The canterbury tales, p.96
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.96

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  3276 queinte: L. D. Benson (SAC Proceedings, 1 (1984), 23–47) has argued that the word ‘queinte’ is not (as is often assumed) the usual word for the female genitalia, which in ME was spelled ‘cunte’ (OED Supplement), but rather a euphemistic substitute which uses the same opening and closing sounds (as, for example, ‘shoot’ for ‘shit’). For a sceptical response to this argument, see J. V. Fleming, Classical Imitation and Interpretation in Chaucer’s Troilus (Lincoln, NE, and London, 1990), ch. 1. However, there is no disagreement about what the word denotes in this line; Benson’s argument concerns the difference of register between the use of a euphemism and the use of a ‘four-letter word’. Fleming is mainly concerned with the possibility of a pun on the past participle ‘queynt’ (‘quenched’) at TC V.543, and does not directly address the question of register in the Miller’s Tale.

  3285 quod she*] quod ich El Hg. Manly and Rickert try to defend this reading by arguing that ‘quod ich’ is part of Alison’s speech (III, 440), but as Kane points out, ‘quod’ is only used as a frame for direct speech, not as meaning ‘I have (already) said’ (p. 219).

  3286 I wol crye “out, harrow!”: In order to accuse a man of rape, a woman had to have cried out in protest (raised the ‘hue and cry’) at the time of the deed. See Bracton on the Laws and Customs of England, II, 415, and Carter, Rape, pp. 24, 94, 110, 142.

  3291 Seint Thomas of Kent: The cult of St Thomas Becket was popular in Oxford (Bennett, p. 15), but one reason for his frequent invocation in this tale is that his name offers a convenient rhyme with ‘Nicholas’ (3425/6, 3461/2).

  3312 A parish clerk assisted the priest in the performance of the liturgy, and was paid with fees and seasonal offerings in kind (Bennett, pp. 43, 45).

  3314–15 Absolon takes after his biblical namesake, the son of King David, who was renowned for his beauty, and especially for his luxuriant hair (2 Samuel 14:25–6).

  3318–19 The leather uppers of Absolon’s shoes were elaborately cut into a latticed pattern resembling the tracery in the windows of St Paul’s Cathedral. For a picture of such a shoe, see F. W. Fairholt, Costume in England: A History of Dress to the End of the Eighteenth Century, 3rd edn, 2 vols. (London, 1885), II, 65. Absolon’s red hose, showing through the holes, would make the pattern especially striking.

  3322 pointes: Laces or ties, with pointed tags on the end, were often used instead of buttons in the Middle Ages to attach one part of clothing to another (for example, hose to shirt, or sleeves to a jacket). These pointed tags could become a decorative feature (see Fairholt, Costume, II, 330–31).

  3326 Being a parish clerk was only a part-time occupation, and not well paid, so Absolon also acts as a barber-surgeon, shaving beards and letting blood, which was a regular practice in the Middle Ages. ‘Everyone, healthy or sick, clergyman or layman, had himself purged and bled regularly each year, at the boisterous time of spring and autumn when the humours are particularly disturbed’, in order to get rid of ‘overactive humours and superfluities of every kind’ (Poubelle, Body and Surgery, tr. Morris, p. 176; see also Rawcliffe, Medicine, pp. 133–4 on barber-surgeons).

  3227 Absolon uses his clerical knowledge of Latin to draw up legal documents for a fee.

  3328–9 It is not clear what the special style of Oxford dancing might have been, nor whether this reference to it involves mockery. Bennett (p. 48) notes that Morris dancing has a long tradition in the Oxford area.

  3331–3 A ribible was a two-stringed bowed instrument, played in the lap (Page, Voices and Instruments, p. 145); a gittern was similar to a lute, but smaller (ibid., p. 147).

  3358 MED gives no other examples of the term ‘shot-windowe’ besides Mil 3358 and 3695, but the story makes clear that it must be a casement window which is placed low enough on the wall (3677, 3696) for Alison’s behind to be at the same height as Absolon’s head when she later plays her trick on him. The carpenter’s ‘bour’ or bedroom may be over a cellar or shop (see Bennnett, p. 28, for two possible diagrams), and so raised above street level while still being ‘lowe’ in relation to the upper storey of the house.

