De Paulino et Polla: context for Chaucer’s Reeve’s Prologue

Simkin the Miller was cheating King’s Hall, Cambridge, in the grinding of its corn. John and Alan, two clerics studying at King’s Hall, brought corn to Simkin to try to figure out his cheating. After seeking their missing horse for hours, the clerics had to pay for overnight lodging at Simkin’s house. Simkin, who had set the horse loose, had stolen half their corn while they were chasing the horse.

Alan pondered law as he lay in bed in Simkin’s house. Simkin had a twenty-year old daughter Malyne “with broad buttocks and breasts round and high {with buttokes brode and brestes rounde and hye}.” Alan lustfully eyed the daughter and reasoned:

“Yes, John,” said he, “as ever I might thrive,
if I can, that wench there I’ll screw.
Some redress the law has shaped for us,
yes, John, there is a law that says thus:
that if a man in one point is injured,
that in another he shall be relieved.
Our grain is stolen, truly, you can’t say nay,
and we’ve had a hard time all this day,
and since I’ll have no amendment
for my loss, I will have easement.
By God’s soul, it shall be no other way!”

{ “For, John,” seyde he, “als evere moot I thryve,
If that I may, yon wenche wil I swyve.
Som esement has lawe yshapen us,
For, John, ther is a lawe that says thus:
That gif a man in a point be agreved,
That in another he sal be releved.
Oure corn is stoln, sothly, it is na nay,
And we han had an il fit al this day;
And syn I sal have neen amendement
Agayn my los, I will have esement.
By Goddes sale, it sal neen other bee!” }[1]

Alan went and embraced Malyne in her bed. A hard-working cleric, Alan had sex with her three times that night.[2] That was his “easement.”

Malyne and Alan came to love each other in accordance with a long literary tradition. When morning came, Alan was weary, “for he had labored all night long {for he had swonken al the longe nyght}.” But, following the classical literary genre of “dawn song,” he was mournful because he had to leave his beloved:

He said, “Farewell, Malyne, sweet creature!
The day is come. I may no longer remain here.
But evermore, wherever I go or ride,
I am your own clerk, sure as I may prosper!”

{ And seyde, “Fare weel, Malyne, sweete wight!
The day is come; I may no lenger byde;
But everemo, wher so I go or ryde,
I is thyn awen clerk, swa have I seel!” }

Malyne responded lovingly:

“Now, dear sweetheart,” said she, “go, farewell!
But before you go, one thing I’ll tell you:
when you go homeward by the mill,
right at the entry behind the door
you’ll find a half-bushel cake
that was made of your own meal
that I helped my father to steal.
And, good sweetheart, God save and keep you!”
And with that word she almost began to weep.

{ “Now, deere lemman,” quod she, “go, far weel!
But er thow go, o thyng I wol thee telle:
Whan that thou wendest homward by the melle,
Right at the entree of the dore bihynde
Thou shalt a cake of half a busshel fynde
That was ymaked of thyn owene mele,
Which that I heelp my sire for to stele.
And, goode lemman, God thee save and kepe!”
And with that word almoost she gan to wepe. }[3]

Malyne appreciated Alan’s love for her and his sexual effort. As The Reeve’s Tale shows, men’s love can convert women from thieves into generously loving persons.

Oswald the Reeve. teller of the Reeve's Tale in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Aging affects what men can do for women. As an old man, Oswald the Reeve in the Reeve’s Prologue observed:

We dance always while the world will pipe,
for in our will there sticks ever a spur
to have a white head and a green tail,
as a leek has. Although our power is gone,
our will desires folly on and on.
And when we cannot do, then we’ll talk about it.

{ We hoppen alwey whil that the world wol pype.
For in oure wyl ther stiketh evere a nayl,
To have an hoor heed and a grene tayl,
As hath a leek; for thogh oure myght be goon,
Oure wyl desireth folie evere in oon.
For whan we may nat doon, than wol we speke }[4]

Just because an old man can no longer perform like a young man, his power to love isn’t gone. He can tell amusing stories to a beloved, and he can listen and laugh at a beloved’s amusing stories. The mutuality of love isn’t limited to sexual intercourse.

