The Canterbury Tales, - Biblical Allusions in The Shipman’s Tale
There is no doubting Chaucer’s mastery at paroemia; that his adaptations of his many and varied sources transcended their roots is attested by the fact that, unlike many of his contemporaries or authorities, his works have not “passen as dooth a shadwe upon the wal”. Yet while his skill as a medieval author is undisputed, the extent of his subtlety is not always fully appreciated. In The Canterbury Tales, for instance, while some tales were rapid in drawing academic interest and scholarly interpretations, others were quickly dismissed as ribald tales, as simple fabliaux hardly worthy of more than a cursory examination.
The Shipman’s Tale was one of these. That “[It] may be Chaucer’s earliest fabliau” and “relatively simple in design and execution” seemed, for a period of time, to be the general consensus on this piece; the primary concern of scholars was in unearthing its sources (which proved to be uncharacteristically problematic), not in analysing its structural complexities or for insights into medieval society and life. Yet recent research has renewed interest in this first tale from The Canterbury Tales’ Fragment VII, and it can now be seen as a fabliaux, yes, but as one that is as rich a tapestry – woven of biblical allusions, literary techniques, intertextuality, and social commentary – as any of the other tales. By pulling out and examining the care and skill with which Chaucer inserted just one of these multiple threads – in this case, the biblical allusions within The Shipman’s Tale – it can be shown that this is as significant a tale as any other.
There are a limited number of methods by which Chaucer can integrate a biblical allusion into his text: “. . . some are paraphrases, some are direct quotations with the biblical reference supplied, some are unspecified brief citations, some are misquotations, some are proper citations in inappropriate contexts, and some appear to be deliberately disguised for artistic effect.” (Wood 35). Chaucer varies widely in his usage of these techniques, and, though we can never be entirely sure on the medieval author’s actual entente in writing, we can gain an insight judging by how he applies a technique to a biblical passage. With The Shipman’s Tale, it would appear that his intentions were unusually subtle: there are very few, if any, direct quotations; instead, we find vague references and indirect suggestions to Scripture, buried beneath the surface of the literal level of the text. Only through careful reading and attention to certain images, segments of dialogue, and odd or unexpected bits of characterization can these hints be uncovered. What we do find are veiled references to Luke 12; there are also suggestions of Proverbs 31:10-31 (the mulier fortis passage), of the Fall, of the Resurrection, of the meeting of Anne and Joachim (parents to the Virgin Mary), and a passing mention of Job 14; and even...