Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, October 05, 2017

CHAUCER: Canterbury Tales (Reeve’s Tale)

In the Prologue to the Miller’s Tale Chaucer gives fair warning that not all of the Canterbury Tales will make for wholesome reading.  He writes “gentle soul, I pray that for God’s love you’ll hold not what I say evilly meant, but that I must rehearse all of their tales, the better and the worse, or else prove false to some of my design.”  This is clever.  Chaucer is writing a story about some folks taking a pilgrimage to Canterbury.  These folks decide to each tell a story along the way to make the journey more pleasant.  This story-within-a-story format allows Chaucer to claim that he “must rehearse all of their tales” for better or for worse.  In other words, he’s not taking any responsibility for the content of the stories because they’re being told by the pilgrims.  Chaucer claims he’s just retelling what the travelers had to say on the road to Canterbury.  It’s a neat literary trick.  It allows him to go on and say “therefore, who likes not this story, let him turn the page and choose another tale… stories touching on gentility, and holiness, and on morality.”  What follows then is the very bawdy Miller’s Tale.  Chaucer gave us fair warning.

The Miller’s Tale is in fact very bawdy.  It’s also very entertaining.  But not to everyone.  In the Miller’s Tale a reeve (or carpenter) ends up looking like a fool.  So when the reeve’s turn comes to tell a story he says “it’s lawful to meet force with force.  This drunken miller has related here how a carpenter was beguiled and fooled; perchance in scorn of me, for I’m a carpenter.  So, by your leave, I’ll requite him anon.”  The miller told a bawdy story about a carpenter, so I’m going to even the score and tell a bawdy story about a miller.  And he does.  In the Reeve’s Tale a miller has been cheating Cambridge College for a long time.  They come to him to have their wheat ground and he puts a lot of husks back in the sack and siphons off a lot of the wheat for himself.  Two novices (John and Alain) come to the miller to have the wheat ground.  They’re on to his tricks and devise a plan to make sure the miller doesn’t cheat: one will stand at the top and the other will stand at the bottom to make sure all the wheat gets in the sack.  But the miller has devised a better plan.  He unlooses their horse so John and Alain have to leave their posts and chase after the horse.  By the time two college students come back all sweaty and weary, the miller has already cheated them out of some wheat.  The boys have to spend the night and during the night they get even with the miller by having sex with the miller’s wife and daughter.  Chaucer tries to put a happy face on this story by tacking on a moral proverb at the end: “an evil end will come to an evil man.  The cheater shall himself be cheated.” 

This is a good proverb but doesn’t quite fit the case.  What are we supposed to make of this story?  The miller cheated, so it’s ok to get even?  Does having sex with his wife and daughter count as getting even?  Socrates says we should never repay evil for evil.  We might respond that this is literature, not philosophy.  It’s not the job of literature to uphold moral truths.  So what is the job of literature, or we might add, what is the job of the arts in general?  Just to entertain?  Does art have no moral function?  Does the artist (in this case Chaucer) have no obligation whatsoever to show us “the good, the true and the beautiful” things in life?  Is that duty left only to philosophers?  What about historians?  We just read Herodotus.  Does Herodotus make moral judgments about the war between the Greeks and the Persians?  Should modern historians suspend moral judgments about imperialism or slavery?  What about the Bible?  In 2 Samuel we just read about David getting Bathsheba pregnant and sending her husband Uriah to the front lines to be killed.  Are we supposed to suspend moral judgment about that too?  Does Chaucer tell good stories?  If by “good” we mean entertaining then Chaucer tells good stories.  But if we mean “good” in the sense that Socrates meant it, then Chaucer falls short.  Socrates thought the purpose of art was to make us better people.  He would have banished Chaucer from his Republic.  Chaucer avoids the moral problem altogether and says: You don’t like this story?  Pick another one.   


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