The Miller's Tale

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Illustration of Robin the Miller, from The Miller's Tale, playing a bagpipe

"The Miller's Tale" (Middle English: The Milleres Tale) is the second of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1380s–1390s), told by the drunken miller Robyn to "quite" (requite) "The Knight's Tale". The Miller's Prologue is the first "quite" that occurs in the tales (to "quite" someone is to make repayment for a service, the service here being the telling of stories).

Prologue[edit]

The general prologue to The Canterbury Tales describes the Miller, Robyn, as a stout and gracious churl fond of wrestling.[1] In the Miller's Prologue, the pilgrims have just heard and enjoyed "The Knight's Tale", a classical story of courtly love, and the host asks the Monk to "quite" ("follow" or "repay") with a tale of his own. However, the Miller insists on going next. He claims that his tale is "noble", but reminds the other pilgrims that he is quite drunk and cannot be held accountable for what he says. He explains that his story is about a carpenter and his wife, and how a clerk "hath set the wrightes cappe" (that is, fooled the carpenter). Osewold the Reeve, who had originally been a carpenter himself, protests that the tale will insult carpenters and wives, but the Miller carries on anyway.[2]

"The Miller's Tale" begins the trend in which succeeding tellers "quite" the previous one with their story. In a way the Miller requites the "Knight's Tale", and is himself directly requited with "The Reeve's Tale", in which the Reeve follows Robyn's insulting story about a carpenter with his own tale disparaging a miller.[3]

Synopsis[edit]

Door with Cat Hole (carved oak, Late Medieval period, 1450–1500, France, Walters Art Museum) This door, carved with a linen-fold decoration, was probably a back or interior door of a middle-class home. It is remarkable for its cat hole. Few doors with cat holes have survived from this early period, but the 14th-century English writer Geoffrey Chaucer described one in the "Miller's Tale" from his Canterbury Tales. In the narrative, a servant whose knocks go unanswered, uses the hole to peek in: "An hole he foond, ful lowe upon a bord/ Ther as the cat was wont in for to crepe,/ And at the hole he looked in ful depe,/ And at the last he hadde of hym a sighte."

"The Miller's Tale" is the story of a carpenter, his lovely wife, and the two clerks (students) who are eager to get her into bed. The carpenter, John, lives in Oxford with his much younger wife, Alisoun, who is something of a local beauty. To make a bit of extra money, John rents out a room in his house to a poor but clever scholar named Nicholas, who has taken a liking to Alisoun. Another scholar in the town, Absolon the parish clerk, also has his eye on Alisoun.

The action begins when John makes a day trip to a nearby town. While he is gone, Nicholas convinces Alisoun to have sex with him, and hence begins their affair. Shortly afterward, Alisoun goes to church, where Absolon sees her and immediately falls in love. He tries to win Alisoun's sexual favours by singing love songs under her window during the full moon and taking a part in the local play to try to get her attention. Alisoun rebuffs all his efforts, however, since she is already involved with Nicholas.

Nicholas, meanwhile, longs to spend a whole night in Alisoun's arms rather than just the few moments they have managed to steal when John is not at home. With Alisoun, he hatches a scheme that will enable him to do this. He convinces John that God is about to send a great flood like the one he sent in Noah's time. He says that God told him they could save themselves by hanging three large tubs from the ceiling to sleep in. Once the waters rise, they would cut the ropes and float away. John believes him and duly climbs into his tub. Nicholas and Alisoun do the same, but then sneak back down and spend the night together in John's bed.

While Nicholas and Alisoun lie together, the foppish and fastidious parish clerk, Absolon, who is also deeply attracted to Alisoun and believes her husband to be away, appears kneeling at the bedchamber's low "shot-wyndowe" (privy vent) and asks Alisoun for a kiss. In the darkness, she presents her "hole" (bottom) at the window and he "kissed her naked arse full savorly". He realises the prank and goes away enraged. He borrows a red hot coulter (a blade-like plough part) from the early-rising blacksmith. Returning, he asks for another kiss, intending to burn Alison. This time Nicholas, who had risen from bed to go to the privy, sticks his own backside out the window and breaks wind in Absolon's face. The furious suitor thrusts the coulter "amidde the ers" (between the cheeks) burning Nicholas' "toute" (anus) and the skin "a hands-breadth round about". In agony, Nicholas cries for water, awakening John. Hearing someone screaming about water, he thinks that the Second Flood has come, panics, and cuts his tub loose, falling to the floor and breaking his arm. Responding to the commotion, the neighbours arrive to find him lying in the tub and in accordance with Nicholas' prophecy, he is considered a madman, and a cuckold too.

Religion[edit]

The Miller's Tale has religious commentary that may relate to corruption in the Catholic Church in 14th century Europe, and/or the dangers posed by lay heretics, although Geoffrey Chaucer's religious views are not obvious.