Men typically undervalue themselves in relation to women. Consider the case set out in the thirteenth-century comedy About Paulino and Polla {De Paulino et Polla}. As a young man, Paulino sought to marry Polla. She refused his love. When they became old, she sought to marry him. But as an old man he felt unworthy to be a husband:

In the past I greatly desired
that I would be able to have a wife.
Many times I proposed to Polla herself,
yet fate was such that she didn’t become my wife.
Since the best part of my life has now past,
I don’t want to subordinate myself to marriage bonds,
especially since my horse doesn’t respond to any
spurs on account of its frigidity.
It would be shameful to me if, when my wife was thirsty,
my horse wasn’t able to rise and ease her thirst with its fountain.
In fact it’s wiser to keep this infirmity covered up
than make it open to the gossip of common words.
Therefore my defect must be kept hidden, not revealed,
so that in old age I don’t fall into everyone’s talk.

{ Tempore preterito fuerat michi magna voluntas
Ut possem nuptam consociare michi,
Per pluresque vices ad Pollam misimus ipsam,
Nec fortuna fuit ut michi nupta foret.
Sed cum lapsa mee melior sit portio vite,
Nulli coniugio subdere colla volo,
Precipue quia noster equus calcaribus ullis
Respondere nequit frigiditate sua:
Esset turpe michi si, cum mea nupta sitiret,
Non posset medio fonte levare sitim.
Hunc etenim morbum consultius esse tegendum
Quam patulum fieri publica verba canunt;
Ergo meum vitium celari, non reserari
Debet, ne senio gentis in ore cadam. }[5]

The lawyer Fulco, whom Polla had hired to plead her love-suit to Paulino, sought to undermine Paulino’s claim of sexual infirmity:

You are naive to say that no spur can make
your horse move due to its frigidity.
You know well that an incessant drop bores through rock,
a stick whirled repeatedly on another stick heats up,
and iron is made sharp mutually with iron.
Thus, united with you, Polla will arouse your horse.
A woman’s flesh united with a man’s flesh re-ignites
flames, even those that tremble with deadened vigor.
Nothing is sweeter than the touch of female flesh,
the touch of no other mortal things has such power.
Every time you touch feet, legs, and the secret joy,
frigidity ceases and a fire warms your inners.
Thus as soon as you are joined as one in her grove,
believe me, frigidity will not be paralyzing you.
Your horse will spontaneously desire to run
that delightful race to the ring.
But if so much cold is in your genitals
such that you’re completely without power in its service,
you will be brought back to life with warm compresses
and roots used to arouse sexual activity.

{ Es simplex quia dicis equum calcaria nulla
Posse movere tuum frigiditate sua.
Assidua gutta bene scis quia petra cavatur,
Cum ferula ferula sepe rotata calet,
A ferro ferrum sibi mutuo sumit acumen:
Sic tibi iuncta tuum Polla movebit equum.
Feminea caro carne viri commixta resumit
Igniculos, quamvis mortificata tremat;
Feminee tactu carnis non dulcior ullus
Humanis rebus tactus inesse potest;
Crura, pedes quotiens secretaque gaudia tangis,
Cessat frigiditas, igne medulla calet.
Ut secum fueris congramineatus in unum,
Crede michi quia te frigora nulla prement;
Illius ad circi certamen delitiosum
Sponte sua cupiet currere vester equus.
Sed si tantus inest vestris genitalibus algor,
Hoc ut ad officium sis minus ipse potens,
Fomentis calidis, radicibus utilibusque
Moturis Venerem, vivificatus eris. }

Men historically have endured painful treatments to be able to engage in erection labor. But men unable to engage in erection labor can still hope to have loving relationships. Fulco advised the elderly Paulino:

If in that part you are totally ruined,
you nonetheless henceforth will not be hateful to Polla.
Perhaps to this work she will never call you,
since she might be suffering the disaster of a similar infirmity.
If you have a wrinkled face and white hair,
so too does she. You are frigid? She trembles with frigidity.
She will not charge you with a fault when she has an identical fault.
A blind man is wrong to reproach another blind man
for loss of sight, since he recalls his own shame.
Who would not laugh if a lame man said to another lame man
that he must walk with a straight step?

