‘The Reeve’s Tale’ and the honor of men

‘The Reeve’s Tale’ and the honor of men

Stewart Justman

Traditionally, the cuckold is not simply a man married to an untrue wife. He is a man known to be married to an untrue wife, and therefore a figure of derision to the community. The subject of innumerable jokes in Shakespeare, the horns of the cuckold are emblems of dishonor visible to all the world if not necessarily to the principal. In popular culture cuckolds were sometimes subjected to the ritual of ridicule known as the “charivari,” in which a group visits “rough music” or some other strong form of mockery on a chosen victim. Evidently a cruel delight was taken in exposing the cuckold to communal laughter. The Miller’s Tale, preceded by a wry discourse on cuckoldry, emanates a spirit of delight. The Reeve, however, takes the jest personally. In the belief that the festivity of the Miller’s Tale has been at his own expense (as that of the charivari is at the expense of the victim), he seeks his revenge. Filled with the malice of resentment, the Reeve’s Tale features males whose obsession with their own repute, and corresponding dread of derision, reduce the “noble” value of honor to an absurd and violent mania.

In the charivari, a centuries-old practice with strong roots in folk culture including that of England, a noisy crowd would deride or even parade a passive husband, a tyrannical wife, or some other offender against customary norms. In this respect the charivari seems to express an attachment to traditional patriarchal values. And yet with its unstable hilarity and general rowdyism, the charivari might easily turn to mockery of authority itself, just as the clanging of pans mocks the ideology of the music of the spheres. The charivari, writes an eminent researcher,

is a hazardous instrument of social control. When neighbors or villagers disagreed strongly about the conduct of domestic life, or about the rights of folk justice, then the clamorous crowd could shatter the community and leave even violence and death in its wake. Envy or fury could push the social ritual of mockery beyond its usual bounds. (Davis 42)

Such dangers are both evoked and contained within the frame of the Reeve’s Tale, which levies “folk justice” on the figure of Symkyn as well as his family. In the parodic spirit of the charivari itself, the commoners in this tale are stirred by a passion for honor quite as strong as any nobleman’s, if not as lofty.

Because the Reeve’s Tale must be read against the Miller’s, we will begin by looking at that fabliau (itself aimed at the grandiosity and romantic idiom of the Knight’s Tale). Though the foppish Absolon is scathed in the course of the Miller’s Tale, the real goat of the story is undoubtedly the cuckolded husband John, so blind that he doesn’t see his own horns, so gullible that he believes the story that he has been chosen by God to preserve the seed of the human race following a second Flood. As soon as we learn that John is married to a woman much his junior we know he is being set up for a fall, for popular customs looked with disfavor on marriages involving “a great disparity in ages” (Thompson 493). An oaf who does not know that “man sholde wedde his simylitude” (line 3228), John is a natural target for the kind of ridicule meted out in the charivari. Considering that the charivari tradition also singled out the man who submits without murmur to the infidelities of his wife (Thompson 493), we may say that John is at double risk, for he does just this. He protests not at all when Absolon serenades his wife, and senses no peril in lodging Nicholas under his roof.

In spite of two stock references to the jealousy of this husband, all the evidence of the Miller’s Tale points the other way: rather than apprehending danger where none exists (in the true spirit of jealousy), John sees no danger where it is acutely real. In the Prologue to the talc we are told in jest that “An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf / Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf” (lines 3163-64), and this advice John has written on the tablets of his heart. As though in dread of forbidden knowledge, he does not want to know any more than his creed (3455), does not want to know what his wife is doing under his very eyes, and possibly does not want to know his wife carnally at all (Jordan 91). He seems completely dominated, fear-ridden. “I am adrad, by Seint Thomas, / It stondeth nat aright with Nicholas” (3425-26). His terrible God would destroy the human race (presumably for its lechery) even after having vowed to Noah never to send another flood (Gen. 9: 11).

John is shown as a sorry figure, then, unequal to his “duties” as a male in the patriarchal order. He is one of those husbands who “fail to establish [their] authority” (Thompson 493), a group ridiculed by the charivari tradition. As I have said, that tradition seems to have been deeply ambiguous, on the one hand enforcing the official norms of patriarchy against dominant wives and submissive husbands, on the other mocking official ceremonies in something like the spirit of carnival. We discern the same duality in the Miller’s Tale, which upholds the norms of patriarchy at John’s expense at the same time that it overthrows the Knight’s Tale and the principles of hierarchy enshrined there, and for the figure of Jove wielding thunder and lightning substitutes Nicholas releasing a fart of blinding force, “As greet as it had been a thonder-dent” (3807).

At the conclusion of the Miller’s Tale the charivari situation – the collective ridicule of one – emerges with clarity. The assembled “folk” jeer with delight at the fallen John, who fails to convince them that a second Flood is on the way.

