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

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