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 Reeve. However, these tales are worthy of close scrutiny, despite Chaucer’s apologetic offer for readers to simply skip ahead. “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. Now, it is the Reeve’s turn.

The first several tales have thus far mirrored Plato’s Symposium: each speaker addresses the question of love and justice in his own way. The Knight begins by praising courtly love and fidelity -the solution to love and envy is passio (self-sacrifice) and a central authority who ensures harmony between man, wife, and city; but the Miller drunkenly (and therefore honestly) responds to the Knight by suggesting that excessive faith in stories of this kind can be ridiculous and naïve. The advantage is always to those who are stronger, smarter, and more capable. The Reeve draws swords with the Miller by suggesting that evil acts are wrong and they will surely be met with punishment (i.e. justice is not the advantage of the stronger, and that injustice will be met with retribution). The Reeve agrees to a certain extent with the Miller’s criticism of intellectuals, but he maintains his stance: ignoble and malicious pranks only bring further evil (i.e. in his tale, the miller steals grain, so two scholars visit his mill and he unties their horse, so they sleep with his wife and daughter, and so on –thus evil merely begets evil). Each prank produces an ‘equal and opposite’ sorrow upon the Miller. While “The Miller’s Tale” is a cautionary tale, warning us of the trickery used to command power over people in love and marriage (and its superiority to naiveté); “The Reeve’s Tale” reinforces conventional wisdom: the art of trickery is not simply worthy of caution, but it is 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 injustice 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 text is, in part, philosophic. We are asked to judge each tale (according to the Host in the “General Prologue”) by a twofold capacity: in their 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 the profession of carpentry in his tale. So he tells a tale that makes the Miller appear to be a fool. People cannot stand to be mocked.

In “The General Prologue” the Reeve is described as a well-ordered, clean businessman. He is a wise investor 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, Symkyn and his wife 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 his grain, but he plays innocent, so two young scholars investigate the robbery: John and Aleyn. Upon arrival, the miller still decides to trick them (despite all the tricks rampant 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 the flour with bran to fool the scholars. He cuts loose their horse which they cannot find until nightfall, while Symkyn steals their bread. He asks his wife to 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.

The ultimate requital of someone is making them a cuckold. The Miller makes an innocent carpenter into a cuckold, while the Reeve makes an evil miller into a cuckold. Both the Miller and the Reeve value the oath of matrimony, but they warn of a) excessive naiveté and trust in your spouse, and b) excessive trickery to bend the law. The Miller warns of injustice so that you can keep up your guard and stop believing in silly phantasms, while the Reeve retorts that justice is good and worth pursuing, and that injustice is bad because it will bring harm upon criminals. To the Reeve, a good husband is wary of young intellectuals, and he respects the law. Neither the Miller nor the Reeve demonstrate a happy marriage in their tales, but rather they display examples of unhappy and unjust marriages. Both offer a greater degree of depth and complexity to “The Knight’s Tale.”

To continue with the Platonic theme in “The Reeve’s Tale,” 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 own debts, as is just to the Reeve, he would have lived a much happier life in love and marriage. Thus, by committing injustice, he brings punishments upon himself, and Robyn the Miller’s tale is successfully requited. Justice supersedes love and marriage for the Reeve. By the end, no one loves “The Reeve’s Tale” more than the cook, who is set to speak next.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

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