The Miller's Tale The Miller’s Prologue After the Knight finishes telling his story, it meets with the approval of the whole company. The Host then moves to the Monk (another high-status teller) to tell “somewhat to quite with the Knyghtes tale”. It is at this point that the Miller, extremely drunk, interrupts “in Pilates voys”, proclaiming that he has a tale that will quit the Knight’s. The Host tries to dissuade the Miller, telling him “thou art a fool”, and that he is drunk – a statement with which the Miller immediately agrees. The Miller starts to introduce a tale about how a clerk “set the cappe of” (made a fool out of) a carpenter and his wife, but is immediately interrupted by the Reeve (himself a carpenter) who tries to silence him. The Miller, though, refuses to be dissuaded by the Reeve’s argument that tales should not be told about adulterous wives, claiming that An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf. Yet before the Miller’s Tale itself begins, our narrator makes another interruption to the story’s flow, repeating a sentiment he already voiced in the General Prologue: that the tale he is about to repeat is not his own, but the Miller’s. Our narrator has no evil intent in rehearsing such a tale, but he must repeat all the tales told – otherwise, he will be falsifying his material. Thus, should any readers find it offensive, they should turn over the leaf and choose another tale. Men, the prologue finishes, should not “maken ernest of game”; find a serious moral in trivial things. The Miller’s Tale A rich carpenter lived at Oxford, with his wife and a clerk, an impoverished student of astrology and constellations: this clerk was called “hende” (crafty, or cunning) Nicholas. The carpenter had recently wedded a wife, only eighteen years old, who he protected fiercely – because, as she was young and he old, he knew he might well be cuckolded. One day, while the carpenter was at Osney, Nicholas fell to playing and teasing with this young wife, Alison, and caught her “by the queynte”, telling her that he’d die for love of her and holding her hard by the hip-bones. She sprang away from him, refusing to kiss him, but he followed her, crying mercy and speaking fairly: and
eventually, she agreed to sleep with him. However, the wife worried, as her husband was so jealous and protective, it would be difficult to find an opportunity – Nicholas resolved to beguile his master, and the two agreed to wait for an opportunity. Another clerk in the parish, Absolon, who had curly, golden hair, was also mad with desire for Alison, and used to sing at her window at night-time, wooing her until he was woebegone. But, of course, there was no point in Absolon’s wooing: Alison was so in love with Nicholas, that Absolon might as well go and whistle. Meanwhile, Nicholas had come up with a plan. Nicholas told Alison to tell John (the carpenter) that he was ill, and lay in his chamber all weekend, until – on Sunday night – the carpenter sent his slave to knock on the door on check that Nicholas was in health. The slave looked through the keyhole, and seeing Nicholas’ eyes gaping upward as if possessed, called to the carpenter, who – seeing Nicholas – panicked, and attributed Nicholas’ state to his interest in astrology. Nicholas, he thought, had seen the secrets of God, and gone mad. Having ordered his slave to knock down Nicholas’ door, the carpenter awoke Nicholas from his “trance” and the two began to speak. Nicholas (all going exactly to his plan) swore John to secrecy, and promised to tell him of Christ’s counsel. John was aghast as Nicholas told him that, according to his reading of the moon, next Monday, a flood akin to Noah’s flood would drown the world in less than an hour. With the carpenter terrified, Nicholas proceeded to the next stage of his plan: that, in the manner of Noah, John was to take large wooden troughs, one for each for Nicholas, Alison and John, and hang them up in the roof (full of supplies) so that no-one can see them, sit in them, and wait. Then, when the water arrives, all John would have to do is take an axe, cut the cord, break a hole in the gable, and float away with his wife and his clerk intact. Moreover, Nicholas continued, God had requested that, lying in their troughs on the Monday in question, nobody spoke a word - and the carpenter’s and his wife’s troughs should be hung far apart. The credulous carpenter instantly assented, and went off to make preparations, finding troughs and stocking up food. Monday arrived, and, as night drew in, the three climbed up to the roof. In their troughs, the three of them prayed, and