The folk gan laughen at his fantasye; In the roof they kiken and they cape, And turned al his harm unto a jape. For what so that this carpenter answerde, It was for noght, no man his reson herde. (3840-44)

It is all against one. Like a cuckold who doesn’t see the horns visible to everyone else, John doesn’t see what is perfectly plain to his audience: that the news of a Flood is a tall tale. Whether the gathered “folk” know by common report of his sexual dishonor is unclear. Yet the Canterbury pilgrims, another assembled folk, know, and in part because he, like John, is a carpenter, Oswald the Reeve feels that he has been held up to the derision of the Canterbury company – in effect, paraded in ridicule. He takes the injury to heart and gets his revenge in the same coin, by telling an ad hominem tale. Probably reflecting the teller – for this theme does not appear in the analogues – the men in the Reeve’s Tale are consumed with the thought of honor.

In the case of Symkyn (a miller who wrestles and plays the bagpipes, strangely like the Canterbury Miller), the preoccupation with honor rises to obsession. The better to demolish him later on, the Reeve builds up to absurd proportions Symkyn’s sense of his own majesty. Only the daughter of the parson, illegitimate as she is, is good enough for this “yeoman.”

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. (3946-49)

The town calls Symkyn’s wife by the honorific “dame,” a title not, however, freely bestowed but practically extorted by Symkyn (line 3956). His wife exhibits his honor. No one, we read, “dorste” call her anything less than lady or “dorste” make an attempt on her (3956, 3958). By the end of the tale, a student has dared to rape her, and his colleague her daughter. And when Symkyn discovers that his daughter has been raped, his first reaction is to cry out over the injury to his honor, demanding to know who “dorste” (4271) defile such nobility. If the Miller’s Tale punishes John with ridicule for violating the natural order of things and neglecting the honor of a man, the Reeve punishes Simon for violating the social order by acting the part of a man higher than he really is (Grennen 247).

From the moment of the students’ appearance in the Reeve’s Tale, they and Symkyn are playing a game of dare. With Symkyn now stealing grain from the college more “outrageously” than ever before (line 3998) as though seeing just how much he can get away with, Aleyn and John beg leave to take the next load of grain to the mill, with the express intention of testing their wits against Symkyn’s. They will practically dare Symkyn to steal from them: “And hardily they dorste leye hir nekke / The millere sholde nat stele hem half a pekke / Of corn by sleighte, ne by force hem reve” (4009-11). Fittingly, the encounter at Symkyn’s mill begins with taunting. John announces that they have come to grind their wheat “and carie it ham agayn” (4032) and that he means to watch the grain being milled. Symkyn returns these taunts in his own mind (4046-56) and easily defeats the students’ plan to keep a close eye on the grain. While the students are chasing down the horse Symkyn has loosed, they imagine what it will be like to be held up to general ridicule, more or less like John the carpenter. They do not have to be told that their dare is lost, for they already know it. “Oure corn is stoln, men wil us fooles calle, / Bathe the wardeyn and oure felawes alle, / And namely the millere, weylaway!” (4111-13). Yet it is these dishonored losers who will carry out Oswald the Reeve’s revenge on Symkyn, an effigy of the Miller. Oswald can well identify with them, for he knows what it is to be a byword. Like the students who rise from defeat to destroy Symkyn by violating his wife and daughter, Oswald will rise from the defeat inflicted by the Miller’s Tale. Acting for the Reeve, the students will dishonor their tormentor sexually as the Reeve himself cannot (3881).

It is while John lies in bed at the miller’s that evening that the dread of being ridiculed becomes a goad to action. His partner Aleyn has taken the miller’s daughter by surprise, as a way of striking back at the miller. If the husband in the Franklin’s Tale initiates a competition of honor by his “noble” decision to turn over his wife, Aleyn sets off a competition of a lower kind. In the words of John, Aleyn has “auntred hym” (4205), or dared, and John imagines that when tales are told about the incident, he will be a laughing-stock (4189) because in contrast to his partner he lies immobilized by fear of Symkyn (Cowgill). (Like Palamon and Arcite – also preoccupied with honor – the students in this tale are at once brethren and rivals.) John practically insults himself into acting: “And when this jape is raid another day, / I sal been halde a daf, a cokenay! / I wil arise and auntre it, by my fayth!” (4207-09). Significantly in this context of male domination, a “cokenay” is glossed as an “effeminate youth” (Pratt 105n). John rouses himself by imagining being held up to society as a sort of unmarried cuckold. The act roughly parallels Hamlet’s taunting himself as a lily-livered coward who would submit to having his beard plucked and his nose tweaked, mortal insults to a man of honor (2.2.573-74).