{ Denique si totus in ea sis parte peremptus,
Inde tamen Polle non odiosus eris:
Hoc ad opus numquam te forsitan illa vocabit,
Cum simili morbi clade laboret ea.
Est tibi si facies rugosa, capillus et albens,
Est et ei; friges? Frigiditate tremit.
Non ab ea poteris reprehendi frigiditatis
De vitio, vitium cum sibi presit idem.
Est cecum ceco de visus perditione
Improperare nephas: nam sua probra refert;
Quis non ridebit si claudus dicere claudo
Passibus ut rectis debeat ire velit? }

Although women lack men’s burden of performance, men should not assume that women will hypocritically disparage men. Women and men are equally human in aging.

Old men and old women retain their capacity to love simply by being alive. In the elderly Oswald the Reeve’s tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the young cleric Alan had sex three times in one night with the Simkin the Miller’s twenty-year-old daughter Malyne. In the medieval comedy De Paulino et Polla, the match-making lawyer Fulco was punished harshly for fostering Polla and Paulino’s marriage. Fulco was punished on the grounds that “sterile spouses are unable to bear fruit for God {nequeant steriles fructificare Deo}.” Medieval Christians, while valuing highly reproductive fruitfulness, didn’t actually believe that having sex was necessary to bear fruit for God. Some holy women and men in fact renounced sex in order to focus on bearing fruit for God. The comedy of the Reeve’s Tale and De Paulino et Polla encompasses the delusions of old men.

You wallow, promiscuous lover,
in a pool of wretchedness
and a mire of lust,
senselessly wasting time.
Why no fear
of offending heaven
or of humans’ mockery
as you ravage
body, property, and soul?
Save at least
your life’s last little portion.
Offer to heaven’s dwellers
in exchange for youth’s flowers
the stubble of old age.

{ In lacu miseriae
et luto luxuriae
volveris, inutile
tempus perdens, Panphile!
cur offensas numinum
aut derisum hominum
non metuis,
dum destruis
corpus, rem et animam?
salva saltem ultimam
vitae portiunculam,
offerens caelestibus
pro iuventae floribus
senectutis stipulam. }[6]

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, vv. 4177-87, from the Reeve’s Tale, Middle English text from Benson (1987) / Riverside Chaucer, via Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website (pioneered by Larry Benson), my English modernization, benefiting from that of id. The previous short quote (with broad buttocks…) is similarly from v. 3975. Alternate modernizations of the Reeve’s Tale include those of Gerard NeCastro (eChaucer) and Michael Murphy (with overview of Reeve’s Tale).

The cleric John has sex with the Miller’s wife by moving an infant’s cradle from the foot of the bed of the Miller and his wife to the foot of his own bed. The wife, returning to bed, thus accidentally gets in bed with John and mistakes him for her husband. Other earlier, analogous “cradle trick” fabliaux are Jean Bodel’s Gombert and the Two Clerks {De Gombert et des II clers} (written between 1190 and 1194), The Miller and the Two Clerks {Le meunier et les II clers} (written in the thirteenth century), The Students’ Adventure {Das Studentenabenteuer} (written in the middle of the thirteenth century), Rüdiger von Munre’s Wayward One and Lusty Rascal {Irregang und Girregar} (written about 1300), and Tale 9.6 in Boccaccio’s Decameron (written about 1350). For English translations of the first four of these earlier analogues, Benson & Andersson (1971). Chaucer almost surely read Boccaccio’s Decameron. Beidler (1994), Harkins (2013).

Chaucer describes the clerks as being from “Soler Hall at Cambridge {Soler Halle at Cantebregge}” (v. 3990). That’s convincingly identified with the medieval King’s Hall at Cambridge. Brewer (1971).

Subsequent quotes from the Reeve’s Tale are similarly sourced. Those above are vv. 4235 (for he had labored…), 4236-9 (He said, “Farewell, Malyne…”), 4240-48 (“Now, dear sweetheart,”…), 3876-81 (We dance always…).

[2] Chaucer toned down the sexual vigor of earlier, analogous fabliaux. In Le meunier et les II clers, the clerk who slept with the daughter told the Miller, mistaken for the other clerk:

Friend, now go, if you can keep it quiet,
and get your share of the bacon.
There’s enough of it left over.
Seven times tonight I’ve taken her,
and yet there’s enough there to load down an ass.