then the carpenter (probably worn out from all his business setting up the troughs) fell fast asleep, snoring. Nicholas and Alison sped down the ladder, and “withouten words mo they goon to bedde”, where they remain until the “laudes” bell (a bell for a church service before daybreak) rang. Absolon, meanwhile had got some information about John the carpenter, and, thinking that John was away from his house, went to sing to Alison and woo her at a low, hinged window which only came up to his breast height. After a first, gentle song, Alison appeared at the window and gave him short shrift - telling him that she loved somebody else, and warning him that she would “caste a ston” unless he went away. Absolon promised to go away if she would kiss him, once. Alison tells Nicholas to be quiet and watch her: she then unlocks the window, and, as Absolon leans in to give her a kiss, she puts her naked ass out of the window, which Absolon kisses “ful savourly”, feeling, as he does it, something rough and long-haired. “Tehee!” says Alison, and slams the window, and Nicholas and her openly mock Absolon from behind the window. Absolon hears it, and resolves to “quyte” the lovers. Absolon, moving away from the window, continually says “allas!”, sometimes weeping like a beaten child. By the time he arrived at a blacksmith called don Gerveys, Absolon didn’t care a bean for Alison, and persuaded his friend to lend him the hot poker in the chimney. Holding it by the cold steel, Absolon returns to the carpenter’s window, and knocks again, promising Alison that he has brought her a ring which his mother gave him. Nicholas had got up “to pisse”, and thought he would make the joke even funnier – pulling up the window, he put his ass out of the window for Absolon to kiss. Absolon then asked Alison to speak, so he can see where she is, and Nicholas, at this moment, lets fly a fart “as greet as it had been a thunder-dent”, so loud that it almost blinds Absolon. But Absolon was ready with his hot iron, and seized his chance, branding Nicholas’ arse. Nicholas, almost dying of his burning pain, cried out for “Water!”, and that cry, awoke John the carpenter from his slumber; thinking Nicholas referred to the flood “Water!”, John, sitting up “withouten wordes mo”, cut the cord with the axe, bringing everything crashing down from
the roof, through the floors, until finally landed on the cellar floor, knocked out. Nicholas and Alison ran out into the street, crying for attention, and the neighbors ran into look at John, who still lay swooning on the floor, pale and white, his arm broken by the huge fall. And, when he opened his mouth to explain himself, he was shouted down by Nicholas and Alison, who claimed he was mad, being frightened of something as ridiculous as Noah’s flood. People laughed at his fantasy, staring into the roof of his smashed house, and turning all of his hurt into a joke – and everything that John argued to preserve his dignity was ignored. Thus ends the Miller’s Tale. Analysis “Game” and “ernest” are two important concepts in reading the Tales representing respectively jokiness, frivolousness and fun, and seriousness, morality and meaningfulness. Yet one of the things the Miller’s Tale makes clear is that it becomes very difficult to decide what is lighthearted fun and what is meaningful, moral telling. The story of John the carpenter is grounded in reality: the details of the story all make sense, and it appears to be set within a suburban, believable Oxford that Chaucer might have known. Yet the story itself is clearly a fabliau: and its sources confirm its debt to fabliau - a hugely elaborate trick, set up with huge care in the story, which snaps shut as the story ends. Immediately “realism” is juxtaposed with “fantasy”. The same problem is bequeathed directly to the reader at the end of the tale: when, after the glorious moment at which John comes crashing down through the roof, and our pleasure in Nicholas’ elaborate trick stops, Chaucer suddenly focuses on John’s pain. The result of the elaborate trick is an old man, lying unconscious, pale and wan, with a broken arm on his cellar floor - his house destroyed, his wife cuckolded. Is Chaucer doing precisely what the narrator tells us, at the end of the prologue, we musn’t do, and making “ernest” of “game”? Maybe – and the Tales as a whole tread a careful, ambiguous line between the serious and the comic. The same ambiguity of tone is applied to the Christian theme which runs throughout the tale. John the carpenter’s plan involves floating up through the roof in his kneading tub when the flood comes; and yet the tale replaces his idealistic upward movement with a crashing downward movement, through his house
