McDaniel Lectures on British Poetry

Ribaldry as Homily

Chaucer's 'Miller's Tale' Shows Social Dynamic

Beowulf criticism was reshaped in 1936 by an essay by J.R.R Tolkien, an Oxford don in addition to his role as chronicler of Middle Earth. "The Monsters and the Critics" posed the argument that the whole approach to the study of the Old English saga had been misguided. Linguistic inquiry into orthography and morphology, historical investigation about the connections between the Spear-Danes and the other Teutonic tribes, anthropological delving for information about armaments and funereal habits-all these, in Tolkien's estimation, were distractions that led readers away from the central universal story of the nephew of Ecgtheow and his battles with the enemies of his people. Much the same needs to be said about the other masterpiece of medieval English literature, Geoffrey Chaucer's ambitious and timelessly endearing anthology of poetic narratives which we call The Canterbury Tales. These tales and their General Prologue have been more mined, perhaps, than any other works of literature except Shakespeare's, to find historical, cultural,
sociopolitical, linguistic, and philosophical testimony as to the nature of the author's times. To be sure, these excavations have been fruitful. The poet's characters do provide modern readers with a kaleidoscopic view of the middle ranges of medieval society, and the tales themselves show an even broader range of acquaintance. But such historical annotations should not cloud the fact that the tales told by his assembly of pilgrims are masterfully spun narratives, as insightful in their presentation of the human spirit as any ever composed. In short, Chaucer's work has garnered attention as source-texts for all sorts of historical information. Many readers find him charming for his antiquity, for his curious spellings and archaic phrasings. But his works have value that transcends the archival. His tales can be analyzed according to universal canons of literary criticism, and they stand up to evaluation according to timeless criteria. To read The Canterbury Tales as mere medieval curio is to shortchange Chaucer.

Compared to other pre-modern writers, much is known about Geoffrey Chaucer, retainer of the royal household, uncle to King Henry IV, and first to be laid to rest in what would come to be known as Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey. But little is known for sure about his modus operandi in the composition of these poems in the last third of the 14th century. His fictional moderator, Harry Bailly, says that the pilgrims (even the number varies with the existing manuscripts) will tell two stories on the way to the shrine of the "hooly, blisful martir," and two on the return trip-which could have meant as many as 120 projected stories. Yet only a sixth of that number were actually completed. Moreover, the same garrulous Southwerk innkeeper proposed the scheme that one tale would be judged as being "of best sentence and moost solace," its teller being awarded a free supper at the others' expense. No more is mentioned of the contest, though many think that if Bailly had been obliged to designate a winner among the twenty completed, two interrupted, and two incomplete tales, the Nun's Priest would have been the laureate for his splendid chicken-yard romance. (Again, we must note the unfinished nature of the collection: the teller of this splendid tale is not even individually mentioned in the dramatis personae at the beginning, the General Prologue, the narrator Geoffrey only mentioning "preestes thre" that accompanied the nun.)

The spectrum in the tales is more than just social or economic; it is also emotional. Some of the characters, such as the Friar, the Summoner, and the Pardoner, Chaucer has unmitigated contempt for, while others, such as the Parson, his brother the Ploughman, the Knight, and the Clerk of Oxford, he admires without qualification. Some he scants, such as the Guildsmen, giving them the barest mention. But perhaps the most intriguing category or those whom he has created in such a way that readers will see them as human-with virtues and faults. The Miller, the Wife of Bath, the Prioress, the Pardoner-all of these are depicted with such psychological dimension that they strike us as much more real than the saints and villains.

In Vino Veritas: The Miller's Tale

Perhaps the greatest disservice that one can do to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is to see them just as an anthology, with the General Prologue as a kind of annotated table of contents. To be sure, 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. Such can be easily seen in the first group of tales.
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, morally above reproach, and, most modern readers will agree, somewhat tedious. 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, who is "for pale," interrupts, asserting that he should "quite the Knyghtes tale." The Host tells him to let "som bettre man" go before him, but the Miller threatens to secede from the party. 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 inebriation, 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. But he must tell the tale exactly as the Miller told it. Should such displease the reader, "Turne over the leef, and chese another tale."

The Miller then delineates 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 Alisoun. The Miller summarizes the social dynamic straightforwardly: "For she was yong and wilde, 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 in terms of a wily weasel, a vixen, a young calf, animalistic terms that emphasize her youthful sensuality. Her jealous husband knows that she is alluring and therefore keeps her "narwe in cage." The Miller has taken in as a boarder a young student named Nicholas, whose lechery is matched only by his intellectual arrogance, founded on his study of astrology. Chaucer uses the adjective "hende" to describe him; no modern-English word can translate it, 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 (cf. Milton's L'Allegro and II Penseroso, and Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer in American literature), "hende Nicholas" unceremoniously and bluntly declares his sexual attraction for his landlord's wife. "And prively he caughte hir by the queinte,/ And saide, 'Ywis, but if ich have my wille,/ For derne love of thee I spille.'" The lines that follow, in fact, the rest of the tale, manifest a comic frankness not only about sexuality but 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. Other ages had not been so squeamish. For example, in her journal Dorothy Wordsworth tells of a cold winter night when her illustrious brother read "The Miller's Tale" to their family circle, to everyone's delight.

