545-68 The Portrait
of the Miller in The General Prologue is one of a sturdy,
strong guy who enjoys fighting and whose major talent is knocking down
doors with his head. This will come in useful later when Nicholas's door
is knocked down. He is ugly, depraved and shared the medieval image of
millers as thieves. Tenants were obliged to go to their local mill to
have their corn ground into flour and the miller, who thus had a captive
clientele, would keep some flour back for his own use, as happens in The
Reeve's Tale. The fact that this miller disrupts the hierarchy and
leads the pilgrims out of town also reflects his aggressive and assertive
Miller's Tale Commentary
1-11 The Knight has just told the first tale, as is fitting given
his social standing. Harry Bailey is the Host who introduces the narrators
and sums up the tales, thus creating links between them. Harry thanks
the Knight and then asks the Monk to tell the next tales, as he is next
in the hierarchy and the most senior of the clerical pilgrims. However,
the drunken Miller interrupts the correct order of things.
16 in Pilates vois 'in Pilate's voice';
this is a direct reference to the contemporary Mystery Plays. Pilate would
have a loud, commanding voice. Pilate, Christ's judge, was portrayed as
an evil man who ranted on the stage.
36 The Reve 'the steward' (giving
us PDE 'shire reeve' > sheriff) in the CTs is also a carpenter
and so the quarrel between the two characters in the CTs creates
a link. The Reve will tell the next Tale which is, naturally, about a
miller who is made a fool of by students.
50-8 The Miller state that there are indeed
many good wives, but advises the Reeve (and husbands in general) not to
investigate the fidelity of wives; as long as the husband gets enough
[sexual] pleasure from his wife, he shouldn't question what his wife is
otherwise up to. Don't question the secrets of God or your wife (lines
55-6) becomes a major theme; Nicholas stresses this to John the Carpenter
when he plots to make him a cuckold.
61 cherles tale the story told by a churl or low person. The expression FABLIAU (plural fabliaux) is not used by Chaucer, but is a later invention. The churl's tale is a common medieval genre and may be defined as:
a comic tale in verse of low style, often obscene and involving sexual trickery, full of action, often parodying or mocking the courtly. Frequently there is a love triangle that leads to slapstick humour, and, for some modern sensibilities, the results can be cruel. It is visual, dramatic, concise without any extraneous detail, and fast-moving; its style is simple and straightforward It is sometimes thought that the fabliau is a bourgeois rather than a working class genre, as the action often makes fools of both the gentry and manual workers. In this tale the Carpenter is shown to be gullible and foolish and Nicholas, the students, equally lacking in common-sense. Critics suggest that this genre allows the middle classes to be subversive and criticise authority, e.g., the Church; it gives poets a chance to show 'life as it is' or at least a caricature of life. The church teaches the sanctity of marriage, and in this tale we see the realities of an unequal marriage and the l imitations of book learning.
In the CTs the following Tales might be called fabliaux: The
Miller, The Reeve, The Cook, The Friar, The Shipman and The Merchant.
The genre flourished particularly in France in the thirteenth century.
106 Angelus ad Virginem 'The
Angel to the Virgin'. This religious hymn is about the Annunciation, when
the angel Gabriel announces Christ's birth to the Virgin Mary. The choice
of title might be ironic (and slightly blasphemous) if one compares the
triangle of Mary, Joseph and Gabriel with Alisoun, John and Nicholas,
as Nicholas is about to approach Alisoun, as Gabriel approached Mary.
119 Catoun 4th cent. Dionysius Cato, who is supposed to have written the extremely popular Disticha or Dicto Catonis, a collection of maxims or proverbs. It was a common school book. But the joke is that one does need Latin learning to know that married couples should be compatible, and so lack of education should be no excuse.
his wit was rude. 'his knowledge was basic', 'he was unlearned.
The debate between the educated (Nicholas) and the artisan (John) will
run throughout the tale; each thinks he is superior; John mocks Nicholas's
lack of commonsense and the fact that his learning makes him mad and Nicholas
thinks that a student is wasting his time if he can't make a fool of a
carpenter (lines 192-3), but neither seems to have the common sense or
wisdom that transcends education or manual dexterity.
