Reflecting On The Miller

’s Ta Essay, Research Paper

Perhaps the greatest disservice that one can do to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is to see them just as an anthology. With the Prologue as a kind of annotated table of contents, few ever read the tales from first to last, and for educational purposes the poems do lend themselves to individual study. But Chaucer plainly did not envision them as disjointed, independent works. What critics have styled headlinks and endlinks clearly indicate the dramatic nature of the whole work in the poet’s mind. We must read the tales as organic utterances, growing out of the interplay between the pilgrims.

Deferring to the Knight’s social superiority over all the others, the Host has arranged it so that he tells the first story. The ensuing narrative is a classical story of two genteel knights who are rivals for the love of the same maiden. The tale is wholesome is morally above reproach. Giving the Knight due praise for such an upright story, the Host moves to the ranking member of the clergy, the Monk, and asks him for a tale to match the Knight’s. But the Miller interrupts, asserting that he can outshine the Knight s tale. The Host tells him to let “some better man” go before him, but the Miller threatens to secede from the party. Because the Host cannot afford for dissent to spoil the pilgrimage in the first few miles, he reluctantly tolerates the Miller’s bad manners. The Miller claims that despite his intoxication, he will tell a story of a carpenter and a wife. The Reeve complains that he wants to hear no ribaldry against working men or married women, but the Miller will not be stopped. Geoffrey the narrator interrupts the narrative to remind readers that the Miller is a “churl,” and that the story he will tell is likely to be coarse.

The Miller then describes a typical love-triangle from the tradition of the fabliau, the medieval vulgar anecdote, of which this tale is the paragon. A carpenter named John is married to a hot-blooded 18-year-old girl named Alison. The Miller summarizes the social dynamic straightforwardly: “For she was young and wild, and he was old.” (The Miller has chosen to customize the tale by giving her a name close to that of Dame Alice, the sensual wife of Bath.) She is described as a wily weasel, a vixen, in animalistic terms that emphasize her youthful appeal. Her jealous husband knows that she is alluring and therefore keeps her nearly caged. The carpenter takes in a young student named Nicholas, whose lechery is matched only by his intellectual arrogance founded on his study of astrology, as a tenant. Chaucer uses the adjective “hende” to describe him; no modern-English word can translate it precisely, though the slang modern term “slick” might best approximate.

Drawing upon the ubiquitous juxtaposition in British and American literature between the active person and the contemplative person, “hende Nicholas” callously and bluntly declares his sexual attraction for his landlord’s wife. The rest of the tale manifest a comic frankness not only about sexuality but also about excretory processes that has earned for Chaucer a reputation as an earthy, scatological writer. His bawdiness will all but ostracize him from polite Victorian reading lists. The Manly edition of 1890 so bowdlerizes Chaucer that the actual text of “The Miller’s Tale” that remains is only a few lines long!

Alison offers only token resistance, and while admitting that the relationship will have to be conducted secretly so as not to arouse John s jealous rage, she agrees to his demand. (In the story, the Miller, a medieval misogynist, has the would-be adulterous wife swear by the pilgrim’s own patron, Thomas of Kent, that she will accommodate Nicholas.) The humor here is far more complex than mere mockery. The Miller is using his rhetorical position as respondent, as it were, to the Knight’s proper tale to satirize the institution of courtly love, the medieval arrangement by which a gentlemen could seek and eventually obtain the physical love of a married woman by following certain traditional structures based on mannerly behavior. Nicholas has bypassed all these in favor of direct accosting, but the fourth element in this circus, the parish clerk Absolom is fully committed to it. When he sees Alison at Mass, where she has gone immediately after making her faithless pact, he becomes suddenly infatuated with the girl. While no less passionate in his attraction for Alison, the parish clerk will follow the dictates of polite entreaty.