  3384 Herodes: Absolon acts the part of Herod in a play performed on the upper storey of a pageant wagon in the street. The medieval mystery-cycles portray Herod as a bombastic tyrant, so the part would allow Absolon to impress the audience by ‘hamming it up’. Bennett (p. 49) notes that Oxford had enough trade guilds to have mounted a full-scale play cycle, but no record of any such thing survives.

  3392–3 Proverbial; see Whiting S395.

  3449 The Oxford carpenter appropriately invokes St Frideswide, patron saint of the city. In Chaucer’s time, a priory of Augus-tinian canons dedicated to her stood on the site of the present-day college of Christ Church.

  3451 astromye: Not (as is sometimes suggested) an instance of the carpenter’s mangling of a learned word, but a genuine variant form of ‘astronomye’ (see J. F. Huntsman, MP, 73 (1976), 276–9).

  3457 The story of the star-gazing philosopher goes back to antiquity, and was well known in the Middle Ages; it is found, for example, in a letter of Peter Damian (PL 145, col. 615; 11th c.), and is no. 38 in the late thirteenth/early fourteenth-century Italian story-collection known as the Novellino, or One Hundred Ancient Tales (ed. Consoli, pp. 60–61).

  3480–86 The context makes clear that the ‘night-spel’ is a charm recited at each side of the house and on the threshold as protection against evil spirits at night. The ‘White Paternoster’ (‘Our Father’) is the name of a charm, recorded in varying versions from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, which performed the same function, and which, like the carpenter’s ‘night-spel’, is largely composed of garbled religious phrases. The word ‘verye’ is otherwise unknown, and may well be intentional nonsense on Chaucer’s part.

  Seinte Benedight: St Benedict of Nursia (d. c. 550), author of the Rule which was the foundation of medieval monastic life. ‘Benedict medals’ engraved with protective charms were popular in the seventeenth century, and quite possibly in the Middle Ages also.

  Seinte Petres soster: St Peter’s sister is an unrecorded figure, although the Bible mentions his mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14), and the early Roman martyr Petronilla was supposed to be his daughter. One of the versions of the ‘White Paternoster’ begins ‘White Pater-noster, Saint Peter’s brother’ (W. J. Thoms, FolkLore Record, 1 (1878), 153), and a charm quoted by Robert Grosseteste (13th c.) runs ‘Grene pater noster | Petris leue soster’ (S. Wenzel, NQ, 215 (1970), 449–50). Ignorant garbling of the Latin liturgy and saints’ names was a frequent source of comedy in medieval literature.

  3512 harwed helle: The apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus (?5th c.) relates that between the Crucifixion on Good Friday and the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, Christ descended into hell and forced the devils to release the souls of Adam and other Old Testament figures (Apocryphal NT, pp. 94–146). The Harrowing of Hell was a very popular motif in medieval art and literature.

  3515 The phases of the moon played an important role in popular astrology, with each day of the monthly cycle being considered favourable or unfavourable to specific conditions or activities (illness, travel, buying or selling, etc.). See the ME poem on this subject, edited by W. Farnham, SP, 20 (1923), 70–82.

  3530 Nicholas is quoting Ecclesiasticus (32:24), a biblical book which is no longer accepted as canonical. (An English translation of the Vulgate’s Latin text is included in the Douai-Rheims Bible.) Ecclesiasticus is one of the ‘Wisdom books’ of the Bible, which were associated with the name of Solomon. This verse passed into proverbial usage in English (Whiting C470), and is also quoted at Mch 1485–6 and Mel 1003.

  3539–40 The recalcitrance of Noah’s wife is not mentioned in the Bible, but was a regular feature of medieval drama. In three of the four surviving mystery-cycles (York, Towneley, Chester), Mrs Noah is a quarrelsome termagant who stubbornly resists her husband’s commands or entreaties to come on board the Ark.

  3571 The gable is the triangular upper part of an end wall under
a pitched roof; the wall must have been of wattle and daub, which could easily be broken through with an axe. Being at rafter level, the improvised boats would then sail out on the water above the roof of the one-storey stable adjoining the end wall of the house.

  3598 Proverbial; see Whiting W399.

  3645 corfew-time: The time of day (8 or 9 p.m.) announced by ringing of a bell, when fires in houses are to be covered (French couvre-feu, ‘cover fire’) or put out, and inhabitants must leave public places.

