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Miller1568

16th century German depiction of a miller at work.

"The Reeve's Tale" (written in the original Middle English as "The Reeves Tale" without an apostrophe) is a bawdy comic short story in verse from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The story's narrator is a reeve[1] who used to be a carpenter. In the prologue to the tale, he is named as Oswald.

The story is a direct response to "The Miller's Tale" which precedes it. In "The Miller's Tale", a foolish carpenter is outwitted by a student who has sex with the man's wife. In "The Reeve's Tale", a foolish miller is outwitted by two students who have sex with the man's wife and daughter.

The two students in the story come from north-east England and their speech is different from the southern English dialect in which the rest of The Canterbury Tales is written. "The Reeve's Tale" is both the earliest known text which attempts to differentiate between two different dialects of English and the earliest known English work which uses a character's accent for comedic effect, something that continues to be a feature of comedy to this day.

Plot

Near Cambidge, there lives a miller called Simkin. He is a very proud man. He is always ready to defend his honor and that of his family and always carries a knife with him for that purpose. His wife, described as being from a good family, is the daughtter of the local priest.[2] They have a 20-year old daughter named Malyne and a baby son who is not yet one year old. Simkin frequently steals from his customers, keeping some of their flour for himself.[3] Amongst his regular customers is the Cambridge University college of Soler Hall.[4]

One day, the person who is usually responsible for taking Soler Hall's corn to be ground into flour is too ill to make the trip to Simkin's mill. Two students, John and Alein, volunteer to make the journey instead. They are certain that they can use their intelligence to prevent the miller from stealing from them. On arrival, they tell Simkin that they are both eager to learn about mill work and want to watch him grinding the corn into flour. Simkin agrees but, while the students are not looking, he unties the horse on which they both arrived. The students' runs off after some wild mares. When John and Alein notice that their horse is missing, they chase after it. While they are gone, Simkin takes some of their flour and has it made into a loaf of bread.

The Reeve - Ellesmere Chaucer

Depiction of the Reeve from an early manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. The manuscript is now in the Huntingdon Library, San Marino, California.

John and Alein finally catch up with the horse at nightfall. It is too late for them to ride back to Cambridge and they ask Simkin if they can stay the night at his house. He agrees. Simkin, his family and the students have a meal with large quantities of ale before they all go to sleep in the same room. John and Alein share one bed, Malyne sleeps alone in another and Simkin and his wife share a third. The baby's cradle is at the foot of the bed of Simkin and his wife. Knowing that Simkin took advantage of his and John's absence to steal some of their flour, Alein is determined to get satisfaction in some other way. While the miller is asleep, Alein gets into Malyne's bed and she willingly agrees to have sex with him.

Knowing that the other students, not least Alein, will laugh at him for having missed out on making love to Malyne, John feels the need to have a sexual encounter of his own. When Simkin's wife gets up to urinate, John sees his chance. He moves the cradle so that it is at the foot of his own bed. In the dark, Simkin's wife feels for the cradle so that she can find her bed again. She gets into bed next to John, believing him to be her husband and is surprised when he begins vigorously making love to her.

Shortly before dawn, Alein leaves Malyne's bed. Before he goes, Malyne and Alein declare their love for each other. Malyne also tells Alein where he can find the bread which her father had made from the flour that he stole from the two students. Alein gets into the bed without a cradle at the foot of it. Mistaking Simkin for his friend John, he begins to boast about how many times he made love to the miller's daughter. The enraged miller attacks Alein. During their fight, they fall onto the bed in which John and Simkin's wife are still sleeping. In the dark, Simkin's wife mistakes her husband for one of the students. She strikes him on the head with a stick and knocks him unconscious. The two students return to Cambridge, taking the flour and the bread with them.

The Reeve ends his tale with the words, "Thus have I quit the Miller in my tale", meaning "I have paid back the Miller with my story".

Footnotes

  1. A reeve was an official in medieval England. The exact duties and responsibilities of reeves varied from place to place and over time. The modern word "sheriff' is derived from "shire reeve".
  2. Simkin's wife must be illegitimate because Catholic priests do not marry.
  3. Millers in medieval England were notorious for cheating their customers and were extremely unpopular as a result.
  4. Soler Hall ("Solar Hall" in Modern English) was another name for the Cambridge University college King's Hall which was founded in 1337. It was merged with other Cambridge colleges in 1547 to form Trinity College.

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