Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Reeve's Tale"

Genre: A fabliau, a short, salacious tale about bourgeois (town-dwelling) non-aristocratic characters.  Fabliaux (plural) typically involve deception to acquire money or goods, to get sexual gratification, or to get revenge.   Reeve's Tale fuses all three in a complex plot (for a fabliau) based on the type known as the "cradle trick."  Critics debate whether the fabliaux were told by aristocrats to mock the aspirations of non-nobles with whom they increasingly competed for status, or they were told by bourgeois tellers in an act of self-mockery.  It also might be argued, following Jill Mann's discussion of "estates satire" in the "General Prologue," that they might have originated from both estates (noble and freeman) as a way of competing for status based on profession, since so many of the tales turn upon struggles between occupations which had reason to distrust each other.

        Many excellent studies of the fabliau have been published because of the genre's relation to the modern short story, and because of its interesting problem of audience.   For a page listing studies of fabiaux in the Julia Rogers Library, click here.   This would be especially helpful for English 330 students planning papers or tale presentations, or for advanced English 211 student planning midterm or final papers.

Form:  Rhyming couplets, the most common poetic form in the tales, and the form of all Chaucer's fabliaux.  Couplets allow him to write more idiomatic speech and prevents any accumulation of unnecessary dignity in a stanzaic form.

Characters:  The ridiculously proud miller, known as "deynous Sympkyn," his unnamed wife, their 20-year-old daughter Maleyne, and an unnamed and ungendered "child" in the cradle.  Aleyn and John, two Cambridge students as "Soller Hall" (perhaps now part of Trinity College), their manciple with the toothache, and his lecherous horse.

Summary:  The Reeve, incensed at Robyn the Pilgrim Miller, has his knickers in a knot over the bad treatment of the carpenter who was cuckolded by a clerk in MT.  (The Reeve, we know, was first a carpenter before being promoted to oversee the estate [GP ll. 613-14].)  He gets his revenge by telling a tale about a miller cuckolded by two clerks (after a fashion).  The clerks of Cambridge come in for their own share of the satire accorded "Hende Nicholas" of Oxford, being depicted as proud but naive Northumberland boys whose studies give them no defense against the worldly miller's crude deception.   The miller's pseudo-aristocratic pride, founded on the worship of the notion of his wife's high status due to her descent from a parish priest, also offends the church, as well as clerks, wives and women in general, and perhaps even manciples.  This tale goes off like a stink bomb at a wedding.  Read carefully to see who laughs at this one.

Interpretive Issues:

1)  The prologue outlines the Reeve's hostility to the Miller in legal terms, as if the Miller has slandered Oswald by telling a tale in which a carpenter is shamed.  This suggests the way the whole tale-telling game may operate.  The basic legal principle (use of force in self-defense) is followed by another (3913-20) in which he basically calls for his choice of weapons in this duel, "cherles termes," which he'll use to answer the miller's affront.  How does the Reeve's word choice compare with the Miller's when he is describing similar things?  Can you see shifts in "register" (level of diction) from middle (respectful, neutral) to low (slang, offensive)?  Keep an eye out for sarcasm, the intentional misuse of words to indicate the opposite of what they mean (e.g., "She was as digne as water in a dich" [3964]).

2)  "Oure Hoste" interrupts the Reeve with the news that they're already five miles outside London (at Deptford) and it's nearly 7:30 AM ("half-wey pryme").  This, plus the jocular defamation of the people of Greenwich (2908--Chaucer probably lived there), is the first evidence used by scholars in constructing a new arrangement of tales called the "Bradshaw Shift" (also see below).  It's meant to spur the Reeve out of his meandering sermon about old age and its effects on human energies, especially the self-pitying despair about the struggle with failing wits and persistent desire (3876-80).   In the 1960s, we'd have said Oswald was "on a bum trip" and "bringing everybody down."  How does this relate to the mood established in the "General Prologue" and how does Oswald's tale work as a reaction to the Hoste's words?

