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451 Study Questions for Chaucer's "Reeve's Tale"

Vocabulary: dialect, fabliau, low comedy, fourfold interpretation, double entendre, bed-trick, folkloric motifs, senex amans

Useful Middle English terms: quit(e) (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 (nightcap)

Review the Reeve's Portrait in the General Prologue:

  • 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 beard trimmed?
  • 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 Reeve come?

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.

Reading Questions:

(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 ire"?
  • What trait about the Reeve makes him "list not pley"?
  • 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 life?
  • 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 or disposition?
  • 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 attractive).
  • 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 debacle?
  • 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 their declarations?
  • 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 it?
  • 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 learning?
  • 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 the plot?
  • 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 "bed-trick" motif?
  • 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 he leaves?
  • 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, sweete wight!
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 swynes-heed, awake,
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 a character?

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?


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