The Miller's Tale
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Miller's Tale is the second of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1380s-1390s). It is a vulgar, ribald, and satirical fabliau in stark contrast to the courtly love of the Knight's Tale that precedes it. The tale appears to combine the motifs of two separate fabliaux, the 'second flood' and 'misdirected kiss', both of which appear in continental European literature of the period. Its bawdiness serves not only to introduce the Reeve's tale, but the general sequence of low comedy which terminates in the unfinished Cook's tale.
The Miller's Tale is of a student (Nicholas) who persuades his jealous old landlord's much younger wife (Alison) to spend the night with him. They plan a way to have sex by duping John, the landlord, through an elaborate scheme in which Nicholas convinces him that he has found, through his astrology, that a flood of Biblical proportions is imminent. Their safety depends, says Nicholas, on waiting overnight in separate tubs suspended from the rafters, and to cut their tubs from the roof when the water has risen. He adds that if the landlord tells anyone else people will think he is mad (although he says this to make sure that no man tells the landlord to see sense in the matter). This comic prank allows Nicholas and Alison the opportunity to sneak down, after the landlord falls asleep, and make love.
While Nicholas and Alison lie together, the foppish and fastidious parish clerk, Absolon, who is also attracted to Alison and believes her husband to be away, appears kneeling at the bedchamber's low "shot-wyndowe" (privy vent) and asks Alison for a kiss. In the darkness, she presents her "hole" (bottom) at the window and he "kissed her naked arse full savorly," pausing only when he feels bristly hair. He realizes the prank and goes away enraged. He borrows a red hot coulter (a knife-like plough part) from the early-rising blacksmith. Returning, he asks for another kiss, intending to burn Alison. This time Nicholas, who had risen from bed to "pisse" in the privy, sticks his own backside out the window and farts in Absolon's face. The enraged suitor thrusts the coulter "amidde the ers" burning Nicholas' "toute" (anus) and the skin "a hands-breadth round about". In agony, Nicholas cries for water, awakening John. Hearing someone screaming for water, he thinks that the Second Flood ("Nowel's Flood" as he calls it, confusing Nowel (Christmas) with Noah) has come, panics, and cuts himself down, falling to the floor and breaking his arm. The rest of the town awakens to find him lying in the tub. He tries to explain what he's doing in the tub, and sure enough in accordance with Nicholas' prophecy, he is considered a madman, and a cuckold too.
The tale appears to combine the motifs of two separate fabliaux, the 'second flood' and 'misdirected kiss', both of which appear in continental European literature of the period. Its bawdiness serves not only to introduce the Reeve's tale, but the general sequence of low comedy which terminates in the unfinished Cook's tale.
Some critics see Christian symbolism in the Miller's Tale. Parts of the tale are similar to the Annunciation, with Nicholas as the Angel Gabriel and Alison as Mary, while the clueless carpenter John is Joseph. Nicholas's singing of the 'Virgin's Angelus', a popular song about the Annunciation, hints at the parallel.
The character of Absolon introduces another theme of the Tales, the corruption of the Church. The Nun's Priest's Tale and The Shipman's Tale deals with the same theme; the Summoner, Friar and Pardoner personify it. Absolon is a clerk, but thinks of little except wooing young women at church:
Alison, however, does not return Absolon's affections, although she readily takes his gifts.
A third theme, that of knowledge and science, appears in several marginal comments. Nicholas is an avid astrologer (as Chaucer himself was), equipped with, "His Almageste, and bookes grete and smale, / His astrelabie, longynge for his art..." John the carpenter represents unintellectual laymen; John tells Nicholas:
He also recounts a story (sometimes told of Thales) of an astrologer who falls into a pit while studying the stars. The issue of whether learned or unlearned faith is better is also relevant to The Prioress' Tale and The Parson's Tale.
Feminists have occasionally criticised the story for its treatment of Alison as a "prize" to be fought over by the three principal male characters and by the fact that the hot colter was intended for her after refusing Absolon's unwanted attention. Others have noted that Alison freely chooses where to bestow her affections, is a spirited character, and exercises a great deal of control over the situation. All three men end up in physical and/or emotional pain. Critics have often noted Chaucer's progressively liberal morality, this incident being perhaps the most conspicuous example. Still others argue that, the tale having been written many centuries ago, all feminist criticism of it is pointless and irrelevant.
"The Millers Tale" has often been made out to look like a parody of the Knight's previous tale, with the pursuit of a woman and reference to the stars. This was made to "lighten the mood" and to appeal to the lower class. It was also intended to add layers to the comedy.
For example, in "The Knight's Tale", the two knights longed to just touch the princess but in "The Miller's Tale", both of the men get intimate with the woman, Nicholas in bed and Absolon kissing her "arse". In another parody, Absolon gets both a face-full of buttocks and a fart for his attempted wooing of Alison.
Chaucer refers to the Distichs of Cato with this passage: "He knew nat Catoun, for his wit was rude." The Distichs of Cato was one of the most common textbooks in schools throughout medieval Europe, and was familiar to most anyone with a basic education in Latin.
Pop culture references
The song, "A Whiter Shade of Pale," by Procol Harum appears to contain a reference to Chaucer's work: "And so it was that later
as the miller told his tale, that her face, at first just ghostly,
turned a whiter shade of pale."