Wages, work, wealth, and economic inequality: “The Reeve’s tale”
essay CHAPTER FOR THE OPEN ACCESS COMPANION TO THE CANTERBURY TALES, DRAFT POSTED FOR OPEN REVIEW AUGUST 2016
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 6 Jill Mann famously described the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales as “a poem about work” (202), while another recent article describes The Canterbury Tales as “a game of food” – after all, the prize for the best tale is a free meal (Archer et al. 3)! For most of the population in medieval England, these went hand in hand; working meant growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, selling, buying, and preparing food. For no other tale is this fact more central than The Reeve’s Tale. A conflict between two kinds of agrarian workers provokes the tale, and it is framed as an exchange that is at once moral and economic: Oswold the Reeve wants to “quite” Robyn the Miller. The whole prologue and tale can be seen as an attempt to figure out what it means to “get even” in a stratified society defined by divisions of class and occupation – or “estates” – that are not nearly as stable as they want to be. Far from presenting economic language as some kind of inappropriate intrusion into a space of poetic play, The Reeve’s Tale suggests that the circulation of wealth, work, and wages depends upon the same kinds of indirection and uncertainty that make poetic fictions possible. Indeed, when Oswold “quites” Robyn’s tale, he shows that even the game of sexual attraction, a timeless subject of poetic fiction that structured the Miller’s fabliau, can be reduced to a brute economy of coercion and revenge, where women’s bodies are treated as commodities like any other.
Context: Reeves, Millers, and Colleges in the Agrarian Economy
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 6 Reeves and millers work to make England’s bread and ale – the first by managing the production of wheat and barley, the latter by grinding it into flour and malt – but they confront each other as potential enemies from their respective positions in the agrarian economy. A reeve oversees all aspects of the agrarian activity of a manorial estate; Oswold, for example is responsible for keeping accounts, managing the planting and harvesting of grain, and keeping track of all the landlord’s livestock. A reeve might also see to the marketing of an estate’s produce, while supervising the milling of grain for the manor household’s own consumption. Millers, meanwhile, extract a livelihood by charging as much as they can for processing that grain. Mills were usually built and owned by landlords and leased to a miller who would operate it for a profitable fee taken from the mill’s customers. Since mills were a specialized and expensive piece of infrastructure that couldn’t be built just anywhere, millers could find themselves in a strong position to take a heavy fee, much to the chagrin of a penny-pinching reeve like Oswold. This fraught economic relationship should be kept in mind when we consider the Reeve’s promise to “quite” the Miller with his tale.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 The colleges of Oxford and Cambridge were just as embedded in the agrarian economy as you would expect of landholding institutions responsible for feeding their members. In The Reeve’s Tale, the illness of the manciple of Soler Hall means that two young students, John and Alleyn, have to take over the role of getting provisions for their college. Whatever heady intellectual pursuits the two scholars might pursue when they aren’t doing chores for Soler Hall, we are given little detail. What matters in The Reeve’s Tale is the continuity of “hir philosophye,” as Simkin puts it, with the complicated and antagonistic market relations that make the life of the college possible (4050). Like universities today, the serenity of a mythical ivory tower cannot be separated from broader economic pressures. Scholarly labor in The Reeve’s Tale blends with the everyday work of getting food so the school can function. The “life of the mind” does not exist in some contemplative redoubt in this tale, but is instead exercised in the quotidian struggles of the agricultural economy – wit and wheat are both matters to be tested, measured, and exchanged.
