The English Review, Nov 2000 v11 i2 p29

'The Reeve's Tale' and its audience. Austen, Glyn.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2000 Philip Allan Updates

On the surface, 'The Reeve's Tale' appears to be a bourgeois story of bestial sexual pleasure and human greed. But, as Glyn Austen discovers, Chaucer has not forgotten his courtly audience

Geoffrey Chaucer was a master of the two main categories of medieval storytelling: the courtly or 'elevated', and the bourgeois or 'naturalistic'. Examples of both are found in his great collection of stories, The Canterbury Tales. They begin with 'The Knight's Tale', a romance in the courtly tradition, which is followed by 'The Miller's Tale' and 'The Reeve's Tale', superb renditions of the bourgeois tradition.

In his Chaucer and the French Tradition (1957), Charles Muscatine demonstrates Chaucer's indebtedness to the French literary heritage where he found the models for these forms of narrative. The courtly tradition was an aristocratic, secular literature serving the interests and concerns of the upper echelons of society. As Muscatine puts it, 'The knights, ladies and clerks of the provincial courts of the time seem suddenly to have come to a new sense of their social identity, and of the refinement and exclusiveness of their ideals' (p. 11). A literary form known as the romance was the typical manifestation of this tradition - a lyric poem exploring aspects of courtly love, courtesy, chivalry, and adventure; the 'elevated' matters and 'higher' ideals expected to interest courtly people. Chretien de Troyes was one of the leading exponents of the genre.

The second main tradition, the bourgeois or naturalistic, included several different forms, and according to Muscatine seemed to 'attend the emergence of the new middle class' (p. 58). The most common manifestation of this tradition was the fabliau - a short, humorous verse tale. Fabliaux are concerned with everyday things, 'defined and limited by the important presence of smoked eels and pieces of lard, of hot irons and frying pan rings, washtubs, barrels, baskets and chests, bats and clubs, loads of dung and thick, white goose sauce' (Muscatine, p. 60). The women are not idealised courtly ladies, but strongly realistic, physical, sexual characters. Fabliaux tell of ordinary folk: peasants, merchants, priests. Human sinfulness is a stock theme of such tales. The tone is comic, dramatic, and often somewhat bawdy.

Although its audience is normally thought of as middle class, it seems that the fabliau was also widely enjoyed in courtly circles, and may even have been written by courtly authors. Chaucer himself is a case in point - a courtly writer entertaining courtly listeners with stories of ordinary people. At the hands of writers such as Chaucer, the two traditions might even be blended together. While 'The Reeve's Tale' is essentially a fabliau, there are parodic elements of the courtly tradition to be found in it.


'The Reeve's Tale' is firmly located in the everyday world of the fabliau:

At Trumpyngtoun, nat fer fro Cantebrigge,

Ther gooth a brook, and over that a brigge,

Upon the whiche brook ther stant a melle... (11. 3,921-3,923) We are far from the refined and courtly world of the romance here, and our cast comprises a miller, his wife and daughter, and a pair of lowly clerks, or scholars, from Cambridge.

The miller is an arrogant rogue bristling with weaponry, 'a market-betere' or town bully, and dishonest to boot: 'usuant for to stele'. The miller's wife is the illegitimate daughter of the 'person of the toun', i.e. the parish priest. Their daughter is a brazenly physical, sexual being, 'With buttokes brode, and brestes rounde and hye' The miller and his wife have a baby, whose cradle becomes an important dramatic device later in the story. Their visitors, the 'yonge povre scolers two' are 'lusty for to pleye' and are unsophisticated northerners. The stereotypically corrupt miller has been stealing 'bothe mele and corn' from the clerks' college, but now the 'maunciple' (the servant who buys provisions for the college) is sick and the miller has become 'a theef outrageously'. The clerks are here to put a stop to the miller's thieving, and the action of the story revolves around the battle of wills and intellect between the students and the miller.

Satirical edge

The tone of the beginning of the tale is, then, distinctly comic and bourgeois. Yet Chaucer is also addressing a courtly audience, and he complicates and enriches the fabliau form by introducing an element of social satire. The miller and his wife are lucicrously pretentious, seeing themselves as socially superior to their neighbours. Symkyn the miller is concerned 'To saven his estaat of yomanrye' and believes he has married well in joining himself with a priest's daughter, who he insists must be called 'dame'. He and his wife wear red garments, the colour reserved by medieval 'sumptuary' codes for courtly persons.

The comedy here, of course, lies in Symkyn's inability to perceive the reality of his situation, and Chaucer and his courtly audience and at one and the same time enjoying the licence offered by a bourgeois tale and mocking the folly of its lower-class protagonists. 'The Reeve's Tale' is, therefore, an example of how the bourgeois form of fabliau can be subtly diverted from its original address arid purpose by a courtly writer concerned to amuse and titillate elevated listeners, reinforcing their prejudices and stereotypes. Fabliau becomes a courtly satire of everyday life.