Chaucer is very careful in drawing the implicit comparisons between Alison s lovers. Nicholas is a scholar, but a man who dispenses with formalities. Absolom, named so for his pride in his blond hair, is a medieval jack-of-all-trades, but his sense of revelry has its boundaries when he begins his courtship of Alison with gifts from the town. Absolom’s fastidious conformity to the courtly-love code garner him nothing. John hears his singing, and he and Alison dismiss it as the clerk’s foolishness. But John knows nothing about the proposed contact between Alison and the hasty Nicholas, since the college student specializes in secret love. It is not enough that Nicholas shares Alison s sexual favors, as such could easily and simply be accomplished, considering the young wife’s shamelessness. The adultery must be done in such a way as to demonstrate Nicholas intellectual superiority. John is his older in age, his landlord, and his social superior. Just as the Miller demands to tell his tale out of turn so as to demonstrate that he is as worthy to tell the next tale as any man, Nicholas must out wit the carpenter in such a way that his intellectual dominance is obvious, since he believes that no student is worth his salt if he cannot “a Carpenter beguile.” It is as much a social quip as a sexual one.

As master storyteller, Chaucer is as aware of the nuances of travesty and situation comedy as any Restoration playwright. The rest of the tale moves with a slapstick pace. Nicholas cooks up an elaborate scheme to out do his landlord sexually and intellectually. He fakes a trance for a weekend, knowing that John will demand an explanation. The foolish carpenter first fears that the student has died of the ever-threatening plague. Seeing him in his distracted state, he then suspects that the young scholar has ruined his brain through over-study , but the deceitful student merely mumbles an embellished warning of impending disaster. He then mentally coerces the ignorant carpenter into thinking that a second flood will soon come. Chaucer, the master of dramatic irony, tempts his audience into feeling sorry for John, since his first concern is for his dear wife. But he does not allow them to stay in that sympathetic mood long, delighting them instead with Nicholas elaborate scheme which calls on John to fetch tubs and hang them from the housetop so that when the deluge comes, they may float away and be saved, as was Noah’s family. By lying about his knowing about Noah’s flood, John has inadvertently revealed that he knows nothing, since if he did know the Biblical story of the Flood, he would know that it promises that later inundations would never occur.

Part of Nicholas’s instructions to John is to keep the plan secret. He swears to tell one, but immediately tells his wife. When the appointed hour comes, the trio ascends into the tubs; each in a separate one as Nicholas said was the divine instruction. When John is snoring, exhausted from his work, Nicholas and Alison go to the carpenter’s own bed for their affair.

By now the stage is set for comic complication, as Absolom is planning his serenade. Foretelling his fate, Chaucer shows him sweetening his breath for the kiss that he hopes to receive. Thinking that because he has not seen the husband, he must be out of town, he comes to the window in the predawn darkness and calls for his love to come speak to him. Alison threatens to cast a rock at him if he does not leave, but interpreting her refusal as reluctance, he agrees to leave but demands a kiss. Alison is boldly immature and sticks her backside out the window while Absolom delivers the misplaced kiss. The two inside gleefully delight in this insult. Absolom, now as infused with rage as he had been with desire, goes to a nearby smith and secures the use of a hot poker and returns to the bedroom for another kiss. Eager to join in on such a riotously vulgar game, Nicholas repeats Alison s posture at the window. Absolom burns Nicholas’s behind, and hearing the student’s call for “Water!” to cool his wound, John thinks that Noah s flood has come and it is time to cut the ropes. He does, falls and breaks his arm. The whole town comes to see the quartet of fools with their respective injuries.

This tale has enough of bawdiness to make it the most famous of the medieval fabliaux, but its value transcends that. Despite his warning at the onset of his tale that “men shall not make earnest of game,” the Miller has preached a sermon on the sin of pride; expressing his sermon in the vulgar garb of a naughty story. All three men are victims of vanity: John because he thought Nicholas’s vision would lead to his being a savior; Nicholas because he thought that his academic studies had made him superior to the carpenter and given him the right to make him a victim of trickery; Absolom because he thought positively that his adherence to the dictates of the elegant courtly love tradition would lead to success. The Miller tells this crude but hilarious story to remind the Host and all the other pilgrims that social pretense the kind that led the Host to demand that the Miller yield place to a more socially acceptable speaker was dangerous. The resulting laughter of the entourage assures us that the lesson was well taken.


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