Concept: The Mystery of Exchange
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 3 In the aftermath of the Black Plague (ca. 1348), workers found themselves in a newly empowered position. Due to the catastrophic loss of life, all of a sudden demand for labor exceeded its supply, giving workers a chance to push for better compensation or to seek better terms of employment. By the time Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales, increasing numbers of workers labored for wages or worked on small, independent farms on long-term leases for their own sustenance and to sell their produce at market. Production and trade were well advanced in Chaucer’s England, and wealth circulated in many forms, tying together society’s estates in mutually dependent economic relationships that were not always compatible with the stable ideals of a hierarchical society. After all, as The Reeve’s Tale shows, the world of work and commerce invites – even thrives upon – error, deception, play, and conflict.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 4 The Reeve’s Tale, with its emphasis on requital and pay back, reminds us that exchange is a stranger process than it seems. It means taking one thing and getting another thing from it that is qualitatively different, but in some sense quantitatively equal. But what establishes the equivalence that allows these two things to be exchanged? How is it, really, that one thing can substitute itself for something else? This mysterious quality of exchange helps explain the significance of Oswold’s intention to “quite” Robyn. “Quite” is a rich verb. It means to pay for something, to reward someone, to pay back or discharge a debt, to legally acquit someone, or to get revenge. It’s a word that crosses lines between the moral, the legal, and the economic. This multiplicity of meaning makes Oswold’s intent to pay back Robyn with another tale much more than a case of jocular vengeance. It shows Chaucer toying with the idea of exchange by making poetic fiction its medium: what better illustration of the fact that exchange of two seemingly equivalent things, even wages for work, carries with it a strong sense of the incommensurable and the absurd?
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 4 Karl Marx’s insight about the strange way exchange works casts some light on Chaucer’s merging of work, play, and “quiting” in The Reeve’s Tale. According to Marx, commodities have qualities that make them useful, but they also have a value, which, though itself invisible, abstractly expresses the quantitative relationship between a given commodity and its different, equivalent commodity. What makes this quantitative comparison possible is the average amount of labor time it takes to produce the commodities in question. The two items might appear different, but they share an underlying value that allows them to change places, to be endlessly replaceable with anything else of the same value. This means that in order to exchange something, you’re really engaging in a process of abstraction and substitution, where something that you can’t see (average labor time) forms the real equivalence between visible things, underneath the masquerade of diverse commodities. If all that sounds unnecessarily confusing, that’s kind of Marx’s point: when you look hard enough at a simple exchange and try to describe its every aspect, you can’t avoid verbal and conceptual complexity. Marx defamiliarizes the day-to-day fact of exchange, and makes us aware again of how weird it is. Chaucer achieves much the same effect with material and moral economies of The Reeve’s Tale, which seems to involve a simple comedy of tit-for-tat pranking that nevertheless unfolds in a dizzying escalation of substitution and subterfuge. Chaucer gets a lot of mileage out of the insight that exchange invites, even requires, a certain kind of error. Oswold knows this well, as we learn in the General Prologue, for he is adept at selling his master goods from the master’s own stores. The circulation of wealth between owners of agrarian infrastructure and the workers that make it productive plunges all parties involved into a bewildering play of substitution and false appearance. It is little wonder, then, that Chaucer’s tale of “quiting” ends in a violent farce of mistaken identity. This dynamic informs the tale’s sexual politics at its conclusion, which expresses the kind of casual misogyny that substitutes women’s bodies for objects to be used in exchanges among men.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 Oswold takes the Miller’s tale personally; he thinks Robyn made a carpenter the fool of his story because he wanted to insult Oswold. The testy reeve can’t let this stand. “I shal hym quite anoon,” Oswold promises: “Right in his cherles terms wol I speke” (3916-7). He intends to get Robyn back in the very same terms in which the miller insulted carpenters, but the legal reciprocity he invokes to justify his tale – “leveful is with force force of-showve” (3912) – will prove to be much more elusive and complicated than that once his tale begins.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 3 Since the Miller told a fabliau, or a scurrilous comic tale, Oswold follows with one of his own about a miller operating near Cambridge. Simkin, the miller in The Reeve’s Tale, is a non-noble, independent man of some means – a “yeoman” – who, as the narrator tells us, has “Greet sokene,” meaning a local monopoly to process “whete and malt of al the land aboute” (3987-88). Simkin presides over a chokepoint in the agrarian economy, a literal manifestation of structural inequality, where the means of producing edible flour are alienated from those who grow or buy the wheat. He abuses this position tyrannically, skimming extra grain off the top and bullying anyone who tries to defy him. Where else could they go to get their grain ground, anyway?
