Chaucer's "Shaply" Guildsmen and Mercantile Pretensions





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Brian Gastle

Brian W. Gastle
Western Carolina University
Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 99.2 (1998) 211-16
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Chaucer's "Shaply" Guildsmen and Mercantile Pretensions

At line 372 of the General Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, The Riverside Chaucer annotates "shaply" as "suitable" or "fit."(1) Given Chaucer's propensity for contemporary social critique, this reading is alluring as a comment on the exclusiveness of secular London governance--a group of workaday professionals who are "fit to be aldermen." We have, with this reading, a Chaucer well aware of the restrictive nature of London representation, who poetically lauds the common workers as not merely capable but appropriate for such civic positions. However, the MED further defines "shaply" as "suitable, appropriate . . . [regarding] clothes: well fitting on"(S.5). This expanded definition is specifically linked to dress, akin to Langland's narrator, who "shoop me into a shroudes as I a sheep were,"(1.2)(2) and such connotations appear quite appropriate given that "shaply" follows closely on the heels, so to speak, of the description of the guildsmen's apparel. Given its link to dress, the line could rather be translated as "dressed appropriately for an alderman," even though they hail from a social stratum from which aldermen were rarely taken. This reading turns the portrait into much less a critique of contemporary London politics than a further criticism of the petty bourgeois pretensions of the five guildsmen.

The description of the guildsmen in the General Prologue marks the only moment in the General Prologue when Chaucer treats pilgrims as a group:

      An Haberdasshere and a Carpenter,
      A Webbe, a Dyere, and a Tapycer--
      And they were clothed alle in o lyveree
      Of a solempne and a greet fraternitee.
      Ful fressh and newe hir geere apiked was;
      Hir knyves were chaped noght with bras
      But al with silver, wroght ful clene and weel,
      Hir girdles and hir pouches everydeel.
      Wel semed ech of hem a fair burgeys
      To sitten in a yeldehalle on a deys.
      Everich, for the wisdom that he kan,
      Was shaply for to been an alderman. (361-72)

The mere fact that the guildsmen are described is usually the extent of the attention this portrait receives. Mertens-Fonck, for example, after classifying the portrait as "remarkable," concludes by saying that Chaucer describes the men all together because "they are representatives of a social group whose members are sufficiently characterized by what they have in common: bright new equipment, knives mounted with silver, and the same livery";(3) but the common aspects of their description signify much more than simple social association. Each guild member maintains a certain autonomy and anonymity--haberdasher, carpenter, weaver, dier, and tapestry maker--while being "cloothed all in o lyveree," partaking of the same "array" that Chaucer himself says differentiates the pilgrims. The description of their clothing accomplishes as much as medieval notions of physiognomy with respect to character development in the Prologue. The Wife of Bath's portrait, for example, is not complete, nor is it as revealing, without her shield-sized hat and "spores sharpe," a description sharply differentiating her from the similarly wimpled Prioress. While the professions of the guildsmen are explicitly delineated, the characters' appearances are not, particulary with respect to their dress or livery, which is all similarly affluent and striking.

The livery the guildsmen share mark them as belonging to a social (religious or parish) guild rather than a craft or merchant guild.(4) The craft guilds, formed primarily for the regulation of a craft and the protection of the mysteries associated with that craft, were officially sanctioned and recognized by Parliament, which even went so far in 1388(5) as to require both a writ of returns for each such craft guild as well as copies of any controlling charters or letters patent organizing guild activity, and a 1363 statute required all people of "mysteries" to choose and hold only one. The social guilds, on the other hand, "were founded upon the wide basis of brotherly aid and moral comeliness, without distinction (unless expressly specified) of calling or class."(6) But London was a segregated city geographically, as Chaucer well knew coming from the somewhat exclusive vintner's district, and while there were a few such guilds that drew their members from across the districts of London, and therefore across strict boundaries of rank and profession, most social guilds enrolled members from localized parishes or wardmotes inhabited primarily by practitioners of similar, if not identical, crafts. Even though they represent several different professions, Chaucer's guildsmen are all, save the carpenter, of the same type of profession--cloth workers--and derive from the lesser professions from which city aldermen were rarely elected. Also, one wonders, why Chaucer might have included such an unlikely compatriot as the Carpenter for the cloth worker guildsmen. Ultimately it seems appropriate that there be such an anomolous guild member, one wholly outside even the loose confines of parish guild delineation. Much like the inclusion of the pilgrim narrator, who after talking with the pilgrims only briefly "was of hir felaweshipe anon," the carpenter reinforces the emphasis on community so crucial to both the Canterbury book and so many contemporary social guilds, "to noriche more loue bytwene þe bretheren and sustren of the bretherhede."(7) The brief description of the guildsmen in the General Prologue encapsulates much of the Canterbury Tales as a whole. The individuals come from varied walks of life, but are united by a sense of community that goes beyond profession. If Harwood is correct in identifying their guild as the fraternity of St. John the Baptist, then their disparate professions are united under a recognizably sacred rubric, identified by their livery, just as the professionally (though not drastically socially) disparate pilgrims are brought together by their expressed endeavor to seek "the hooly blisful martir."

