Pearces & Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale”

Larry Pearce

Shortly after writing and publishing the first Chaucer commentary pertaining to the rather negative English view of our patriarch Richard Pearce’s occupation, that of a “miller by trade,” I received an e-mail from a gentleman who worked many years for the National Park Service and has a hobby of visiting old grist mills. He said that he appreciated my article but that I really should consider what he called “Chaucer’s true miller’s tale,” the one told by the reeve, a man paid to bring sinners before the Church court. I wrote about this persecution of the early English Quakers in our Beard connection. [See “Our Quaker Beginnings: Susannah Beard Austen’s Ancestors.”] If a miller’s reputation is bad, surely a reeve’s is even worse. Chaucer paints him as one who looks and acts terribly, is easily bribed, and is quick to anger. Before we consider this old story and its context, we suggest a review of several postings that will provide background for appreciating it:
• “The Original Family Narrative’
• “Settlement at Pine Creek: The Pearce & Austen Families at North Park”
• “Pearce Milling Company: The Story of the Family Business”
• “The Miller’s Tale: Triangulation from the Family Narrative, Chaucer, and the Internet”

As we did in the previous essay based on the middle English piece, “The Miller’s Tale,” we begin by reminding the read that author Geoffrey Chaucer lived from 1342 to 1400 and began his collection of clever stories, called The Canterbury Tales, in 1387. Canterbury was the center of the Church, complete with cathedral in honor of St. Augustine and shrine to Thomas Becket, and so pilgrimages by persons of all walks of life were common. Chaucer wondered what it must have been like for the pilgrims who shared transportation and accommodations along the way. We warned that Chaucer’s writings were intended to entertain, and just as Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audiences two centuries later and some modern adult theater goers today, the consumers of these stories were treated to a variety of fare, from the tender-hearted to the raunchy. “The Reeve’s Tale” is the latter. In fact, one source says, “It rivals ‘The Miller’s Tale’ in vulgarity.”

It’s unfortunate that our look back at English society of over six centuries ago is so negative. I truly believe that our ancestors, especially the Pearces who emigrated to America in 1820, were noble and righteous men and women. Nevertheless, as contemporary American writer Bill Bryson says in The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got That Way:
Millers were unpopular throughout much of history because of their supposed tendency to cheat the farmers who brought them grain. So it was not a flattering name. A modern equivalent might be the name Landlord. Most Millers in America were in fact originally Muellers or Mullers. The German word had the same meaning but did not carry the same derisory connotations. (203)

I suppose that we can be thankful our surname isn’t Miller. By the way, my wife’s maiden name was Miller, of German extraction.

In “The Miller’s Tale” Chaucer describes the storyteller as having bristly read hair all over his head, including a beard, and protrusions from a wart on his nose. He has a gaping mouth and wide nostrils. He reeks of garlic, onions, and leeks but yet on this festive occasion wears a garland of flowers on his head. Stout and brawny from his life of hard work and heavy lifting, the miller, according to Chaucer, could butt down a door with his head. Ironically, he carries a set of bagpipes with him on the journey and often plays for his fellow travelers. He wears a white coat with blue hood and a sword and buckler around his waist. His language is terrible, the mark of a true commoner.

Now, compare that to the reeve: also unattractive, but old and skinny with a vicious temper. Both the hair on his head and his chin is closely cropped. Chaucer describes his as looking like a fox, and this matches his demeanor, cunning. He is apparently the manager of a large estate and has the reputation of being a shrewd organizer and crafty money manager. It’s not unusual for this financier to loan money to his own master. Sharp and demanding, he is feared by the tenants he oversees, shepherds and stable boys. It’s no wonder that the reeve is forced to ride alone, well behind the other pilgrims in the story.

