Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales


Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2007, All Rights Reserved.

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The Reeve’s Prologue

When folk had laughed at this preposterous clash

Twixt Absolon and handsome Nicholas,

Different folk it differently relayed,

But for the most part they laughed for days;

Nor at this tale did I see any grieve

Except perhaps for Oswald the Reeve.

In that carpentry was his own craft,

His heart indeed was left somewhat wrath;

He began to fret, and grumbled for a bit.

‘And I,’ quoth he, ‘could pay you back for it,

With how they threw dust in the miller’s eye,

If ribaldry was what I wished to ply!

But I am old; a jest suits not my age.

Green days are done; and straw’s my forage.

This white head proclaims my aged years;

My heart is as wasted as my hairs,

Unless I too am like the medlars –

The longer the fruit lasts the worse

It is, till rotten, in the dung and straw.

And we old men, I fear, are similar:

Till we be rotten we cannot be ripe.

We jig about as long as men will pipe;

For our will hangs always by this nail,

To have a hoary head and green tail,

As a leek has; and though our strength is gone,

Our will seeks folly ever and anon.

For though we cannot act as we say;

Yet in our ashes old the fire is raked.

‘Four live coals we have, let me advise:

Boasting, anger, greed and telling lies.

These four sparks old age will feel.

Our old limbs to impotence may yield,

But will shall not fail; and that’s the truth.

And even I have still a colt’s tooth,

However many years ago, now gone

My tap was drawn, life’s flow began.

For surely, when I was born, anon

Death drew life’s stopper and it ran on;

And ever since then has the tap so run

That almost empty now is the tun,

The stream of life is drops upon the rim.

The foolish tongue may well chime and ring

With idiocies that long ago we saw!

Old, all except for dotage is no more.’

Our Host, on hearing this sermoning,

Began to speak, as lordly as a king,

Saying: ‘What’s it amount to, all this wit?

What! Shall we speak all day of holy writ?

The devil makes a Reeve that’s fit to preach,

As from a cobbler a mariner, or a leech!

Speak out your tale, and waste no more the time.

Lo, here’s Deptford, an hour or so it’s nine!

Lo, Greenwich too, a rascal in every inn!

It’s high time to tell your tale, so begin.’

‘Now sirs,’ quoth this Oswald the Reeve,

I pray you all that none of you may grieve

Though I replied, mocking him just now;

For lawful is it force to force should bow.

The drunken Miller has told us here

Of this beguiling of the carpenter,

Perhaps in scorn because I too am one.

And by your leave I’ll him repay anon,

In his own boorish language, no mistake.

And I pray to God his neck might break!

He sees a mote in my eye, or a stalk,

But no beam in his own, for all his talk.’

The Reeve’s Tale

Here begins the Reeve’s Tale

At Trumpington, not far from Cambridge,

There runs a brook, and over that a bridge,

And upon this brook there stands a mill;

And this the truth to you indeed I tell.

A miller was who lived there many a day.

Proud as a peacock, lively in his way,

He could pipe, and fish, mend nets to boot,

And turn cups on a lathe, wrestle and shoot.

At his belt he always wore a long blade,

Sharp-edged as any sword was ever made.

A knife he carried in his pouch and such;

Peril of his life, no man dared him touch.

A Sheffield dagger he had in his hose.

Round was his face and pug-shaped his nose;

As bald as a naked ape was his skull.

He was a market-swaggerer right full.

No man a hand on him dared ever lay,

Without the miller swearing he would pay.

A thief he was, as well, of corn and meal,

And cunning at it, ever a man to steal.

And known he was as Scornful Simkin.

A wife he had, who came of noble kin:

The parson of the town her father was.

He dowered her with many a pan of brass,

That Simkin to his blood allied might be.

She had been fostered in a nunnery.

For Simkin wished for no wife, so he said,

Unless she were a maid and well-bred,

To maintain his yeoman’s honour high.

And she was proud, pert as a magpie.

A full fair sight they made, those two;

On holidays before her he would troop,

With his hood’s tippet wound round his head,

And she came after in a gown of red,

And Simkin’s hose were of the same.

No one called her anything but ‘dame’;

None so bold that travelled by the way

Who with her dare banter or once play,

Unless he wanted to be slain by Simkin,

With his long knife, his dagger or bodkin.

For jealous folk are dangerous you know –

At least they want their wives to think them so.

And since her origin implied some breach,

As filled with pride as water fills a ditch,

And full of scorn, disdain, her ready sneer.

