Monday 3 August 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~ The Reeve's Prologue and Tale

The Reeve is still simmering over The Miller's Tale about the Carpenter, and boasts that he would repay the Miller in kind, yet he is too old for the obscene jokes the Miller likes to employ.  The old Reeve gets carried away with his descriptions of old age and its sufferings, and the Host must interrupt to get him back on track.  The Reeve then proclaims that, as the Miller told his tale out of personal enmity for him, he will repay like for like:

"I'll speak his low talk, just as he has spoken.
I pray to God he gets his neck broken.
In my eye he can see what mote there is,
But what he can't see is the beam in his."

Or in the Middle English:

"Right in his cherles termes wol I speke.
I pray to god his nekke mote breke;
He can wel in myn yë seen a stalke,
But in his owne he can nat seen a balke."

The Reeve
source Wikimedia Commons

The Reeve's Tale

Simon, a miller, and given the nickname of Simkin, resides in Trumpington near Cambridge, his mill standing by a rippling brook.  His wife, the daughter of a clergyman, is imperious and disdainful, while Simkin is known for thievery and deception.  When he cheats the university, overcharging them for the grinding of their corn, two students Alan and John, decide he needs to learn a lesson.  They take wheat to be ground by the miller, but the miller outmaneuvers them:

"Instead of flour, I'll give them only bran.
'The greatest scholar is not the wisest man,'
As one time to the wolf remarked the mare.
For all their cunning a fig is what I care."

He then looses their horse, and when the students chase after him, the miller steals their grain, giving it to his wife to bake a loaf of bread.

Finally, the students return with their horse, but it is night, and they are forced to offer the miller payment to permit them to stay overnight.  They are allowed one bed, the miller in his wife are in a second, their 20 year-old daughter in a third, and the baby boy in his cradle at the foot of the miller's bed.

The miller and his wife have drunk so much wine that they fall asleep directly, but the students still plot revenge.  Alan decides to have his way with the miller's daughter and, not to be outdone, John moves the cradle to the foot of his bed and, after going out to relieve herself, the miller's wife crawls into bed with John.  In the morning, after his romp, Alan tries to crawl back into bed with John, but of course, due to the switched cradle, he ends up in bed with the miller.  He inadvertently whispers his night secrets to the miller, who is incensed at his duplicity.  They struggle, the miller is beaten up by both Alan and his own wife, who mistakes his bald head for the student's white nightcap and gives him a good thump on the head with a staff.  And so the miller is beaten and cheated, in another romping tale by Chaucer.

The Old Mill at Sunset (1844)
Thomas Cole
source Wikiart

This tale exemplifies the common "cradle-trick" tale, and is a near copy of Bocaccio's tale of the Sixth Story of the Ninth Day of his The Decameron. Chaucer gives the Reeve a type of northern dialect, which cannot be translated well, so if you don't read the Middle English version, you will likely miss it.  It's apparently the first example in English literature of a regional accent used in humorous imitation.

Next The Cook's Tale, which was unfinished by Chaucer ........


  1. I am so very tempted to join you!

    1. Oh, you should! :-) We're not moving very fast and now is the perfect time. Next week is only one quite short tale, I believe.

  2. Interesting - you didn't read it as non-consensual? I wasn't 100% sure myself but I ended up concluding that it was non-consensual. It felt rather dark. Boccaccio's was a bit more light-hearted from what I remember.

    And, as I said in my post, I did love the regional accent detail! I was telling my boyfriend (who's accent is a lot broader than mine) that Geordies have been saying "man" and "na" since at least Chaucer's time. Made me happy! :)

    All that said, I didn't like the Reeve, but it was very good - Chaucer did an excellent anti-heroine :)

    1. I think that there was evidence for it being non-consensual initially and then later on consensual. He was so close that she couldn't cry out initially which I thought would be because he was preventing her, but their antics continued all night and in the morning she seemed quite happy with him. My guess would be that there would be natural resistance because of convention but then Chaucer seems to have his characters enjoy the carnal pleasures of life. That was my take anyway.

      I feel so sad that the accents would completely go over my head. I mean, I notice the difference, but I have no experience or base for comparison. A trip to England one day, would be just the thing! :-)