The Reeve sat upon a ful good stot
That was pomely grey and highte Scot.
A long surcote of pers upon he hade,
And by his syde he baar a rusty blade.
In Trumpington, near Cambridge, dwells Symkin, a proud, thieving Miller. He has a wife, the daughter of the parish priest, an ugly daughter, Malyne, and an infant child. Two students, Aleyn and John, bring the college's wheat to be ground into flour, determined to outwit the thieving miller. Aleyn watches the grain pouring in the hopper, John watches it coming out. The Miller lets their horse run off into the fens; John and Aleyn run after it, and the Miller steals some of their grain. They finally catch the horse and ask the Miller to put them up for the night. All must sleep in the one room of the house -- John and Aleyn in one bed, the daughter in another, and the Miller and his wife in yet another, with the baby's cradle at its foot. Aleyn determines to have recompense for the lost grain, and he gets in bed with the daughter. John, not to be outdone, moves the cradle to the bottom of the bed in which he lies. When the wife gets up in the night to go to the privy, she feels about for the cradle, finds it, and gets in bed with John. In the early morning Aleyn returns to his own bed but, finding the cradle, goes instead to the Miller's bed. The Miller awakes, a fight ensues, and the Miller is beaten badly.
(Students reading this text for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful.)
The acerbic Reeve's Tale, motivated by the teller's anger with the Miller, is less congenial in tone than the Miller's Tale he so resents, but it is no less skillful. The Reeve's Tale is, of course, one of Chaucer's fabliaux, and it is apparently based directly on a previously existing French fabliauz quite close to that preserved in these works:
Jean Bodel's Gombert and the Two Clerks.
Anonymous The Miller and the Two Clerks.
There are a number of other analogues; see Benson and Andersson, The Literary Context of Chaucer's Fabliaux, pp. 79-201.
The Reeve's Tale is notable for its use of the Northern dialect in the Clerk's speech. The Northern dialect was especially grating on the ears of those who spoke the Midlands or Southern varieties of speech -- at least that is what Chaucer's contemporary, John Trevisa , said.
A bit later, in the Second Shepherd's Play (which was written by a Northerner), the opening scene shows that the Southern dialect had become the prestige form of speech, and when the rascal Mak tries to impersonate a messenger sent from the king he adopts (unsuccessfully) a phony Southern dialect.
The Reeve's Tale -- motivated as it is by the Reeve's desire for revenge -- presents a far less jolly view of the world than does the Miler's Tale, and to some readers it suffers by the comparison. But it has its own virtues, combining the farcical elements of the "mistaken beds" with the slapstick humor of the conclusion and the intellectual trickery of the clerks. When they first appear, the Miller is sure he can outwit them, and he taunts them with the sophistry traditionally ascribed to university students:
Myn house is streit, but ye han lerned art;
Ye konne by argumentes make a place
A myle brood of twenty foot of space. (RvT I.4121-23)
You have learned the arts curriculum, he says, so use your tricky logic here. That is exactly what the clerks do: When the snoring (and worse) of the Miller and his family keep the Clerks awake they hit upon a point of the law -- one who is injured in one point may be recompensed in another -- and Aleyn sets out for Malyne's bed. John achieves his revenge by redefining the space: see Peter Brown, "The Containment of Symkyn: The Function of Space in the Reeve's Tale," (ChauR 14, 1980, 225-36). Chaucer adds this intellectual dimension to the tale and it accounts in part (along with the brilliance of characterization) for the clear superiority of Chaucer's version to the unusually close analogues. The Reeve's Tale has little of the "Merry Old England" that seems to be embodied in the Miller's Tale, but it has its own hard-edged wit and in some ways is probably closer to the life of the times than is The Miller's Tale.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Reeve's Tale (and the Cook's Tale) click here.
The Reeve sat upon a ful good stot