to the cellar floor. Christian uplift is replaced with a rather damning fall. We might usefully compare this to the fall in discourse and in subject matter from the Knight’s Tale to the Miller’s Tale: a step downward for the tales themselves as a linear movement (as the Host seems to know full well) in Middle English class distinction – a noble knight to a churlish, drunken miller. Metaphorically speaking, John the carpenter isn’t the only thing to come crashing down in this tale. Is this, then, a blasphemous version of Christianity? Well, it all depends how seriously we read it. If we are offended by Absolon’s devilish transformation at the end of the tale (into a blackened devil carrying a flaming iron), or if we recognise the alignment of Alison and Nicholas with Adam and Eve (and the respective falls from grace which follow), then perhaps we might view the tale as deliberately depicting sin. And yet, even though the tale itself is a comic delight - and there is a tremendous amount of pleasure to be had from reading it - the Miller’s Tale is far from a negative, anti-type example of sinners in action. It's also instructive to note the pleasure of the trick in the Miller's Tale, and the fabliau trick rules it demonstrates. The plot within the tale is hugely clever and elaborate, studded with religious imagery: indeed, when John the Carpenter is mentioned as regularly leaving the house, you wonder why the two didn't just sleep together when he was out? The answer can only be because of the sheer pleasure in executing such a complex structure. The tale moves extremely quickly from plot point to plot point, and everyone (except - and this is significant - Alison) is outsmarted. Even ingenious Nicholas ends up wounded on the buttock. In fabliau, you are only as good as your last trick. Language is also undergoing a fall from grace in the Miller’s Tale. Summarize the tale and note how little of its action depends on words or dialogue: unlike the long, protracted speeches of the Knight’s Tale, the drunken Miller deals in bodily noises. The mechanics of the tale itself twist on a series of non-verbal sounds, bodily noises and one-word exclamations: Absolon’s twice knocking at the window, Alison’s cry of “Tehee!” as she closes the window the first time, and Nicholas’ final, cumulative cry of “Water!”. “Withouten wordes mo” is a key phrase in the Canterbury Tales - marking moments at which action is more important than words. The courtly language of the Knight
becomes furtive, silent stealing to bed without words in the Miller’s Tale. The degradation – or the problematization – of the whole question of language is present throughout the tales, and draws our attention to the warning the narrator gives us before the Tale itself, that he is only “rehearsing” or repeating the words of the Miller. The narrator retells us the words of the Miller, who, telling his tale, repeats the “Tehee!” and “Water!” of Alison and Nicholas. What use – what poetry – what value have these second or third hand words? What do they signify? And most importantly, how far should we read them as belonging to the Miller, to the narrator, or to Chaucer himself? The Wife of Bath's Tale Prologue to the Wife of Bath's Tale “Experience”, even if no written authorities existed in the world, “is right ynogh for me”. Thus begins the voice of the Wife of Bath. She has certainly had “experience”, and is keen to justify it against biblical authority. She has had five husbands and justifies it in scripture: Christ never taught that people should only be married once, the Bible says “go forth and multiply”, and Solomon had more than one wife. The Wife’s husbands, picked out by their “chestes” and “nether purs”, have all been good men, and she is looking forward to the sixth. She also points out that Jesus never lays down a law about virginity, and essentially states that we have the parts for sex and should use them as such: “they were nat maad for noght”. Scripture, the Wife points out, can be interpreted “bothe up and doun” – you can argue that genitals are for purgation of urine, or to tell the female from the male, and for nothing else. The Wife then states again that she will “use myn instrument” whenever her husband decides he wants to “paye his dette”. Her husband, the Wife continues, shall be both her “dettour and my thral” (debtor and slave) and that she would mark it on his flesh. At this point, the Pardoner interrupts, claiming he was about to marry a wife and that the Wife has put him off – and she advises him to listen to her tale before making a judgement, and looks like beginning it, before going off on another tangent, silencing the Pardoner altogether.
