Smart Sailor or Seditious Smuggler?
The Shipman in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

© Copyright 1994, Skylar Hamilton Burris

This is a brief analysis of one of the characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s prologue to the Canterbury Tales. I begin with my "translation," from the Middle English, of the passage describing the shipman:

There was a shipman, living far out west. For all I know, he was from Dartmouth. He rode on a large nag as best he could, and wore a heavy wool gown that stretched to the knee. He had a dagger hanging on a strap around his neck, under his arm, and down. The hot summer had made his skin all brown, and certainly he was a good fellow. He had drawn many a draught of wine from Bordeaux while the trader slept. He paid no heed to exacting conscience--if, when he fought, he had the upper hand, he drowned his prisoners. But as for his craft, he could judge well of the tides, the currents and the hazards around him, his anchorage and his moon, his pilotage--there was none like him from Hull to Cartagena. He was hardy, and wise in all he'd undertaken. His beard had been shaken by many storms. He knew all the havens, where they were, from Gotland to the cape of Finisterre, and he knew every inlet in Britain and in Spain. His ship was called the Maudelaine. (lines 390-412)

In the shipman's portrait, Chaucer-the-pilgrim regards his subject as a knowledgeable sailor and a good man. Chaucer-the-poet, however, paints a much less complementary picture--that of a ruthless smuggler. Both Chaucers pay close attention to the details of the pilgrim's dress, appearance, and behavior, which in turn reveal the subject's true profession and character.

Chaucer-the-pilgrim holds an ignorant admiration for the shipman: "certainly he was a good felawe" (397). The shipman appears to be a true sailor. He is not at home on this pilgrimage, but rides "upon a rouncy as [best he can]" (392). Yet he wears a dagger around his neck, a detail that shatters this quaint, fish-out-of-water image. The dagger may be a simple observation for Chaucer-the-pilgrim, but Chaucer-the-poet uses it to suggest that the shipman is out of place not so much because he is away from the sea, but because he is away from the brutal life to which he is accustomed. He probably keeps the dagger so close at hand in case of mutiny or other confrontations. His heavy wool gown, which stretches to the knee, effectively conceals the weapon until the moment when he must use it for murder.

Chaucer-the-pilgrim respects the shipman's knowledge: "There was noon swich from Hulle to Cartage" (406). He speaks of the shipman's knowledge of harbors and inlets with admiration. Yet Chaucer-the-poet uses the same details to suggest that the shipman is not merely a sailor, but a seditious smuggler. He knows every inlet and harbor--every haven--not because he is a good sailor, but because he is a good smuggler; he must duck into them in order to avoid capture. As a smuggler he pays no heed to "nice conscience" (400). Indeed, he steals from his passengers while they sleep, and if he is ever confronted by other pirates, he drowns them: "By water he sente hem hoom to every land" (402).

Chaucer-the-poet reveals that the shipman's trade is not what it appears to be to Chaucer-the-pilgrim. This contradiction invites the reader to compare the shipman with another pilgrim of dubious profession. The Manciple, like the shipman, earns his livelihood by stealing from those he is supposedly serving. The Manciple's embezzlement remains undetected by the lords he serves, just as the shipman steals from his own passengers while they sleep. Indeed, this passage describing the shipman helps prepare the reader for the more subtle portrait of the Manciple.

Work Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The General Prologue. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th edn. 2 vols.
        Ed. M.H. Abrams New York: W.W Norton and Co., 1993. 1: 90.

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