126 wezele The dominating image in
the portrait of Alisoun is that of nature and specifically animals. It
would appear that Chaucer wishes us to see her as a lively child of nature
with animalistic desires and natural instincts, such as the desire for
freedom; there is also something of the amoral about her -- neither moral
or immoral -- that is found in nature. The weasel, apart from being slim
like Alisoun, is generally thought cunning and devious. In this portrait
she is compared to a sheep (wether), a swallow, a kid or calf,
a colt, and other nature images such as milk, sloe-berry, pear tree, barn,
ale and meed (bragot or the meeth), apples, hay or heath, and primula
all add to the portrait of her as a child of nature. Whether this excuses
her from any moral judgement is up to the reader to decide.
127 Alisoun wears an apron and a smok
'shift', has a shining face, etc., which one might expect to find
on a miller's wife, yet these lower class features are contrasted with
the expensive silk on smock, headband and purse tassles and the embroidery
that suggest a lady. Another fearure of this portrait is the fact that
only the colours black and white are used. Both these details point to
a creature of contrast both socially and morally. Much of the loveplay
between her and Nicholas and Absolom mimick the courtly, and in spite
of an outer show morality, she does not need much convincing to agree
to Nicholas's plans.
130-1: 'Her smock was white, embroidered
with coal-black silk around the collar from the front round to the back
inside and outside the material.'
136 likerous eye 'lecherous eye';
this is the only explicit comment on her sexuality in the portrait; otherwise,
as is typical with Chaucer, we are left to make up our own minds.
142 purs Alisoun's mercenary interests
are stressed in the portrait. It would be normal for a mistress of a house
to have a purse hanging from her belt, but much attention in given to
this purse and it is followed by complexion compared to a newly f orged
coin (noble). Later we hear that Absolon (272-3) offers her money
as a bribe and at the end promises her his mother's gold ring in exchange
for a kiss.
147-8 These lines mean: 'Her complexion
shone much brighter than the newly forged gold coin, the 'noble' [that
was forged] in the Tower [of London mint].
150 berne 'barn'; loud, lively singing
like swallow on a barn and her fooling around like a kid or calf again
detracts from the ladylike image and makes her a lively child of nature,
a healthy country wench.
161-2 'For any lord to sleep with or any
good farmer to marry'; Alisoun is seen as a sexual object and such a comment
reflects as much the society in which she lives as her own moral stance.
168 Nicholas is described as hende
'courteous' or 'handy'; and uses the language of the courtly lover
in his speech to Alisoun (169- 70 and 172-3), while groping and grabbing
her in a very uncourtly fashion. The courtly lover is also supposed to
be secretive, but, of course takes many months or years before he even
speaks to the lady,far less touches her. If we remember that this tale
follows the courtly Knight's Tale, we can see how the Miller is
'quiting' the Knight and parodying the formality of courtly love.
182 atte laste 'eventually'; this is intended
to be itonic. The courtly lady would take ages before accepting the lover;
Alisoun takes exactly two lines of text!
183 Thomas of Kent This Thomas à
Becket. The Canterbury pilgrims are on their way to his tomb in Canterbury
Cathedral. He was martyred in that cathedral in 1170; see T.S. Eliot's
Murder in the Cathedral. The shrine was the place where many miracles
took place; perhaps there is an irony here that she miraculously accepts
198 'maketh melodie': here and elsewhere
this is a euphemism for making love; see line 544 where the couple 'make
melodie' in bed. In contemporary illustrations there are many examples
of someone playing a musical instrument while a couple make love. Note
the change of tenses; when Chaucer is describing swift action he often
uses the present tense.
199 Note the juxtaposition on the sexual
and the religious. Another good example of this is at line 547: Nicholas
and Alisoun are in bed 'making melodie' and outside the church bells are
204 parrish clerk 'a parish lay priest';
probably not a priest, but one of the lay clergy who helped the priest
by taking the offering and at the altar. A regular priest would be tonsured.
