Sunday, April 10, 2005

Chaucer's "Reeve's Tale" and "Prioress's Tale"

First, I enjoyed very much the contrast of the two types of stories ("The Reeve's Tale," a comic fabliau, based out of two similar French analogues, Jean Bode's "Gombert and the Two Clerks" and the anonymously written "The Miller and the Two Clerks," and "The Prioress's Tale," a Miracle of the Virgin) and of the types of characters who relate them: the reeve, a "cherle" as our text says, and a religious. If you have not yet had a chance to read these in a modern translation, click on the following link. At the left of the page, you will be able to choose the Edition (choose Modern English) and Tale/Section (choose either The Reeve or The Prioress.)

I enjoyed the sense of "revenge" in The Reeve's Tale, which appears on several levels. First, as our text tells us, a reeve, as a foreman of an estate, would be likely to harbor resentment against millers since most millers were considered to cheat those for whom they ground grain. The Miller's Tale ends with a carpenter - similar to Chaucer's reeve, Oswald, who is a carpenter - being cuckolded, beaten and humiliated. The Prologue makes clear that Oswald did not find the Miller's tale funny and that he forbears to respond in kind, although that is precisely what he does. The miller Simon (or Symkyn) is not only cuckolded but his daughter is violated or ravished depending on how one interprets the story (more on this later.) Thus, a miller is humilated just as a carpenter had been. There is also the revenge within the story itself of the two cheated students upon Simon for chasing off their horse and stealing some of the flour belonging to the university. But I suggest that there is also a third revenge: the wife, pretending to strike Aleyn (Allan), actually beats her own husband. One online criticism of the text (by Gary L. Balliet, in his essay, "The Wife in Chaucer's Reeve's Tale: Siren of Sweet Vengeance") suggests that the wife has been humiliated by her marriage to Simon and considers Aleyn and Symkyn to be "doubles" and uses this as her chance for revenge. Of course, another way to look at this tale is to view the wife and daughter as victims who are denied their voice in protest at what is little more than a rape (although the wife is said to have a "merie" time, and Chaucer tells us thatAleyn and the daughter Malyn are "hard at it.") Yet another way to look at the tale is that it may well be more "true to life" in all its hardness and baseness concerning this particular social stratum of the Middle Ages. Still, I found elements of humor in it despite what may appear to be the victimization of the two women, perhaps not coincidentally, manage each in their own way to get back at the miller whose behavior has led to this situation. I enjoyed the commentary that the story provides concerning morality and honor.

"The Prioress's Tale" is quite different not only in tone - there is nothing even remotely humorous in this story of death and devotion - but in the treatment of a dark issue: anti-Semitism. While I prefer to think that the anti-Semitism of the story is Chaucer's commentary on the anti-semitism of the Middle Ages (despite papal stances condemning persecution of the Jews during this period) and "belongs" as it were to the Prioress and not to Chaucer, a case can be made for it belonging to Chaucer himself. I found much of the story to reflect the story of the innocent Joseph, betrayed by his brothers who wished for his death: ll. 113-114 state: "Fro thennes forth the Jewes han conspired / This innocent out of this world to chace" or "From that time on, the Jews plotted to rid the earth of this innocent child." Further echoes of the Joseph story are found in line 119 ("And kitte his throte and in a pit hym caste" - Joseph was thrown into a pit), lines 124-125 ("Mordre wol out, certeyn it wol nat faille, / And namely theras th'onour of God shal sprede" - Joseph reminds his brothers that "though you meant it for evil, God mean it for good") and line 175 ("This newe Rachel bringen fro his beere" - the boy's widowed mother [similar to Joseph's widowed father] is a "second Rachel" and Rachel was the mother of Joseph.) This tale seems to me to make a microcosm of the Prioress: she is at once anti-Semitic in her story which resonates with all the persecution of the innocent by wicked Jews such as Herod and this is "not a good thing" and yet she advocates devotion to Christ's mother Mary who aids the weak and helpless, and this is a "good thing." She is like all of mankind: flawed, yet able to receive God's grace.