3)  If tale-telling is like a legal defense, as Oswald suggests, could it also (like a lawsuit) propagate other offenses which would generate their own problems.  How much control does Oswald have over his tale's significance to this group of pilgrims? 

4)  The tale, itself, is an analogue of the "cradle trick" type, which you can see examples of in the Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or in Larry Benson's The Literary Contexts of Chaucer's Fabliaux,  volumes on reserve for English 330 (especially if you're presenting the tale!).  How does one use such borrowed popular material to create a work of literature that can find a place in the canon of English literature?  

5)  This tale's protagonist ("deynous Sympkyn") is a good example of a link between the in-set tales and the pilgrims described in the frame narrative's "General Prologue."  Compare with Pilgrim Miller with Sympkyn and see if you can detect when the Reeve is parodying some element of his dress, physical appearance, or actions?

6)  Sympkyn's pride depends mainly on his marriage to the daughter of a parson, that is, a priest sworn to celibacy.   Lest you think this is so improbable as to be bizarre, see the note on p. 850 about the parson of Trumptington who was succeeded in his post by his own son in 1343.  How does this manage to offend both the nobility and the clergy?  The "blood" obsession which drives Sympkyn's personality is, like Absolon's avoidance of farting, a key to how he can be hurt.  Note its role in the tale's denouement, and compare especially MT line 3522 and RT 4271-2.

7)  How are Sympkyn's wife and daughter described?  Compare the level of detail and the kinds of details we are given about them, and compare them with Sympkyn, himself.  Consider how a character's "roundness" (not physical, you low-minded sods!) might tend to focus the readers' attentions on her/him as the one the tale is "about."  Also compare the Reeve's descriptions of Maleyne with the Miller's Alisoun.  What can you suggest about the differences?  Especially consider that Maleyne and the Reeve's Miller's Wife might well be considered rape victims by modern readers, and even if the sex was consensual, the Reeve's Miller might have brought a charge of raptus against John and Aleyn (see book-length studies by Corinne Saunders, Kathryn Gravdal, and Jocelyn Catty).  Click here for additional article-length sources, especially those by Post.

8)  Aleyn and John are not just stereotypical "students," but are given characters rather like Nicholas and Absolon, however few critics argue much for a difference between them.  What might this mean for the "Reeve's Tale"'s relationship to other parts of the first manuscript group (GP, KT, MT, RT, Cfrag)?  The one consistent and well-developed part of the clerks' characters is their Northumberland accents.  What effect does the Reeve seek from this strategy?  How does it affect our sense of them as students, perhaps even students of law (see the note on p. 851 about lines 4181-2)?  The name of their home town, "Strother," has been a puzzle for decades of Chaucer scholars, perhaps refering to a former town affiliated with Castle Strother in Northumberland, but not yet identified.  Perhaps, since a "strother" is Northern dialect for "a place overgrown with brushwood" (n. 850), it just means "the Sticks"?

9)  The students' plan to prevent theft of the hall's corn, and the miller's reaction to it, depend upon our knowing how a grain mill operates.  The location of the mill on a watercourse usually was arranged so arriving wagons of grain discharged their loads at the top, where the grain was fed into the shute leading down to the grinding millstones that produced the flour.   The mill stones were closely attached to the axel of the mill wheel to avoid loss of mechanical energy due to friction (until metal parts replaced wood).  Gravity similarly transported the ground flour to the lowest level for bagging and return to the farmer.  Mills were regarded as "high technology" by medieval peoples, much like the central processor of your computer is by modern Americans.  We know it works, but we don't know how and we suspect Microsoft and Intel are making money in various ways we can't understand because we can't look into the PC's operation.   Aleyn and John, the scholars, try to defeat the Miller's two most likely strategies for making off with the grain at the top or the ground flour at the bottom, but they fail to account for the Miller, himself, and their manciple's unruly horse.  How might the horse's rampage "ther wilde mares renne" relate thematically to the Reeve's plot's second movement that evening (4065)?

