The Choleric Reeve

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Geoffrey Chaucer is not only the "father of English Literature," but also the first English writer to use the vernacular (common language), as he did in his fourteenth century masterpiece The Canterbury Tales. There are thirty pilgrims that Chaucer describes, and Chaucer mixes his view of the reeve. The origins of the reeve cannot be adequately understood without first analyzing history during the rise of the reeve, finding out the position of the reeve, discovering who Chaucer's reeve is, and analyzing Chaucer's views of the reeve. Chaucer is neither fully opposed to the reeve, nor is he completely for the reeve; thus, Chaucer's views are mixed concerning the reeve.

Historical Background

Before delving into the reeve, some English history must be analyzed in order to understand the position of a reeve in Middle English society. The Normans conquered England in the ninth and tenth centuries, and by the Eleventh century, the Norman culture was essentially French culture. After the Battle of Hastings in 1066, a new noble class formed, and, as such, the English nobility was almost entirely displaced. However, as time progressed, the nobility within England began to consider itself only English, which is the re-establishment of the English language and culture. And with the rise of the English language and culture came the rise of English literature, of which Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is a prime example. The Canterbury Tales is a description of thirty ordinary characters doing ordinary things in a Middle English society.

The Position of the Reeve

The Middle English reeve acts as the manager of a manor estate, overseeing the protection and maintenance of the pastures, fields, and woods belonging to the lord of the estate. As such, the reeve is supposed to be honest and dignified. The reeve should capture the trust of his lord because he is responsible for running the manor. Furthermore, the reeve is obligated to collect rents (in goods and services) from those who lived and farmed on any portion of the estate.

The Reeve in The Canterbury Tales

Does the reeve in The Canterbury Tales fulfill the obligations of a Middle English reeve? Not even close.

Chaucer's reeve doesn't care much about his appearance; he is old and thin, about which nothing can be done. Additionally, his beard was closely shaven to the skin and his hair came to a stop above his ears. He wore a overcoat bluish in color. Despite the fact that the reeve is very rich, it is interesting to note that he does not care about his appearance. For the reeve solely cares about his money and status, but certainly not his appearance. In Middle English and Old English culture, status was extremely important in society, as was money. The reeve violates laws in order to increase status and monetary yielding. The reference to a "Scot" (632) indicates that perhaps the reeve was of Scottish origin, which is significant because the Scottish are historically known to be quite stingy and frugal. These classifications of traditional Scotsmen hold true to the overall appearance of the reeve.

Personality-wise, the word "choleric" refers to the temperament of the reeve, and indicates that his temperament was quite violent. Furthermore, it also indicates that he possesses a shrewd wit, a sharp tongue, and a lecherous disposition. The shrewd wit is amply demonstrated by information given about how he conducts himself in the practice of his profession. The fact that "no bailiff, serf, or herdsman dared to kick, he knew their dodges, he knew their every trick" (620) shows that the reeve uses blackmail because the bailiff's position is traditionally superior to that of the reeve.

Chaucer's reeve is very good at his job because he has an element of control over the entire manor. Another indicator of this is that he was "better at bargains than his lord" (624), which shows that he was better in financial matters than his own lord. However, the reeve was also "feared like the plague" (621) because he uses any means possible to keep those beneath him who know of his scam from spreading it to the lord. Formerly the reeve was a middle-class carpenter, but now that he has control of the manor, the elderly reeve has moved to the upper class. Of course, he wants to stay in the upper class, and will do anything to assure he will do so.

As for the reeve's lord, he doesn't know that his reeve is using deceit to gain money and power. For the reeve has been under the lord since the lord's young and impressionable days. And to assure he will stay on the positive side of the lord, the reeve buys his lord presents on many an occasion. And, indeed, the gifts are working, as the reeve is trusted with all the items within the manor government. Essentially the reeve is lending the lord his own money.

Chaucer's View of the Reeve

Chaucer views the reeve in both a positive and a negative light, but more negative than positive. Thus, the overall view of the reeve is mixed. The fact that the reeve "could judge [crops] by watching drought and rain" (611) has an element of positive diction and illustrates that the reeve has experience in running the manor. Even more telling is that "no auditor could gain a point on him" (610), which shows the superiority of the reeve at his work. Additionally, the reeve was "a better hand at bargains than his lord" (624) which illustrates his skill in financial matters especially.

The first point of negative diction is most definitely the appearance of the reeve; old, thin, and scrubby. Next, it is said that the reeve is rather violent ("choleric"). Additionally, "no auditor could gain a point on him" (610) is alluding to the fact that the reeve will go to great lengths to keep his financial books out of dangers hands. A final point of negative diction is that "he had a rusty blade slung at his side" (634) which is a reference to specific sexual acts. A juxtaposition is present when it says that the reeve "had a lovely dwelling on a heath" (622) because this shows the two-faced nature of the reeve. Middle English reeves were not supposed to live in great luxury, yet this reeve does.

What we must remember is that Chaucer's opinion is always a standard representation of truth.

The Reeve Versus Other Characters

The reeve is unlike any of the other thirty pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, however, he is can be most closely associated with the monk. Chaucer has a mixed view of the monk, just as he has a mixed view of the reeve. Similar negative diction appears in both sections; the monk fails to heed the texts of the Bible (and is thus considered immoral), just as the reeve fails to reveal any segment of morality within him. Just as the monk is called a "manly man" (and monks are not supposed to be manly), the reeve is in control of the bailiff. Here Chaucer uses irony to illustrate his point through subtle contradictions that many readers would never even catch. While the monk is seen more in a positive light than the reeve (for instance, the monk is called "personable"), the reeve can best be equated to the monk character.

Other similar characters to the reeve include the prioress, the miller, the manciple, the pardoner, and the summoner, each of whom is known for ripping people off. They, like the reeve, are deceiving characters who Chaucer describes with more scorn than the other characters due to their beguiling ways.

The prioress is also seen in a balanced spectrum. The prioress has a way of smiling that is quite romantic ("coy"), and she is known as "Madam Eglantyne" (which is a reference to her romanticism). This is similar to the sexual reference of a "rusty blade" (634) in the case of the reeve.


Middle English society, like all other societies, has colorful, exotic, charasmatic, and beguiling characters each of whom is somewhat represented in Geoffrey Chaucer's classic The Canterbury Tales. The reeve was perhaps Chaucer's best illustration of an manipulative, egocentric, and deceiving Middle English character. From the onset it can be concluded that the reeve was out for himself.




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