" What amounteth al this wit?"
Study of Role of Reason in the Age of Decay.
"What amounteth al this wit? "
The Reeve's Tale (RvT) introduces the difficult concept of the validity of the use reason in a decaying world. If allegorical writing advocates the formula by which an author embeds a truth, a moral, the RvT contradicts the rule. Chaucer offers no optimistic outlet at the end of the story, no clean-cut sentence. Although Symkyn the Miller ends up being punished for his malevolent conduct in the way he has deceived others, his castigation echoes a moral failure. Perhaps more than in any other tale, Chaucers pessimist philosophy surfaces: rampant skepticism weaves the ideological theme of the entire story. This bleakness manifests itself under the prominent presence of decay, be it physical or spiritual. Unlike Mogan, who ascertains that Mutability - the concept of decay - shows its ugly head only in the Reeve's Prologue (RvP), (Mogan, 174), this paper will demonstrate instead that mutability encompasses both Prologue and Tale because the nature of evil permeates every symbolic element of the tale and collides with the rational spiritual forces that the sentence supposes to promote. Life becomes a degenerating process towards death, and the bitterness  the Reeve exudes resumes the struggle of these two conflicting worlds without leaving a place for clarity. If the world is indeed transitory and inevitably bound to decay, in what purpose does the usefulness of wisdom partake, since reason, like the body, will also decay? Accordingly why not indulge into some sinful deeds?
When Adam Became an Ape.
No artful interpretation can foil the evidence of decay in the Prologue. The Reeve is depicted as human being whose physical aspect abandons him and whose declining intellectual faculty reflects the sourness of a man who is witnessing his own decrepitude. Although these two important notions oppose each other, the cumbersome, ungrateful body versus the salacious mind, they also intimately fluctuate against each other. As long as good health prevails, in general the mind submits to the bodys yearning. When poor health strikes, the mind experiences a sudden heightened clarity and understanding of the treasure of life. People tend to feel morose about their physical losses and remorseful about the lost pleasures that life no longer grants. The aging being mutates from the condition of an active mimic to a passive observer. Passivity, whether imposed or not, was highly praised during Chaucers day because it displayed the mind in control of its emotions, it was considered virtuous to show a rational behavior. Actif behavior, on the other hand, such as indulging in adultery, pertained to the irrational and was strongly reprimanded. Wisdom, spiritual reflexion, was therefore an expected aspect of old age. The Reeve, paradoxically, demonstrates a measured comprehension about his declining faculties: his senility of which he is aware:
Gras tyme is doon; my fodder is now forage;
This white top writeth myne olde yeris;
Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris,
and shows little inclination to give up his decreasing sexual competence.
For in oure wyl ther stiketh evere a nayl,
To have a hoor heed and a grene tayl,
As hath a leek; for thogh oure myght be goon,
Oure wyl desireth folie evere in oon.
" The Reeve perceived himself as an old man, impotent but vexed by desire " (Everest, 110). Furthermore, he warns that despite his advanced age, four burning coals still rage within him: " Avauntyng, liyng, anger, coveitise" (RvP, 3884), four vices  that he cannot control and which challenge the expected wisdom old age should display. Since the old Reeve shows no sign of capitulation to the reality of his shriveling body , Reason, following this statement of folly (Smith, 102), loses sight and becomes blind.