A lady she thought should stay aloof, and glare,

Given her education and her family,

For she had been well taught in the nunnery.

A daughter they had between the two

Of twenty years, but none other though,

Save a child that was half a year in age;

In his cradle he lay, and was a proper page.

The wench quite plump and well-grown was,

With pug-shaped nose and eyes grey as glass,

With buttocks broad and breasts round and high;

But right fair was her hair, I will not lie.

The parson of the town, since she was fair,

Intended that she should be the heir

To his property and house and carriage;

And he was worried about her marriage.

His purpose was to wed her nobly

Into some blood of high ancestry,

For Holy Church’s goods must be expended

On Holy Church’s blood, well-descended.

Therefore he would his holy blood honour,

Though Holy Church he might well devour.

A fine trade this miller had, without doubt,

In wheat and malt from all the land about.

And especially there was a great college

Men called Solar Hall, and that in Cambridge;

Their wheat and their malt too he ground.

And one fine day the hour came around

The manciple lay sick with malady;

And men thought he would die, surely.

At which the miller stole both meal and corn

And took a hundred times more than before;

For formerly he stole, and yet politely,

While now he thieved outrageously:

Of this the warden made a great affair,

But not a jot the miller did he care;

He blustered, and swore it was not so.

Now two young students, poor I vow,

Dwelt there in the college hall, and they

Were headstrong and keen to joke and play,

And simply out of mirth and revelry,

They ever begged the warden busily,

To give them leave, to travel out of town,

And, to the mill, to see their corn ground,

And boldly they wagered him their neck,

They would not let the miller steal a peck

Of corn by force or cunning he might weave;

And in the end the warden gave them leave.

John was the one, and Alan was the other;

From the same village, that was Strother,

Far in the north – I cannot tell you where.

This Alan all his gear did prepare,

And on a horse the sack he threw anon.

Off went Alan the clerk, and also John,

With good sword and buckler by their side.

John knew the way – he required no guide –

And at the mill down the sack he laid.

Alan spoke first: ‘All hail, Simon, i’faith!

How fares your fair daughter and your wife?’

‘Alan, welcome,’ quoth Simkin,’ by my life!

And John also; how now, what do you here?’

‘By God,’ quoth John, ‘Necessity’s no peer;

He must serve himself that has no servant,

Or else he is a fool, as the scholars rant.

Our manciple, I think will soon be dead,

So painful are the molars in his head.

And I have come, and Alan here, we twain,

To grind our corn, and bear it home again.

I pray you speed us hither if you may.’

‘It shall be done,’ quoth Simkin, ‘by my faith!

What will you do while all that is in hand?’

‘By God, right by the hopper shall I stand,’

Quoth John, ‘and watch how the corn goes in.

I’ve never yet seen, by my father’s kin,

The hopper when it’s wagging to and fro.’

Alan replied: ‘John and will you so?’

Then I’ll stand beneath, by my crown,

And watch how the meal trickles down

Into the trough; that shall be my sport.

For John, i’faith, I am of your sort;

I am as little a miller as you may be.’

The miller smiled at their simplicity,

And thought, ‘All this will only last a while,

They think that nobody can them beguile.

But, by my thrift, I’ll hoodwink them, you see,

For all their cunning in philosophy.

The more clever tricks they undertake,

The more will I steal when I take;

Instead of flour yet I’ll give them bran.

The greatest scholar’s not the wisest man –

As the wolf once said to the mare.

And all their art I count it not a hair!’

Out at the door he goes all secretly,

When he sees his chance, and quietly.

He looks up and down till he has found

The scholars’ horse, tied there, around

Behind the mill, in a leafy dell.

And to the horse he goes fair and well;

He strips the bridle off right anon,

And once the horse is loose, he’s gone

To the fen, and the wild mares therein

Off with a ‘whinny’ through thick and thin.

The miller went back to work; and no word spoke,

Then, toiling, with the clerks he cracked a joke

Till their corn was fair and fully ground.

And when the meal was sacked and bound,

John goes out and finds his horse away,

And starts to cry ‘a thief’ and ‘well-away!’

‘Our horse is lost! Alan, for Gods’ bones,

Up on your feet! Come on, man, at once!

Alas, our warden of his palfrey’s shorn;

Thus Alan all forgot the meal and corn;

All his husbandry fled from his mind.

‘What, where is he?’ He began to cry.

The wife came running up, just then

Said: ‘Alas, your horse is off to the fen

To the wild mares, as fast as he can go.