The social function of guild membership provides Chaucer with an easily recognizable pattern for organizing the guildsmen. As a conspicuous aspect of virtually every guild charter and public return, the livery signified not merely guild membership but the complex relationships between economic communities and the state. The physical appearance and apparel of the guildsmen would have been at odds with much of what the narrator describes as their professional character and station. Certainly the livery of the greater guilds of London were ornate and costly, much like the guildsmen's silver knives and equipment "fressh and newe." That they were clothed "all" in one livery "of a solempne and greet" fraternity justifies the description of their entire gear; lesser guilds often had little more than a single article of clothing to mark their livery. For example, the Shipman's guild of Lynn, a guild which was regionally significant but wielded nowhere near the political and economic power of the greater London merchant guilds, wore only hoods to mark their livery.(8)

The livery of Chaucer's guildsmen is characteristic of the greater London guilds, but their specific professions were certainly not those from which the city aldermen were drawn (despite Chaucer's claims regarding their worth). Wealth, social status, and membership in a reputable guild was a pre-requisite for holding a position of power such as alderman. Thrupp notes that, of over 260 London aldermen elected in the fourteenth century, "only 9 were citizens of lesser companies," and those nine had clear merchant ties and were likely moving into merchant activites of the greater guilds themselves. In the following century, not one sherriff or alderman was elected in London who was not one of the greater merchant guilds.(9) Chaucer's guildsmen were not from professions associated with this type of merchant activity. Rather they were common tradesmen in the suit, literally, of more prominent civic participants. The position of alderman was not accessible to the likes of Chaucer's Tapestry Weaver or Haberdassher, so why does the narrator characterizes this group as "shaply for to been an alderman." Even if these guildsmen were recognized by Chaucer's contemporary readers as members of the influencial Tailor's fraternity of St. John the Baptist (as Harwood argues), their clothing alludes to a position far above their alloted station in London mercantile life and politics, and Chaucer's aristocratic audience most probably found such sumptuous dress subject for derision. They were dressed like aldermen, but could never be aldermen. The passage praises their wisdom, from which their ability to hold public office derives; but the "wisdom that he kan" seems to say more about their ability to dress smartly than act so, a characteristic they seem to have in common with their wives.

The most enigmatic aspect of their collective portrait, and an aspect which also derives in part from issues of apparel, is that it ends with a description of the guildsmen's wives, who are not present on the pilgrimage:

      For catel hadde they ynogh and rente,
      And eek hir wyves wolde it wel assente;
      And ellis certeyn were they to blame
      It is ful fair to been ycleped "madame,"
      And goon to vigilies al before,
      And have a mantel roialliche ybore. (373-78)

The wives are initially linked to the possessions which allow the husband's bourgeois participation, the wives becoming chattel as much as the income provided by cattle and rent. The marriage contract for the guildsmen, in a quite traditional way, becomes a negotiation of goods within their own profession, for as their status rises so too does the value of their wives increase, and the wives are more than willing to participate in the interest accrued through their husbands activity. As Donaldson puts it, "The Gildsmen are climbing fast and the narrator joins their wives in cheering them on."(10) Like their husbands, the wives are interested in social advancement, believing it "ful fair to been yclepyd 'Madame.'" The desire to be called "madame" is most revealing given the context of the subsequent final line of the guildsmen description. Not only do the wives desire to be called by a title reserved for certain upper echelon members of society, but they also want their mantles royally (roialliche) carried as they go first into vigils. I would suggest that this final detail in the portrait concerning the guildsmens' wives characterizes much of the mercantile marriage problematic that is to develop throughout the rest of the Canterbury Tales, especially in the Wife of Bath's Prologue and in the Shipman's Tale. Even though the General Prologue guildsmen, and their wives, exhibit the accoutraments of influential trade folk, and to some extent gentry and nobility, their exhibition is colored by an anxiety over the lack of real power they can exert and the respect, or lack thereof, they receive from their peers, including apparently Chaucer himself. Just as the guildsmen are dressed like aldermen, their wives wish to be treated nobly, indeed royally, in public congregations. Their desire to be first at vigil, while no meagre display in the tradition of medieval social and religious history, pales in comparison to their desire to be treated royally, a desire which manifests itself primarily in the type of clothing they wear and how they expect people to react to that clothing and to them. The wives and their guildsmen husbands depend entirely on their apparel for advancement of their rather aristocratic pretensions, a characteristic truly fitting of these cloth related workers.

