Speaking through the “open-ers” : how age feminizes Chaucer’s Reeve
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The Reeve’s Prologue in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales represents one of the most prominent medieval narratives of old age. In his bitter tirade the Reeve emphasizes the topics of impotence, sexuality, power and voice through a series of metaphors involving horses, leeks, coals, and medlar fruit. Though the Prologue itself has been extensively discussed, little of the discussion has been in the context of age studies. Nor have scholars paid much attention to the medlar, called by its colloquial name “open-ers.” The Reeve chooses to describe himself and other older men through this unmistakably sexualized and repulsive term, raising paradoxical issues of rottenness and ripeness. He uses the medlar to resist fourteenth-century age culture and reconfigure his identity into a submissive, open one. Where impotence has removed agency and voice, this new identity enables a feminized voice, a claim to desire, and an ability to quyte the Miller for what the Reeve perceived as an ageist story meant to mock him. However, a Lacanian reading suggests that in grappling with his impotence, the Reeve has come to realize the futility of signifying and the difficulties of expressing desire. The Reeve’s Prologue thus exposes the breakdown of desire in the Reeve’s Tale and raises larger questions about the influence of older age on tale-telling, especially in a masculine register.