A Defense of Justice in The Reeve’s Tale

The noble beginning of the competition en route to Canterbury has rapidly degenerated from the lofty “Knight’s Tale” to a series of belligerent and vulgar tales from The Miller and the The Reeve. “The Knight’s Tale” brought unanimous applause from the group, while “The Miller’s Tale” brought ‘different opinions,’ with most listeners simply laughing in enjoyment. “The Miller’s Tale” is a more divisive story.

The first several tales are a parody of Plato’s Symposium: each speaker addresses the question of love and justice in one way or another: the Knight begins by praising courtly love and fidelity -the solution to love and envy is passio (self-sacrifice), while the Miller drunkenly (and therefore honestly) responds by raising the point that excessive faith in the stories people tell can be ridiculous and naive so the advantage is walways to those who are stronger, and the Reeve draws swords with the Miller by suggesting that evil acts are wrong and they will be met with punishment (i.e. justice is not the advantage of the stronger). He agrees to an extent with the Miller’s criticism of intellectuals, but that ignoble and malicious pranks only bring further evil (i.e. in his tale, the miller steals grain, so two scholars visit, so he unties their horse, so they sleep with his wife and daughter, and so on). “The Miller’s Tale” is a defense of trickery to command power over naive people, while “The Reeve’s Tale” reinforces conventional wisdom: the art of trickery is evil, and evil only brings more evil. In another way, the Knight is like Cephalus in Plato’s Republic -a noble defender of the faith- while the Miller is like Thrasymachus, defending justice as the advantage of the stronger, and the Reeve provides a Socratic moral lesson -that evil is bad and knowledge is good. The Canterbury Tales is a kind of symposium of classical and modern considerations of poetry. Each story-teller responds to one another according to a dialectical form, and thus the is philosophic, though we are asked to judge each tale (according to the Host in the “General Prologue”) by their twofold capacity to both delight and inform.

The Reeve’s reason for offering his story is as follows: Osewald the Reeve, who seemingly misses the point of the Miller’s story, is offended by the way Robyn the Miller has portrayed carpenters. In “The General Prologue” the Reeve is described as a well-ordered, clean businessman who is a wise investor and who takes pride in his work (when he was young he was trained in carpentry). A Reeve is a local government official, or magistrate. He rides at the back of the group of pilgrims. He is slender and slightly poor tempered. The Reeve sets out in his tale to requite the Miller on behalf of carpentry, despite the Reeve’s old age and lack of vigor. He hopes to make the Miller a “fool” by meeting him with force. The Reeve intends to level a personal attack against the Miller.

Here are the delightful opening lines of “The Reeve’s Tale,” about a Miller in Trumpington near Cambridge (not Oxford as in “The Miller’s Tale”) -included below are the accompanying translations in contemporary English:

“At Trumpyngtoun, nat fer fro Cantebrigge,
At Trumpington, not far from Cambridge,
Ther gooth a brook, and over that a brigge,
There goes a brook, and over that a bridge,
Upon the whiche brook ther stant a melle;
Upon the which brook there stands a mill;
And this is verray sooth that I yow telle:
And this is absolute truth that I tell you:
A millere was ther dwellynge many a day.
A miller was there dwelling many a day.
As any pecok he was proud and gay.
As any peacock he was proud and gay” (3921-3926).

“The Reeve’s Tale” is about a tough bully -a miller- named Symkyn, who is married to the local Parson’s (clergy member) daughter. She is an illegitimate child educated in the nunnery, but whom many call a perfect ‘lady’ for fear of wrath from the miller. Together, they have a daughter of twenty and a small baby. The Parson desires to claim this daughter as his heir.

One day, the miller (Symkyn) robs a huge haul of grain but pretends as if he did not, so two young scholars go to investigate: John and Aleyn. Upon arrival, the miller still decides to trick them (despite all the tricks in their philosophy). He quotes Aesop: ‘the greatest clerks are not the wisest men,’ echoing Aristophanean sentiments and popular skepticism toward intellectualism. So Symkyn decides to replace flour with bran to fool the scholars. He cuts loose their horse which they cannot find until nightfall, while Symkyn steals their bread and has his wife bake some bread into a cake. When the scholars return, Symkyn hosts them for a meal, they all become drunk, and go to sleep. In the night, John crawls into bed with Symkyn’s daughter, and Aleyn moves the baby cradle closer to his bed when Symkyn’s wife  goes to the bathroom. When she returns, she mistakenly crawls into bed with Aleyn and they, too, have sex (and she, apparently, enjoys the experience!) Thus, a drunken and scheming miller is cuckolded by two drunken and scheming scholars. In the confusion following the next morning, John and Aleyn beat up the miller and take the cake that was made out of their grain.

To continue with the Platonic theme, had the miller not stolen so much grain, he would not have brought such suffering and humiliation upon himself. The Cambridge scholars would never have come to his house and slept with his wife and daughter. Had he simply decided to fulfill his virtue, focus on his own life, and pay his debts, he would have lived a much happier and just man. Thus, by committing injustice, he brings punishments upon himself, and Robyn the Miller’s tale is successfully requited. No one loves “The Reeve’s Tale” more than the cook, who is set to speak next.

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