Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Reeve's Tale Violence

By Geoffrey Chaucer


Pipen he koude and fisshe, and nettes beete,
And turne coppes, and wel wrastle and sheete;
Ay by his belt he baar a long panade,
And of a swerd ful trenchant was the blade.
A joly poppere baar he in his pouche;
Ther was no man, for peril, dorste hym touche.
(73 – 78)

The miller, Symkyn, seems to be a physically aggressive man from this description. We learn that not only can he wrestle and shoot, but he likes to carry both sword and knife with him wherever he goes. That everyone is afraid to step up to him suggests that he is not afraid to use his weapons and fighting skills.

A Sheffeld thwitel baar he in his hose.
Round was his face, and camus was his nose;
As piled as an ape was his skulle.
He was a market-betere atte fulle.
Ther dorste no wight hand upon hym legge,
That he ne swoor he sholde anon abegge.
(79 – 84)

A "Sheffeld thwitel" is a long knife from Sheffield. This knife is in addition to the sword and other knife he carries. A "market betere" is someone who loiters around markets trying to start fights. The passage's reiteration that everyone's afraid to lay a hand on him highlights his violent nature. Immediately following this passage, the narrator tells how Symkyn cheats his customers; the placement of that passage directly after this implies that this cheating is something he is able to get away with because people are so afraid of his violence.

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.
(374 – 377)

This description of John's sex with Symkyn's wife makes the act appear violent and vengeful. The way John "up leep" and "leith on soore," pricking "harde and depe as he were mad" removes any possibility that this sex could be fun, and even removes that possibility as its motivation.

And by the throte-bolle he caughte Aleyn,
And he hente hym despitously agayn,
And on the nose he smoot hym with his fest.
Doun ran the blody streem upon his brest.
(419 – 422)

This passage could be straight out of a romance, in which fights between knights and monsters were often described in gory, bloody language, with every detail of every wound discussed in minute detail. That this fight occurs because of stolen corn, mistaken identity, and sex with "wenches" (the tale's word, not ours) heightens the parody of the tale, the way it is mocking other literary conventions.

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,
And doun he fil bakward upon his wyf.
(424 – 427)

Any similarity to a description of a fight from a romance (see above) disappears with the line "they walwe as doon two pigges in a poke." Now Aleyn and Symkyn just seem ridiculous. Their motion "up and doun" links their fight to a sex act, the culmination of the "foreplay" that occurred when Aleyn crept into Symkyn's bed by mistake.

But as she saugh a whit thyng in hir ye.
And whan she gan this white espye,
She wende the clerk hadde wered a volupeer,
And with the staf she drow ay neer and neer,
And wende han hit this Aleyn at the fulle,
And smoot the millere on the pyled skulle,
That doun he gooth, and cride, 'Harrow! I dye!'
(447 – 453)

What happens here is that Symkyn's wife mistakes him for one of the clerks because the white of his bald skull matches the white of a cap one of them was wearing. This is the wife's second mistaken identity in the tale. The irony is that she has sex with the man she should hit, and hits the man she should have sex with.

Thise clerkes beete hym weel and lete hym lye;
And greythen hem, and tooke hir hors anon,
And eek hire mele, and on hir weye they gon.
(454 – 456)

The savageness of the beating Symkyn takes is attested by the fact that he ends lying on the floor, probably unconscious. Since at the tale's beginning we learned that Symkyn was an expert wrestler and fighter and prone to be aggressive, we can assume either that John and Aleyn are good fighters as well, or that Symkyn was just outnumbered. Two upon one is not really a fair fight, is it?

Thus is the proude millere wel ybete,
And hath ylost the gryndynge of the whete,
And payed for the soper everideel
Of Aleyn and John, that bette hym wel.
(459 – 462)

The narrator's repetition of "wel ybete" and "bette hym wel" suggests that he takes pleasure and satisfaction in the beating. Here he describes it as "payment" for the supper of John and Aleyn, and not just recompense for the corn he has stolen.