On divination and misuse of Holy Scripture[edit]

Nicholas, a student, is relentlessly trying to sleep with his landlord's wife, Alison. Nicholas is so desperate to sleep with her, he plans a clever trick on his lord that will allow him to do so. Nicholas tells his landlord, John the Carpenter, that a flood of Biblical proportions is imminent and the only way to save himself and his wife is to suspend himself in a tub from the rafters:

"Now John," quod Nicholas, "I wol nat lye;
I have yfounde in myn astrologye,
As I have looked in the moone bright,
That now a Monday next, at quarter nyght,
Shal falle a reyn, and that so wilde and wood
That half so greet was nevere Noes flood.
This world," he seyde, "in lasse than an hour
Shal al be dreynt, so hidous is the shour.
Thus shal mankynde drenche, and lese hir lyf."[4]

Nicholas essentially tells John that rain will consume the land, creating greater devastation than Noah’s Flood did. Nicholas justifies his prediction by pretending that God came to him in a dream. John is willing to listen to anything Nicholas says to save himself and his wife Alison (or Alisoun) from drowning.
Nicholas derives his authority over John from a misleading use of Christian scripture, casting himself in the role of Noah saved from the Flood by God's forewarning. Nicholas also dramatises his predictions with astrological calculations and ecstatic contemplation of the heavens. This manipulative behaviour may have been meant to imply similar deceptions from representatives of the Church in Chaucer's time.[5]

Arts and culture[edit]

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote during the reign of Richard II, who very much appreciated the arts and culture of the time. We see this in The Miller's Tale when Chaucer describes what is in Nicholas' bedroom.

His Almageste and books grere and smale,
His astrelabie longynge for his art,
Hise augrym stones layen faire apart
On shelves couched at his beddes heed"[6]

Nicholas is described not by his valor in battle or honour in the court. Instead, his many skills are described at great length, including the fact that he is studying one of the many scholarly arts that were popular at that time. Chaucer then goes on to describe what Nicholas is wearing and his skills as a musician.

His presse ycovered with a faldyng reed,
And al above ther lay a gay sautrie
On which he made a nyghtes melodie
So swetely that al the chambre song,
And Angelus ad viriginem he song,
And after that he song The Kynges Noote;
Full often blessed was his myrie throte! [7]

Again Nicholas is shown not as a brave knight but as a talented musician. He is shown to be very cultured as well as studied. Chaucer shows that Nicholas was skilled in the art of music, as he knew these certain songs which might have been quite popular at the time. What Nicholas wears could also be here to show that Nicholas wore clothes befitting his social class status. This focus on what a person could wear based on status was also important to Richard II.

Analysis[edit]

The tale appears to combine the motifs of two separate fabliaux, the 'second flood' and 'misdirected kiss', both of which appear in continental European literature of the period. Its bawdiness serves not only to introduce the Reeve's tale, but the general sequence of low comedy which terminates in the unfinished Cook's tale.

This Absolom, that jolly was and gay,
Gooth with a sencer (censer) on the haliday,
Sensynge the wyves of the parisshe faste;
And many a lovely look on hem he caste,
And namely on this carpenteris wyf. (3339)

Alison, however, does not return Absolom's affections, although she readily takes his gifts.

A third theme, that of knowledge and science, appears in several marginal comments. Nicholas is an avid astrologer (as Chaucer himself was), equipped with, "His Almageste, and bookes grete and smale, / His astrelabie, longynge for his art..." John the carpenter represents unintellectual laymen; John tells Nicholas:

Men sholde nat knowe of goddes pryvetee [God's private affairs].
Ye, blessed be alwey a lewed [unlearned] man
That noght but oonly his bileve kan! [who knows nothing except the Creed] (3454)

He also recounts a story (sometimes told of Thales) of an astrologer who falls into a pit while studying the stars. The issue of whether learned or unlearned faith is better is also relevant to The Prioress's Tale and The Parson's Tale.

Parody[edit]

The tale is replete with word-puns. Much is made of variations on "priv-" implying both secret things and private parts. Nicholas fondles Alisoun's "queynte", a noun, while Absolom is described after his humiliation as having his ardour "yqueynt" or quenched.

Continuations[edit]

The 15th-century Tale of Beryn depicts the Miller trying and failing to explain the stained glass windows of Canterbury cathedral.

Chaucer refers to the Distichs of Cato with this passage: "He knew nat Catoun, for his wit was rude." The Distichs of Cato was one of the most common textbooks in schools throughout medieval Europe, and was familiar to almost anyone with a basic education in Latin.

The painting Netherlandish Proverbs by Pieter Breugel the Elder illustrates many of the themes in this story including a shot-window in use, a man with his backside on fire, a falling through a basket from a roof, pious hypocrisy, and cuckolding.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Geoffrey Chaucer, "General Prologue", lines 547–568.
  2. ^ Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Miller's Tale", lines 3109–3186.
  3. ^ Lambdin, Laura C. (1999). Chaucer's Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to the Pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 276, 296. ISBN 0-275-96629-1. Retrieved 17 September 2010. 
  4. ^ Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: the Miller’s Tale (405–414).
  5. ^ Miller, Robert P. "The "Miller's Tale" as Complaint." Chaucer Review 5 (1970). 156.
  6. ^ Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: the Miller’s Tale (100–103).
  7. ^ Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: the Miller’s Tale (104–110).

External links[edit]