martin,
He is no more a cousin unto me
Than is this leaf a-hanging on the tree!
I call him so, by Saint-Denis of France,
To have but better reason to advance
With you, whom I have loved especially
Above all other women, and truly;
I swear this to you on the faith I own.
Tell me your grief before your man comes down,
Come, hasten now, and go your way anon."

"My dearest love," said she, "O my Dan John,
Right glad I were this counsel for to hide,
But it must out, I can't it more abide.
To me my husband is the poorest man
That ever was, since first the world began.
But since I am a wife, becomes not me
To tell a living soul our privity,
Either abed or in some other place;
God guard that I should tell it, of His grace!
For wife must never talk of her husband,
Save to his honour, as I understand.
But now to you thus much I can and shall:
So help me God, he is not worth, at all,
In any wise, the value of a fly.
But yet this grieves me most- he's niggardly;
And well you know that women naturally
Desire six things, and even so do I.
For women all would have their husbands be
Hardy, and wise, and rich, and therewith free,
Obedient to the wife, and fresh in bed.
But by that very Lord Who for us bled,
Though in his honour, myself to array
On Sunday next, I must yet go and pay
A hundred francs, or else be but forlorn.
Yet would I rather never have been born
Than have a scandal or disgrace, say I.
And if my husband such a thing should spy,
I were but lost, and therefore do I pray,
Lend me this sum, or else I perish, yea!
Dan John, I say, lend me these hundred francs;
By gad, I will not fail to give you thanks,
If only you will do the thing I pray.
For on a certain day I will repay,
And give to you what pleasure and service
I can give, aye, just as you may devise.
And if I don't, God take on me vengeance
As foul as once on Ganelon of France!"

This gentle monk replied as you shall hear.
"Now truthfully, my own sweet lady dear,
I have," said he, "on you so great a ruth
That I do swear and promise you, in truth,
That when your husband goes to Flanders there,
I will deliver you from all this care;
For I will bring to you a hundred francs.
And with that word he caught her by the flanks
And hugged her to him hard and kissed her oft.
"Go now your way," he said, "all still and soft,
And let us dine as soon as ever we may,
For by my dial it's the prime of day.
Go now, and be as true as I shall be."

"Now all else God forbid, sir," then said she.
And in she went as jolly as a pie,
And bade the cooks that they to kitchen hie,
So that her men might dine, and that anon.


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

  • what kind of life did the merchant's wife have with her husband?
  • what information does the monk reveal to her?
  • what does the merchant's wife ask the monk to give to her?

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