The Reeve in The Canterbury Tales: Description & Character Analysis

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

In this lesson, learn that the Reeve in ''The Canterbury Tales'' is astute, shrewd, and crooked. His personality is really shown though in his story, showing that the Reeve may look professional but he also has a dark side.

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is the story of 29 people who meet at the Tabard Inn on their way to Canterbury to visit a shrine of the martyr, Saint Thomas Becket. During their visit at the inn, the Host suggest they are go to the shrine together and tell tales for a competition. Each person was to tell two tales on the way to the shrine and two on the way back. Thus, by the time they made it back to the inn, the company would vote on the best stories, and whoever won would have their dinner paid for by the rest.

Although there were meant to be many tales, there ended up only being 22 full stories and two fragments, making 24 in all. This infers that the manuscript was likely unfinished, especially since it was found after the death of Chaucer, and published 78 years later.

The Sickly, Powerful Reeve

Back during the 14th Century when this story was written, a reeve was known to be a manager of lands. They handled all the business for a lord or lady, such as taking the portion allotted to the lord for cattle sold, or counting the amount of grain. The Reeve in the tale was known for his uncanny ability to know everything about the lands he managed, so much so that none of the peasantry tried to lie or cheat. Ironically, the Reeve himself was a liar, and was known to steal money from the lord of the land he managed, with no one being the wiser. This had made him a very rich man. He had also learned how to gain power, as he would lend money to the lord (from the money he stole) to gain his favor.

The Host describes the Reeve to look like a ''choleric man'', which means yellow-tinged and unwell. He was also described as a very thin man that had no real shape to him, even his calves were nonexistent. He kept himself well-groomed and had no real extraordinary features, except for the expensive blue hue to his coat, and his well-maintained horse. Only these things showed he was wealthier than he appeared.

The Vengeful Carpenter

The Reeve in the story also had another talent, and that was carpentry. Although, we don't know this until the Miller, while drunk, tells the story of a carpenter, which incites the Reeve. The Reeve, also known as Oswald, wishes death on the Miller for his disparaging story.

''God, may his neck be broken, I beseech;

He well can see a speck that's in my eye,

But in his own a beam he can't espy.'''

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