Alisoun offers only token resistance, and while admitting that the liaison will have to be conducted secretly so as not to arouse John her husband's jealous rage, she agrees to his request. (The Miller as 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 sex-farce. 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 genteel behavior. Nicholas has bypassed all these in favor of direct accosting, but the fourth element in this love quadrangle (after all, the Miller is telling his tale so as to go the Knight's tale one up), the parish clerk Absolon is fully committed to it. When he sees Alisoun at Mass, where she has gone immediately after making her adulterous pact, he is so smitten by her that "If she had been a mouse and she a cat,/ He wolde hir hente anoon." While no less passionate in his attraction for Alisoun, the parish clerk will follow the dictates of polite entreaty.

Chaucer is very careful in drawing the implicit comparisons between Alisoun's lovers. Nicholas is a scholar, but a man who dispenses with formalities. Absolon, named so for his pride in his blond hair, is a medieval jack-of-all-trades, qualified to do a plethora of tasks, legal, medical, and clerical, and he loves jolly company, but his sense of revelry has its boundaries: "[He] was somdel squaymous/ of farting and speeche dangerous." He begins his courtship of Alisoun with gifts from the town. Absolon's fastidious conformity to the courtly-love code-bringing gifts, composing and singing lover's complaints about his belle dame sans merci, his supplications for euphemistic grace-garner him nothing. John hears his singing, and he and Alisoun dismiss it as the clerk's foolishness. But the proposed liaison between Alisoun and the impetuous Nicholas John knows nothing about, since the college student specializes in "derne," i.e., secret, love. It is not enough that Nicholas merely share Alisoun's sexual favors; such could easily and simply be accomplished, considering the young wife's wantonness. (The Miller emphasizes that the plan for Alisoun to "slepe in his arm al night" is not just 'this desir but hir also.") The adultery must be done in such a way as to demonstrate the college students' intellectual superiority. John is his elder in age, and as his landlord 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 cuckold the carpenter in such a way that his intellectual superiority to the carpenter is obvious, since he believes that no student is worth his salt if he cannot "a Carpenter bigyle." It is as much a social cuckolding as a sexual one.

The Misplaced Kiss

As master story-teller, Chaucer is as aware of the nuances of farce and situation comedy as any Restoration playwright. The rest of the tale moves with a slapstick pace. Nicholas cooks up an elaborate scheme to best his landlord sexually and intellectually. He feigns 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: "This world is now ful tikel, sikerly." But seeing him in his distracted state, he then suspects that the young scholar has ruined his brain through over-study, and he congratulates himself on being "a lowed man/ That noght but only his bilive can." But the deceitful student merely mumbles a portentous warning of impending disaster. "Shal al the world be lost eftsones now?" He then intellectually bullies 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 vats and hang them from the housetop so that when the deluge comes, they may float away and be saved, as was Noah's family. He asks John: "hast thou not herd how saved was Noe?" Not wishing to seem ignorant in the presence of the scholar's knowledge, he says: "Ful yore ago." Nicholas' ruse has worked. In lying about his knowing bout 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 no later inundations would ever come. 

Part of Nicholas's instructions to John is to keep the plan secret. He swears he will tell no one, but immediately tells his wife, who, the Miller says knew it "bet than he." When the appointed hour comes, the trio ascends into the tubs, each in a separate one as Nicholas said was the divine instruction. When the work-weary John is snoring, Nicholas and Alisoun go to the carpenter's own bed for their "bisinesse of mirth."

The stage is set for the comic complication, since Absolon is planning his second 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. Alisoun threatens to cast a rock at him if he does not leave, since "I love another." Reading her refusal as merely a traditional reluctance of the beloved, he agrees, but demands a kiss. Alisoun is as churlish as her husband. "And at the window out/ She putte hir hole." Absolon delivers the misplaced kiss, and the two inside gleefully delight in this insult. Absolon, now as infused with rage as he had been with desire, goes to a nearby smithy and secures the use of a hot plow-point. He returns to the bedroom, tempts Alisoun with the promise of a gold ring for another kiss. Eager to join in on such a riotously vulgar game, Nicholas repeats Alisoun's posture at the window. "Spek, swete brid, I noot wher thou art." This Nicholas anon leet flee a fart,/ As gret as it had been a thonder-dent." Absolon burns Nicholas's behind, and hearing the student's call for "Water!" to cool his wound, John thinks what he ignorantly calls "Nowelis 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 injuries.

To be sure, the tale has enough of ribaldry 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 shal nat maken ernest of game," the Miller has preached a sermon on the sin of pride, couching his homily 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 post-deluvian lord; Nicholas because he thought that his academic studies had made him superior to the carpenter and given him the right not only to cuckold him but hold him up to social ridicule; Absolon because he thought pridefully that his adherence to the dictates of the courtly love tradition, with its structures of elegance that belied its essential immorality, 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 ensuing laughter of the entourage assures us that the lesson was well taken.