The revenge John takes is obscene, if by obscenity we understand the defilement of the body. Using Symkyn’s wife as an instrument of revenge against him (an act that outdoes even the rape of his daughter), John violates her with a kind of crazed fervor. “He priketh harde and depe as he were mad” (4231). To the teller of the tale, oppressed with thoughts of his impotence, it is no doubt pleasant to recapture sexual power thus, and no doubt poetically just to bring down Symkyn by the very means the miller used to magnify his social importance – his wife. Raping Symkyn’s wife and daughter is probably the most vicious revenge the students, and through them the Reeve, could take. In the world of the Reeve’s Tale, men too low to have “real” honor nevertheless adopt the ruling values of their culture, with the result that women are entirely subjected to the power-games of men, reduced to counters in male conflicts. Didn’t Nicholas use Alisoun as a means to unman John?

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The males’ obsession with honor – their dares and taunts, their dread of ridicule, their games of outdoing, their sense of being in the public eye – distinguishes the Reeve’s Tale from its closest cognate. In the fabliau of “The Miller and the Two Clerics,” the second student does not imagine being jeered or taunt himself to work tip his courage before shifting the cradle:

Before daybreak the miller’s wife got up from beside her husband and all naked went into the courtyard. And she passed before the cleric where he lay abed. When he saw her go by, he thought of his friend who was taking his pleasure [with the miller’s daughter], and he had a great longing for the same kind of pleasure. (Hellman and O’Gorman 55-56)

And so it is throughout this tale. The miller does not parade his wife, does not test the limits of the possible with his thievery, does not dare the students to widen the house with their learned arguments, nor do the students bring their grain to him for the sport of it or imagine themselves as figures of ridicule when the grain is taken. All these details are original with Chaucer. Nor is there any sign of them in the version of the tale appearing in the Decameron. Clearly the Reeve’s Tale is meant as a tale about the honor of men. But meant how?

According to an old dictum, “villeins have no honor” (Tocqueville 2: 253), and on this showing the more obsessed the boors of the Reeve’s Tale are with honor, the more ridiculous they make themselves. In their aggressive daring and grandiose concern with reputation, they simply live out a parody of “real” honor. This probably isn’t the reading intended by the Reeve, who has no wish to demean his own surrogates the honor-mad clerks, but it may possibly be intended over the Reeve’s head by Chaucer. For in truth there is something risible in the pretensions of all three males to honor. Where honor “acts solely for the public eye” (Tocqueville 2: 253), Symkyn absurdly parades his honor in the person of his illustrious wife, and where honor “prefer[s] great crimes to small earnings” (Tocqueville 2: 244), Symkyn raises pilferage to the level of epic by stealing a hundred times more flagrantly than ever before (3996). By the same logic of the ridiculous, the students imagine their escapades being retold like the deeds of heroes, and outdo one another like the noble cousins of the Knight’s Tale. In this point of view it is fitting that a blow with a stick should decide the tale (4296), for the stick was the churl’s sword, and in the final analysis the men of this tale are churls and act like churls.

However, this reading of the Reeve’s Tale simply generates the most predetermined of all conclusions: that men should keep their station. Boors like Symkyn and Aleyn and John should leave honor to their betters. As I say, this may be the reading Chaucer intended (no one knows), yet if the men of the Reeve’s Tale parody honor, sometimes a parody reveals the original. If the charivari, as raucous and “countercultural” as it is, reflects the norms of patriarchy, may not the Reeve’s Tale too reflect and not just distort ruling norms? After all, the Knight’s Tale, for all of its loftiness, begins with the physical capture of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. It is this act that inaugurates the theme of the taking of women that connects the first fragment of the Canterbury Tales. The Reeve’s Tale descends through the Miller’s Tale from that of the Knight, and on the critical point – the reduction of women to pawns of men – it is a true likeness of the original. And so if the Reeve’s Tale shows that churls should leave honor to their betters, it also shows the honor ethic for what it really is. Stripping that ethic down to a violent mania, the tale poses an ironic commentary on nobility itself.


Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. F. N. Robinson. Boston: Houghton, 1957.

Cowgill, Bruce Kent. “Clerkly Rivalry in the Reeve’s Tale.” Rebels and Rivals: The Contestive Spirit in the Canterbury Tales. Eds. Susanna Greet Fein, David Raybin, and Peter Braeget. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1991. 59-71.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. “Charivari, Honor, and Community in Seventeenth-Century Lyon and Geneva.” Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle: Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performance. Ed. John J. MacAloon. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1984. 42-57.

Grennen, Joseph E. “The Calculating Reeve and His Camera Obscura.” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 14 (1984): 245-59.

Hellman, Robert and Richard O’Gorman. Fabliaux: Ribald Tales from the Old French. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1965.

Jordan, Tracey. “Fairy Tale and Fabliau: Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale.” Studies in Short Fiction 21 (1984): 87-93.

Pratt, Robert, ed. The Tales of Canterbury. Boston: Houghton, 1974.

Thompson, E. P. Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture. New York: New Press, 1991.

Tocqueville, Alexis de. Democracy in America. 2 vols. Trans. Henry Reeve, Francis Bowen, Phillips Bradley. New York: Vintage, 1945.

STEWART JUSTMAN is Professor of English at the University of Montana. He has published a number of essays on Chaucer.

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