“Yeve the Child to Sowke:” On (Not) Breastfeeding the Infant in Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale
One of the essential elements of the plot of The Reeve’s Tale, one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s most famous fabliaux, is its rendition of the “cradle-trick,” a device in which the movement of a cradle from beside one bed to another facilitates confusing (and often nonconsensual) sexual encounters. While most feminist criticism on the poem has rightfully emphasized the way that Chaucer exploits sexual assault as a source of humor, in this paper, I want to analyze Chaucer’s depiction of the cradle’s placement as related to the needs of nighttime breastfeeding.
Of the several Flemish, French, and Italian analogues to this story, Chaucer’s is the only one in which the cradle is placed next to the wife’s bed explicitly for the purpose of facilitating breastfeeding. Yet, Chaucer’s text is also the only version of the story in which the wife has no engagement with the child during the night; in other versions, the child awakens during the night or the wife moves the cradle with her as she moves between beds. In short, I argue, the paradox between Chaucer’s line about nighttime breastfeeding and then his subsequent dropping of the infant from the plot can be attributed to the poet’s desire to de-humanize the miller’s wife, emphasizing her peasant rank while refusing to grant her the kind of maternal status that might problematize the “humor” of her subsequent rape.