Summary and Analysis
The Reeve's Prologue and Tale
The only pilgrim who dislikes The Miller's Tale is Oswald, the Reeve, who takes the story as a personal affront because he was once a carpenter. He tells the Miller that he will pay him back for such a story, and so he does.
A dishonest miller, who lives close to a college, steals corn and meal brought to his mill for grinding. One day, the manciple (or steward) of the college is too ill to go to the mill to watch the miller grind his corn, and, in his absence, the miller robs him outrageously.
Two students at the college, John and Alan, are enraged at the news of the theft and volunteer to take a sack of corn to the mill. When they arrive, they announce that they will watch the milling. The miller, sensing that the students want to prevent him from stealing, untethers the students' horse. When John and Alan find the horse missing, they chase it until dark before catching it. Meanwhile, the miller empties half the flour from the sack and refills it with bran.
Because it is now dark, the boys ask the miller to put them up for the night. The miller, who has a wife, a twenty-year old daughter, and an infant son, agrees. Because the house is small, they all sleep in the same room but in separate beds: John and Alan in one bed, the Miller and his wife in another with the cradle beside, and the daughter in the third.
While the miller and his family sleep, John and Alan think of ways to get revenge. Suddenly, Alan announces that he is going to have that "wench there," referring to the daughter. His logic is "If at one point a person be aggrieved / Then in another he shall be relieved" ("That gif a man in a point be agreved, / That in another he sal be releved"). John, however, stays in bed lamenting his condition; resolved finally to not spend the night alone, he gets up and quietly moves the baby and cradle next to his bed. About this time, the miller's wife gets up to relieve herself; returning to her bed, she feels for the baby's cradle, which is now beside John's bed. Thinking this her bed, she climbs in beside John, who immediately "tumbled on her, and on this goode wyf, he layed it on well."
At dawn, Alan says goodbye to the daughter, who tells him where to find his stolen flour. When Alan goes to wake John, he discovers the cradle and, assuming that he has the wrong bed, hops into the miller's bed. There, he tells John how he had the daughter three times during the night. "As I have thries in this shorte nyght / Swyved (screwed) the milleres doghter bolt upright." The miller rises from his bed in a fury. The miller's wife, thinking that the swearing is coming from one of the students, grabs a club and, mistaking her husband for one of the clerks, strikes him down. Alan and John gather their ground wheat and flour and flee the premises.
The reader should keep in mind that the idea in one tale is often told to repay another. Thus, because the Reeve is upset over the Miller's tale about a carpenter, the Reeve tells a tale whereby a miller is ridiculed and repaid for his cheating.
Both tales deal with a seduction within the sanctity of the hearth (or household): In The Miller's Tale, only the young wife is seduced. In The Reeve's Tale, however, both the daughter and the wife are "swyved" (screwed) by the young students. As in The Miller's Tale, a rough sort of poetic justice is meted out. The miller intends to cheat the students and ridicules their education when he tells them to try to make a hotel out of his small bedroom. During the course of the night, the students do, indeed, made a type of hotel (house of prostitution) out of his house. Furthermore, the tale includes wonderful medieval puns: John and Alan talk of the grinding of their meal in covertly sexual terms: "Grinding" or "grinding corn" was common fourteenth-century London slang for sexual intercourse (the Wife of Bath also talks of bread and grinding in the prologue to her tale).
The natures of The Miller's Tale and The Reeve's Tale again testify to the differences in their personalities. The Reeve, who in The Prologue is described as "old and choleric and thin," tells a tale that reeks of bitterness and is less funny than The Miller's Tale, partly because the Miller is a boisterous and jolly person.
Trumpyngtoun (Trumpington) a town near Cambridge, England.
Sheffild (Sheffield) a town in northern England, famous for the quality of its cutlery; thus, one should beware of the Reeve because of the high quality of the Sheffield dagger which he carries in his hose.
Solar Hall the name of a large hall at Cambridge University, so named because of its large sunny windows.
Strother a town in Scotland, no longer in existence.
palfrey a riding horse, in contrast to a work horse.
Bromeholm (Bromeholme) a piece of wood reputed to be a part of the cross known as the Rood of Bromeholme, highly venerated in Scotland.