A curse be on the hand that bound him so,

And he that better should have tied the rein!’

‘Alas,’ quoth John, ‘Alan, for Christ’s pain,

Lay down your sword, and I will mine also.

I am as swift, God knows, as any roe;

By God’s heart, he’ll not escape us both!

You should have put him in the barn, though.

Curse it, Alan, you’re the stupid one!’

These foolish clerks full fast have run

Toward the fen, both Alan and our John.

And when the miller saw that they were gone,

Half a bushel of their flour he did take,

And bade his wife go knead it in a cake.

He said: ‘Whatever it was the clerks feared

Yet can a miller clip a clerk’s beard,

For all his cunning; let them go their way!

Look how the horse goes; let the children play!

They’ll not catch him quickly, by my crown.’

Those foolish clerks go running up and down,

With: ‘Halt, halt! Stand, stand! Ware, behind!

You go whistle, and I’ll stop him, mind!’

But briefly, till the very fall of night

They could not, though they tried all they might,

Catch their horse, he always ran so fast;

Till in a ditch they caught him at the last.

Weary and wet, as the beast is on the rein,

Come foolish John, and Alan back again.

‘Alas,’ quoth John, ‘the day that I was born!

Now are we fit for mockery and scorn.

Our corn is stolen; men fools will us call,

Both the warden and our fellows all,

And especially the miller, well-away!’

So John moaned as he went on his way

Towards the mill, Bayard’s rein in hand.

The miller sitting by the fire he found,

For it was night, too late now for aught;

But for the love of God they him besought

For lodging, and their ease, for a penny.

The miller answered them: ‘If there be any,

Such as it is, you shall have your part.

My house is little, but you have learning, art;

You can by argument create a place

A mile wide from twenty foot of space!

Let us see now if this place may suffice,

Or make more room with speech, if you be wise.’

‘Now Simon,’ said our John, ‘by Saint Cuthbert,

You’re ever witty, and that’s a fair answer.

I’ve heard say, men should make of a thing,

Such as they find it, or their own should bring.

But especially I pray you, my host so dear,

Bring us some meat and drink, make some cheer,

And we will pay you truly and in full.

With empty hands men lure no hawks at will;

Lo here’s our silver, ready for us to spend.’

The miller in his turn his daughter sends

For ale and bread, and roasts them a goose,

And ties their horse; it shall no more go loose.

And in his own chamber makes them a bed,

With sheets and woollen blankets fairly spread,

Not ten foot from his own bed, or twelve.

His daughter had a bed all to herself,

In the same chamber, right nearby.

He could do no better, and for why?

There was no other room in the place.

They supped and talked, for a space,

And drank strong ale, the very best;

About midnight went they to their rest.

Well has this miller filled full his head;

All pale he was with drink, no longer red;

He hiccups and he talks through his nose,

As if he were hoarse or suffers from a cold.

To bed he goes and with him goes his wife;

She was merry as a jay, on my life,

So was her merry whistle well wet.

The cradle at the bed’s foot is set,

To rock and to give the child suck.

And when they had drunk all in the crock,

To bed went the daughter right anon.

To bed goes Alan and also John;

Of sleeping-draught they’d drunk a pail.

The miller had so heavily tippled ale

That like a horse he snorts in his sleep;

Nor from his tail behind a note does keep.

His wife sang him the burden, full and strong;

Men might hear her from a full furlong.

The wench snored too, for company.

Alan the scholar, heard this melody,

Poked at John, and said: ‘Sleepest, thou?

Heard thou ever such a song ere now?’

Lo, what a compline sing them all!

A wildfire on their very bodies fall!

Who ever heard such frightful snoring?

Yes, they shall meet the worst of endings!

This long night through I’ll find no rest.

Yet no matter; all shall be for the best!

For John,’ said he, ‘as I may ever thrive,

If I can I’ll have that wench alive.

Some compensation law has shown us;

For John, there is a law that says thus:

That if a man in some way be aggrieved,

Then by another he shall be relieved.

Our corn is stolen – none can say nay –

And we have had a right unlucky day;

Yet since there’s no rectification

Of my loss, I’ll have compensation.

By God’s soul, no otherwise shall it be!’

Then John replied: ‘Alan, wary be.

The miller is a dangerous man,’ he said,

‘If he wakes from sleeping like the dead,

He might do us both a villainy.’

Alan answered: ‘I count him not a flea.’

And up he rose, and to the wench he crept.