{ Conpeignon, car va, si t’i muce,
Et si pran do bacon ta part;
Assez en a jusq’à la hart;
Par VII foiz l’ai anuit corbée,
Dès or sear boene l’asnée }

vv. 285-9, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Benson & Andersson (1971) pp. 112-5. In Tale 9.6 of Boccaccio’s Decameron, the clerk more modestly declares, “I’ve gotten me up to the farm some six times {poscia che io mi parti’ quinci}.” Italian text from V. Branca’s Einaudi edition (1992), English translation of J. M. Rigg, 1903. In De Gombert et des II clers, the clerk describes having sexual intercourse three times from different directions:

I took her from the front and from the side;
I tapped her wine barrel.

{ Pris en ai devant et encoste;
Aforé li ai son tonel }

vv. 152-3, Old French text and English translation (modified slightly) from Benson & Andersson (1971) pp. 96-7. In this fabliau, the other clerk has sex three times with the Miller’s wife. Id. v. 115.

[3] Murphy observed:

Alan’s farewell (in dialect) and Malin’s response are parodies of the aube, aubade, or tagelied, the genre poem of the dawn parting of aristocratic lovers. But the aristocrat would not refer to his lady as wight, and neither would one ever use lemman, a very plebeian word for “lover.” Also the aube rarely dealt with the details of recovering stolen property.

See Murphy’s edition of the Reeve’s Tale, note 4, p. 18.

[4] The Reeve complains, “But I am old; because of age I do not want to play…. My heart is as moldy as my hairs {But ik am oold; me list not pley for age…. Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris}” (Reeve’s Prologue, v. 3867, 70). But he also declares:

Our old limbs may well be feeble,
but desire isn’t lacking, that’s the truth,
and I have always a young colt’s passion.

{ Oure olde lemes mowe wel been unweelde,
But wyl ne shal nat faillen, that is sooth.
And yet ik have alwey a coltes tooth }

Reeve’s Prologue, vv. 3886-8. The Reeve’s Prologue presents elaborate figures of men’s aging in relation to their sexuality. On those figures, Everest (1996).

[5] Richard of Venosa {Richardus Venusinus}, About Paulino and Polla {De Paulino et Polla} vv. 747-60, Latin text from Pittaluga (1986), my English translation, benefiting from the Italian translation of id. For earlier Latin editions, Rigillo (1906) and Briscese (1903).

In Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale, the clerks’ horse amorously chases after mares. But the horse might have been a gelding. A gelded horse is a possible allusion to the old man Oswald the Reeve. On the imagery of the Reeve’s sexual exhaustion, Everest (1996). On the sexual behavior of the horse, Feinstein (1991). The voluminous scholar work on the Reeve’s Tale apparently hasn’t noticed De Paulino et Polla and its old man Paulino discussing his horse. Students of Chaucer today surely would benefit from more attention to medieval Latin literature. In relatively liberal and tolerant medieval Europe, De Paulino et Polla was used as a school text. Parker (2012) p. 477.

Richard of Venosa names himself within his work: “a nursling of a Venosian family, the judge Richard wrote such an excellent work {Venusine gentis alumpnus / iudex Richardus tale peregit opus}.” De Paulino et Polla vv. 13-4. The judge Richard apparently worked as a city magistrate. He dedicated De Paulino et Polla (vv. 11-2) to the Emperor Frederick {Fredericus Cesar}, probably Frederick II of Swabia. Fulco appeals his case to Duke Rainald (vv. 1109-10). That’s almost surely Rainald of Urslingen, Lord of Spoleto, a duke who assumed the regency of Swabia when Frederick II went to the Holy Land. Hence Richard probably composed De Paulino et Polla in southern Italy in 1228-9. Little else is known about Richard of Venosa. See Ferruccio Bertini’s entry for Riccardo da Venosa in Federiciana (2005) and Fulvio Delle Donne’s entry for Riccardo da Venosa in the Biographical Dictionary of Italians, volume 87 (2016).