Contrary to a critical tradition which views the guildsmen portrait as "something of a puzzle" because "they tell no tales, their characters are not developed,"(11) the portrait itself tells a tale of social conflict involving both status and marriage. The Canterbury Tales contains as many views of merchants as there are types of merchants in late fourteenth-century society. As an active participant in English court politics, Chaucer often ridicules the pretensions of the recently affluent trade organizations and their nouveau riche members, both male and female. But he also foregrounds their power within the political climate of London rule and the artistic confines of his poetry, a characterization which would have been much appreciated by his own coterie. Thus Chaucer's is not a single view of the merchant community but, rather like the Canterbury Tales itself, a montage of conflicting but ultimately integral representatives, and the conflicting views we take of Chaucer today is exemplified in the critical history of one of the most enigmatic of portraits from the General Prologue--Chaucer's five Guildsmen. Some critics, like Ernest Kuhl, believe that the composite portrait is an astute passage which deftly skirts the political issues surrounding the victualling guilds of the late fourteenth century,(12) and "Chaucer the artist becomes Chaucer the diplomat."(13) But others see the marks of a more critical poet in the guildsmen passage, one who is satirizing the economic pretensions of the burgesses, and is "well aware that his guildsmen had no chance of becoming aldermen," a conclusion which ultimately intimates "the whole passage as a piece of irony."(14) But these positions need not be mutually exclusive; Chaucer can be at once both ironic and politic, critical and laudatory, especially given the complex nature of the guildsmen description. And for Chaucer's contemporaries, co-workers at the Customs house and court patrons alike, the guildsmen portrait, especially the apparent nature of their "shaply" apparel, is at once both a critique of London political exclusion and petty bourgeois pretensions to political power.


1. The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed., Larry D. Benson gen. ed. (Boston, 1987). All further quotations from Chaucer's works will be from this edition. Benson's annotation to line 372 is supported by a long tradition of Canterbury Tales editors: The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer, 2nd ed. John H. Fisher ed. (New York, 1989) annotates "shaply" as "suitable," as does Chaucer's Poetry, E. T. Donaldson ed. (New York, 1958) and The Canterbury Tales: The First Fragment, Michael Alexander ed. (New York, 1987); whereas Chaucer's Major Poetry, Albert C. Baugh ed. (New York, 1963), The Canterbury Tales: Nine Tales and the General Prologue, V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson ed. (New York, 1989), and The Canterbury Tales: A Selection, Daniel Cook, ed. (New York: 1961) all annotate "shaply" as "fit." Of all these, only Alexander's edition comments on the fact that "it was to be a century before a member of these trades became an Alderman of London" (268).

Manuscript variation of "shaply" is relatively minimal: "shapen" Manchester English 113 (1483); "lich shap" Trinity College Cambridge R.3.3 (1450-60); "happely" Laud 600 (1430-50), Northumberland (1450-70), Caxton 1st ed. (1478), Trinity College Cambridge R.3.15 (1480-1500); "happy" Cambridge Ii (1430-50); "worthy" Hatton (1450-60); "likly" (1460-80). Manuscript information is from Paul G. Ruggiers and Daniel J. Ransom, The Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Vol. 2 Part One A (Norman, OK, 1993), 163, and John M. Manly and Edith Rickert, The Text of the Canterbury Tales, 8 vols. (Chicago, 1940), 5:32.

2. Piers Plowman: The B Version, rev. ed., ed. George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson (Berkeley, 1988).

3. Paule Mertens-Fonck, "Art and Symmetry in the 'General Prologue' to the Canterbury Tales." Actes du Congress d'Amiens (1982), Societé des Anglicistes de l'Enseignment Superieur (Paris, 1987): 43.

4. See Britton J. Harwood, "The 'Fraternitee' of Chaucer's Guildsmen," Review of English Studies 39 (1988): 413-17, for a brief but compelling proposal that the specific social guild implied is London's tailor's fraternity of St. John the Baptist.

5. For the complete text of this writ "Br'e q'd quel't mistera London' deferat l'ras patentes Regis suas misteras tangentes in Cancellar' Regis" see Calendar of Letter Books: Letter Book H, ed. Reginald R. Sharpe, D.C.L. (London, 1907), 336.

6. Lucy Toulman Smith and Toulman Smith, eds, English Guilds, Early English Text Society 40, (Oxford, 1870), xxvii.

7. English Guilds, 1.

8. The Guid of St. George the Martyr, Bishop's Lynn, also required a "hoode of lyuere of þe gylde" (Smith, 76).

9. Sylvia Thrupp, The Merchant Class of Medieval London 1300-1500, (Ann Arbor, 1989), 39.

10. E. T. Donaldson, Chaucer's Poetry 891.

11. John Reidy, "Grouping of Pilgrims in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters 47 (1962): 595-603.

12. Ernest P. Kuhl, "Chaucer's Burgesses," Transactions of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters 18.ii (1916): 652-75. Reprinted Studies in Chaucer and Shakespeare, ed. Elizabeth K. Belting. Beloit, Wis.: Belting Publications, 1971. 15-49. Kuhl is supported by Carroll Camden Jr., "Query on Chaucer's Burgesses," Philological Quarterly 7 (1928): 314-17; and Ernst Trauschke, "Zu Chaucer," Die Neueren Sprachan 37 (1929): 651-3.

13. Kuhl, 658.

14. Peter Goodall, "Chaucer's 'Burgesses' and the Aldermen of London," Medium Aevum 50 (1981): 290. See also G .G Coulton, "Minor Notes." MLR 12 (1917): 512, and Ann B. Fullerton, "The Five Craftsmen," Modern Language Notes 61 (1946): 515-23.

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