The Reeve's Tale

The tone of the tales quickly moves away from lighthearted "ribaudye" of the Miller as the Reeve begins his tale with a dark and despairing confession of the "sins" of old age: boasting, lying, anger and envy. The Reeve's image of life, a keg tapped by death at the moment of birth, is a bleak and dismal view of life as a physical process only, one of unrelenting waste and loss. Although the horrors of old age was a stock theme of medieval preaching, the point of the preaching exemplum was to encourage the believer to defeat pride and achieve true humility by contemplating the frailty and shortness of life and the inevitability of the final judgement because, as St. Jerome said, "He who thinks of himself as about to die easily despises everything." Thus, although the image of life as prison from the fourteenth-century preaching manual is similar to the image that the Reeve offers, there is one crucial difference: the point of this image is to point out that life is transitory and the final destination is God's kingdom, to which only the deserving will be admitted.

Fourth,death is likened to a summoner. As a summoner carries letters or a staff as a sign of his office, thus death carries as his staff an acutely painful arrow. Therefore, according to the ancients, Death was depicted as a knight sitting on horseback and carrying a squared shield. In its first quarter was a grinning ape, as a sign that after death a man's executors laugh at him an spend his goods at their pleasure. In the second quarter a raving lion was painted, for as a lion when he catches his prey roars horribly, at whose roaring the other animals stand still, and he, having made a circle with his tail, takes his prey as he pleases--just so death arrests all around him as he pleases and devours them. In the third quarter was an archer, as a sign that the last blow man will bear is death But in the fourth quarter was a scribe, as a sign that all deeds will be written down and read out before God, the good as well as the evil ones, after man's death. This summoner first summons us to death in our childhood; then he seizes us in the strength of our youth; next he puts us in prison in our old age through our natural debility; and finally we will be sentenced before God our justicer after the verdict of our jury, to life or death as we have deserved it.

(from Fasciculus Morum, ed. and trans. Siegfried Wenzel [University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 1989])

Manuals about dying were a popular form of literature, and death was considered the culmination of one's life,therefore, a task that required study and discipline to accomplish in a worthy manner. Further, it was a passage that would incur not only God's judgement, but that of one's peers as well. Like other important rites of passage, death was a public event. Hieronymous Bosch's painting , "Death and the Miser," (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) shows the death of an evil man, one who, even on the point of death, is still motivated by "coveitise" for earthly goods and refuses to look up to the image of Christ in the window.

The Reeve's attention to the exclusively physical dimension of life recalls another famous poem dedicated to the pleasures of physical existence: The Romance of the Rose. In this poem, the conditions excluded from the Garden of Pleasure are Hate, Cruelty, Covetousness, Avarice, Envy Sorrow, Old Age, Religious Hypocrisy, Poverty. Here is the description of Old Age, portrayed on the outside wall of the garden that is the exclusive province of youth:

Old Age was pictured next, who was at least a foot shorter than she used to be, and so childish in her dotage that she could scarcely feed herself. Her beauty was quite spoiled, and she had become very ugly. All her head was white and bleached, as if with blossom. If she had died, her death would not have been important or wrong, for her whole body was dried up and ruined by age. Her face, once soft and smooth, was now quite withered and covered in wrinkles. Hair grew in her ears, and she had lost all her teeth, for she had not a single one left. She was so extremely aged that she could not have gone eight yards without a crutch. Time, which hurries on, day and night, without resting or pausing, and which leaves us and flees away so stealthily that it seems to us always to be standing still, but does not stop there at all, nor ever halts in its progress, so that one can never think of what the present time is--ask any learned clerk--for before one had thought of it, three seconds would already have passed; time, which cannot linger but always advances, never turning back, like water which always flows downhill, never a drop going back the other way; time, which outlasts everything, even iron and he hardest substances, for time spoils everything and devours it; time, which changes everything, which nourishes everything and causes it to grow and which also wears everything out and rots it away; time, which made our ancestors old, which ages kings and emperors, and which will age all of us, unless death claims us early; time, which has total power to make men old, had aged her so grievously that in my opinion, she could no longer prevent herself from entering her second childhood, for I think indeed that she had no more strength or force or wit than a year-old child.

"They were as fed horses in the morning. Everyone neighed after his neighbor's wife"

Jeremiah 5:8.

The second controlling image of the Reeve's tale is that of the runaway horse. Horses, associated with knighthood and warfare, were valuable possessions and had a complex symbolic valence. Another association that attached to the horse was lust. In the painting, by  Paolo Veronese, we see Mars subdued by Venus, as indicated by his position, seated below Venus, his head almost touching her breast as he gently draws a garment across her leg to protect her modesty. Venus is here both voluptuous and seductive, soft and maternal as she squeezes milk from her right breast, a detail that recalls many paintings of the Virgin Mary. Cupid is busy trying to tie them together by their left legs while Mars's muscular horse, symbolizing lust bridled by love, waits in the background. A tiny cherub bars the way to the horse, who is safely tied to the tree. we see Mars temporarily at least, tamed by Venus, appearing and the bridled horse symbolizing no doubt lust controlled by love.

"Mars and Venus United by Love," Paolo Veronese, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

There is no such sentiment controlling the lust in the Reeve's tale, which not only has no connection whatsoever with love (as the parody of the aubade in Aleyn's farewell to the unbridled Maleyn underlines), it is not even the joyous physical event that it is in the Miller's Tale. In contrast to Alysoun, as "wynsynge . . . as is a joly colt" with all the images of natural youth and beauty that attach to her, the equine comparison in the Reeve's tale underlines the disgusting physicality of the Miller and his family, snoring all together like a "hors [that] snorteth in his sleep."

All of the actions in the Reeve's tale are motivated by pride and the desire to establish social status. Tale-telling itself, like Symkyn's knives and the sexual activity that follows, becomes a medium of aggression and violence. Just as the Reeve sees old age as the perversion of the body and the spirit, not offset by any spiritual or intellectual values, so sex in the Reeve's tale lacks any "noble fiction," any offsetting qualities of attraction, desire, beauty or even pleasure. Even Christian love in the Reeve's tale is a self-serving means of advancing the pride and status of the parson who despoils the church of its goods in order to advance the "honour" of his own "hooly blood." Both the clerks and the miller view guile as a means to establish social status. The young, northern clerks beg permission to take their corn to be ground, anxious to prove to their manciple that despite their youth and rural origins, they are more clever than he. The miller, resentful of the arrogance of the students, vows to trick them in order to prove that "the gretteste of clerkes been noght wisest men." Aleyn determines to take repayment for their stolen corn in the coin of sexual revenge not out of desire for the miller's broad-buttocked, pug-nosed daughter but as "an amendment agayn my los," and John finally decides to try his luck with the miller's wife not in order to get revenge on the miller, but because he fears the comparison with the more enterprising Aleyn.

Contrast the Reeve's Tale to one of its analogues, a twelfth-century fabliau by Jean Bodel, the tale of Gombert and the two clerks.


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