About two weeks ago, I assigned a weighty assignment for my students involving a touch of creativity and ingenuity. Of course, I did not think up the assignment. Someone who has spent far too much time thinking up interesting ways to make uninterested students interested in the material conjured the whole idea. I applied it to Chaucer. The assignment essentially consists of choosing one Canterbury pilgrim and creating a “conversation” of sorts with another pilgrim. For instance, one could very well choose the Squire as their initial pilgrim writing a positive letter to the Summoner giving him tips on cleaning up his facial features. Or one could adopt the personality of the Franklin speaking to the cook about possibly coming over to his place. The assignment then consists of the students switching roles and responding. I certainly believed the assignment to be fairly easy (requiring thought no doubt) and also more fun than some dry, dull research paper. Nevertheless, some students asked that I partake in the activity too, believing it to be rather difficult. I endeavored upon the quest I created and amused myself to no end just as is the case for class. I insert it here in hopes that you too may be amused.
Clean Coasts Make Mirthful Merchants:
The Merchant Adresses the Skipper
I am writing to you concerning the dreadful issue of safety on the high seas. Once again, I hear word of that horrid vessel The Maudelayne reeking havoc upon the tempest driven waters. My sources assure me the commander of this portentous ship is a tanned sailor dressed in “a woolen gown that reached his knees” with a dagger draped around his neck. This sailor may as well be a pirate. For I have received intelligence that this very shipman has ransacked several of my trading harbors, looting the wine and murdering my men. The most recent incident resulted in the loss of many good men and the sinking of my most prized ship. If these actions at all continue, it will be my duty to commence a widespread investigation in the actions of the aforementioned pirate, the result of which could bring about the termination of his life on earth.
Though I am tempted to assert my own power and take matters into my own hands, I have decided to prudently formulate a lengthy list of grievances, overlooked and confirmed as just offences by a certain sergeant of the law, a former justice of Assize, who now resides in London. Adventure produced a scenario in which he arrived at the Harwich port where I am now staying for the solitary purpose of judging my case this very morning. Be wary dear Skipper. My lawyer is a busy man who knows the law so well not a judgment, case, or crime has slipped his grasp since that coronation of William I. This man and I have scrupulously overlooked the situation and have come to the mutual assent that if the following two grievances are not repaid and dealt with in full, I will indeed take matters into my own hands.
(1) First, I write of the offenses occurring at sundry ports and harbors where my great men are spending great amounts of energy in the effort to import and export a rather large amount of wine. I know from not a few witnesses that one harbor in particular, Bordeaux, France, has been often ransacked by you and your thieving companions. I have a colleague in the profession, a trader at Bordeaux, and our two families have been in business for ages going back to the seventh century. His family, I have been told, is a long line of heavy drinkers with a rather unique habit of falling into deep sleeps after imbibing on that liquor which is my very source of income. I have been informed that on various occasions, this trader at Bordeaux — after importing my good wine – enjoyed the liquor to such a degree and after consistent swigs of the beverage passed out at once. To my knowledge, he awoke in dismay to find that nearly all the wine he had yet to import had been purloined, leaving both my wallet and his stomach empty. Need I mention the other harbors where this incident has occurred: How in Gotland my furs were filched, and news reached me that a score of ill-looking men were seen scouring across the Swedish countryside in furs of like ilk? How the glass sent to Fisterra was found to be later carrying wine originally sent to Bordeaux? How in Carthage an entire ship was abducted and then men forced to clothe themselves in nothing but the few furs I trade before being forced to walk the plank?
(2) Secondly, in regards to the scene at Carthage, my men have repeatedly told me grave stories of how that dastardly vessel, The Maudelayne, has not only ransacked the harbors but has been found scouring the open seas looking for ships to plunder and destroy. Many a ship has been attacked, commandeered, and eventually set afire all in the past few months. My fury and wrath were kindled at the news that before those ships were sent to their eternal homes, my men were sent to theirs by the barbaric practice of forcing them to walk the plank. Surely, I am aware that my men are not such great seamen as you are. You may have the knowledge of moons tides, currents, and harbors, pilots at your beck and call, the courage needed for attempting great risks, but dear sir, I declare you have not the prudence and wisdom you believe your character includes. These misdeeds will soon find you out.
I pen this document now on the coast of Harwich with my men willing and ready to take to their ships and commence battle against your highly prized ship. However, in my great forbearance, I am allowing this letter as a warning to you, giving you the opportunity to clean up your act. As one fellow seaman to the next, I hope you take this opportunity to reconcile your sins and clean up the coasts.
As I opened your letter and read the entirety of your claims and desires, I decided within my soul that what you were asking was too much against my nature. As I write this letter, your messenger can be heard screaming from the other room as my men torture him, and he screams like a little girl. They say I have no conscience, and I applaud their descriptions. Does a man of the sea need a conscience? Those silly hindrances keep us from our greatest accomplishments across the deep blue. I make my living off of my rogue ways, and I apologize not for the decisions I have made. Find me a seaman who lives by his morals, and I will show you the same man in six months lying at the bottom of the sea with hands chopped off and eyes plucked out. Find me a seaman who adheres to a higher calling, and I will display to you the nearest drunk I can find who has lost all his money in worthless pursuits at sea, unable to keep up with the rat race. You are asking me to hang myself.
This description may be cutting to the quick, but I feel no remorse. I know of you, though not intimately. I know of your kind. How many of these pathetic letters do you suppose I have been given in the past six months? The same number of messengers have been tortured and sent to their deaths, and not once I have noticed an army to come up against me. Perhaps they have yet to figure out my cunning. I picture you in my mind, a skinny man who has little common sense of the sea. As I close my eyes, I sea a skinny man riding high up on a horse in his moral self-righteousness with a forking beard and a silly hat that proclaims his trade. This fork bearded man might be described as dainty, speaking solemnly as if he actually cares about what goes on in the world. He cares for nothing really except for his money which is interesting as he usually is broke or in debt. I venture by your letter that you are one of those merchants who is so far in debt he is looking for some justification to rashly engage in a sea battle where he can properly die a noble death. The only death you will find in such a pursuit is one in which all forget you. How often do you harp on your increase only to know inwardly of your debt? Those who travel with you do not even know your name.
Of your grievances, I will take note to seek out specific ships coming from the Harwich Ports and be sure to leave no man alive. I am a shipman who cares for nothing on this planet but my own wallet and my casual stop in Bordeaux. At least that trader keeps quiet. I do hold some small respect for you, however. You may speak solemnly of your opinions and your pursuits. The opinions prove to mean very little in the end. They make no difference. As for your pursuits, I believe we both know there is much more being said than actually being done. I leave that office to myself.
When our paths cross at the Sea’s Bed,