Perhaps the Reeve has a legitimate incentive to exhibit such obstinacy. It can be argued that Osewold, in his Prologue, laments his loss of health because it will open the door to potential vulnerability from others. The Reeve has dedicated his life to thievery. The essential asset a thief needs in order to survive resides in his health. Further testimony of the Reeve's reluctance to renounce his physical terrestrial life unfurls when both portraitures of the Reeve in the GP and RvP are juxtaposed. Both portraits contradict each other. Nowhere in the GP has the impression of dealing with an aging man occurred to the reader; on the contrary, the feeling of dealing with an alert, clear-minded, and dominant person prevails: he is clean shaven, although "lene" and he (the Reeve) even rides a "High Scot". Although the allusion regarding the old Reeves dishonesty has vanished in the RvP, which focuses on his physical degeneration, the Reeve's shady description in the GP leaves no doubt about his malevolence: " That he ne knew his sleighte and his covyne " (GP, 604). The Reeve in the GP exhibits sound health; he is a master at his craft. Unsurprisingly, in order to restore the physical discrepancy, the aging Reeve turns the Miller, in the RvT, into a potent beast. The description the old Reeve gives of Symkyn transposes his own frustrated desires. Whatever the old Reeve relinquishes the Miller gains. By restoring some physical might through the projection of the idealized Miller, the Reeve reestablished his own physico-mental equilibrium. Thus the Miller becomes the contumacious Reeves partner in crime. Conveniently, in the improved transposition of the Millers portrayal, the mutable evidence of degeneration has disappeared. The Miller embodies the resurrection of the Reeves four consuming coals. The reversal of this health condition betrays the old Reeve's obsessions to retain some physical permanence. Osewold displays unreasonable fixations with the foolishness of youth; he treasures earthly intimacy with the easy pleasure of life: a life, of course, away from Christian definition of caritas .
On a psychological level, Reason undergoes further degradation in the semblance of character; the Miller shows analogous mental features to those of the old Reeve. Both are experts at the art of deceiving credulous customers, remorlessly,
Wel wiste he by the droghte and the reyn
The yelding of his seed and of his greyn.
For therbiforn he stal but curteisly,
Now he was a theef outrageously,
The Reeve nevertheless does not hesitate to poke fun at the Miller's physiognomy in order to create a gap between them, in the event the semblance would incriminate him directly. He (the Miller) has a rounded face, a kamus nose, and he is bald as an ape and bears the characteristic of the artfulness of the ape. References about the ape abound in the text - which, again, evinces a possible rational moral outcome. The ape incarnates the irrational creature whose libido, or innate instinct, inclines to be lecherous, promiscuous. The ape gives the RvT a sharp inclination towards cupiditas: a propension towards irrational, fleshy desire. (Medieval paintings often contained an ape that symbolized earthly unwelcome desires and feeble minds .) So the Reeve and Symkyn stand for mediocre, evil characters, whose life rejects the notion of caritas: the spiritual quest, the rationale, and prosper on the futility of transitory goods.
These mutual affinities between the Reeve in GP and RvP and Symkyn obscure the possibility to extract a refuge for rational thinking. The GP, RvP, and RvT must be then understood as a triptych of which the RvP will occupy the central panel. The Portrait of the Reeve in GP resembles the one of Miller in the RvT. The RvP experiences a physical decrescendo in order to enhance the similitude between the GP Reeve and Symkyn and to distance the Old Reeve from Symkyn. Whereas Symkyn the Miller remains robust and sturdy, strangely the Reeve in the RvP has metamorphosed into a decaying old man from whom " Deeth drough the tappe of lyf." The compensation the old Reeve projects exhibits an intent to defeat the ravages of time. Symkyn the Miller thus appears as the perfect amalgam of the perverted, libidinous, old Reeve's character and the GP Reeve's physical endurance; this restoration allows him to rob on unfrettingly. Reciprocity works both ways; since Symkyn is a projection of the Reeve's imagination, the " Reeve is a kind of ' ruler of darkness' " (Ellis, 150). Nothing reasonable can be expected from Symkyn's conduct: he is the incarnation of evil. The Reeves depiction of Symkyn emphasizes the mutability of the world: a slow pessimistic progression toward death. No ape is capable of rational thinking. The portrait of this preservation of evil already fathoms the decline both of the corporal and rational worlds. Rather than using his reason to heighten his intellectual life, the Reeve tunes his mind, instead, on the transitoriness of perishable value.
The Planet of the Apes.
The decline of spiritual ideals manisfests itself above all during the bedroom scene of the Tale. Its banishment offers no panacea for a spiritual human impetus. There reason is literally mistreated because the behavior of the two clerks and the women turns the mill into a monument celebrating the defeat of the intellectual (Baylor, 19). The story no longer orchestrates the playfulness of attractive sinful human beings, as in the Miller's Tale. Chaucer has transformed the Reeve's characters into beasts; they insult, denigrate, reason. In the bedroom's mayhem the menagerie breaks loose; devoid of human, the world suddenly teems with apes. A close examination of the incident will sustain this claim.
