Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Reeve's Tale Wealth

By Geoffrey Chaucer


A theef he was, for sothe, of corn and mele,
And that a sly, and usuant for to stele.
(85 – 86)

Symkyn regularly cheats his customers by shorting them of the corn and meal they bring to him for grinding. A miller was entitled to a certain portion of whatever he ground as payment for his labor. A miller might take more than his fair share, however, perhaps padding the customer's sacks with a less expensive substance, and in this way increase his profits.

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)

Symkyn's wife's father, the town parson, has given her a dowry, represented here by many "panne of bras," or brass pans. In effect, he has paid Symkyn to marry her, a common practice at this time to offset the expense of "keeping" a wife and family. This passage is likely mocking everyone involved, however. A parson is not usually part of the nobility, and he gives his daughter a dowry of brass pans rather than gold or jewelry. The parson's daughter is "noble" only in relation to the working class from which the miller comes.

On halydayes biforn hire wolde he go
With his typet wound aboute his heed,
Ad she cam after in a gyte of reed;
And Symkyn hadde hosen of the same.
(98 – 101)

Certain colors of dye were more expensive than others, and red was one of the most expensive. The fact that his wife has a red skirt and Symkyn, red hose, signals that they are probably doing pretty well financially (maybe because of the extra profit Symkyn makes by cheating his customers).

This persoun of the toun, for she was feir,
In purpos was to maken hire his heir,
Bothe of his catel and his mesuage.
(125 – 127)

This passage establishes the inheritance that the parson plans to bestow upon Malyne, Symkyn's daughter and the parson's granddaughter. He will give her his "catel," or possessions, and "mesuage," or home with outbuildings and the land it stands on. Since she is "feir," the parson hopes that her beauty in combination with his wealth will be enough to convince someone from a higher class to marry her, thus advancing the social standing of the whole family.

For hooly chirches good moot been despended
On hooly chirches blood, that is descended.
Therfore he wolde his hooly blood honoure
Though that he hooly chirche sholde devoure.
(129 – 132)

Technically, "hooly chirches blood" consisted of all Christians. In bestowing church goods only upon his genetic heir, the parson makes a mockery of the idea of a fraternity of all Christian believers. In this way he "devoures," or feeds upon the Church itself: he takes what should belong to all and uses it for self-advancement.

The millere sittyge by the fyr he fond,
For it was nyght, and forther myghte they noght;
But for the love of God they hym bisoght
Of herberwe and of ese, as for hir pey.
(262 – 265)

Before the birth of a "hospitality industry" with formal hotels and the like, it was common for medieval travelers to seek food and lodging in the homes of strangers, for which they would pay. In addition to stealing John and Aleyn's corn, the miller milks them further by releasing their horse, effectively guaranteeing that they will have to pay him to lodge them when night falls.

But specially I pray thee, hooste deere,
Get us some mete and drynke, and make us cheere,
And we wil payen trewely atte fulle.
With empty hand men may no haukes tulle;
Loo, heere oure silver, redy for to spende.
(277 – 281)

John emphasizes to Symkyn that he and Aleyn will pay good money for their food and lodging. He quotes a common saying, "With empty hand men may no haukes tulle" to show that he understands that the arrangement between himself and Symkyn will be a business deal; i.e, it will involve silver being laid out up front to "lure" the hawk, Symkyn.

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 shal be releved.
(325 – 328)

Aleyn proposes to sleep with Symkyn's daughter as "esement" (repayment) for the corn Symkyn has stolen from the clerks. It sounds misogynistic, or anti-feminist, to modern ears accustomed to thinking of women as people and not property. However, the tale has actually laid the groundwork for Aleyn's proposal at the beginning by talking about the dowries, or monetary values, attached to both Symkyn's wife and daughter.