Without further adieu, let’s have a look at the story. The miller’s name is Simon, but people call him “Symkyn.” Was this to suggest that his “kin” were “simpletons?” We can’t say for sure. He comes from the little village of Trumpington near Cambridge, to the northeast of London. His proximity to the school will play an important part in the drama, as we’ll see. Ironically, the main character in “The Miller’s Tale” lived at the other reknown university, Oxford, but he was a carpenter by trade. In “The Reeve’s Tale,” the miller obviously lived and worked near a brook. Our Pearces, according to the Original Family Narrative lived in Bourne, which means creek or river. We believe today that it could have been a tributary of the Bourne or Avon Rivers that confluence near Aldbourne, in Wiltshire. The name Trumpington may have been conjured up by Chaucer as a way of characterizing Simon. Like the musical instrument, Simon was loud. He wore rather obnoxious clothing and, as did the teller of “The Miller’s Tale,” the protagonist here also played the often loud bagpipes. Simon had a round face and a flat nose. His favorite hobby, when not grinding the grain, was fishing in the mill pond. Chaucer says that he always carried a knife. Perhaps he felt he needed protection from his clients? This make the fact that he married a minister’s daughter all the more ironic. If Simon was self-conscious and jealous, his wife, with a noble pedigree, was pretentious. Nevertheless, they had two children together: a 20-year old daughter, Molly, and a toddler. One wonders about their passion in the intervening two decades. Was the toddler a “mistake?”

Chaucer portrays Simon as extremely deceitful and dishonest in all his dealings and felt that he could, and perhaps should, cheat the college more than the rest. As the Steward of Cambridge lay dying, two students, John and Alan, who were apparently studying the working of the milling process, bring the Steward’s grain to watch Simon grind it. When they’re not looking, Simon unties their horse, letting it run loose. As they run after it, forgetting the grain, Simon has his wife knead the flour into dough for bread and hide it away. Upon the students’ return, neither the Steward’s corn nor the meal could be found. They are shocked and believe it has been stolen. They desperately ask Simon for help, but he only offers them lodging until they can return to Cambridge.

Naturally, in true Chaucer style, the boys are housed in the same room with Simon and his family, including the beautiful daughter, Molly. No one gets any sleep because Simon is snoring so loudly. Alan, who suspects Simon’s deceit with the corn meal, wants to seduce Molly as revenge. John warns him that Simon has a vicious temper and might kill him for such an act. Alan goes ahead with his desire, and John is humiliated and embarrassed. Meanwhil, true to Chaucer, John seduces the miller’s wife.

The reader is then asked to, as fellow Englishman Coleridge said, “willingly suspend our disbelief.” In the morning it’s revelation time: Molly somehow knows what happened to the corn meal and tells Alan, while Alan brags to John of his exploits. In true farcical form, Simon overhears all and grabs Alan by the neck in anger. In the melee that follows, Simon stumbles over his wife, breaking her ribs. She picks up a staff and tries to hit Alan with it but ends up striking her husband. The students grab the remaining corn and meal leaving Simon and his wife on the ground trying to catch their breath. Simon has paid dearly for his sins: he’s been beaten, made to look like a fool, lost a daughter to seduction, and given up the stolen property.

In the end, the reeve quotes the old English proverb:
And therefore this proverbe is seyd ful sooth,
Hym thar nat wene wel that yvele dooth;
A gylour shal himself bigyled be.

The rough translation in modern American English might be: “He that does not live well, that does evil, a deceiver will himself be deceived.”

In conclusion, my Great-grandfather Charles Pearce (1834-1914), who ran the Pearce Milling Company after taking over for his father, Richard Pearce (1782/5-1861), humbly turned it over to his son Wibert C. (b. 1880). These men were school directors and Sunday school teachers. I have no reason to believe that these millers were anything but outstanding citizens. Their milling operation was very successful right up until the county took over by eminent domain in 1927, and the property was converted to a public park. While our social and historical reputation is both painful and proud at the same time, but I believe that it’s always best to disclose the whole truth. We may even have a little enjoyment along the way. I’m sure Geofrey Chaucer did, even if at our expense.

Works Cited

Adlbourne. Date unknown

Bryson, Bill. The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got That Way. New York: Avon Books, 1990.

The Canterbury Tales. “The Reeve’s Tale.” 2 December, 2004

Hazen, Theodore. Various E-mail. April & May, 2003.

Wiltshire. Date unknown

2 Responses to Pearces & Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale”

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