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 7 Simkin the miller bristles with potential violence. He carries not just a sword, but a dagger and a knife as well, and is known for his belligerence. He is a figure of “extra-economic” coercion who nevertheless occupies a position of economic privilege. In other words, his ownership of the mill entitles him to lucrative rewards for holding a monopoly on grain processing (his “economic” privilege), but he also supplements this with outright theft backed up by intimidation (his “extra-economic” coercion). Simkin’s wife matches his domineering manner with her own haughty demeanor as they go about on holidays dressed in red like aristocrats. Oswold mocks their pretentions to nobility, but his emphasis on their clothing and performance of high status also suggests that occupying the noble estate is just a matter of dressing and acting a certain way – a mere show. Chaucer hints that material prosperity is not the same thing as cultural capital, but neither is nobility exempt from the deceptive, disruptive world of commerce and performance.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 4 Simkin’s wife and daughter are central to this tale’s economy: they are bluntly described in terms of their value on the marriage market. Simkin must have “a mayde, / To saven his estaat of yomanrye” (3948-9); in other words, marrying a virgin is important to his material wealth and class identity, so he chose his wife for her chaste and mannered upbringing in a nunnery. Similarly, Malyne, Simkin’s daughter, is selected by the feckless parson who fathered Simkin’s wife as the heir of his property, and so he seeks to find an advantageous marriage for her. Her person has become a bearer for the parson’s desire for worldly wealth and lineage, and thus she too must remain “a mayde” to preserve her marriageable value. The Reeve’s Tale’s troubling sexual politics and the rape culture it assumes are inseparable from the tale’s material economy and the patriarchal familial structures that upheld it.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 2 This overlap of sex, wealth, and work is aptly suggested by the motivation of “yonge povre scolers two” (4002) to mill their college’s grain. Since Simkin takes advantage of the Hall manciple’s illness to steal “both mele and corn / An hundred tyme moore than biforn” (3995-6), the two scholars, “Testif … and lusty for to pleye …, oonly for hire myrthe and revelrye, / Upon the wardeyn bisily they crye / To yeve hem leve, but a litel stounde, / To good to mille and seen hir corn ygrounde” (4004-8). These two young men are eager to take this job not because they are shrewd negotiators seeking to get a better deal for the college, or because they need to get paid for the work, even though they are “povre scolers.” They do it for pleasure, like their horse who runs off in search of wild mares when Simkin sets him free. Their work is “pleye.” This whiff of a “boys will be boys” mindset conveyed by the parallels between the horse’s behavior and that of the students exhibits the kinds of assumptions that enable sexual aggression as an expected or even natural act – an aspect of Chaucer’s depiction of college culture that is still depressingly familiar today.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 When the scholars reach the mill, they want to see if they can outsmart the thieving miller. Upon announcing their intention to watch closely both the ingoing grain and the outgoing flour under the guise of satisfying their curiosity about how the milling process works, Simkin sniffs out their plan and joins the game eagerly. He will “quite” their cleverness with his own wiles, making stolen wheat the wage of their trickery: “The moore queynte crekes that they make, / The moore wol I stele whan I take” (4051-52).
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2 At first, the more practiced thief defeats his young challengers with his trick of freeing the scholars’ horse. While John and Aleyn desperately search for it, the miller has ample opportunity to take a half a bushel of flour from them (4093). Simkin boasts, “Yet kan a millere make a clerkes berd, / For al his art; now lat hem goon hir weye! / Lo, wher he gooth! Ye, lat the children pleye” (4096-98). For the crowing miller, this contest is as much about pleasure as it is about business. The fact that The Reeve’s Tale is framed as a-tale-for-a-tale exchange between the Miller and the Reeve (part of the broader game to pass the time that is The Canterbury Tales) mirrors how the economy of requital in the tale itself becomes inseparable from “play,” broadly defined and with all the potential for disorder that it implies.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 Simkin makes the mistake of letting the game go on too long, however. He complacently believes that the game clock has run out, and he has won this contest of wits with the reward of a pilfered loaf. But the night offers John and Aleyn a chance to further the exchange. They will “quite” the miller for his thievery.