  3655 Lauds was the second of the eight liturgical Offices (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline) which were celebrated during the course of the day by the members of the regular clergy (monks, friars and canons); it was sung at daybreak. See Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.vv. Lauds, and Office, Divine.

  3659–60 The scene of Absolon’s recreation is probably Osney Mead, a large piece of meadowland to the west of Osney.

  3668 graunge: Medieval religious houses were supported by the income from the landed estates they owned, which could be at some distance from the monastery or abbey (see n. to GP 166). The grange was a monastic farm, which served as an administrative centre for such an estate and a storehouse for its produce; see C. Platt, The Monastic Grange in Medieval England (London, 1969). This particular estate must also have had woodland which supplied the abbey with timber.

  3698–9 Absolon borrows the language of the Song of Solomon (honey 4:11, cinnamon 14:14). For suggestions as to further allusions of this sort in Absolon’s speech and the rest of the tale, see R. E. Kaske, SP, 59 (1962), 479–500.

  3709 com pa me: Some manuscripts read ‘ba’ instead of ‘pa’, suggesting that the latter is simply a variant spelling of the former, which means ‘kiss’ (cf. WB 433). The phrase sounds like ‘a bit of some popular song’ (Elliott, p. 239).

  3721–2 These lines are omitted in Hg and other MSS. For a defence of their authenticity, see Kane, p. 225.

  3742 A berd, a berd: Since Nicholas has no way of knowing Absolon’s reaction to Alison’s pubic hair (3737–8), A. C. Baugh suggested that his mocking comment alludes to the expression ‘to make (someone’s) beard’, meaning ‘to outwit someone’ (MED 4a; cf. Rv 4096, WB 361). J. D. Burnley argues, however, that ‘the centrality of the narrative events’ here displaces psychological realism – that is, the characters are assumed to possess the same knowledge as the reader (Chaucer and the Craft of Fiction, ed. L. A. Arrathoon (Rochester, NY, 1986), pp. 195–218, at p. 202).

  3759 Proverbial; see Whiting C223.

  3762 Blacksmiths often worked at night, so that they could carry out repairs while instruments were not being used (Bennett, p. 41). A fourteenth-century alliterative poem (‘Swarte smekid smithes smatered with smoke’) complains that the noise they create makes it impossible to get any sleep (Medieval English Lyrics 1200–1400, ed. T. G. Duncan (Harmondsworth, 1995), pp. 178–9).

  3770 viritoot: The word is of doubtful etymology and meaning; for the suggestion that it means a whip-top, see J. L. Singman, ELN, 31.2 (1993), 1–9.

  3771 Seinte Note: Possibly a garbled form of St Neot (9th c.), but if so, it is not clear why Gervase swears by him; his cult is associated with Cornwall and Huntingdonshire rather than Oxford.

  3806 The fart is not just a gratuitous obscenity, but a deliberate answer to Absolon’s ‘speak’. Classical and medieval grammarians defined speech (vox) in two ways: (1) in its physical aspect as ‘broken air’ (see Grammatici Latini, ed. H. Keil, 7 vols. (Leipzig, 1857–80), II, 5 (Priscian), and IV, 367 (Donatus), and cf. HF 765–8: ‘Soun ys noght but eyr ybroken; | And every speche that ys spoken, | … | In his substaunce ys but air’); (2) in its intellectual aspect as ‘a sound which signifies according to a convention’. Nicholas’s fart represents the purely physical element of speech, divorced from signification; it answers Absolon’s flowery verbiage with no more than ‘hot air’.

  3821–22 he fond neither to selle …: This seems to mean that nothing impeded his headlong descent; a parallel in a French fabliau shows it to have been an idiomatic expression used to describe a plummeting fall; see Aloul, 591–2, printed in Nouveau Recueil Complet des Fabliaux, vol. III, ed. W. Noomen and N. van den Boogaard (Assen, 1986).


  3868 The Reeve compares himself to a horse, which changes its diet from fresh grass in summer to hay in winter; the ‘summer-time’ of his own life is now over.

  3871–3 openers: The medlar is eaten when the flesh turns brown and begins to rot, two or three weeks after it has been picked.

  3890–95 The passage of time is compared to the flow of wine from a barrel. The barrel was customarily laid on its side, and a tap-hole made in its base, close to the lower part of the rim, or ‘chine’, formed by the ends of the barrel-staves protruding beyond its flat base. The Reeve compares the moment of birth to the pulling out of the ‘tappe’, the tapered stick used to plug the tap-hole; the wine then runs out freely until in old age there is nothing left but the drips trickling down onto the ‘chine’ below the tap-hole (A. H. MacLaine, MÆ, 31 (1962), 129–31).