205 Absolon This unusual name was
probably chosen because of the biblical Absolon, son of King David. See
2 Samuel 14:26. He came to symbolise Pride in the Middle Ages, as the
original character had been so proud of his fine hair that it was the
cause of his death. Whilst fighting his beautiful hair was caught in a
tree and his enemy stabbed him. Hence the stress on Absolon's hair in
the following lines. It also suggests that he was as much in love with
himself as any girl. The portrait is one of a dandy or fop, who thinks
that he is both fashionable and a ladies' man; Chaucer gently undercuts
this image and makes him appear effeminate and ridiculous. He is particularly
ridiculous as all the 'cool' clothes are covered in his clerical white
gown or surplice.
209 grey as a goos much of the description
of Absolon comes from the traditional, rhetorical handbooks on how to
describe a lady.
210 Poules window St Paul's window: this
could either be a gusset resembling a gothic arch window or a round rose
window. Whatever, it is meant to be in the most modern, fashion.
214 this line means: 'very attractively
and plentifully were the fasteners'. Chaucer's Parson critices those who
wear tightly fastened clothes -- they are guilty of pride. The lover in
Roman de la Rose, a work Chaucer translated, also has tightly fastened
sleaves, as he goes in search of love.
215 gay surplis 'an attractive surplice';
one would not expect this clerical garb to be described a 'gay', but Absolon
obviously decorated his in an unclerical fashion. It is called in the
following line 'as white as is the blossom on the branch', an expression
that one might expect in a courtly lyric, and yet it has a blasphemous
overtone, as it suggests the white lily associated with Mary.
218 Absolon appears to be a man of many
parts; he also is a barber, who traditionally would let blood from patients,
and did some legal work by selling property (conveyancing) and preparing
deeds of settlement. Then come his abilities at dancing, music and socialising
in pubs. His dancing talents are undercut by saying that he dances after
the scole of Oxenforde tho: Oxford, in spite of its many attributes
in learning was not well known as a centre for dancing. In the same way
Chaucer mocks the Wife of Bath by saying that she speaks French, but as
in Stratford-atte-Bowe. This ridiculous figure is further mocked at line
222 where his dancing is described as throwing his legs back and fore.
229-30 This is a typical example of Chaucerian
undercutting. We're presented with an effeminate, foppish, ridiculous
lay clergyman and then the narrator says But he was particular
about one thing and we await some redeeming feature, and instead of a
virtue it turns out to be farting and delicate speech!
231 jolif 'jolly', 'lively'; jolif
is commonly applied to Absolon, just as hende is to Nicholas;
Absolon becomes far from 'jolly' after he finds out how he's been tricked!
242 Absolon's behaviour in church reflects
his ridiculous nature; firstly, he uses this function as bearer of the
censer to oggle the women as he walks up and down, and he also refuses
to take the offerings from the ladies for curteisie; the religious
service is turned into some parody of courtly love with himself as the
lover. The women of course are not offering their money to him but to
253 Absolon's song is a parody of a courtly
lover's: he calls her 'dear lady', but confuses the familiar and the polite
forms of the 2nd pers. sg. pronouns (thy (253) and yow/ye (254))
258 The fact that the carpenter, who we
know is exceptionally suspicious of his young wife and terrified of being
cuckolded, is not at all worried when this young man sings love songs
outside their bedroom window, reflects Nicholas's reputation; he is no
threat at all to women, and must have been considered a harmless fool,
more in love with the state of being in love or indeed in love with himself.
267 by meenes and brocage 'by go-betweens
and brockers'; he never confronts her -- unlike the active Nicholas --
and uses go-betweens. The use of brockers in love affairs is expected
in courtly love when letters and others are used to advance the love affair
at snail's pace.
271 There is dramatic irony in the fact
that he sends her piping hot wafers. considering what he is later going
to send through her window.
272 A social comment that, whereas country
girls are wooed by ale, town girls need financial bribes; it might also
reflect on the financial streak in Alisoun suggested earlier. Ironically,
Alisoun is won over by none of these, but by Nicholas's 'direct approach'!
