The ‘Mayde Child’ in The Shipman’s Tale

Lee, Brian S.
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The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
Chaucer allocates only three lines to the little girl who makes a brief appearance in The Shipman’s Tale and then is heard of no more. When the Merchant’s wife goes into the garden to arrange a liaison with the Monk during her husband’s absence, A mayde child cam in hire compaignye, Which as hir list she may governe and gye, For yet under the yerde was the mayde. (Riverside Chaucer VII, 95–97) Since the child plays no active part in the Tale, we may well wonder why she is there at all. One might suspect that Chaucer had originally intended the Merchant to learn of his wife’s duplicity from her, but I prefer not to take seriously the possibility that so consummate an artist changed his mind but forgot to revise her out of the Tale. The older view was that Chaucer should have done more work on it. For Craik (48–70), its chief interest lay in seeing what Chaucer was able to do with ‘somewhat elementary and intractable material’—and according to Craik he failed to ‘impress his own artistic personality’ upon it to the extent that he did in his other comic tales. Since it is about a merchant tricked into paying his wife to cuckold him, it is often assumed that the Tale was originally intended for the Wife of Bath (cf. Cooper 278). The implication is that the rather bare fabliau was set aside to pursue a better idea. Although the end-link confirms that it is the Shipman who tells the Tale, there is no obvious reason why he should be the narrator, unless his occupation of shipping merchandise to foreign ports makes a tale about a merchant who goes away on business appropriate for him. It seems to contain unrevised inconsistencies, of which the maid child’s existence and the feminine pronouns in lines 11–19 are the most glaring examples.
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