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The Concept ofDebt in The Shipman's Tale Robert Adams Sam Houston State University Quia enim nemo superat leges omnipotentis creatoris, non sinitur anima non reddere de­ bitum. Aut enim reddit bene utendo quod accipit aut reddit amittendo quod uti noluit bene. Itaque si non reddit faciendo iusti­ tiam, reddet patiendo miseriam. - Saint Augustine De libero arbitrio 3.15 In the last thitty years many anicles have noted the importance ofthe concept ofdebt in The Shipman's Tale. The witty mixture of the mercantile and sexual dimensions of"debt" and the abundance of puns issuing from this mixture have been much admired and analyzed. 1 Nevertheless, it seems to me that at least one aspect of "debt" has been generally overlooked, probably because the nar­ rative allows it to remain, for the most part, in the conceptual background. I refer to the influential theological metaphor whereby * For since no one is beyond the laws of the omnipotent creator, no one is permitted not to pay his debt. For he either pays by using well what he receives or he pays by losing what he would not use well. Therefore, if he does not pay by doing justice, he will pay by suffering misery. 1 Discussions ofthis motifbegin with Albert H. Silverman, "Sex and Money in Chaucer's Shipman's Tale," PQ 32(1953):329-36. See also Janette Richardson, "The Fa�ade of Bawdry: Image Patterns in Chaucer's Shipman's Tale," ELH 32(1965):303-13; PaulS. Schneider, '"Taillynge Ynough': The Function ofMoney in the Shipman's Tale," ChauR 11(1976-77):201-209; and David H. Abraham, "Cosyn and Cosynage: Pun and Structure in the Shipman's Tale," ChauR 11(1976-77):319-27. 85 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER sin and the penance with which one compensates for sin are consid­ ered "debts" to be discharged to God. 2 At first glance this particular traditional application of "debt" would seem to have scant relevance to what is, by general agree­ ment, a sardonic fabliau tale of copulation and capitalism. In fact, recent criticism indicates that the uniquely impenitent, thoroughly amoral-sounding conclusion to The Shipman's Tale is itselfin need ofa plausible explanation that would relate it to the more patently didactic implications of the other "low" stories in the Canterbury collection. 3 Consider the circumstances: three people speculate with each other's lives and fortunes in an appalling display of self­ absorption and manage it so successfully that all emerge satisfied and none the wiser-or sadder-for the experience. Nor does the teller, whoever he may be, indicate any explicit awareness ofa moral to be culled from their example-unless one counts the trivial show of worldly wisdom with which he begins the tale. By comparison, the raunchy humor of The Miller's Tale and the wild justice of The Reeve's Tale are much closer to the essence oftheir shared genre and far less troubling in their ethical ramifications. I am aware that this judgment reverses a prevalent opinion, which is that The Shipman's Tale ismorelike the Old French fabliaux than are most of Chaucer's better-known "low" stories.4 Indeed, those who find The Shipman's Tale vastly inferior to, say, The Miller's Tale commonly argue that it lacks the special Chaucerian magic by 2 Brought to my attention after this essay was finished, an exception to the general neglect of this aspect of the tale is Gail McMurray Gibson,"Resurrection as Dramatic Icon in the Shipman's Tale," in]. P. Hermann and].]. Burke,Jr., eds., Signs andSymbols in Chaucer(University: University of Alabama Press, 1981), pp. 102-12. On pp. 109, 111-12, Gibson calls attention to the penitential resonances of"paye" and"rekenynge" in association withJudgment Day and what she sees as an attempt to parallel the merchant's wife to Mary Magdalene. 3 On the problem of the tale's unique tone and its peculiar relationship to the other fabliaux of Chaucer, see George R. Keiser, "Language and Meaning in Chaucer's Shipman's Tale," ChauR 12(1977-78):147-61; and, especially, Peter Nicholson, "The 'Shipman's Tale' and the Fabliaux," ELH45(1978):583-96...


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