In addition, to me, the "kernel" or "grain" placed by Mary on the boy's tongue represents the Eucharist, and reminds the reader that Mary herself points to the Son she bore as the "white flower."

I would like to see discussion on both tales concerning either some of the points I have raised or others that occur to you.


Blogger Jana Swartwood said...

Like Weltha, I found the contrast of “The Reeve’s Tale” and “The Prioress’s Tale” to be quite striking. In fact, it was a little weird reading them back to back—it felt sort of wrong to jump from a baudy sex/revenge story into a miracle of the Holy Mother. But that’s Chaucer for you (and to his credit, it’s not like he placed these two tales back to back in his book).

If I were writing my own title for “The Reeve’s Tale,” it would be “How the Miller Could Have Averted Disaster in Three Easy Steps: Don’t Cheat People, Always Keep Candles Lit in the Bedroom, and Do Something About Your Obnoxious Snoring Problem.” I don’t mean to downplay the element of revenge in the story, or the necessity for it (considering the earlier “Miller’s Tale”), but I’d like to suggest that if the miller and his family hadn’t kept the students awake with their loud, drunken snoring, Aleyn and John would have been so tired from chasing the horse all afternoon that they would have fallen into a deep sleep and the women’s honor would have been preserved. Revenge, for the students, becomes something to keep them occupied in their sleepless state; since they can’t sleep anyway, they are inspired to take revenge upon the miller for stealing their flour by, if you’ll pardon the play on words, stealing the “flower” of his beloved daughter and wife. I’m not sure that I quite agree with Weltha concerning the “revenge” of the miller’s wife, though. I don’t think she intentionally was trying to beat her husband; I think it was the darkness of the room that caused her to mistake the miller for the student, just as it was the darkness of the room that caused her to mistake Aleyn for her husband (not to mention the fact that she was drunk when she went to bed and probably wasn’t fully sober yet).

“The Prioress’s Tale” is quite a contrast to “The Reeve’s Tale,” both in the sorts of characters portrayed and in the nature of the narrative. “The Reeve’s Tale” is a base narrative dealing with common people and situations. “The Prioress’s Tale” is a mystical tale of a young child’s devotion to the Virgin Mary and how she keeps him alive to sing the Alma Redemptoris Mater (or “Gracious Mother of the Redeemer”) even after his throat has been cut. The textbook suggested parallels between this tale and the story of St. Erkenwald, and I definitely sensed the same sort of inexplicable miracle. I think the thing that stood out to me was the boy’s innocence and sincere love for the Virgin; one doesn’t often see such faith, which perhaps is why he was chosen to bear witness to the power of God in this manner. I liked how Weltha saw the kernel as a symbol of the Eucharist (something I totally missed). I actually saw it as a parallel to that moment in the Book of Isaiah when the angel places the burning coal upon Isaiah’s lips and cleanses his speech, making him fit to bear the words of God. As long as the child possesses this “purity,” he is kept alive to sing the Blessed Mother’s song; once it has been removed, he dies. The Anti-Semitic nature of the tale is, I think, merely a backdrop that reflects beliefs commonly held by many Christians in the Middle Ages. It provides a believable scenario through which such a tragedy could occur. It is sad and unfortunate, but I don’t think the Prioress would have meant for it to have been a central element of the tale. Her focus is on honoring the Virgin through the telling of the miracle.

9:05 PM  
Blogger Weltha Wood said...

I understand exactly what Jana means about the wife "meaning" to hit her husband in the Reeve's tale. I should have said more clearly that this is ONE interpretation that I found from an online analysis. While I'm not sure I agree with it either, I found it interesting. I very much like Jana's idea of the kernal being the "coal" of fire from the angel in Isaiah. It certainly fits with the theme of the little child's purity. Actually, I prefer to think that the anti-semitism is just the "back drop" for the story although I still found it bothersome. Much online discussion was devoted to "whose" anti-semitism it was. Still, there is a strong emphasis on this little child's pure love AND upon the grace mediated to him as a result of his devotion. And that, as Martha Stewart says, is "a good thing."

3:17 PM  

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