The Canterbury Tales: The Reeve's Tale
Rules and Order Theme
When the miller, Symkyn, manages to cheat Aleyn and John of their corn, John declares his intention to receive "esement" for his wrong. "Esement" in Middle English is a loaded term that refers to bodily comfort, payback for wrong, and the use of someone else's property. All of these definitions come together in John's taking of his "esement" on the body of Symkyn's daughter, Malyne. The rapes and beatings Symkyn's family suffers at the hands of the two clerks, which we might consider illegal, are clothed in the language of legal terminology. In the tale, they become simply John and Aleyn's just repayment from Symkyn for the stealing of their corn. Despite John and the narrator's attempts to portray their actions in this way, however, the reader is left wondering if the "payment" the clerks have extracted is really an appropriate recompense for the stealing of their corn, which they end up recovering in the end, anyway.
Questions About Rules and Order
- What is the recompense Symkyn is forced to pay for stealing the clerks' corn? Does this recompense seem to fit the crime? Why or why not?
- How do Aleyn and John portray their sex with Symkyn's wife and daughter as just recompense for the corn Symkyn has stolen from them? Pay special attention to the effects of wordplay in the tale; use a Middle English dictionary if necessary.
- How can we read "The Reeve's Tale" as "quiting" (repaying or taking revenge upon) "The Miller's Tale"?
Chew on This
Aleyn and John's sex with Symkyn's wife and daughter is just recompense for their stolen corn because it involves the use of what medieval people would view as John's "property," just as John has used theirs to bake a cake.
Aleyn and John's sex with Symkyn's wife and daughter is not a just recompense for their stolen corn because it involves violence against another human being, rather than simply theft of a valuable commodity.
"The Reeve's Tale" "quites" "The Miller's Tale" in the way a miller is punished and humiliated in exactly the same manner as a carpenter was in "The Miller's Tale."