Numerous references have hinted at the French fabliau of the " Le Meunier et les II clers" as a possible source to explain the origin of the Reeves tale. These references focuses essentially on Malyne, Symkyns daughter (Plummer, 56). Is Malyne in the French version analogous to the wenche in the English one? Although the debate has not yet ended to elucidate her origins, no one has yet undertaken to illuminate the meaning of her name in the story in relation to the French language. A couple of French idioms , however, allow to advance an argument that, curiously, matches perfectly the libidinous portraits of Malyne and the Clerks. The First aphorism, " Malin comme un singe," (I am assuming this is an ancient one) means artful like an ape. Anyone without difficulty notices the similarity between the French word underlined and the name of Symkyn's daughter. Applying the feminine gender to the French malin results in maline, which coincidentally has the same sound as Malyne in our story. Is Malyne also an Ape? The truth speaks for itself, and its implications contend that Chaucer depicts a simian scene to his readers and has no attention to spare Malynes already marred reputation. In addition the French meaning supports the notion that Malyne is a wenche and would explain why she so eagerly accepts the Clerks impromptu proposal. In other words, no evidence of spiritual growth countervails the mental decay she epitomizes. Malyne personifies once again the collapse of the intellect.
Accordingly Malyne should raise little sympathy. Instead, she should be viewed as a compliant temptress; she shows all the cunning and artfulness of her hinted simian features and appearance. In a similar vein, the Reeve insists on the resembling kamus nose of both father and daughter (Beidler 242). And Biggins's definition of Symkyn the Miller (qtd in Riverside, 850, 3941), also underlines the simian quality of Symkyn's appearance. Unlike past study about Malyne, the simian caricature demonstrates that Malyne is not at all an attempt on Chaucers part to "Humanize" the Reeve's tale. If she is indeed an ape, her demeanor bears similar flaws than her fathers, in this instance, lasciviousness.
Because of the institution he represents, Aleyn the clerk worsens also the case of the failure of reason. Aleyn is also an ape. His name is no more than a clever anagram encoded into the French language. By adding a simple M in front of Aleyn, the mysterious name restores the French connotation. If Malyne is maline, then, MAleyn is malin and both are artful like apes. Besides Aleyn and Malyne sound alike. (Should these assertions about the insertion of French puns into the Reeve's Tale be credible, they shows a remarkable example of a French linguistic incursion into the English language. Chaucers reputation for his mastery of the French language is legendary; he, notably, translated the Romaunce of the Rose.) Should these claims be true, they bear, on the other hand, serious consequences because Aleyn, the malin, comes from Cambridge University and should speak like a rational man. In giving him the appearance of an ape, Chaucer once more intensifies his extreme pessimism vis-à-vis the possibility of the usefulness of the rational. If the intellect itself is depicted as an impossible aim endlessly debasing the mind, no mental progress can be achieved.
The second French expression, "payer quelqu'un en monnaie de singe" which means "to fob somebody off with empty promises" adds further weight to the fiasco of reason. "After he had swonken al the longe nyght," Aleyn as a perfect replica of the primate family takes his leave from Malyne with the promise he will forever cherish her memory. Needless to say, Aleyn lies without impunity; he buys Malynes credulity with empty promises and hopes to get away with a cheap escape, after having thoroughly enjoyed her. But Malyne behaves likewise. In revealing to Aleyn her father's cunning theft Malyne also betrays her own kind and magnifies her depraved simian character. Without knowing she is being cheated by Aleyn, she betrays her father. There is no honour between thieves but treachery. As for her wepe, since Chaucer provides no insight into her thoughts or feelings (Kohanski, 233), no one can dismiss the possibility she feigns her tears since lasciviousness and deceit are central to her simian attributes. The interpretation that, perhaps, she is happy to get rid of the Clerk could suggest a stratagem to make Aleyn believe that his empty promise has deeply affected her, whereas she is simply fooling him. Nothing contradicts that she might well be outplaying the Clerk at his own game. "The beguiler beguiled." Plummer suggests that Malynes act is embarrassing because it admits a sense of pathos. Kohansky, on the other hand, states that Malyne represents the only " character in the tale to act at all decently, and is the one who suffers most"; the present French elucidation throws some reconsideration on her questionable sympathy. Objecting to the possibility that both deceive each other with an identical ruse would not do justice to the interpretation of the tale. The excerpt must be read then with humor, even though it may appear caustically virulent in nature, and not with commiseration for Malynes mistreatment. The passage shows Chaucer fully excercising his linguistic skills which he disguises under an ironic veil. Reason, notwithstanding, experiences another defeat because the human actors of the tale have turned into animals in whose names Chaucer craftily concealed evidence of their vices. The French reading helps to unveil some shadow about the characters conduct and frame of mind. A French interpretation may be erroneous, but the frequency of incidence provides a solid notion of the omnipresence of evil hard to refute.