  3904 Cobblers were traditionally selected as examples of those wishing to meddle in other trades (cf. the proverb ‘the cobbler should stick to his last’, which goes back to Roman times). Phaedrus (Fables I.14) tells a story of a cobbler dabbling in medicine, who was exposed as a charlatan by the king of his city.

  3906–7 Depeford … Grenewich: Deptford is about five miles from Southwark, the starting-point of the pilgrimage; Greenwich is just beyond it. It has been plausibly suggested that Chaucer lived there in the late 1380s (M. Galway, MLR, 36 (1941), 1–36, at pp. 16–17), which would give a joking point to the Host’s reference to the ‘many rogues’ who live there.

  3912 The Reeve is referring to a principle of natural law, as defined in Isidore, Etymologies V.iv.2, and quoted in Gratian’s Decretum I.i.7 (Corpus Iuris Canonici, I, col. 2): ‘violentiae per vim repul-sio’ (‘the repelling of violence by force’).

  3919–20 The Reeve is quoting the Bible (Matthew 7:3). The substitution of ‘a straw’ for the biblical ‘mote’ appears to have been a regular variant of the saying in English proverbial usage; see Whiting M710.


  The narrative of the Reeve’s Tale closely resembles a French fabliau (see Headnote to MilT) called ‘The Miller and the Two Clerks’ (‘Le meunier et les deux clers’); this and other versions of the story are printed and translated in Benson and Andersson (see also SA, pp. 124 – 47). In the French tale, the clerks do not realize they have been cheated of their corn until after their sexual adventures with the miller’s wife and daughter, whereas in Chaucer the sexual adventures are undertaken in a spirit of revenge.

  As the Miller’s Tale is set in Oxford, so the Reeve’s Tale is set in Cambridge, and university students play a major role in both. Competitiveness between town and gown is expressed not only in sexual rivalry but in the carpenter’s suspicion of book-learning and complacent pride in his own plain common sense in the Miller’s Tale (3451–61), and in the miller’s ridicule of the clerks’ skill in philosophy in the Reeve’s Tale (4122–6; cf. 4049–56).

  3921 Trompingtoun … Cantebrigge: The village of Trumpington is now continuous with the outskirts of the city of Cambridge, but in the fourteenth century was separated from it by open country (see map in Bennett, p. 86). At Trumpington the river Rhee becomes the Cam, and is reinforced by a brook called the Bourn. No trace of a mill remains, but its former existence is witnessed in the name ‘the Old Mills’, formerly given to the spot in the river now known as Byron’s Pool (ibid., p. 111).

  3933 Sheffield was famous for its steel.

  3942–3 The wife’s pride in her noble origins conveniently ignores the fact that she must be illegitimate, since medieval priests were not permitted to marry.

  3949 yemanrye: See n. to GP 101.

  3964 The comparison is proverbial; see Whiting D268.

  3973–6 These lines resemble in form the rhetorical
descriptio (see n. to Mil 3233 ff.), but their content does not answer to the unqualified beauty or ugliness which is conventional in the figure. Although the grey eyes and fair hair of the miller’s daughter accord with the medieval image of a romantic heroine, her snub nose and sturdy physique do not.

  3990 Soler Halle: There was no such Cambridge college, although there were two buildings in Oxford which bore this name. A solar was an upper room with windows allowing access to sunlight; halls were frequently named after a prominent architectural feature of this sort (e.g., Oriel Hall, Garrett Hostel). The likeliest model for Chaucer’s ‘greet collegge’ is the King’s Hall, the largest and most important foundation in Cambridge at the time, as Merton College was in Oxford (A. B. Cobban, The King’s Hall Within the University of Cambridge in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1969), p. 45).

  3991 The wheat was ground for bread, the malt for beer; colleges brewed their own beer as well as baking their own bread (Bennett, p. 6). There were mills in Cambridge itself, but the river Cam was too small and flowed too slowly to keep them turning at a rate sufficient to keep up with demand (ibid., p. 107), so that the manciple of ‘Soler Hall’ is plausibly represented as sending the college’s grain to the mill at Trumpington.

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