Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Reeve's Tale Rules and Order

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Rules and Order

The wyf cam lepynge inward with a ren.
She seyde, 'Allas! youre hors goth to the fen
With wilde mares, as faste as he may go.
Unthank come on his hand that boond hym so,
And he that bettre sholde han knyt the reyne!'
(225 – 229)

Symkyn's wife calls for "unthank" on the person who tied the horse so ill or "boond hym so," in essence asking that the lazy horse-tier get the opposite of a thank-you – a curse – as repayment for his sloppy work. In calling for this punishment on the person who "boond hym so, / And he that better sholde han knyt the reyne," though, the wife is in fact calling for her husband to be cursed. After all, it was he who bound the horse so – meaning, of course, not at all.

Aleyn the clerk, that herde this melodye,
He poked John, and seyde, 'Slepestow?
Herdestow every slyk a sang er now?
Lo, swilk a complyn is ymel hem alle,
A wilde fyr upon thair bodyes falle!
(314 – 317)

The snoring of the Symkyn and his wife and daughter is so loud that Aleyn is unable to sleep. This indignity, coupled with all the other ones he has endured throughout the day, is too much for Aleyn. He calls a "wilde fyr" upon the bodies of the three. He gets his revenge he wishes on their bodies, of course, inciting the "fire" of lust in Symkyn's wife and daughter and beating Symkyn to a pulp.

Ye, they sal have the flour of il endyng.
This lange nyght ther tydes me na reste;
But yet, nafors, al sal be for the beste.
(320 – 322)

Aleyn wishes the "flour of il endyng" on the miller, his daughter, and his wife because of their snoring, which makes him unable to sleep. With a play on the word "flour" which can mean, figuratively, the result of some endeavor, or literally, wheat flour, Aleyn links the punishment he plans to mete out to Symkyn to the flour the miller stole from the clerks. This is not the story's last attempt to link Symkyn's "punishment" to his crime.

'For, John,' seyde he, 'als evere moot I thryve,
If that I may, yon wenche wil I swyve.
Som esement has lawe yshapen us.'
(323 – 325)

In Middle English, the term "esement" is an extremely loaded one. It can refer to the comforts of life or to the relief of the body by evacuation (referring to urination, defecation and, here, sex). It can refer to compensation or redress one receives as payment for a wrong committed against you. It's also a legal term referring to the right to use something that doesn't belong to you. If you hunted in a lord's forest with his permission, for example, you had an "esement" on that land. You can see how here, Aleyn's using all the meanings of the word: he feels he is owed an "esement," or compensation, for his stolen flour. This "esement" will take the form of a bodily comfort, or a bodily evacuation (ejaculation), using property belonging to someone else – Symkyn's daughter.

'For, John, ther is a lawe that says thus,
That gif a man in a point be agreved,
that in another he sal be releved.'
(326 – 328)

Again, John uses a loaded term to link his proposed sex with Symkyn's daughter to what he feels he's owed for the stolen corn. The term in this case is "releve," which is a verb that generally means to give recompense, but can also refer to the evacuation of air (or other substances) from the body. Finally, it can also mean "to rise," perhaps referring to the anticipated action of John's eager penis.

'Our corn is stolen, sothly, it is na nay,
And we han had an il fit al this day;
And syn I sal have neen amendement
Agayn my los, I will have esement.
By Goddes sale, it sal neen other bee!'
(329 – 333)

John uses legal terminology to justify his sex with Symkyn's daughter. He says that because he can's have "amendment" – i.e, because Symkyn won't give him his corn and can't take back the awful day John has had – he will have "esement," or compensation for it all. With this language John clothes an obviously illegal act – rape – in a cloak of legal legitimacy.

'Yet has my felawe somwhat for his harm;
He has the milleres doghter in his arm.
He auntred hym, and has his nedes sped,
And I lye as a draf-sak in my bed;
And when this jape is tald another day,
I sal been halde a daf, a cokenay!
I wil arise and auntre it, by my fayth!'
(349 – 354)

Aleyn does not seem as concerned as John to portray his illicit sex as legal redress. Although he refers to the sex John is having as "somwhat for his harm," or compensation for the wrong he's suffered, he goes on to compare having sex with a member of Symkyn's family to "auntring," or venturing, as in gambling.

Thus is the proude millere wel ybete,
And hath ylost the gryndynge of the whete,
And payed for the soper everideel
Of Aleyn and of John, that bette hym weel.
His wyf is swyved, and his doghter als.
(459 – 463)

This passage portrays the punishments the miller has received as Aleyn and John's extraction from him of payment for the supper they ate at his table. Although Aleyn and John paid for this supper with coins, the implication here is that Symkyn ended up re-paying them for it in the end with the bodies of himself, his wife, and daughter.

And therfore this proverbe is seyd ful sooth,
'Hym thar nat wene wel that yvele dooth;'
A gylour shal hymself bigyled be.
(465 – 467)

Here the narrator paints the universe as a just place in which wrongs do not go unpunished. The events in the tale have suggested a more sinister reason than justice or a balanced universe for the punishment of wrongdoing. It implies that wrongdoing is punished because the victims are so pissed off that they commit violent revenge on the wrongdoer.

Thus have I quyt the Millere in my tale.
(470)

The Reeve declares himself to have "quyt" the Miller with his tale. The Middle English verb "quiten" means to repay, but also to take revenge. The Reeve views his tale as revenge upon the Miller because of the way in which a fictional miller is punished in the course of it.