Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Reeve's Tale Society and Class

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Society and Class

A wyf he hadde, ycomen of noble kyn;
The person of the toun hir fader was.
With hire he yaf ful many a panne of bras,
For that Symkyn sholde in his blood allye.
(88 – 91)

The description of Symkyn's wife's "nobility" is actually somewhat mocking: as the illegitimate daughter of the town parson, she would not necessarily have been upper-class, a fact hinted at by the dowry of brass pans her father gives her in lieu of silver, jewelry, or sumptuary goods.

She was yfostred in a nonnerye;
For Symkyn wolde no wyf, as he sayde,
But she were wel ynorissed and a mayde,
To saven his estaat of yomanrye.
(92 – 95)

The irony of this passage is that although Symkyn's wife was raised in a convent as were the daughters of many noblemen, the location of her upbringing is due more to her status as the illegitimate daughter of a priest, who was not supposed to have sex, let alone children, than to any sort of nobility.

A ful fair sighte was it upon hem two;
On halydayes biforn hire wolde go
With his typet wound aboute his heed,
And she cam after in a gyte of reed;
And Symkyn hadde hosen of the same.
Ther dorste no wight clepen hire but 'dame.'
(97 – 103)

Symkyn and his wife appear to enjoy parading their financial success around town in the form of expensive clothing. His wife requires everyone to call her "dame," or lady, despite the fact that she is not really noble-born. Symkyn's family is trying to be upwardly mobile in society, a feat that's no doubt helped by the extra profits Symkyn makes by cheating his customers.

And eek, for she was somdel smoterlich,
She was as digne as water in a dich,
And ful of hoker and of bisemare.
Hir thoughte that a lady sholde hire spare,
What for hire kynrede and hir nortelrie
That she hadde lerned in the nonnerie.
(109 – 114)

This passage makes its disdain for Symkyn's wife's high-class pretensions perfectly clear: it says that she is "somdel smoterlich" (besmirched, or possessing a damaged reputation) probably due to her status as the illegitimate daughter of a cleric. This status makes her as "digne" (worthy of reverence) as water in a ditch – in other words, not at all. Nevertheless, due to her kindred and high-class upbringing in a convent, she still believes noblewomen should greet her as an equal.

This persoun of the toun, for she was feir,
In purpos was to maken hire his heir,
Bothe of his catel and his mesuage,
And straunge he made it of hir mariage.
His purpos was for to bistowe hire hye
Into som worthy blood of auncetrye.
(123 – 128)

The parson has resolved to try to use his granddaughter to do what he couldn't do with his daughter (because she was illegitimate). His goal is to marry her into a noble family, thus ensuring an upwardly mobile progression for his heirs. He probably hopes that the combination of Malyne's good looks and the wealth he's stolen from the church for her dowry will convince some high-class person to marry "beneath" him.