The wench lay flat on her back, and slept,

Till he so nigh was, ere she might espy,

That it was far too late for her to cry;

And briefly to explain, they soon made one.

Now play, Alan, for I will speak of John.

Our John lies still, a minute more or so,

And to himself he speaks words of woe.

‘Alas,’ quoth he, ‘this is a wicked jape!

Now I see that I am made but an ape.

My friend has something yet for his harm:

He has the miller’s daughter in his arms.

He took his chance and now his needs are sped,

While I lie like a bag of chaff in bed.

And when the joke is told another day,

I shall be thought a fool and afraid!

I’ll rise and chance my arm, by my faith!

“Unmanly is unlucky”, so men say.’

And up he rose and silently he went

Up to the cradle, with this same intent,

Of carrying it quietly to his bed’s foot.

Soon after this, the miller’s wife was up,

Half-awake, and going for a piss,

On her return the cradle she did miss,

And groping here and there, she found it not.

‘Alas,’ quoth she, ‘I very nearly got

By mistake into the scholar’s bed.

Oh, benedicite, then had I been misled!’

And off she went till she the cradle found.

Then she groped still further with her hand

And found the bed, and thought it good

Because the cradle beside it stood,

And knowing not, because it was so dark

Fair and well crept in there with the clerk,

And lay quite still, and would have gone to sleep.

In a while John the clerk he made a leap,

And on this good wife he laid on sore.

So good a bout she’d never gone before;

He thrust hard and deep as he were mad,

And a merry time those two students had

Till the third cock began to sing.

Alan was growing weary towards morning,

For he had laboured on through the dark,

And said: ‘Farewell, Molly, my sweetheart!

The day is come; I may no longer bide.

But evermore, wherever I go or ride,

I am your own clerk, may I prosper well!’

‘Now, dear lover,’ quoth she, ‘go, farewell!

But ere you go, one thing I must tell:

As you travel home and pass the mill,

Right at the entrance of the door behind

A cake of half a bushel you will find

That was made from your own meal,

That I helped my father for to steal.

And, good lover, God thee save and keep!’

And with that word she nigh began to weep.

Alan rose and thought, ‘before night’s end,

I’ll go and creep in beside my friend.’

And found the cradle with his hand anon.

‘By God,’ thought he, ‘I near went wrong!

My head’s so dizzy with all this tonight

That I’ve almost failed to go aright.

By the cradle, my mistake I know,

Here lies the miller and his wife also.’

And off he went, the devil led the way,

To the bed where the sleeping miller lay.

Hoping to creep in with his friend John;

Beside the miller he’s crept anon,

Caught him by the neck, and starts to say:

‘You John, you swine’s-head, come, awake,

For Christ’s soul, here’s a noble game!

For by that lord that’s called Saint James,

Thrice have I in this one short night

Had the miller’s daughter bolt upright,

While you, like a coward, lay afraid.’

‘Have you,’ quoth the miller, ‘false knave?

Oh, false traitor, false clerk,’ quoth he,

‘I’ll see you dead, by God’s dignity!

Who dares be so bold as to disparage

My daughter, come of such a lineage?’

And by the throat he caught our Alan,

And Alan in turn grabbed at his man,

And on the nose he smote with him fist.

Down ran the bloody stream upon his breast,

Onto the floor, nose and teeth they broke,

They thrashed about like two pigs in a poke.

And up they went, and down again anon,

Till the miller stumbled on a stone,

And down he fell backward on his wife,

Who knew nothing of this foolish strife,

For she had fallen asleep ere dawning light,

With John the clerk who was awake all night.

And with the miller’s fall she woke afraid;

‘Help, holy cross of Bromholm!’ she said.

In manas tuas! Lord, I call to thee!

Awake, Simon, for the fiend is on me!

My heart is broken; help, I am dead!

There’s something on my belly and head.

Help, Simkin, for the false clerks fight!’

Then John starts up as quick as ever he might,

And gropes around the walls to and fro,

To find a stick, and she starts up also,

And knows the place better than does John,

And by the wall a staff she finds anon,

And sees a little shimmering of light,

For at a hole in shone the moon bright;

And by that light she sees both the two,

But foolishly she sees not who was who,

But sees something white with her eye.

And when this white thing she did espy,

Thought it the clerk with a night-cap on,

And gripping the staff she crept upon

What she thought was Alan and hit him full,

But smote the miller on his bald skull

That down he goes, and cries, ‘God, I die!’

