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An Analysis of Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale"

Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

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Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale," one of the Canterbury Tales, has no moral value whatsoever; it is a ribald and bawdy tale told purely for the entertainment of the pilgrims on the way to Canterbury. Before he even begins the tale, the Miller apologizes for it, and the other pilgrims tell him if it's that bad maybe he shouldn't tell it; but he insists. And it's a good thing for us that he does: "The Miller's Tale" gives Chaucer the opportunity to try his hand at a genre that was most commonly transmitted orally -- the fabliau -- thus preserving it for us six hundred years later.

A fabliau is a special type of short story that was very popular in Chaucer's time. Originating in France, it was written in octosyllabic verse (eight syllables per line) and was generally 300 to 400 lines long. Fabliau were, frankly, dirty little stories in which women were generally portrayed as lusty wenches and men as ready if foolish partners. All these traits we can see depicted in "The Miller's Tale."

Alisoun is the prototypically lusty wench, married to a decrepit old carpenter named John. They rent out a room in their home to a college student, Nicholas, who would like nothing better than to take Alisoun to bed. There is nothing subtle in Nicholas' approach. He does not gently entreat her to look favorably upon his love; he grabs her between the legs and then holds her tight "by the haunche-bones." She struggles, but then gives in rather too soon for her struggling to be completely believable. Moreover, she swears "by seint Thomas of Kent" that she will allow him to make love to her at the very first opportunity.

"Seint Thomas of Kent" is none other than St. Thomas a Becket, the saint whose shrine the Canterbury pilgrims are journeying to see. Becket was not exactly a prude in his youth, and therefore it is somewhat fitting that tales such as the Miller's are told on the way to pay him homage. If Alisoun must swear by a saint at all, Thomas a Becket would appear to be a good one to pick.

Having thus assured Alisoun's complicity, Nicholas begins to hatch a plan. He decides to convince John, the carpenter, that the Biblical flood is about to be repeated, and he is the one who will have to build the ark. Moreover, when it is done, he will have to get into it, hoist it up to the house's rafters, and wait patiently for a sign. While John is waiting in the boat, Nicholas will have time to make love to Alisoun.

This is an audacious plan, but Nicholas' self-assurance comes from his role as a university student. As he tells Alisoun, "A clerk hath litherly biset his whyle / But if he koude a carpenter bigyle" ("A student has literally wasted his time [at school] if he can't beguile (or fool) a carpenter").

This seems logical to us, but it is important to remember the audience to whom the Miller is directing his tale. There are a few gentlemen and clerics, but by and large the majority of them are working-class people, and they who tend to consider university students fools, as much as the other way around. While they would have been eager to see how the tale turns out in any event, the other pilgrims probably would have been as much in sympathy with the cuckolded husband as with Nicholas himself. Nicholas' disparaging remark "sets up" the story's climax, in which it is Nicholas who gets burned -- quite literally, as we shall see.

A fourth principal character now enters the scene, in the person of one Absalon, a young man who lives nearby. Absalon is described with Chaucer's customary great care, and we can read in between the lines and perceive the author's tongue planted squarely in his cheek. Absalon, Chaucer tells us, parted his golden hair neatly, and wore red hose which showed through the tracery cut into his shoes. In short, he is something of a dandy. But he is nonetheless portrayed as an important member of the town; he can "laten blood, clippe and shave" ("let blood, clip hair, and shave", which would make him a combination of a physician and a barber -- not that unusual a combination during Chaucer's day) and he serves as a sort of acolyte at holiday times, going forth among the women of the parish and sweeping them with the smoke from a censer to bless them.
It is in this capacity that he first notices Alisoun's beauty, and he resolves to court her, as if she were some noblewoman in a chivalric romance. Absalon goes to John and Alisoun's house singing love songs to Alisoun beneath her window, but Alisoun chooses to ignore him.

Absalon becomes the brunt of one of Chaucer's most wicked jokes; when he comes to the window and asks for a kiss on a night when Nicholas is there, the irritated Alisoun "moons" him in the dark so that Absalon actually kisses her naked derriere. He immediately perceives his mistake, "for wel he wiste a womman hath no berd", but then Alisoun slams the window in his face. Furious, he vows to get even.

And get even he does. He returns with a hot iron; after enticing the person whom he believes to be Alisoun to come back to the window (it's really Nicholas), he implants the hot iron in the naked buttocks that loom over his face. Nicholas screams out "Water!"; John, who is still strung up in his boat under the rafters waiting for the Second Great Deluge, cuts the ropes holding him there and tumbles to the ground; and Absalon succeeds in having the last laugh.

There is no moral to this story, although many things are held up for ridicule. The Miller's object is simply to poke fun at cocky university students, libidinous young wives, foolish old husbands, and courtly love. This tale is really nothing but a fourteenth-century version of a dirty joke, and was probably enjoyed as much by Chaucer's contemporary audiences as we enjoy it now. But its serious literary value is the preservation of an example of the "fabliau" genre for audiences in our own day to enjoy, and the knowledge that in six hundred years, our sense of humor has not changed.

This story can be found in "The Canterbury Tales."

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