Chaucer PilgrimsChaucer’s Miller and his Tale

Medieval ribaldry at its very best

It seems a shame to do anything with the Miller's Tale except laugh heartily! To insert too much intellectual analysis may rob this, the best of “dirty” stories, of its charm. Nonetheless, it being the nature of the person, I shall insert a comment or two which I hope will enhance your enjoyment of this tale, and give a bit of insight into the concepts of medieval life that it presents so well.

The words between the host and miller, which precede the tale, are quite delightful. We can inwardly see Chaucer’s sly wink as he apologises for the roughness of the tales to follow. But we cannot hold the Miller, rough sort though he is, too responsible: “If the words get muddled in my tale; just put it down to too much Southwark ale.” My reader, now, get yourself a tankard of ale, relax and enjoy - I promise, there's no moral to this story!

First off, its ribaldry should not surprise us, nor seem strange coming from the mouth of one en route to the shrine of Thomas Becket (who, himself, was far from prudish, especially in his younger days). It was not beneath medieval man to have a hearty chuckle, with a quite earthy overtone, even when he was thinking of religious matters. The “miracle” and “mystery” plays featured such characters as a Saint Joseph who, faced with Mary’s pregnancy, moans of how the child could not be his, or a Mrs Noah who doesn't care to board the ark because she's tanked to the gills.

Religious ideals may have been dear to the medieval heart, and his awareness of God deeper than our own, but pretty piety, much less prudery, was not his style. Considering, as well, that marriage then was often arranged in childhood, and a love match a rarity, the situation where a young wife finds her elderly husband less than thrilling was no strange concept. Cuckoldry was a common theme in Chaucer’s works.

Do not think, however, that the axiom about “crime does not pay” is invalid. The bed partner of the young wife in this tale does end up “branded cross the bum” with a hot iron... but let's not get ahead of ourselves here!

Interest in astrology was very keen in Chaucer’s day. Where, in later centuries, it would be treated as a “pseudo science”, supposedly without basis, it was condemned by neither science nor Church then. The physician in the prologue to the Canterbury Tales uses astrology to determine his patients’ treatment, and is respected for doing so. Even Saint Thomas Aquinas, as great a mind as the century had to offer, believed that God worked through the planets to influence our lives. Its practise intrigued the common man's mind much as it does ours.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that the crafty young carpenter, whom the “rich old codger”, soon to be cuckolded, takes in “as a lodger”, is... an astrologer. Nicholas, whose eye is at least as much upon the ladies as the stars, gains considerable power in this tale because of the catastrophe that he persuades his landlord is at hand, and which was known to him through the astrologer's art.

That the husband is a carpenter has its own, sly relevance. The Miller and the Reeve, whose indulgence in the ale probably was equal, are at odds, and the miller's reference to a carpenter (such as the reeve was) is a pointed jab at his foe.

“He might have known, were Cato on his shelf, a man should marry someone like himself.... However, he had fallen in the snare, and had to bear his cross as others bear.” Wife Allison, a beautiful lass of 18, hardly seems a cross, but, despite the irony here, the “religious” sentiment is not foreign to the times. As mankind had fallen when a woman gave in to the snake's temptations, and as she had led her mate to ruin when he acquiesced, the female sex was seen as a source of evil, and her spouse as one to be ever on his guard. The carpenter, we know, was a jealous and demanding sort, and we can imagine the young lady's joy in her plotting for a rendezvous with Nicholas.

“It happened later, (Allison) went off to church, this worthy wife, one holiday, to search her conscience and to do the works of Christ.” The rich irony, again, is not solely a commentary on hypocrisy - though several hypocrites there are among our pilgrims. Church related acts of devotion, among them pilgrimages to such shrines as Canterbury, could gain one indulgences that remitted the punishment one had deserved for his sins. Dishonest though the prologue tells us the Miller is, he himself was doing something not so different than Allison was!

Courtly love, the favourite topic of the time, was unrequited, and Absalon (whose fate, alas, is not to have such physical contact with Allison as he desired... but quite another sort!) is a perfect spoof of the position of the chivalrous one pining for his lady. As Chaucer paints his portrait, Absalon is far from courtly, but he does seek to make his own music... by which he undoubtedly believes the lady will be charmed.

Those in the middle ages had seen many an artistic depiction, as well as heard sermons and tales, of incidents recounted in the Scriptures. The combination of this awareness with the medieval man's belief in miracles and magic makes it quite understandable that carpenter John believes Nicholas's prediction about another Great Flood ahead.

Few images can match that of the tipsy and trembling John, taking refuge in the makeshift “ark” he had constructed from a tub. His prayers, which Chaucer composed with such cleverness, must rank among the most humorous lines in English literature. Nicholas's cautioning him to stay apart from his wife would have come as no shock. At the time, taking Holy Communion (a rare event) or any other incident of special graces, such as the conferral of knighthood, was preceded by a time of fasting and abstinence from sex.

Absalon naturally picks just this time to woo his Allison, having taken the itching in his mouth as the premonition of a kiss forthcoming. Fool though Absalon is, the idea of premonitions turning out in ways far different than one predicts was common in this day. In fact, those disposed to use charms and divination were ever cautious lest they bring about happenings other than they intended, for charms were thought to have independent power of their own.

Poor Absalon, of course, gets only the privilege of kissing his lady love's hind end... and a fart in his face, the one thing about which he is most squeamish. His branding Nicholas's bum is understandable revenge. As Nicholas howls for water, the poor carpenter is convinced the predicted flood has come!

This tale, which you probably were not taught in Literature 101, would be a shame to miss, for it is a work of comic genius. Now, do you believe that literature can be fun? Read the Reeve's tale next... and warm up for a little Boccaccio. As for me - I'm filling my pint with a bit more Southwark ale.