10)  The horse's escape promotes a splendid chase scene, summarizing a long afternoon's mucking about in the fens chasing a froward and strongly motivated horse.  Consider the nearly "cinematic" nature of this scene, which one might compare with the invention of "he" in the "Knight's Tale"'s melee.  How do the students respond to their eventual realization that the Miller has deceived them, and what does this suggest about the Reeve's notion of strategy?

11)  Sympkyn's bold sarcasm about the effect of the clerk's philosophy on room sizes suggests the folly of his pride in his own wit.  His gloating seems to leave the students' in little doubt as to the source of their misfortune, and to the fate of at least some of their corn, thus motivating their attempted revenge, which Sympkyn, for some reason, cannot anticipate.  Why not?  His quip also suggests something we might begin to take seriously at another level in the tales.  Can one's "philosophy" change the "room" one has been given by life, and could learning the right philosophy (perhaps in a tale) enable one to make rough "rooms" habitable or to escape "prisons"?

12)  The Reeve's description of the sleeping chamber at Symkyn's house suggests this is not a common arrangement or what would be expected of a proud man (4144-5).  What does Oswald imply?  For more on changes in the sleeping arrangements in late medieval English houses, consult Georges Duby,  A History of Private Life, Vol. II, Revelations of the Medieval World, a scholarly survey of many details of material culture but written for the ordinary reader.

13)  Sympkyn, like the pilgrim Miller, is drunk.  The idiom, "vernysshed his heed" (4149) is crucial to the plot, but unless you know someone who is bald, you may not understand it.  See the note on p. 851.  The fact that Symkyn, his wife, and daughter Maleyne, all are drunk, snoring, and farting in their sleep (4162-7) sets up John and Aleyn's "insomnia," but it also creates a kind of "music" which might be the counterpart to some previous tale's tunes.  What might they be?  In the tales' story-telling revenge strategies, this might be a principle we could call "ironic narrative homology," in which the force and quality of the vengeance depends upon the successor tale's matching each element of the predecessor tale with a cruelly or cleverly distorted parallel in its own structure.  Can you see other examples in either the Miller's or Reeve's tale?  Watch out for the Cook--he's over the top.

14)  Aleyn's reasoning about what he intends to do to Maleyne matches the Reeve's regarding his intentions in telling the tale.  In both instances, the thing acted upon is not the thing that has offended the "injured party," so how do Aleyn's actions redress the loss he has suffered at Symkyn's hands, and how does the tale redress the loss the Reeve claims to have suffered in the Miller's tale?  This "seduction" clearly is not "realistic," so what is its real intention in the context of the tale-telling game?

15)   John's lament regarding Aleyn's "success" introduces a theme of mock chivalric romance, saying "He auntred him" or took the adventure, much like a knight accepting a quest (4205).  When Aleyn bids "Fareweel, Maleyne" (4235), how do they carry out this motif?  The romance convention they're parodying is the "aube" or "aubade," a dawn song.  For another parody of that sort, see Jonson's Volpone, Act 1, Scene 1, in which Volpone praises his "beloved" gold as superior to the rising sun.

16)  John's "cradle trick" deceives first the miller's wife and then Aleyn.  This is the main point of most analogues Chaucer would have known.  How does the behavior of the miller's wife take Maleyne's reaction a step further toward the effect sought in the strategy in #14 above? 

17)  Once the "fight scene" starts, the"litel shymeryng of a light" becomes the clue that guides the wife's blow.  Note that clerks had shaved heads--see the cover of the Riverside Chaucer.  What is the significance of a shaved head to this culture, what would its opposite be, and what would it signify?  Be alert for the use of hair, especially long hair, as an erotic signifier in this culture's literature.  Examples abound in the erotic lyrics and the chivalric romance, but they also turn up in more surprising locations like the saints' lives known as the "virgin martyr legends."

18)  The Reeve's crowing finale, announcing that "Thus is the proude millere wel ybete," is true in two ways (see #14 again).  In how many ways can a miller be "beaten" in this game (4313)?   Note that the tale type, "A gylour shal hym self bigyled be" is a favorite in medieval culture (4321).  What does that suggest about the sources of our woes, in general?

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