The clerks beat him well and let him lie,

Got them ready, and took their horse anon,

Their meal as well, and off they were gone,

And passing by the mill, found their cake

Of half a bushel of flour, and well-baked.

So the proud miller they did soundly beat,

And he has lost his grinding of the wheat,

And paid for the supper there as well,

Of Alan and John who wrought as I did tell;

His wife is had, and his daughter else.

Lo, what comes of being a miller false!

And therefore the proverb still proves true:

Don’t hope for good if you evil do.

A trickster himself beguiled will be.

And God, that sits in high majesty,

Save all this company, both great and small.

– Now my tale has paid the Miller and all.

Here ends the Reeve’s Tale

The Cook’s Prologue

The London Cook, as the Reeve’s tale hatched,

Wriggled as if his back were being scratched.

‘Ha, ha, ha!’ quoth he, ‘for Christ’s passion,

The Miller found that a harsh conclusion

To his argument about room-space!

Well said Solomon in his language:

‘Don’t let everyone inside your house.’

For lodging men by night is dangerous.

Well should a man think carefully

About who shall invade his privacy.

I pray to God, give me sorrow and care,

If, since they named me Roger of Ware,

I ever heard Miller so fooled for a lark,

A malicious trick and done in the dark!

But God forbid that we linger here:

And so, if you will vouchsafe to hear

A tale of mine, though a poor man,

I will tell you, as well as ever I can,

A little jest that befell in our City.’

Our Host replied and said: ‘I grant it thee.

Now tell on, Roger, look that it be good!

From many a pasty have you let blood,

And many a Jack of Dover pie have sold,

That has been twice hot and twice cold,

From many a pilgrim have had Christ’s curse,

Your parsley gave them a turn for the worse,

That they ate with your stubble-fed goose;

For there’s many a fly in your shop loose.

Now tell on, noble Roger, by name!

But I pray, no anger at my jesting game;

A man may speak truth in game and play.’

‘You speak truth,’ quoth Roger,’ by my faith!

But “True jest, poor jest”, as the Flemings say.

And so Harry Bailey, by your faith,

Be not angry, before we part from here,

If my tale be that of a hosteller.

However I won’t tell it yet, I say,

But before we part, you shall be paid.’

And with that he laughed with loud cheer,

And told his tale, as you now will hear.

The Cook’s Tale

A prentice once there was dwelt in our City,

And of the guild of victuallers was he.

As gaily dressed as goldfinch in a copse;

Brown as a berry, a fine short chap he was,

With locks black, combed so elegantly.

Dance he could so well and friskily

That he was named Perkin Fun-Lover.

And he was as full of love and amour

As is the hive full of honey sweet;

Lucky the wench that with him might meet.

At every bridal day he’d sing and hop.

He loved the tavern better than the shop,

When there was any riding in Cheapside,

Out of the shop and thither he would hie;

Till that he might all the sight there glean

And have a dance as well, he’d not be seen.

And he gathered a company of his sort,

To jig and sing, and make such merry sport.

And there they would arrange to meet

To play at dice in such and such a street;

For was no prentice in the town alive

That could cast a fairer pair of dice

Than Perkin could; and he was ever free

At spending, in a place of privacy.

As his master found in trade affairs;

Since often times he found the till was bare.

For sure where there’s a prentice fun-lover

That haunts dice, debauchery or amour,

His master from his shop will pay the fee,

Though he play no part in the minstrelsy.

Theft and debauchery are interchangeable.

As well play all on cithern, as on fiddle,

Among the base, revel and honesty

Are at odds any day, as men may see.

This jolly prentice with his master good

Stayed till well nigh out of prentice-hood,

Ever was reprimanded soon and late,

And sometimes led revelling to Newgate.

But at last his master him bethought,

On a day when his accounts were wrought,

Of a proverb that speaks this very word:

‘Best toss a rotten apple from the hoard

Before it rot all the fruit that’s present.’

So goes it with a dissolute servant;

A lot less harm to let him go his ways,

Than ruin all the servants in the place.

Therefore his master gave him quittance,

And bade him go, with a ‘good riddance’!

And so the jolly prentice has to leave.

Now let him riot all night, as he please!

And as there’s accomplice for every thief,

To help him to lay waste and deceive

Any man he borrowed from or pilfered,

Anon he sent his clothing and his bed

Round to a friend of his own sort,

Who loved dice too and revel and sport,

And had a wife who solely for appearance

Kept a shop, but whored for sustenance.

Here Ends the Cook’s Tale (Chaucer left it incomplete)