The saga of the apes does not quite yet conclude. John decision to enter the "swinking" party exacerbates the already evanescent part of reason; the story descends into a critical philosophical stage where the corruption of reason endures further disintegration,
Now may I seyn that I is but an ape
yet has my felawe somwhat for his arm;
He has the milleris doghter in his arm.
He auntred hym, and has his nedes sped,
And I lye as a draf-sak in my bed;
With this utterance John, eagerly, concedes the simian quality of his friend Aleyn. The word ape he uses, translated as "fool " in the Riverside footnote, should perhaps be taken literally because it underlines Aleyn irrational behavior. Students of Cambridge University were expected to dedicate their time to scholarly works, to the learning of higher moral precepts, which destined them to careers in the ecclesiastic world. By contrasting himself from his college chum, John acknowledges the power of his reason; he has no intention in participating in the intellectual debasement of his friend. Logically, since Aleyn is an ape, John is a man; John is rational. Notwithstanding, although the accusation about his friend already conveys critical implication for the role of the rationale in regards to the responsibility of the educated man: clerical clerks are not supposed to indulge into fleshy desires, John still fails in maintaining firmly his reasonable deduction. His comment "As I lye like a draf-sak in my bed" nullifies his previous awareness. The line suggests a dichotomy between his status and his desires. This inconsistency insinuates that John becomes aware of his body and subsequent hankering, and that he is poised to yield to promiscuity. On this account, John also metamorphoses into an ape. Like Aleyn, John demonstrates as well important contradictions between his conduct and his status.
John's remark reflects Chaucer's extremely sardonic mind. It is one of the more important aspect of the tale. Chaucer without detour descends to the nadir of reason. He hints that education does not lead necessarily to virtue; the rational mind irrevocably is defeated in the presence of the earths temptations. Precisely because of Aleyn and Malyn's sexual performance, who should be the one feeling like a sack of chaff, he makes the abstinent John, instead, confuse his own reason. By claiming Aleyn an ape, John commits a fundamental error of an ignorant man--he should feel like a sack of fruit, not of chaff. Thereupon, because of his lack of deep understanding about the validity of a sane reason, John correlates that his virtue weighs no more, in his mind, than a bag of refuse, and, as he beguiled Symkyn's wife, with an enthusiastic malevolence, he turns himself into a " false clerk." Aleyn and John's act of false-love equals adultery--the very vice that their education discriminates. Both become kin to the unscrupulous Symkyn, "they lower themselves to adopt the same methods" (Baylor, 18) in order to deceive, or else the Reeve-Symkyn's evil spirit ends up being elevated, magnified, and praised. Not only John shows that rational reason can vanish under the impulse of fleshy desires but also be used for the purpose of evil.
The context of the tale, however, should not fall out of focus. Justman rightly observes that " the teller of the tale (the Reeve) oppressed with thought of his impotence (...) recaptures his sexual power, " (Justman, 25). Since solely wantonness prevails in the Reeve's mind, the Reeve can only recreate a lecherous world - away from the ideal rationale - where participants reflect their own putrid ideals. Osewold puts his reason to the service of his ill-frustration that irremediably points towards death. Unsurprisingly, by acting on self-interest and lust, John and Aleyn embrace, like the other characters of the story, the "four gleedes" that the Reeve had previously advocated. They brag, lie, steal, and are angry. Thus, in the furnace of the bedroom, the fruit of virtue smolders to ashes because of the general chaos that moral and physical decay have ignited. There is no consensus between good and evil. Through the pettiness and pathos of all his characters, Chaucer's offers a grim vision of the humans' ability to reach for the spiritual ideal that should intimate them with God. Is God decay's idea?
