Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Reeve's Tale Sex

By Geoffrey Chaucer


This wenche thikke and wel ygrowen was,
With kamus nose and eyen greye as glas,
With buttoked brode, and brestes rounde and hye;
But right fair was hire heer, I wol nat lye.
(119 – 122)

The description of Symkyn's daughter, Malyne, would have suggested to a medieval reader that she was lusty, ready for sex. A "kamus nose," broad hips, and round, high, breasts all signal in medieval physiognomy – the 'science' of knowing things about someone's character by their physical characteristics – that she is ripe for plucking. Note the similarity of her physical appearance to the Wife of Bath's.

'By God, right by the hopur wol I stande,'
Quod John, 'and se howgates the corn gas in.
Yet saugh I nevere, by my fader kyn
How that the hopur wagges til and fra.'
(182 – 185)

This is the first of many double entendres – or sexual puns – that occur in "The Reeve's Tale." The punning has to do both with the motion of grinding corn, which mimics the motion of sex, and the puns on the word flour that occur later in the tale. Aleyn declares his intention to give Symkyn "the flour of il endyng," then has sex with his daughter, de-flour/flowering her as recompense for his stolen corn, in this way equating sex with flour. For these reasons it's not a big stretch to read the grinding of the corn as a sexual double entendre.

And whan the hors was laus, he gynneth gon
Toward the fen, ther wilde mares renne,
And forth with 'wehee,' thurgh thikke and thurgh thenne.
(210 – 212)

Horses were a symbol of sexuality in the medieval period. This horse, who bounds off to have his way with the nearby mares with a cry of joy when he is released, could be a foreshadowing of the sexual antics to come later that night.

'For John,' seyde he, 'als evere moot I thryve,
If that I may, yon wenche wil I swyve.
Som esement has lawe yshapen us.
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.
Oure 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.'
(224 – 232)

Here, Aleyn proposes to deflower the miller's daughter as "esement" for the stolen corn and bad day he has had. "Esement" can mean recompense paid you for a wrong you have suffered, use of another person's property, or release of bodily fluids. John's proposed "esement" uses all three senses of the term. His linkage of sex to flour through his proposal to exchange one for the other continues the association of sex with flour that began with the suggestive grinding of the corn.

And up he rist, and by the wenche he crepte.
This wenche lay uprighte, and faste slepte,
Til he so ny was, er she myghte espie,
That it had been to late for to crie,
And shortly for to seyn, they were aton.
Now pley, Aleyn, for I wol speke of John.
(340 – 344)

This passage suggests that Aleyn's sex with Malyne is basically rape. By saying that "it had been to late for to crie," it implies that Malyne would have protested if she could. The narrator's command to Aleyn to "pley" links this moment to the description of Aleyn and John and the beginning of the tale, which said that they loved "pleye and revelrye." This passage gives us an indication of just what kind of "pleye" that description was talking about.

'Allas!' quod he, 'this is a wikked jape;
Now may I seyn that I is but an ape.
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!'
(347 – 355)

John describes Aleyn's sex with Symkyn's daughter as both "somwhat for his harm" and him getting his "nedes sped," or fulfilled, which matches up with the way Aleyn speaks of this act. To this description, however, John adds the idea of "auntring," or venturing, as in taking a chance. The idea is that one must be bold or enterprising in order to get sex.

Withinne a while this John the clerk up leep,
And on this goode wyf he leith on soore.
So myrie a fit ne hadde she nat ful yoore;
He priketh harde and depe as he were mad.
(473 – 377)

Somehow this passage manages to both make John's sex with Symkyn's wife look violent and ugly, and to suggest that she enjoys it. The description of John thrusting "harde and depe as he were mad" paints this act as the vengeful and violent one it actually is. We might read the suggestion that Symkyn's wife has a "myrie" fit, or good time, as a product of a medieval misogynistic (anti-female) viewpoint that sees all women as just sex objects aching for a good "swyving," which John provides.

Aleyn wax wery in the dawenyge,
For he had swonken al the longe nyght,
'By God,' thoughte he, al wrang I have mysgon.
Myn heed is toty of my swynk to-nyght,
That makes me that I ga nat aright.'
(380 – 381, 398 – 400)

Aleyn thinks that he has "mysgon" or crept up to the wrong bed, because all the sex he's had has muddled his brain. In fact, John has moved the cradle to the foot of his bed to get Symkyn's wife into it, which is what confuses Aleyn.

He seyde, 'Thou John, thou swynes-heed, awak,
For Cristes saule, and heer a noble game.
For by that lord called is seint Jame,
As I have thries in this shorte nyght
Swyved the milleres doghter bolt upright,
Whil thow hast, as a coward, been agast.'
(408 – 413)

John's boast to Aleyn reveals that his motivation for wanting to have sex with Malyne was partly, like Aleyn's, because of rivalry with his friend. With his boast he contrasts his sexual boldness with his friend's presumed cowardice. He reveals sex to be a means of proving himself to be the "better" man.

They walwe as doon two pigges in a poke;
And up they goon, and doun agayn anon,
Til that the millere sporned at a stoon.
(425 – 427)

Symkyn and Aleyn's wallowing, "as doon two pigges in a poke," as well as the up and down motion of their fighting, produce another sexual double entendre here. As sex was linked to violence in John and Aleyn's sexual assault on Symkyn's wife and daughter, here violence becomes sex.