The Reeve's Tale  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

"The Reeve's Tale" is the third story told in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The reeve, named Oswald in the text, is the manager of a large estate who reaped incredible profits for his master and himself. He is described in the Tales as skinny and bad-tempered. The Reeve had once been a carpenter, a profession mocked in the previous Miller's Tale. Oswald responds with a tale that mocks the Miller's profession.

As well as insulting the Miller, the Reeve's tale also criticises the tale told by the Miller. Just as the bawdy, humorous tale told by the Miller is in response to the serious one told by the Knight, the Reeve's offering 'quites' or counters the Miller's. While still humorous, the tale is much more like black comedy with its inclusion of theft, rape and violence, along with its overall far more grim and realistic portrayal of events. In addition, none of the characters are depicted sympathetically; consider the unpleasant miller, his vain wife and his idiot daughter. The clerks may have good intentions initially, but they seem to be far from bright even though they are supposed to be university students.

The tale is based on a popular fabliau (also the source of the Sixth Story of the Ninth Day of The Decameron) of the period with many different versions, the "cradle-trick." Chaucer improves on his sources with his detailed characterization and sly humour linking the act of grinding corn with sex. The northeastern accent of the two clerks is also the earliest surviving attempt in English to record a dialect from an area other than that of the main writer. Chaucer's works are written with traces of the southern English or London accent of himself and his scribes, but he extracts comedy from imitating accents, a comedic device that is still popular today.


Symkyn is a miller who lives in Trumpington near Cambridge and who steals wheat and meal brought to him for grinding. Symkyn is also a bully and expert with knives (q.v. the coulter in the Miller's Tale). His wife is the portly daughter of the town clergyman (and therefore illegitimate, as Catholic priests do not marry). They have a twenty-year-old daughter Malyne and a six-month-old son.

When Symkyn overcharged for his latest work grinding corn for Soler Hall, a Cambridge University college also known as King's Hall (which later became part of Trinity College), the college steward was too ill to face him. Two students there, John and Alan, originally from Strother in North East England, are outraged at this latest theft and vow to beat the miller at his own game. John and Alan pack an even larger amount of wheat than usual and say they will watch Symkyn while he grinds it into flour, pretending that they are interested in the process because they have limited knowledge about milling. Symkyn sees through the clerks' story and vows to take even more of their grain than he had planned, to prove that scholars are not always the wisest or cleverest of people. He unties their horse, and the two students are unable to catch their steed until nightfall. Meanwhile, the miller steals the clerks' flour and gives it to his wife to bake a cake.

Returning to Symkyn's house, John and Alan offer to pay him for a night's sleeping there. He challenges them to make his single bedroom into a grand house. After much rearranging, Symkyn and his wife sleep in one bed, John and Alan in another, and Malyne in the third. The baby boy's cradle sits at the foot of the miller's bed.

After a long night of drinking wine, Symkyn and his family fall fast asleep while John and Alan lie awake, plotting revenge. First Alan gets up and surprises Malyne in her bed, having sex with her before she has a chance to cry out. When the miller's wife leaves her bed to relieve herself of the wine she'd drunk, John moves the baby's cradle to the foot of his own bed. Upon returning, the miller's wife feels for the cradle in order to identify her bed, and mistakenly assumes that John's bed is her own. When she enters his bed, John leaps upon her and begins having sex with her.

Dawn comes, and Alan says goodbye to Malyne, whom he'd enjoyed three times during the night. She tells Alan to look behind the main door to find the cake she had helped make with the flour her father had stolen. Seeing the cradle in front of what he assumes is Symkyn's bed (but is in fact John's), he goes to Symkyn's bed, shakes the miller —whom he thought was John—awake and recounts that he'd just slept with Malyne. Symkyn rises from his bed in a rage, waking his wife in John's bed, who takes a club and hits her raging husband by mistake, thinking him one of the students. John and Alan flee without paying for their food and lodgings, taking with them the cake and horse. The Reeve goes on to say that the Miller was well beaten not having been paid for the lodging, food or his services.

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