Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Canterbury Tales – The Miller’s Tale’

Nicholas continues his story. He tells the carpenter to procure three tubs and hang them from the rafters in his house. He should also have an axe at hand, so that he can cut them loose when the flood come and break open a hole in the wand to sail upon the waters. The flood is going to last just one day, after which he, his wife and Nicholas are going to rule the world, being the only human beings left alive. (One woman and two men – in the carpenter’s place I would start to worry. But then, he’s not very bright). Nicholas also tells him to keep everything secret, he can’t tell him why but it’s a God’s commandment. Also after they climb into their respective tubs, they mustn’t speak. The carpenter, very distressed, tells everything Allison, who knows what is coming and of course encourages him to go along with the plan. He sends his maid and boy-servant to London on the pretext of an errand. Then he buys three tubs, hangs them in the attic, and supplies them with food and ale. On Monday evening, all three climb into their tubs. They remain silent, as ordered. The carpenter is praying, but he soon falls asleep, being tired with all the excitement and preparations of the day before. His snores are loud, as he is lying in the tub in not a very comfortable position. I think you can easily guess where this is heading.

Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Canterbury Tales – The Miller’s tale’

The concerned carpenter together with his servant heave the door off its hinges and burst into Nicholas’s room. The carpenter starts to make the signs of the cross and recite prayers to ward off the evil; his prayers are a curious jumble of Christianity and pagan beliefs, invoking Christ, St Benedict and a completely apocryphal character of St. Peter’s sister. Nicholas pretends to come out of a trance and tells Nicholas that he has a great secret to tell him in private. When they are alone, Nicholas, drinking the carpenter’s ale, reveals that he has learnt from his astrological studies about the approaching flood next Monday, much bigger than Noah’s flood. The concerned carpenter cries out, quite touchingly “What about my Allison?” “Aha”, answers the crafty Nicholas, “you can save yourself but don’t you remember what problems Noah had with his wife?”

At this point I am going to make a detour into the history of medieval theatre. Noah’s wife is not mentioned in the Bible, but she played a great role in English miracle plays, where she is played for laughs as a shrewish character who enters the ark only after the greatest exertions of her poor hen-pecked husband and her sons. What is more, in some English towns miracle plays took the form of great cycles, like the Bible in serial form. They were performed during major church holidays (usually Corpus Christi), and each play was performed by the members of a different guild, who were also responsible for the complete stage setting (they were performed on pageant wagons) and costumes. The plays were distributed among the guilds in various ways. Sometimes they are ascribed to a given guild in quite a random way, which is understandable – it is difficult with some more abstract biblical episodes to find their appropriate trade equivalent, so that’s why for instance in York the Pentecost play was produced by the potters’ guild.  But sometimes there was a symbolical link – that is why for instance in York the guild of bakers got the Last Supper, and apart from the symbolical link there were probably also practical reasons – which tradesmen, in your opinion, could provide the best decorations for the play about the building of the ark? Yep, you’ve guessed. Quite often the carpenters (although, while we’re at it, not in York, where they had a separate shipbuilders’ guild. The carpenters’ guild in York got the Resurrection. Go figure.) As you can see, Chaucer is doing something very clever here, connecting the story about the carpenter and his wife, the fake flood, the biblical narrative of the Flood, and the medieval theatrical tradition of portraying the ark-building and the Flood, with which his readers were of course familiar.

Returning to our carpenter, Nicholas reminds the carpenter that Noah’s wife was very recalcitrant when it came to entering the ark. So, in order to save himself, his wife and Nicholas, the carpenter should procure three big tubs, such as were used in these times for baking bread or brewing beer. In these three tubs they can float easily. The carpenter should also get enough food to keep them one day. And Nicholas implores the carpenter not to tell anybody about it because if he does, he will be stricken by madness.

Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Canterbury Tales – The Miller’s Tale’ ctd.

Absolon falls head over heels with Allison and tries to woo her in all the possible ways: serenading her, sending gifts, pastries and even promises of money because Allison is a townswoman and so perhaps could be tempted by it., He is also taking care of his appearance, and even acting Herod in miracle plays so as to attract her attention. But nothing works because Nicholas is closer to her – metaphorically and physically. One Saturday, when the carpenter is again away, Nicholas and Allison decide to put their plan in action – the plan which will allow Allison to spend all nights in her lover’s arms. Nicholas closes himself in his chamber with enough food and drink to last him for a day or two. When the carpenter returns and hears that Nicholas hasn’t shown any signs of life since yesterday, he starts to be concerned. Is he ill or perhaps dead? He sends a servant to inquire. The servant knocks on the door, without results. Then he finds a hole “as the cat was wont in for to creepe”. Were cat doors known in the Middle Ages or is it just an accidental hole? Anyway, he sticks his head in and sees Nicholas, sitting on his bed full upright, apparently alive but not moving and gazing upon the moon. When the carpenter is told about it, he is really concerned. Did all the studies in astrology turn Nicholas’ head? Has he gone mad? The carpenter thanks God that he is an ignorant man and has no wish to pry into God’s secrets; he has heard about a clerk, similarly interested in astrology, who went walking one evening on the heath and was so intent upon gazing at stars that he fell into a marl-pit.

Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Canterbury Tales – The Miller’s Tale’

One day, when the carpenter is away on business, Nicholas starts seducing his wife, using subtle and not-so-subtle tactics (grabbing “hir queinte”, i.e. her genitals). She finally succumbs and swears to be his lover “by St Thomas of Kent”, i.e. by St Thomas Beckett, to whose shrine the pilgrims are going. You’ve gotta love the medieval cultural schizophrenia, which allows one to swear by saints’ names that you are going to cheat on your husband. The carpenter’s wife says they have to wait for a good moment because she is afraid of her jealous husband, but Nicholas pooh-poohs this off, saying “I would be a poor student indeed if I didn’t know how to outwit a carpenter”. In the meantime, Alison makes a new conquest at church, where the parish clerk Absolon falls in love with her. He is a young man, sweet-voiced, playing the fiddle and the guitar. Apart from helping in church he is also a barber and a scribe. He is a bit of a dandy and is very fastidious – doesn’t like farting (imagine that) or vulgar jokes. He’s a little bit like a rom-com character thrown into a Judd Apatow movie. When he sees the carpenter’s wife, he is immediately struck with love for her and he goes with his guitar to serenade her in the evening, waking not only her but also her husband. It is only at this point when we learn their names, as talking about Absolon they call each other “Alison” and “John”. At the beginning I thought it was only Alison that went nameless for so long in the poem and I was about to launch on some kind of feminist tirade. But since her husband’s name was similarly overlooked, my ire turns out to be groundless and I simply don’t know what to think about it.

Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Canterbury Tales – The Miller’s Tale’

The Miller’s tale is an example of fabliau – a genre of short comic tales, usually naughty and cheerfully amoral. So, you’ve been warned by Chaucer himself in the prologue what to expect. The tale takes place in Oxford, where a student named Nicholas rents a room in the house of a carpenter. Nicholas has already passed his first stage of the university education (so-called trivium, i.e. Latin grammar, logic and rhetoric), but his greatest passion is astrology. He is sweet-faced, seemingly meek but cunning. His room smells of sweet herbs (you can’t say that about the rooms of many contemporary students) and he plays the psaltery (a kind of small harp) and sings very well. The carpenter, his landlord, has recently married an eighteen-year-old girl. If he had good medieval education, he would learn from the maxims of Dionysius Cato, a standard Latin set text then, that one should marry people similar to oneself. But he didn’t and he married a much younger woman, which makes him now very jealous. The wife is sprightly, neatly dressed and compared over the space of about 40 lines to the weasel, swallow, colt, kid and calf. All these animal similes apart from conveying the impression that she is young, slim, frisky etc. also implicate that she is going to follow her animal passions. As the late great Amy Winehouse sang, “You know I’m no good”. A side point – she keeps her eyebrows plucked, in keeping with the medieval idea of beauty, so she is very style-conscious. I was looking for an image to illustrate it, but most of the paintings by Chaucer’s contemporaries portrayed demure Virgin Marys and saints, not really in keeping with the mood of this tale, But this image of Margarete van Eyck, although painted a few decades later, should give you an idea. DISCLAIMER: this image is only used for the purpose of illustrating the medieval fashion of plucking one’s eyebrows within an inch of their lives. In no way is it intended to make any comparisons between Mrs van Eyck and Allison (the carpenter’s wife), nor to reflect in any unfavourable way on Mrs van Eyck marital virtues.

Jan van Eyck (circa 1390–1441) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Canterbury Tales – The Miller’s Prologue’

After the Knight ends his tale, the host says: “Now to requite this, perhaps you, sir Monk, would like to follow?” However, the Miller, who is already drunk with ale, butts in, saying that he would like to tell his tale now (swearing all the time in the usual medieval colourful manner “by armes and by blood and bones” of Christ). The host wants to stop him, seeing that he is drunk, but the Miller will have none of it, arguing that even if he is drunk, it is because of host’s own ale. He announces that he is going to tell a story about a carpenter and his wife and a clerk who made a fool of the carpenter. The Reeve, who is a carpenter, takes it personally and protests loudly. The Miller answers slyly: “Why should you take it so personally? I have a wife just like you, the fact that I am going to tell a story about a cuckolded husband doesn’t mean it refers to you anymore than me. Anyway, the best policy for husbands is not to be too inquisitive either of their wives’ or God’s secrets.” Before he commences his tale, Chaucer makes another disclaimer: if you are looking for moral or pious tales, turn a few pages. You know full well that both the Miller and the Reeve are uncouth men and so are their tales. I am just repeating what I’ve heard, so don’t blame me.

You can listen to the whole prologue read by the eminent medievist V.A. Kolve on the Norton site (recording no. 6).

Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Canterbury Tales – The General Prologue’ ctd.

The host of the inn sets the terms of the famous competition. Each pilgrim is going to tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. The host himself is going to ride with the pilgrims, acting as a guide and a judge. The best story teller is going to get a dinner after the return on the expense of all the other pilgrims. Should anybody disagree with the terms, he or she is going to pay all the expenses of the group along the way. The pilgrims enthusiastically accept the idea and after drinking to it, go to bed. Early in the morning they set out. The host stops near St. Thomas, a watering place near south London and asks the pilgrims whether they still are interested in the contest. After they assent, he asks them to draw straws to establish the order in which they are going to tell their stories. The first one turns out to be the Knight, who in agreement with his character tells a long romance about Arcite and Palamon, which is not included in the NAEL selection. Judging by the summary, it’s as boring as the Knight himself. It was probably written by Chaucer earlier, so it seems that the whole idea for The Canterbury Tales was a nifty trick for Chaucer to repurpose some of his old manuscripts lying around and provide a framework in which he could fit in all sorts of stories. serious and comical, noble and bawdy.