276 Herod This is a reference to
the Mystery Plays again (see line 16). Herod in the drama was portrayed
as a ranting, mad, evil character who traditionally shouted. Hamlet talks
of 'outheroding Herod', that is over-acting in a wild fashion. The thought
even of Absolon playing the part of the wild evil king with his tiny,
high voice is ridiculous.
346-56 John here reecites a common complaint by the uneducated about the educated, namely that they lack common sense and as their heads are in the clouds they don't look where they're going. The Miller, however, may be down-to-earth, but he also lacks common-sense. He has already told us that we shouldn't know God's secrets.
John's example of the learned man who falls into the pit because he
wants to find out the future boomerangs on John, as it is he who ironically
falls for the trick -- and falls from his tub!
364-71 Note the simple syntax: and...and...and,
the list of preterite verbs, mostly describing action, and monosyllabic
words ('What...what, how, what, looke doun!'); all this builds up an image
of quick, strong action; cf also line 362 with the apirates 'haspe he
haaf' which reflects the breathless effort in knocking down the door.
370 'Awake and think of Christ's Passion'
(that is, the suffering of Christ on the cross to atone for mankind's
sins); this was the cure for the Deadly Sin of Despair (line 365), which
was called 'the passion furthest from the love of God' and would (as in
The Faerie Queene lead to suicide).
371-8 In spite of John saying that all you
need to know is the Creed, he embarks here on some very shady, unorthodox
sorcery. he recites a prayer at the four corners of the house and beyond
the threashold; then he comes up with some mumbo- jumbo about 'the white
pater noster' and St Peter's sister. At this moment of crisis he
seems to have reverted to some spell and folk prayer against evil spirits.
378 Seinte Petres soster 'St Peter's
sister': she is mentioned in a 'white pater noster'; all these
terms reflect the dubious orthodoxy and naivety of John's faith.
381 Nicholas is here preparing John for
the Flood hoax, by saying that all the world will be list again.
388-99 The drink both reflects the Miller's
weakness for alcohol and is necessary to make John believe the wild prediction
that is about to come. Secrecy is also mentioned here, as before, and
is a leit motif throughout the Tale. It is of course vital
for Nicholas's plan that no one else hears of the Flood. In line 399 Nicholas
threatens John with madness if he tells anyone, while at the end of the
Tale the narrator states that John is considered mad for believing
406 by him that harwed helle 'Christ';
lit. 'by him who harrowed hell'; according to the apocryphal Gospel of
Nicodemus and the Creed Christ descenced into hell on Holy Saturday and
rescued all the good, Old Testament characters, beginning with Adam and
Eve, then all the Patriarchs. This event was considered an important event
in Passion, and was mentioned in most vernacular narratives of the life
and passion of Christ. Could there be irony intended in the two "descents":
that of Christ and that of John from the rafters?
407 moone bright this astrological
observation, 'I have looked at the bright moon' implies both rain and
madness; rain, as, according to contemporary astronomical teaching, the
moon influenced rainfall and madness, as it was also meant to cause madness,
408 Monday next As it is already
Sunday, he's talking about the next day. An important element in all farce
is speed; also, if John had time to think about things, he'd have realised
how ridiculous it was, or even remembered that God by the rainbow promised
never to send another Flood. Details such as dates and props (e.g., being
able to open the window) are important in the fabliau -- or any farce.
421 Salomon King Solomon is supposedly
the author of the biblical book, Proverbs; he had the reputation of wisdom:"As
wise as Solomon". But in fact the quotation here is from Ecclesiasticus
32:19-- 'Do nothing without counsel and you will not repent later'. Nicholas
is building up a case by giving his mad idea the veneer of respectability.
424 Nicholas drops in the hint of sailing
here; he also says that he, Nicholas, will be saved along with John and
his wife. At no point does John think it strange that the world will be
repopulated by this threesome!