St. Paul the Ape.
Prior reference that the truth of God must to be found through meditation rather than through emotional intuition makes a perfect transition for the last part of this paper. The philosophical implications of the story, at least a medieval interpretation, demolishes the very purpose the metaphor of the Fruyt and the Chaf is supposed to represent because the Reeve's tale is first and foremost a story about grain. Both Osewald and Symkyn, coincidentally, deal with grains, "whete and malt," the former as a estate manager, the latter as a Miller. Likewise, the two dubious clerks are involved with grain; they bring theirs from Cambridge University to the mill to be ground. Symbolically, the grain represents the fruits of knowledge. This grain comes from the trashing of the wheat; the trashing illustrates the effort the mortal put into removing the chaff off the grain. The labor involved embodies the moralthe will to educate and elevate oneself towards the rationale, caritas, the divine truth, and God. Unfortunately, the grain of the Reeve's tale incarnates cupiditas. No spiritual message oozes out of the characters' speeches, behavior or situation; the two clerks like thieves rob their grain back from the miller; when the shrew Symkyn fight with the 'false-clerk' Aleyn, in the bedroom--the mills main room, where the grain is stored--the Moon, which promotes the concept of mutability , radiates pallidly over the characters' heads and reflects a hue normally associated with death. Paradoxically, Chaucer in the Reeve's tale over and over again emphasizes the illustration of the fruit and chaff, yet he offers no solution. He gives the impression to avoid to inflict a severe punishment on the sinners who enjoy a life of pleasure instead of dedicating it to a parcimonious and spiritual quest for God. Not even Fortunas seems to impregnate them with a deserved retaliation. Chaucers characters are immune to fate. The reader is left stranded on a rock of confusion. What is then the value of allegorical writing when no reasonable Sentence is to be inferred?
Robertson perhaps offers a possible acceptable answer. He astutely remarks that Chaucer reflects a medieval tendency to identify his characters in terms of attributes (Robertson 20). St. Paul, for example, is always represented as a miller grinding the grain of the Old Law to produce the flour of the New One. St. Paul's metaphor obviously presents several problems. On one hand the Miller has to keep on producing old laws in order to keep on producing new ones, which would entail that sins are inevitable and must continue to be performed so that the sinner may seek again redemption. On the other hand, the Old Law is in itself a product of a previous Law, which obviously did not qualify for immanence, and must therefore be ground once again. For what purpose then the sinner should attempt to be virtuous, since, inevitably, regardless of the perfect moral conduct, reason meets a cursed fate and is irremediably destroyed? Finally, the outcome of endless grinding is counter-productive and simply derivative. The idea to fathom a New Law from the flour of the Old one is illogical; nothing grows out of flour. So, once again the Miller, St. Paul, is condemned to keep on grinding the grain of the old Law... So why does St. Paul, the man who said that every writing should be educative, would like to contradict the fruit of his toiling? Mutability? Chaucer most likely knew of this metaphor and strove to steer the readers mind towards a precise moral. Indirectly, he makes the mortal wonder what is the true aim to reach for reason since everything has to submit to the law of decay.
If Robertson's premise is true, the consequences seriously damage the concept of virtue. What is to be deducted from the evil Symkyn being depicted as the Miller? That the corrupted Symkyn is the father of the New law? New Law that portraits the bleak image of an incurably decaying world? What about the Reeve who first imagined the pernicious Symkyn as a Miller, what does he intent to demonstrate? Should this assumption prove to be true, Chaucer then exhibits an utter pessimism of the mind; for St. Paul is Symkyn, and both are deceitful and evil. In other words, St. Paul is an irrational being, an ape who anticipates the anarchy of the mind and spirit. But these answers pertain to a vast gamut of speculations that merely narrow down some feasible interpretations, and their diversities underscore the lack of the morals clarity. Elucidating the tale could take a lifetime, a journey, a pilgrimage. The best manner to explain the metaphor of St. Paul the Miller, perhaps, lies in the suggestion of the execution of the journey, journey that every being must endure. Virtue does not lie in the moment of the redemption but rather on the way to the place of absolution. St. Paul preaches the pessimism of the mind and the optimism of the will, but both epitomized in the motion towards death.
