The Miller's Tale
"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 Robin 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 repay them for a service, the service here being the telling of stories).
The general prologue to The Canterbury Tales describes the Miller, Robin, as a stout and evil churl fond of wrestling. 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.
"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 Robin's insulting story about a carpenter with his own tale disparaging a miller.
"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, for she's 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 isn't around. 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 buckets from the ceiling to sleep in. Once the waters rose, they would cut the ropes and float away. John believes him and duly climbs into his bucket. He thinks Nicholas and Alisoun are doing the same, but in fact, they are spending the night together in John's bed.
That same night, Absolon comes to the window and begs Alisoun to give him a kiss. At first she refuses him, but she finally appears to give in. Instead of presenting her lips to Absolon's, though, she sticks her buttocks out the window, and Absolon kisses her "ers" in the dark. Angry at being fooled, Absolon gets a hot poker with which he intends to brand Alisoun. When he comes back to her window, though, Nicholas sticks his buttocks out in an attempt to get in on the joke. Absolon brands him with the hot poker, and he cries out "Water!" to assuage the pain.
John, hearing this from his bucket, thinks the flood is upon them and cuts the rope that's attaching him to the ceiling, sending him crashing to the floor. The townspeople hear the racket, rush to the scene, and, upon hearing Nicholas's version of events, laugh at and mock poor John.
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
Nicholas, a student, is relentlessly trying to sleep with his landlord's wife, Alisoun. 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."
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 Alisoun (or Alison) 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.
Arts and culture
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"
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! 
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.
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)
Alisoun, 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.
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.
The Miller's name is intended as a pun on the phrase "rob 'em". As told in the Reeve's Tale the Miller is a not just a bully but a thief of grain he is supposed to grind for his customers.
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.
- Chaucer’s special manuscript words
- Angelus ad virginem
- "A Whiter Shade of Pale", song that alludes to this story
- Geoffrey Chaucer, "General Prologue", lines 547–568.
- Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Miller's Tale", lines 3109–3186.
- 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.
- Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: the Miller’s Tale (405–414).
- Miller, Robert P. "The "Miller's Tale" as Complaint." Chaucer Review 5 (1970). 156.
- Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: the Miller’s Tale (100–103).
- Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: the Miller’s Tale (104–110).
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- Read "The Miller's Tale" with interlinear translation, from a Harvard University website
- The Canterbury Tales (based on British Library copies of William Caxton's editions), via a De Montfort University website
- A study guide for The Miller's Prologue and Tale from a UK teacher's personal website
- Modern Translation of the Miller's Tale and Other Resources at eChaucer
- "The Millers's Tale" – a plain-English retelling for non-scholars.