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451 Study Questions for Chaucer's
dialect, fabliau, low comedy, fourfold interpretation, double
entendre, bed-trick, folkloric motifs, senex amans
Useful Middle English terms:
(pay back, take vengeance), but
(except), deynous (disdainful,
proud), hopur (hopper--the part
of a mill where grain is poured in for grinding), sweve
(in Middle English slang, "to copulate"--not to
be confused with sweven "to
dream" or swenk "to
work,") lemman (lover), volupeer
Review the Reeve's Portrait in the General
- THE REEVE (OSWALD)
- What does it mean in terms of bodily
humors that the Reeve is "choleric"? Hint:
This is a bit of foreshadowing for events taking place
later on in The Canterbury Tales.)
- How does the Reeve keep his hair and
- What is the Reeve's bodily build like,
judging by the narrator's description of the Reeve's legs?
- The narrator states that "Yet no
man ever found him in arrears." What are two ways
of interpreting this statement about the Reeve's skills?
- Why are business agents more afraid
of the Reeve than they are afraid of death?
- Before Oswald was a Reeve, what job
did he have?
- From what region of England does the
Identify the following characters:
Prologue: Robin the Miller, The
Host (Harry Bailey), Oswald the Reeve
Tale Itself: Symkyn the
miller, Symkyn's wife, Malyne (Symkin's daughter), the six-month
old baby, John the clerk, Aleyn the Clerkm, Bayard.
(From "The Reeve's Prologue"):
- How do the pilgrims react "for the moore part"
after hearing the earlier "The Miller's Tale"?
How is this reaction similar or different than the reaction
to "The Knight's Tale"?
- Who is the one pilgrim upset by the Miller's Tale? Is
he upset about the sex and low-brow humor? Or does something
else anger him? What is the source of his "litel
- What trait about the Reeve makes him "list not
- List some of the imagery or analogies the Reeve uses
to describe old age. What does this suggest about the
Reeve as a character; ie., what is his outlook like on
- When the body is too old for the "folie" of
a "grene tayl," what four "gleedes"
(pleasures) remain for old men, according to the Reeve?
- Who is the bartender or figure who "taps"
the cask of life and lets it gradually trickle out?
- What is Harry Bailey's reaction to the Reeve's gloomy
monologue? What does it suggest about Harry Bailey's character
- Harry Bailey also makes a comment about time and location.
If you look in the back of the The Canterbury Tales: Complete,
you can find a map of the pilgrimage route. How far have
the pilgrims traveled thus far?
- Regarding the Miller, the Reeve says he will "hym
quite anoon." What sort of tone or style of speech
will the Reeve use to do this?
- What does the Reeve pray might happen to the Miller?
How does this contrast with the Miller's prayer in the
last line of at the end of The Miller's Tale?
- What Biblical allusion does the Reeve make in the last
two lines of the prologue?
(From "The Reeve's Tale" itself):
- Where is the story set? What major city
is located near this small town? (Hint:
in modern times, the letters "nt" have fallen
out of the name of this major city, changing to an "m.")
- The "millere" (Symkyn) has
several talents, including fishing and beating nets. Most
of his talents, however, have a slighly violent edge to
them. What are these talents? What does he always carry
about his waist? What is the Reeve trying to suggest about
Symkyn? (Might this in some way be a commentary on the
Reeve's attitude to Robin the Miller?)
- What is Symkyn's body-build like? How
is his nose-shaped?
- When the Reeve introduces Symkyn by
name, he adds two adjectives to describe him, "hoote"
and "deynous." What do these two words mean?
(Hint: "hoote" does
not mean "hot" in the modern sense of sexually
- Who was the father of Symkyn's wife?
Why would such parentage be at once a source of pride
and a source of scandal?
- Symkyn's wife was raised in town and
educated in what sort of institution? What two traits
did Symkyn demand from his bride-to-be, were he to marry?
- Why does Symkyn want to marry a woman
of higher social class? What is he trying to ensure about
his own state?