Animal pleasures

The stock ingredients of fabliau continue to be developed as the tale progresses. The sly miller immediately sees through the fairly obvious ploy of the clerks to supervise the feeding of the corn into the hopper and its final emergence into the trough. He 'smyled of hir nycetee' and determines to show them who is boss. He sets loose the clerks' horse, which immediately rushes off towards the fen after the 'wilde mares' and sets about enjoying himself.

Animals and animalistic behaviour are, indeed, central to the story and to the satire of everyday folk and their activities. The miller is himself described as a proud, vain 'pecok', sporting a 'camus' (snub) nose, and his skull is 'piled as an ape'. His wife is 'peert as is a pye', the latter being a devious and dishonest bird. The sexual liberty of the horse parallels the behaviour of the humans in the story, especially that of the students later in the tale. John, in coupling with the miller's wife, 'priketh harde and depe as he were mad'. The tale depicts a world far from the courtly love making of knights and ladies, but is nevertheless a risque and rather gratuitous celebration of a society ostensibly free of courtly decorum.

The fabliau ingredients continue with the theft of the meal and its baking into a cake by the miller's wife while the students are off chasing the rampant stallion. Human folly and sinfulness are staples of the form, and the four vices of 'Avauntng, liyng, anger, coveitise' which the Reeve records in his 'Prologue' are all explored here. One or more out of pride, dishonesty, violence and greed are the principal motivations of every character in the tale.

However, we feel slightly discomfited morally by Chaucer's treatment of sin in the story. Although the behaviour of the miller, his wife, and the students is evidently less than admirable, it is still vicariously pleasurable. This is no mere didactic morality tale, pointing out human weakness; it is in part an indulgent celebration of moral anarchy. Courtly people are enjoying the apparent moral grubbiness of those outside their privileged circle. In a sense, then, Chaucer's last laugh is on his audience, for the satire is also surely aimed at the supposedly superior beings who relish his descriptions of the criminal and sexual exploits of lesser mortals.

Climactic conclusions

The tale builds to a climax of unbridled sexuality, with the swiving of the miller's wife and daughter (just as the horse was earlier unbridled by the miller), and of violent assault when the miller and the clerk Aleyn trade blows. Here, the stereotyping of lower-class people reaches its peak, as the miller and his guests indulge in the kind of behaviour dictated by tradition: lust and violence. The ground has been well prepared with the consumption of a heavy meal and the drinking of copious quantities of ale, so that the miller falls into a deep and noisy sleep. His wife has equally overindulged and 'Men myghte hir rowtyng heere two furlong'. At this point, Aleyn and John assail the two women of the house, who respond vigorously in kind. Farce is now the dominant comic medium as the cradle is moved and characters bed-hop, with hilariously bawdy consequences. Chaucer's control of the form is absolute. This is fabliau at its very best: clever, funny, ludicrous, vulgar, grotesque.

In the midst of this bawdy humour, however, we return to the social satire with which Chaucer began his tale. As morning dawns, Aleyn and Malyne, the miller's daughter, must part after their night of passion, and we are treated to a delightful parody of the aubade, the formal leave-taking of courtly lovers. Aleyn and Malyne are no courtly lovers - they are a clerk and the daughter of a thief- but their parting has a modicum of poignancy, since 'almoost she gan to wepe'. Yet the tears do not flow, and we recall that this romance is only a one-night stand, born out of the desire for vengeance and self-gratification. Whereas courtly lovers exchange solemn oaths and tokens of enduring affection, Aleyn can merely claim to be 'thyn awen clerk' and Malyne can only bestow on him the secret of the location of the stolen cake of meal. We see the true extent of Aleyn's devotion when he crudely boasts to John that:

..I have thries in this shorte nyght

Swyved the milleres doghter bolt upright. (11.4,265-4,266)

Chaucer and his audience once again appropriate the fabliau for their own amusement at the expense of ordinary people. Those at the pinnacle of a hierarchical society are gaining pleasure from the apparent barbarity of lesser mortals. We cannot help enjoying the joke with them, but there is something just a little distasteful, perhaps, for a modern audience at such social stereotyping.

We smile especially at the miller's ridiculous response to the discovery that his daughter has been enjoyed by Aleyn. He appears to mind less about her lack of chastity than the loss of status he imagines to result from the social inferiority of her chosen lover:

Who dorste be so boold to disparage

My doghter, that is come of swich lynage? (11. 4,271-4,271)

Her 'Iinage', we recall, is that of a common scoundrel and the illegitimate daughter of a parish priest. The beating the miller receives at the hands of the clerks does, ultimately, have a moral appropriateness and a poetic justice to it.

What we find, then, in 'The Reeve's Tale' is a classic example of the fabliau, a literary form with its origins in French bourgeois literature. All the staple ingredients are there, but Chaucer invigorates the tradition with elements of social satire so that it becomes, at one and the same time, an indulgent and celebratory glimpse into a different kind of world for a courtly audience and a telling critique and mockery of the follies of those who inhabit it. And in gently satirising the audience for their enjoyment of this foray into the corrupt and bawdy, Chaucer gains a laugh at the expense of his own kind too, who, after all, are not so very different under the skin.

Glyn Austen teaches English at Starnford High School.


Muscatine, C. (1957) Chaucer and the French Tradition, University of California Press.