De Paulino et Polla is a highly learned work. It’s written in elegant Latin and draws upon the literary models of Ovid, Horace, and Virgil. De Paulino et Polla, “by the world’s Savior who governs all {per Salvatorem mundi qui cuncta gubernat}” (v. 325), alludes to Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy {De consolatione philosophiae}, “O you who in perpetual order govern the universe {O qui perpetua mundi ratione gubernas}” (Carmen 3.9.1). On this reference, Bisanti (2015).

De Paulino et Polla is within the medieval Italian tradition of Latin comedy. That Italian tradition includes De uxore cerdonis and Versus Eporedienses. Medieval Latin comedy wasn’t confined to the Loire Valley of France.

The subsequent two quotes from De Paulino et Polla are sourced as previously. They are vv. 777-96 (You are naive to say…) and 797-808 (If in that part you are totally ruined…).

[6] Carmina Burana 29, Philip the Chancellor, “The Conversion of Humankind {De conversione hominum},” st. 1, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Traill (2018). Both “De conversione hominum” and De Paulino et Polla evoke Pamphilus. Pamphilus is a character in a widely disseminated medieval Latin comedy.

“De conversione hominum” was earlier attributed to Peter of Blois. Traill, a leading authority on Philip the Chancellor and medieval Latin literature, attributes it to Philip. Philip was a lover, a poet, a theologian, and a college administrator:

Philip the Chancellor (ca. 1160–1236) was the youngest of the great Latin poets of the latter part of the twelfth century. His earliest datable poem commemorates the death of the Henry the Liberal, Count of Champagne, and so must be dated after, but presumably not long after, 17 March 1181. He studied and probably taught theology in Paris before becoming chancellor of Notre Dame in 1217.

Traill (2006) p. 164. In modern repressive, insular, and unforgiving Western culture, no college leader could have Philip the Chancellor’s range of experience and learning. At least today there is a psychedelic-rock interpretation of “De conversione hominum.”

[image] Oswald the Reeve, teller of the Reeve’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Illumination on folio 42r of the Ellesmere Manuscript (created between 1400 and 1410) of the Canterbury Tales. Preserved as MS. EL 26 C 9 in Huntington Library (San Marino, California).


Beidler, Peter G. 1994. ‘Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale, Boccaccio’s Decameron, IX, 6, and Two “Soft” German Analogues.’ The Chaucer Review. 28 (3): 237-251.

Benson, Larry D. and Andersson, Theodore Murdock. 1971. The Literary Context of Chaucer’s Fabliaux: texts and translations. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Benson, Larry D., ed. 1987. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bisanti, Armando. 2015. ‘Riccardo da Venosa, De Paulino et Polla 325 e la fortuna medievale in un “incipit” boeziano.’ Bollettino di Studi Latini. 45 (1): 143-146.

Brewer, Derek S. 1971. “The Reeve’s Tale and the King’s Hall, Cambridge.” The Chaucer Review. 5 (4): 311-317.

Briscese, Rocco, ed. 1903. Paolino e Polla: pseudo-commedia del secolo XIII di Riccardo da Venosa. Melfi: Grieco.

Everest, Carol A. 1996. “Sex and Old Age in Chaucer’s Reeve’s Prologue.” The Chaucer Review. 31 (2): 99-114.

Feinstein, Sandy. 1991. “The Reeve’s Tale: About That Horse.” The Chaucer Review. 26 (1): 99-106.

Jessica Harkins. 2013. “Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale and Boccaccio’s Decameron X.10.” The Chaucer Review. 47 (3): 247-273.

Parker, Holt. 2012. “Renaissance Latin Elegy.” Ch. 29 (pp 476–90) in Barbara K. Gold, ed. A Companion to Roman Love Elegy. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackw

Pittaluga, Stefano, ed. and trans. (Italian). 1986. “Ricardus Venusinus, De Paulino et Polla.” Pp. 106-226 in Bertini, Ferruccio, ed. Commedie latine del XII e XIII secolo. Vol. 5. Genova: Istituto di Filologia Classica e Medievale, Università di Genova.

Rigillo, Michele, ed. and trans (Italian). 1906. Paolino e Polla: poemetto drammatico giocoso del sec. XIII di Riccardo da Venosa. Trani: Ditta V. Vecchi e C.

Traill, David A. 2006. “More Poems by Philip the Chancellor.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 16: 164-181.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

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