Paper: Middle English Literature, Chaucer

I took Lit104, An Introduction to Middle English Literature during my junior year. Most of the class work was just doing the reading; it was all in middle English and thus took quite a while! Sadly I’ve forgotten most of my vocabulary, and even the actual direction of the Great Vowel Shift. 🙁

Anyway, this paper was an explication of Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale. We also had to do our own translation of a short portion (it didn’t have to be lyrical!).

The Reeve’s Sermon & His Choleric Nature

Described as a “slender choleric man” in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, descriptions of the Reeve give off an air of physical frailty, mental agility, greed, and vindictiveness. The Reeve’s story reflects many of these characteristics, but the Reeve also gives a short sermon (lines 3864-3898) in the prologue to his tale, and as it is the first sermon in the frame-story (excepting a very brief dialogue about wives and fidelity by the Miller), it is worth discussing. To do so, I will first discuss the interesting literary devices and double meanings of different words, then discuss the sermon in relation to the larger tale. Inspection of the lines reveals a deep sermon with an analysis of the choleric nature and its effects on people.

The first interesting line is 3865, “With bleryng of a proud millers ye,” a colloquial phrase. Bleryng means, as you would think, “blearing,” but also “weeping” and (as Alexander chooses) “hoodwinking.” A general translation is thus “by hoodwinking the miller,” but this loses some imagery and significance caused by associating crying and the Miller. “Gleedes” (line 83) is also an interesting word. Alexander defines “gleedes” as “embers,” but the MED also includes “bed of burning coals; fire; hell-fire” as a second definition, and given the four gleedes cited (and their general negativity) it is hard to imagine that the diction here is coincidental. In line 85 there are two interesting words: “longen” and “eelde.” For while “longen” means “belongs to” (Alexander’s choice), it can also mean “yearns for,” and “eelde” can mean not just “old age” but also encompasses “surrender” and “to make repayment,” thus transforming the line from simply meaning “old people possess these desires” to a more interesting dual meaning that these four desires also seek to control the old.

The next line continues to employ double meanings through the word “lemes,” which can mean “limbs” as translated by Alexander, but also means “radiance” or, figuratively, “spiritual or intellectual enlightenment.” Thus the line may imply more than just weak limbs (or body), but also weak spiritual power or conviction – ie, a lack of the nobility of spirit which is displayed in the Knight’s Tale and is in very short supply in the following fablieauxs.

Line 3868 is interesting not for the vocabulary employed but for the metaphor: he seems to be comparing himself to an old horse. In modern usage we often say that somebody has been put out to pasture, implying that they, like a horse put to pasture, are no longer capable of useful work (or siring children, in the horse’s case); but this phrase seems to go beyond even that and compares the Reeve to a horse that is so old it cannot take care of itself but must be kept in a stable and fed hay. The horse metaphor continues (somewhat changed) at line 88, where the Reeve claims to have a “coltes tooth.” Alexander translates this as meaning “a colt’s appetite;” the MED is considerably less vague and says “have youthful desires, be lascivious.” The Reeve may well be weak of body, but he still wants to experience the body’s pleasures and (from line 86) lacks the discipline to restrain himself voluntarily.

Finally, the sermon largely wraps up with an interesting metaphor for his life as ale draining out of a cask tapped by Death. Line 90 says “syn that my tappe of lif bigan to renne” and “renne” is here most interesting, for while it of course means “to run” there are strong overtones of wildness and disorder, which is an interesting juxtaposition with the introduction of Death (a supernatural god figure) and the image of a specific lifespan (the ale in a cask). Also interesting in this context is the use of “drough,” which means not simply to draw, but to “punish by dragging.”

This sermon is also very interesting in light of the larger tale. The first few lines are notable mainly for their contradiction with the tale the Reeve tells – he claims that “ik am oold; me list not pley for age” (and, it is implied, he thus does not wish to best the Miller in his story) but in his story he does nothing but “pley” and “quite.” This contradiction seems deliberate and part of a pattern throughout the sermon that emphasizes the Reeve’s choleric nature and outlook on life. He uses negative diction throughout the piece and does not present himself as a likeable person, focusing on the unappealing aspects of old age (loss of all kinds of strength), picking four entirely negative emotions and desires as the motivators of old men, and presenting life as a potentially wild ride with an ultimately predestined ending. We shall follow his sentiments through the sermon and compare them to his actions in The Canterbury Tales.