432 the sorwe of Noe 'Noah's sorrow';
there is an apocryphal story, very popular in the Middle Ages, that Noah's
wife (representing the flesh) was unwilling to enter the ark, but wanted
to drink and gossip with her friends. Noah has great trouble with this
domineering wife and eventually he gets his sons to carry her forcefully
into the ark. The story was interpreted as reflecting Christ's (Noah's)
difficulty in convincing mankind (Mrs Noah) to be saved. This story appears
in many vernacular narratives of the old Testament, e.g., the Mystery
Play of Noah's Flood. It suggests that John does not know the biblical
account in whicy Mrs Noah does not feature, only the popular retellings.
437 Nicholas has the brilliant plan that
Alisoun must have her very own ark; the excuse is the trouble that Mrs
Noah gave her husband, the reason is that Alisoun must creep out of the
'ark' without wakening John!.
444 Although was forty days on the ark,
Nicholas just want to be one night with Alisoun; he also realises that
the tub won't hold food for over a month and so realistically suggests
only one day's supply!
450 The irony here is obvious. The Miller
initially said that man must not know God's secrets, and this is repeated
by John (346); then Nicholas tells John God's secret about the Flood,
and now brushes aside any possible questions by saying that he will not
tell God's secrets!
452 as greet a grace Noah, although
saved from the Flood, had a shrewish wife, and so the offer may not be
so promising. The entire argument is logically flawed, and all depends
on the speed and action that forbid sensible consideration -- and on John's
rather touching desire to save his wife; at line 414 Alisoun is the first
person he thinks of.
456 Nicholas presents those to be saved
in the order most appealing to John: her, thee and then me.
461 Nicholas tries to make it as realistic
as possible and suggests that John brings an axe to break a hole in the
roof when the flood comes, so they can sail away. Of course the axe is
necessary for the fabliau plot as well.
468 doke after hire drake The animal imagery reminds us of Alisoun's initial portrait; it implies that the wife follows the husband, yet it's not John that Alisoun will be after! In addition, there will be two 'drakes' after one 'duck' after the flood, if Nicholas's plan works.
The scene that Nicholas evokes is very funny and ridiculous: he imagines
them all sailing in their respective tubs passing the time of day and
even suggests what they will say to each other the morning after the flood,
as if they were neighbours speaking over the garden fence.
473 lordes al oure lyf Again, Nicholas
makes it seem natural that they will be a threesome. Nicholas's language
here echoes that of Satan who in his pride wished to rule the world.
479-80 Note all the negatives -- five in
two lines. This is to stress the seriousness of the warning not to speak.
The reason of course is that John will not find out that his wife is not
in her tub if he wakes in the night and speaks to her.
481 Nicholas also insists that John and
Alisoun are hanging far apart on the roof, so that they have no sexual
contact; again highly ironic, as the whole plot is to create sexual contact.
490 'Men say "Send a wise man and leave
everything to him"; you are so wise, I don't have to tell you what
to do'. Nicholas has spent some time sermoning 'preaching' and
now he compliments John by calling him a wise man who doesn't need to
be told what to do. This is good psychology, giving the implementation
of the plot to John who is going to slave away to prepare the house for
his own downfall.
499-502 Alisoun is the perfect actress,
feigning surprise when told of Nicholas's vision and plan and urging her
husband on to execute the plot; she finally claim to be John's 'true and
faithful wedded wife' (501).
503-5 This reflects the Boethian concept
of perception coming to us via emotions. This exclamation by the narrator
-- 'What a great thing emotion is!' -- is ambiguous; it could either be
an ironic comment on Alsoun's promise to remain true to John, or on the
following description of the frightened carpenter.
510-12 Note the rapid succession of active
verbs in the present tense, which gives a sense of immediate and rapid
545-7 melodie This is an example
of 'melody; being used as euphemistically, implying sexual activity. Chaucer
neatly juxtaposes this secular 'music making' with the clerical that follows
when he introduces the bells of lauds, the first church 'hour' or service
of the day. James Winny suggests that this juxtapositioning makes the
monks seem to sing out in praise of Nicholas's sexual success. Film makers
have achieved the same effect with the Allelujah Chorus.