- If people forget to call his wife "dame,"
what does Symkyn do to them?
- What traits characterize Symkyn's wife?
- How old is Symkyn's daughter?
- How old is Symkyn's youngest child?
- What is Symkyn's daughter like in terms
of her build and appearance?
- What is the source of Symkyn's wealth
and how does it connect to a sickly manciple or warden?
- What does Symkyn do that infuriates
the warden of Cambridge College? What two people does
the warden send to have the grain ground after this earlier
- What do Aleyn and John swear about the
grain they take with them?
- The Reeve 's two protagonists, Aleyn
and Johyn, both come from the town of Strother "Fer
in the north." Why does he choose this location?
(i.e., how does this connect with the events or characters
of the larger frame narrative?
- In line 4022 and onward, the footnotes
for various lines start using an abbreviation "N"
after certain words. What does this "N" refer
to--and why are your editors going to such trouble to
point this out? How does it reveal some characterization
of these two characters and show how their speech varies
from that of other speakers?
- (Bonus Question for students
who have taken the class on Advanced Composition, Grammar,
and History of the English Language): Why
is it much harder for modern speakers to understand the
vocabulary used by Aleyn and John as opposed to the language
used by the characters who live closer to London?
- When Aleyn and John explain their arrival
to Symkyn, they say the manciple or warden of their college
has a medical problem--"Swa werkes ay the wanges
in his heed." What is this medical problelm?
- Through dialogue, we learn that John
is going to stand by the hopper of the mill and Aleyn
says he is going to stand to watch where the meal (flour)
falls out from the trough. Are they actually curious about
the mechanical workings of a meal? What might their ulterior
motive be? (Hint: Remember how
the Miller's portrait in the General Prologue describes
his "gold thumb"--and the vow the two clerks
made before arriving.)
- How does Symkyn the miller react to
- Symkyn quotes a folk proverb to himself,
"The gretteste clerkes been noght wisest men,"
and declares he will cheat them "for al the sleighte
in hir philosophye." What does Symkyn's attitude
appear to be toward education?
- What ruse does Symkyn use to lure the
two scholars away from their guard-posts?
- What does the warden's horse go chasing
after in the fen? Given events later in the story, how
might this be foreshadowing?
- How much flour does the miller steal
from the two clerks? What does he have his wife do with
- How long does it take the clerks to
capture their horse? (i.e., what time is it when they
finally do capture him?)
- The clerks finally capture him in a
ditch. Why does Chaucer choose this location? Given later
events in the story, is the ditch a Freudian or yonic
symbol? Or is it foreshadowing of future events that connects
back with the description of Symkyn's wife as "digne
as waer in a dich"?
- What is the name of their runaway stallion
as revealed during the clerks' trip back to the mill?
- The miller offers Aleyn and John lodgings
for the night--even though his house is only "twenty
foot of space." First, however, he mocks their education
and their discourse. According to the miller Symkyn, what
can these two scholars do with their arguments and their
- The Reeve is careful to specify the
sleeping arrangements in this narrow space of the one-room
house. Who sleeps where? Why is the cradle located in
the middle of the room rather than in a separate nursery?
Why is this arrangement necessary for future events of
- We read in line 4149 that the millere
"verysshed his heed" before he went to bed.
What does this reveal about his physical appearance? We
also read that his voice is a bit hoarse from drinking,
which makes it hard to recognize him by hearing alone.
How do these two simple facts later play a part in the
- How might the description of Symkyn's
drunkenness be a stab or snide commentary on a pilgrim
in the audience listening to the Reeve tell his tale?
- What is Symkyn's wife like in terms
of her mood and disposition when she goes to bed?
- All three adult members of Symkyn's
family share what trait as they sleep? How does this affect
John and Aleyn?
- Aleyn then pokes John and explains that
he wants revenge on Symkyn for his earlier theft. How
does he propose to get that revenge?
- While John lies in bed hearing Aleyn
having sex with Malyne, he decides he too wants vengeance
on the miller in spite of his earlier warnings about how
the millere is "perilous." How does he lure
a partner to his bed?