The Reeve believes life and aging to be unfair processes. Exemplifying this in his example of the “open-ers,” the Reeve believes a person is not suitable until they have reached a certain age (perhaps explaining the lack of reverance for his “lord” that he so casually steals from), but once they have reached the age of usefulness men become useless almost instantly. Using a fruit example invites comparison to other parts of life, and the one man the Reeve seems to know best in this company – whose relationship with the Reeve is oldest – is also the man he has the worst relationship with. In the Reeve’s life it is more than just his body that sours with age. More than the simple unfairness of aging and time, the Reeve also seems to think that his life has been unjustifiably targeted by the gods. In his sermon it is not a smiling angel or God himself who breathes life into him (as would be more fitting with church dogma), but Death that opens the keg and lets the Reeve’s life begin to run chaotically and unmeasuredly out towards death.

The attitudes expressed by the Reeve exemplify the choleric nature, but even more than that his actions seem to follow the instructions laid out in his sermon. The Reeve is old, and so when he has been mocked by the Miller he can do nothing but resign himself to it. But then he broods on his age and finds that it is unpleasing; he notes that old men try and act like the young for as long as the world will let them (line 76); he claims that old men are motivated solely by boasting, lying, anger, and greed; and he compares life to a wildly-running stream of liquid. And so it is that he comes out of his sermon having wildly changed his plans; having done nothing to calm his anger against the Miller or back off his boast that he could best the man in story-telling (line 64); having instead resolved to play along with the game that the Miller started; and telling a tale about two college men acting in a caricaturishly youthful fashion. This sequence of events seems to directly and deliberately follow Chaucer’s portrayal of the choleric nature, displayed in the Reeve’s sermon.

Original Text

64‘So theek,’ quod he, ‘ful wel koude I thee quite
65 With bleryng of a proud milleres ye,
66 If that me liste speke of ribaudye.
67 But ik am oold; me list not pley for age;
68 Gras tyme is doon; my fodder is now forage;
69 This white top writeth myne olde yeris;
70 Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris,
71 But if I fare as dooth an open-ers –
72 That ilke fruyt is ever lenger the wers.
73 Til it be rotten in mullok or in stree.
74 We olde men, I drede, so fare we:
75 Til we be rotten, kan we nat be rype;
76 We hoppen alwey whil that the world wol pype.
77 For in oure wyl ther stiketh evere a nayl,
78 To have an hoor heed and a grene tayl,
79 As hath a leek; for thogh oure might be goon,
80 Our wyl desireth folie evere in oon.
81 For whan we may nat doon, than wol we speke;
82 Yet in oure ashen olde is fyr yreke.

83 Foure gleedes han we, which I shal devyse –
84 Avauntyng, liyng, anger, coveitise;
85 Thise foure sparkles longen unto eelde.
86 Oure olde lemes mowe wel been unweelde,
87 But wyl ne shal nat faillen, that is sooth.
88 And yet ik have alwey a coltes tooth,
89 As many a yeer as it is passed henne
90 Syn that my tappe of lif bigan to renne.
91 For sikerly, whan I was bore, anon
92 Deeth drough the tappe of lyf and leet it gon,
93 And ever sithe hath so the tappe yronne
94 Til that it almost al empty is the tonne.
95 The streem of lyf now droppeth on the chymbe.
96 The sely tonge may wel rynge and chymbe
97 Of wrecchednesse that passed is ful yore;
98 With olde folk, save dotage, is namoore!’

My Translation

As I hope to prosper, I could easily repay a certain proud miller by hoodwinking him – if I wished to speak of ribaldry. But I am old and do not want to play; I am so old that were I a horse I could not even forage for myself in pasture. My white hair tells my age to the world, and my heart is just as spoiled. I fear that we old men age like the medlar fruit, which gets worse as soon as it is plucked from the tree, and soon rots in the trash. Old men are never ripe until we are already rotten, and we dance as long as the world will play us a tune. There is always a nail hindering our will and desires, so that we are half old and half young, as a leek. Though our strength is dead and gone, we always desire to play at folly. But even so the fire is hidden under the ashes of our old soul.

We have four sparks, which I shall discuss: boasting, lying, anger, and coveting. These four belong to and hunger after the old. We may be weak, but truly our will shall not fail – indeed, I still have the hungers of the young, despite how long it has been since my wild life began. Surely, when I was born, Death drew the tap of life and let it go. And ever since it has been running so that the tun is almost empty; the stream of my life is down to its last drops. The foolish tongue might speak of wretchedness that is long gone; with old folk there is nothing left but senility and foolery.


Alexander, Michael, ed. The Canterbury Tales: The First Fragment. New York, NY: Penguin Putnam Inc, 1996.

Middle English Dictionary. McSparran, Frances, et al. University of Michigan. Accessed October 18th, 2007.