Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Anglo Saxon Reeve and Chaucer's Pilgrim

     I have been doing a close reading of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with a few friends and we are at the Reeve's description in the General Prologue. This seems like a good time to discuss the term 'reeve' and where it comes from.
    The reeve or 'rife' or 'gerifa' is a royal representative or local official of some sort. As an office, it is a leftover from the Anglo Saxon period. Some chroniclers glossed it as 'praefectus' or prefect. When William the Bastard conquered England in 1066 a.d., he found a very orderly system of administration in place and did not change the system, although he put a few of his own people in the top spots, because it was functioning and he did not want to bother with details. He just wanted the country and its wealth; he was not very concerned about its citizens. So the reeve survived and was not supplanted by an Anglo-Norman term. We know him as a 'sheriff' which is a syncopation of 'shire-reeve'. He had tax-collecting and judicial duties. He also could be a overseer of some estate, the duties were not fixed to the title.
     The 'shire' is a term that is derived from 'schir' which simply means 'share, portion, division'. It is a subsection of a country and is not identical to the term 'hide' or 'hid' (a unit of measure equal to about 120 acres but not necessarily). It probably replaced 'hide'.
     We tend to think of the modern reeve as a type of mayor for smaller communities. Mayor is a term brought over by the Norman Conquest. It is simply an 'anglicization' of a latin term: the comparative of bonus (good) which is maior (better). The superlative is optimus (best). It seems similar to ealdorman, which survives today as alderman or 'old man', 'elder'. Small wonder that term has been changed to councillor in some municipalities. The ealdorman seems to belong to the earlier Anglo-Saxon period in England to have been replaced in some ways by eorls but it seems to me to be similar to the term 'wita' or 'wise man/councillor' since the earls clearly had military duties which the wita may or may not have. The Witangemot was a meeting(gemot) of the wita (wisemen).  Some of the terms seem to be used interchangeably. Unfortunately there is no book written pre-Conquest explaining all these terms and the duties attached to them. We must infer them from what texts exist.
     Chaucer's reeve is the overseer of an estate or manor. As such, part of his duties would be to supervise the Miller and draw part of his salary from the Miller's earnings, so it is not surprising that the Miller and the Reeve get into a big quarrel.

11 comments:

Kristin said...

Eorls...is that from the same root as jarl?

The Red Witch said...

Absolutely.

Anachronist said...

Fascinating!

The Red Witch said...

Thanks! I thought so. In fact, I was going to write more about Chaucer's reeve but I got distracted by St. Nicholas. (get it, distracted from the now. :-D)

paulasjordan said...

Hello. I just (very happily!) discovered your blog on a search for "Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and Chaucer."
I am interested to know whether or not the Chronicles were a source for Chaucer as they were for Shakespeare. Can you help?

Thanks!

The Red Witch said...

Thank you. I am always happy to see comments from readers. Sometimes I wonder if I am talking to myself all the time.
I don't think the Chronicles were a source of inspiration for Shakespeare or Chaucer. Chaucer used Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose and Boccaccio's Decameron as his main sources of inspiration and Shakespeare used Hollinshed's history as well as Ovid and Michel de Montaigne as inspiration.
I doubt the Chronicles were read much in the 14th century and even less in the 16th. French displaced so much of the Old English words and spelling, being not standardized, things were spelled in the local dialect. Few people could read the texts although they were dutifully copied by the monasteries. If you look at the Pearl or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was written around the same time as the Canterbury Tales, you will see that they look almost like completely different languages. Geoffrey Gaimar used the Chronicles for his Estoires but I think his work was little known outside of his century (the 11th).

paulasjordan said...

Thanks for setting me straight. What you say makes so much sense. It gives a whole new insight into the age, understanding the varieties of language (including Latin too, I suppose) in more or less common usage at the same time.

I am writing a series of blogs on my effort to see the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles and other ancient documents during a recent trip to Europe. If I may, I would like to quote you to correct some earlier suppositions that I have made there.

My posts on the subject are headed "A Reader's Quest," the earliest at http://darkcargo.com/2012/09/13/a-readers-quest/. Later ones can be found by searching the blog on my name Paula S. Jordan. The search box is far down-column on the left.

Thank you!

The Red Witch said...

Sure. You can quote me. If you re going to the British Museum in the near future, I recommend checking out the Frank's Casket.

paulasjordan said...

Thank you!

I wish I were going there soon. I live in North Carolina, USA, that was only my second trip to the British Museum ever. Sure hope I get another one someday!

I'll try to check out the Frank's casket online.

The Red Witch said...

If I may help. Here is a link to start you off. It is one of the most important Anglo Saxon artifacts.
http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/pe_mla/t/the_franks_casket.aspx

paulasjordan said...

What a beautiful piece! Thank you for pointing me that way. I saw the Sutton Hoo treasure, but I didn't see the general Anglo Saxon collection. So sorry I missed it.

I could spend the rest of my life in that building!