- Who winds up sleeping with Symkyn's
wife? Who winds up sleeping with Maline?
- How long do the two clerks have sex
with their illicit partners? (Hint:
review lines 4230-4235.)
- What does Malyne reveal to Aleyn before
- Why does Aleyn end up crawling into
the wrong bed?
- How does Aleyn wake up Symkyn?
- According to Aleyn's boast to "John"
(i.e., Symkyn), how many times did he have sex with Malyne?
- What does Symkyn start doing to Aleyn
after hearing this boast?
- Symkyn's wife is awakened by Aleyn and
Symkyn fighting. In quick succession she makes two mistakes.
First, what supernatural force or being does she assume
has entered the bed with her? Second, after dismissing
this theory, what does she assume is happening (i.e.,
what two people does she believe must be fighting?)
- Why does the wife clobber Symkyn with
a staff? (i.e., what "whit thyng in hir ye"
does the wife see and misinterpret as a volupeer?)
- As they flee the lodgings, the two clerks
steal what two items (not counting Maline's virginity)?
- What philosophical "moral"
does the Reeve draw from his own tale?
A. This millere smyled
of hir nycetee,
And thoghte, "Al this nys doon but a wyle.
They wene that no man may hem bigyle
But by my thrift, yet shal I blere hir ye,
For al the sleighte in hir philosophye.
The moore queynte crekes that they make,
The moore wol I stele whan I take.
In stide of flour yet wol I yeve hem bren.
'The greteste clerkes been noght wisest men . . . '"
B. The millere seyde agayn,
"If ther be eny,
Swich as it is, yet shal ye have youre part.
Myn hous is streit, but ye han lerned art:
Ye konne by argumentes make a place
A myle brood of twenty foot of space.
Lat se now if this place may suffise,
Or make it rowm with speche, as isyoure gise."
C. And up he roos, and
softely he wente
Unto the cradel, and in his hand it hente,
And baar it softe unto his beddes feet.
D. "Fare weel, Malyne,
The day is come; I may no lenger byde;
But everemo, wher so I go or ryde,
I is thyn awen clerk, swa have I seel!"
E. "Now, deere lemman,
" quod she, "go, far weel!"
But er thow go, o thyng I wol thee telle:
Whan that thou wendest homward by the melle,
Right at the entree of the dore bihynde
Thou shalt a cake of half a busshel fynde
That was ymaked of thyn owene mele,
Which that I heelp my sire for to stele
And good lemman, God thee save and kepe!"
And with that word almoost she gan to wepe.
F. "Thou Johyn, thou
For Cristes saule, and heer a noble game.
For by that lord that called is Seint Jame,
As I have thries in this shorte nyght
Swyved with millers doghter bolt upright,
While thow hast, as a coward, been agast!"
G. And therefore this
proverbe is seyd ful sooth,
"Hym thhar nat wene wel that yvele dooth."
A gylour shal h ymself bigyled be.
And God, that sitteth heighe in magestee,
Save al this comaignye, grete and smale!
Thus have I quyt the Millere in my tale.
Concluding Thoughts: How does this Reeve's
tale "quit" or repay The Miller's
Tale? Is his technique similar to the way the Miller
responded to the Knight? Or does he use a different technique?
Does the story he tells reveal something about himself as
Note the preponderance of northern dialect words in this
tale. Scholars believe that The Reeve's Tale is the oldest
use of intentional dialect imitation in Middle English (though
possibly some Viking dialect words appear in The Battle
of Maldon in Anglo-Saxon writings).
In medieval bestiaries, the horse is often used as a symbol
of animal passions or sexuality that must be bridled by
the rider representing intellect or will. This idea is probably
inspired by Plato's imagery of the human soul as a charioteer
and the physical desires of the body as a chariot-horse
in The Republic. How does this idea add an allegorical
level of meaning to The Reeve's Tale?
How does this story fulfill (or not fulfill) the conventions
of the fabliau?