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  • Snub and White; Chaucer, Logic, and Strode
  • Glending Olson

I want to propose a new reading of a few lines in Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale, one that is more philosophical but not any less playful, and then use it and some other references in his works to reflect on his academic knowledge and his relationship with Ralph Strode.


The proud miller Symkyn has a snub: “Round was his face, and camus was his nose.” His daughter Malyne has a “kamus nose” as well.1 Chaucer uses camus only in these two instances, and the Middle English Dictionary (MED) cites just one other, in the Charlemagne romance Sir Firumbras, the “nose cammus” of an ugly Saracen giant guarding a bridge.2 It’s an unusual detail, and readers are invited to recall it when Symkyn’s nose makes subsequent appearances: he drinks so much “strong ale” with supper that “he speketh thurgh the nose” (ll. 4146–52), and once he falls asleep, “as an hors he fnorteth” (l. 4163). (The only other snorts in Chaucer also come during the sleep of someone seriously inebriated, the corrupt messenger in The Man of Law’s Tale [ll. 789–91].) At the climax, when Symkyn and Aleyn brawl, the clerk hits him “on the nose,” drawing blood and breaking both “nose and mouth” (ll. 4275–78). No other nose in Chaucer gets as much attention, or abuse. Critics have traditionally linked its snubness to other unattractive aspects of Symkyn’s appearance and personality, citing medieval physiognomy to explain how it contributes to his characterization and to his daughter’s unhappy inheritance. Further, his snub nose [End Page 185] (Latin simus nasus) is one of a number of details, including his name, that associate him with apes both physically and, in medieval thinking, etymologically (simus, simia, Symond/Symkyn).3

I suggest an additional level of meaning to his snub. In the climactic fight scene, his bloody nose is just inches away from his bald head, which his wife mistakenly hits with a staff because, thanks to a “litel shymeryng of a light,”

. . . she saugh hem bothe two,But sikerly she nyste who was who,But as she saugh a whit thyng in hir ye.And whan she gan this white thyng espye,She wende the clerk hadde wered a volupeer,And with the staf she drow ay neer and neer,And wende han hit this Aleyn at the fulle,And smoot the millere on the pyled skulle.

(ll. 4297–306)

Susan Yager, working principally from texts in natural philosophy, argued some time ago that the Reeve’s carefully repeated “white thyng,” along with similar usage elsewhere in Chaucer, borrows academic language often employed in discussing problems of perception.4 I think that she is right, and what follows is intended as a supplement to her reading. Another equally academic context, logic, not only mentions white things but brings them in close proximity to snub noses, in a way that succinctly accounts for Symkyn’s wife’s mistake.

Like so much in scholastic discourse, the juxtaposition of snub and white goes back to Aristotle. In the seventh book of the Metaphysics, he discusses the essence of substances, noting that a “white surface” is a compound of a substance (the surface) with another category of being (white) that does not aid in understanding the essence of what a surface is. Ideally definitions should get at the essences of things, but definitions sometimes include qualities as well as substances, and this presents difficulties in defining “things that are not simple but coupled”: [End Page 186]

E.g. there is the nose, and concavity, and snubness, which is compounded out of the two by the presence of the one in the other, and it is not by accident that the nose has the attribute either of concavity or of snubness, but in virtue of its nature; nor do they attach to it as whiteness does to Callias, or to man (because Callias, who happens to be a man, is white), but rather as “male” attaches to animal and “equal” to quantity. . . . And such attributes are those in which is involved either the formula or the...


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