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 5 Aleyn has his own idea about how this requital should work, and it depends upon making non-consensual sex into compensation for the lost grain. As he declares to John, “ther is a lawe that says thus: / That gif a man in a point be agreved, / That in another he sal be releved. / Oure corn is stoln, sothly, it is na nay, / And we han had an il fit al this day; / And syn I sal have neen amendement / Agayn my los, I will have esement” (4181-2). He invokes a legal principle of requital in order to justify, under cover of dark, his plan to get even with Simkin by raping Malyne. Malyne’s consent is beside the point for Aleyn, just as it is for John when he pulls off the bedtrick with Simkin’s wife. At this decisive moment, these women only seem to matter to Aleyn and John as a medium of exchange that somehow allows them to “quite” Simkin for the seemingly dissimilar, but mysteriously equivalent, matter of stolen flour. But perhaps this isn’t so mysterious in a culture where a woman’s virtue, i.e. her virginity, is directly translated into the frankly material economy of the marriage market.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 6 John’s bed trick, by which he deceives Simkin’s wife into thinking she is having sex with her husband when she is in fact having sex with John, continues the prologue’s theme of substitution and exchange. By pretending to be Simkin, John also “gets back” in another form the wheat that he lost. In this way, the daytime world of exchange and deceit continues after nightfall in the tale’s sexual economy, where Aleyn’s “swynk,” or his labor in bed, compensates him for his “loss” of flour. Malyne tells him where to find the stolen loaf as he leaves her bed; he and John are doubly compensated for their labor. Chaucer seems to be deliberately parodying the idea of the “just price,” which figured so prominently in medieval scholastic discussions of ethics, by making an amoral plot of revenge through rape into a travesty of what getting a fair wage looks like, as the women in the tale are reduced to mere counters in a world of competitive exchange among men.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 2 In this welter of substitutions, exchanges, and excess, the requital of sex for flour only gives way to more farcical errors. Aleyn falls for John’s bedtrick too, and mistakes Simkin for his companion, initiating the slapstick conclusion of the tale. In the brawl that follows once Aleyn mistakenly awakens Simkin instead of John, Simkin’s wife wakes up, finds a staff, and strikes one of the fighting men she thinks is Aleyn. But no – in another case of mistaken identity, she wallops Simkin, giving the two scholars the upper hand. Seizing their chance, they beat up Simkin and take back the loaf made from their stolen flour as they leave.
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 2 Now Oswold tries to wrap up this grim chaos with a nice and tidy moral, as if everything were even: “Thus is the proude millere wel ybete, / And hath ylost the gryndynge of the whete, / And payed for the soper everideel / Of Aleyn and of John, that bette hym weel. / His wyfe is swyved, and his doghter als. / Lo, swich it is a millere to be fals! / And therfore this proverbe is seyd full sooth, / ‘Hym thar nat wene wel that yvele dooth.’ / A gylour shal hymself bigyled be” (4313-4321). Well, that’s a nice attempt to make things seem equal: the miller is beaten, loses whatever he gained from the milling of the wheat, “payed for” the supper of his two guests (even though they had given him silver for their food and lodging), who also slept with his wife and daughter. How are all these incommensurable items and actions able to be tallied up and declared equivalent to Simkin’s previous thefts and moral failings? If anything, Oswold’s attempt to settle accounts with a sturdy cliché only calls attention to the fact that his tale has demonstrated the opposite: in a world of exchange and endless substitution, the idea of a final and commensurate “requital” for ones actions is absurd. Oswold’s concluding boast, “Thus have I quyt the Millere in my tale” (4324), reads like an overstatement of his achievement. Any reader might wonder, after the preceding series of tricks, sleights, and attacks, whether Oswold’s promise (a kind of debt) to “quite” Robyn, much like any promise of a completely fair and equal exchange, could ever have been met in the first place.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Compare The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale. Is there a different tone? How might this relate to the characterization of Robyn and Oswold, respectively? How does Oswold’s representation of town life and rural economies differ from Robyn’s? What about their respective depictions of sex and desire?
¶ 28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 If we consider The Knight’s Tale, The Miller’s Tale, and The Reeve’s Tale as an interlocked sequence, how do each of these tales treat social class, wealth, violence, and sex?
¶ 31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire: The Literature of Social Classes and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1973)
¶ 35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Jayne Elisabeth Archer, Richard Marggraf Turley, Howard Thomas, “‘Soper at Oure Aller Cost’: The Politics of Food Supply in The Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer Review 50.1&2 (2015) 1-29.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Heidi Breuer, “Being Intolerant: Rape is Not Seduction (in ‘The Reeve’s Tale’ or Anywhere Else)” in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ Revisited (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2008).