Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Reeve's Tale Cunning and Cleverness

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Cunning and Cleverness

This millere smyled of hir nycetee,
And thoghte, 'Al this nys doon but for a wyle.
They wene that no man may hem bigyle,
But by my thrift, yet shal I blere hir ye,
For al the sleighte in hir philosophye.'
(192 – 196)

Symkyn takes the clerks' attempt to prevent him from cheating them as a challenge, and as an indication that they think they're smarter than just about everyone, perhaps because of their extensive education. By mentioning the "sleighte," or trickery, in their "philosophye," or learning, Symkyn implies that he is not the only one guilty of trickery. He may be attempting to justify his theft from them, and their school.

'The moore queynte crekes that they make,
The moore wol I stele whan I take.
In stide of flour yet wol I yeve hem bren.'
(197 – 199)

Again, the miller portrays his theft from the clerks as a tit-for-tat return on their "queynte crekes," or tricks and stratagems. Of course, all these particular clerks have done is proposed to watch their flour being ground. The miller seems to take them as representative of the entire scholarly class, however, which he seems to despise as so many tricksters.

'The gretteste clerkes been noght wisest men,'
As whilom to the wolf thus spak the mare.
(200)

In saying that "The gretteste clerkes been noght wisest men," Symkyn is drawing a distinction between book-learning and street-smarts (here called wisdom). The implication, of course, is that Symkyn has street-smarts in spades, whereas the scholars have their heads in the clouds and are not likely to notice when he steals from them. The reference to the wolf and the mare alludes to a fable in which the mare tells the wolf that the price of her foal is written on her hind foot Then, when he tries to read it, she kicks him. The fable emphasizes the value of common sense, just as the miller does here.

'Of al hir art ne counte I noght a tare.'

"Art" here refers to book-learning, and again, the miller is declaring it valueless. A "tare" is a kind of weed, considered worthless.

He seyde, 'I trowe the clerkes were aferd
Yet kan a millere make a clerkes berd,
For al his art; now lat hem goon hir weye!'
(241 – 243)

Symkyn declares that his clever ruse proves that a miller can "make a clerkes beard," or trick a clerk, demonstrating that he views this conflict to be one between millers and clerks, rather than just between him and these particular clerks.

'Alas,' quod John, 'the day that I was born!
Now are we dryve til hethyng and til scorn.
Our corn is stoln, men wil us fooles calle,
Bathe the wardeyn and oure felawes alle,
And namely the miller, weylawey!'
(255 – 259)

John basically admits here that he does view his ability to prevent Symkyn from cheating him as somehow indicative of his intelligence. Now that Symkyn has cheated them, he fears that his school friends and the warden will call him a fool. What hurts the most, however, is that the miller will call him a fool.

The millere seyde agayn, 'If ther be eny,
Swich as it is, yet shal ye have youre part.
Myn hous is streit, but ye han lerned art;
Ye konne by arguments make a place
A myle brood of twenty foot of space.'
(266 – 269)

John has just asked the miller to put him and Aleyn up for the night. Feeling self-satisfied, Symkyn takes the opportunity to tease the students. He tells them that although his house is small, he has no doubt the clerks can use arguments to increase it. With this he alludes to the idea that scholarly argument is so full of sophistry, or tricky arguments, that it can be used to prove ridiculous things.

'Lat se now if this place may suffise,
Or make it rowm with speche, as is your gise.'
(271 – 272)

By challenging the clerks to make his house roomy with their "speche," Symkyn draws attention to the different speech of the clerks. Not only do they talk in a sophisticated scholarly way from which Symkyn is excluded, they also speak a Northern English dialect that must have sounded alien to Southerners' ears.