569 ful lowe in typical fabliau style,
every feature has a function, and here we are told that the window is
low, so that the later hanky-panky is possible.
571-2 'yet I cannot but succeed or at least
I shall kiss her'. There is a pun on misse, as he does miss
the kiss, yet the second time he doesn't miss his target! The itching
mouth (line 574) is also ironic, as he is going to have an itchy mouth
after Alisoun's 'kiss'.
590-9 Absolon here is acting as the courtly
lover. He has dressed fastidiously (though it's darkest night), made sure
his breath smells sweetly and gives a gently cough outside Alisoun's window
which, we are told, is low on the wall. His ensuing speech is a parody
of a courtly lover's speech, and also of the imagery in the biblical Song
of Solomon (sometimes called The Song of Songs). This biblical book is
a love poem interpreted in the Middle Ages as a metaphor for the love
between Christ, the husband, and the Church, his spouse. As Absolon is
also a cleric, this parody is all the more poignant. The expressions that
echo the Song of Solomon are: 4: 10-11 'How much better is thy love than
wine! and the smell of thine ointment than all the spices! Thy lips, O
my spouse, drop as the honeycomb; honey and milk are under thy tongue;
and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon. Spikenard
and saffron; calamus and cinnamon' [are among the spices mentioned in
4: 14]; in chapter 2 the lover is compared to a fair dove (faire brid
591) and the voice of the turtle dove (a turtek trewe 598).
594 The entire effect of the courtly love
song is drastically undercut by the realistic and personal details that
Absolon adds, such as sweating, and comparing himself to a lamb wanting
to suck a ewe, as if a big baby wanting his bottle, and to a maiden off
her appetite. This completely spoils the courtly effect he desires and
makes him a ridiculous figure.
601 pa probably means 'kiss' and
may be a childish word; Alisoun simply says: 'God help me, I'll not go
along with your "Come give me a little kiss"'.
616-8 Absolon adopts the courtly love attitude
of going on his knees and begging his lady for her favour. The fact that
he claims to be lord at alle degrees ironically echoes John's wish
at line 473; and his wish that more will come anticipates the final denouement.
Alisoun's blunt and down-to-earth reply is in sharp contrast to Absolon's
634 This crude passage stresses the contrast
between Absolon's dream world of courtly love and the very basic world
of human nature in the raw. 'To make one's beard' means to trick someone,
and so there is a pun here.
638 Previously Absolon wiped his mouth dry
to receive the 'kiss' (621) and now he's rubbing it with dust, sand, straw,
cloth and wood shavings in a desperate and feverish desire to cleanse
himself. Normally one would expect him to wash his mouth clean, and the
absence of water seems to play an integral part in this Tale. Rain and
floods are expected by John, floods that will wash away the sins of the
world, as at the first Flood, but in reality there is a total absence
of any cleansing water. There is no water for Absolon to wash his mouth,
no water for Nicholas to cool his burning posterior, and no water to break
John's fall as he plunges from the ceiling. Ironically this lack of water
does cleanse the household of its sinfulness and punishes them for their
699-706 The fart is compared to a thunder
clap and thunder is connected with rain; again the absence of water is
significant, as its cooling and purifying powers would have been greatly
appreciated by all! The fart almost blinds Absolon, but in fact Absolon
has been guilty of blindness in his naivety for ages. All signs of courtly
behaviour have now left poor Absolon who, like John, has come down to
earth with a bang. Similarly the accusation of madness is frequently made
in these final lines. Again, all of them have been guilty of a degree
of madness and lack of reason throughout the tale. Chaucer often uses
physical or mental conditions to reflect inner, moral states, e.g., old
age, ugliness and blindness.
710 Nowelis flood This appears to be a mixture
of Noah and Noel; it reflects John's unlearned state, but also might have
the prophane hint that Christmas is the time when the Saviour descends
to earth. John, who thinks he's about to save the world, is about to descend
to the ground at record speed!
717 out/harrow 'Help!' These are
the words Alisoun says she will say if Nicholas doesn't stop fondling
her; now she actually says them!