One should not forget that the Canterbury tales is the story of a pilgrimage whose participants, sinful mortals, go to seek redemption for the deeds they have committed in a place of purification, of ablution for the soul. Thus the Reeve's tale must be interpreted as a rehearsal for an up-coming confession rewarding the penitent with absolution. But if this supposition is accurate what sort of confession does the Reeve insinuate since he shows no willingness, according to the Christian virtue, to want to be redeemed (his vice dictates his psyche) through his own portraiture projected in Symkyn? Chaucer whispers an evanescent moral, close to the silence that precedes death. " This husk shakes noisy pebbles within its sweet cover, but it provides food for pigs, not men!" (Huppé 5). Since the outcome does not lead to virtue but chaos, the tale implies that virtue can be attained solely during the journey the sinful mortals undertake, while they observe the motion. Is the Reeve evil while he exposes himself as the evil Symkyn? This transposition could display a preoccupation with a willingness to be redeemed, to be forgiven by others, and this very motion towards the shift of identity reflects an act of reason, whose awareness acknowledges the discrepancy between the good and evil, a discrepancy that lies at the heart of mutability, a mutability that represents the shallow grain St. Paul keeps on grinding to dust while searching for a satisfying verdict.
REFERENCES1. " The reve was a sclendre colerik man," (GP, 587) 2. See Harleys article about St. Fursey's vision regarding her interpretation of the "Four Gleedes" 3. Further connotation about the Reeve's licentious and nefarious mind can be found in Everest's article. She interprets the line, " I fare as dooth an open-ers", as the description of " a type of small apple, whose medlar characteristically forms a cleft and a blemish-like indentation on one side, a configuration which fosters its lewd identification with the buttocks," (106). 4. I am hinting at the quality of the horse: tell me what sort of horse you ride and I will tell you who you are. The Reeve rides a strong horse. For further reading see Feinsteins article. 5. St. Augustine gives his notion of Caritas: " I call 'charity' the motion of the soul toward the enjoyment of God for His own sake, and the enjoyment of one's self and of one's neighbor for the sake of God; but 'cupidity' is a motion of the soul toward the enjoyment of one's self, one's neighbor, or any corporal thing for the sake of something other than God." (qtd in Huppé, 9) 6. Please ask Dr. Furr to show you his Robertson book of " naughty " pictures.[NOTE: This refers to the reproductions of monastic MS miniatures in D.W. Robertson, Jr.,'s landmark work, A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton, 1963). 7. Plummer, p 56, mentioned a study made by Robert Kaske which deals with the suggestive sexual theme linked to her name. 8. Symkyn already resembles at the Latin word Simius, monkey. Also his behavior bears the unflaterring attribute of apes: lavisciouness, pride, drunkenness, deceit, and treachery. 9. I disagree with Ellis's article. Ellis claims that " Chaucer has 'humanized' Malyne, refusing to define her explicitly as a type; we are empowered to see and understand the terrible effects of her dehumanization at the hands of men." (236) 10. See Gallahers article, p 231. 11. There is also an interesting parallel between the Reeve's haircut and the other members of the story that would consolidate my ape theory. Since the GP mentions " His top [the Reeves] was dokked lyk a preest biforn, " Ellis links this description with the negative associations of clerical tonsure (152). The clerks, in the Rvt, almost certainly would have had a tonsure. Likewise, Symkyn happens to be piled as an ape. Too many hints about an association of bald tops defeat the possibility of a mere coincidence. Monkeys, however, don't have bald head; the only place where a tonsure can be found is on their buttock. Since the entire male cast are apes - all have a tonsure - the likelihood that Chaucer portray them as arses seems to run pretty high. Reason would experience an across-the-board obliteration. 12. See Smiths article, p104. 13. According to the Aristotlian Universe everything under the Moon decays while everything above is immortal (Mogan 28).
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