Three of the Wife’s husbands were good, and two were bad: the three were good, rich and old (and impotent!) and they gave the Wife all their land, which resulted in her withholding sex from them in order to get exactly what she wanted. Women, the Wife continues, can lie and steal better than any man. She reveals her tactic for manipulating her husbands – deliberately attacking her husband with a whole fistful of complaints and several biblical glossing (for justification) and starting an argument, with the result of her getting what she wants. By accusing her husband of infidelity, the Wife disguised her own adultery – even calling her maid and Jankin in false witness to back her up. The Wife also got money out of her husbands by claiming that, if she were to sell her “bele chose” (sexual favours), she would make more money than they lavished on her. Thus the Wife treated her first three husbands, the three, good, old, rich men. The Wife’s fourth husband was a reveler and had a mistress as well as a wife. He was a match for the Wife of Bath, sharing some of her qualities, but he soon died. The fifth husband was the most cruel to her: kind in bed but otherwise violent, beating her viciously. He could “glose” (gloss – persuade – flatter) her extremely well when he wanted to have sex, and she loved him best, because he played hard to get with her. He had been a student at Oxford, and came to be a boarder at the home of the Wife's best friend, Alison, while she was still married to husband number four. Soon after he died, she married Jankin (number five) who was, at twenty, exactly half the Wife's age. Very regularly, Jankin read his book of “wikked wyves”, a compilation volume of anti-feminist literature, containing works from Valerius and Theophrastus, St. Jerome, Tertullian, Solomon, and many others. The Wife interrupts herself to express her anger at the anti-feminist portrayals of women in books written by male clerks – and wishes that women “hadde written stories” like clerks have, in order to redress balance. Then, her story continues: Jankin was reading aloud from his book by the fire, and the Wife, fed up that he would never finish reading his “cursed book al nyght”, tore out three pages, punching him in the face so that he fell backward into the fire. Jankin got up fast and hit her on the head with his fist, knocking her to the floor, where she lay as if dead. “Hastow slayn me, false theef?” the Wife bellow when she awoke,
“and for my land thus hastow mordred me?” (Have you killed me, false thief? And have you murdered me to get my land?”). Jankin, of course, then begged her forgiveness; and the Wife made him burn his book right there. Having gained for herself all of the “maistrie” (mastery, control, dominance), Jankin then begged her to keep all of her own land, and – after that day – they never argued again. The Wife was true to him, and he to her, and she was extremely generous to him. At this point, the Wife announces again that she is to tell her tale. The words between the Summoner and the Friar The Friar laughs to hear everything that the Wife has said, commenting that it is a “long preamble of a tale” (a long prologue to a tale) – and when the Summoner hears the Friar’s voice, he attacks him, commenting that friars are notorious for their long-windedness, telling him to “go sit doun!”. The Friar promises, in revenge, to tell a tale about a summoner to make everyone laugh. The Host quiets them down, and encourages the Wife to tell her tale. The Wife of Bath's Tale The Wife of Bath's Tale tells a story from a distant time, when King Arthur ruled the nation and when elves used to run around impregnating women. However, the Wife immediately digresses: now friars have taken the place of elves - they are now the copulating, evil spirits. King Arthur had a knight who, when riding home one day from hawking, found a maiden walking alone and raped her. This crime usually held the penalty of death, but, in court, the queen intervened and begged her husband to spare the knight, promising the knight that she would grant his life if he could answer the question "What do women most desire?" She gave him one year to find the answer. The knight went on a journey but could find no satisfactory answer; some said wealth, others jollity, some status, others a good lover in bed. Despondent that he might not find his answer, the knight was mournful, when, riding beside a forest on his way back to his home, he saw a dance of twenty-four ladies. Approaching them, they vanished, and in their place, the knight found a hideous old woman, the “lothly lady”, to whom he put his question. She agreed to give the answer and assured him that it was the right one, but
would only tell him the answer if he would do the next thing that she required of him. When the knight agreed, she whispered in his ear. When they arrived at court, the knight faced the queen again, and told him that women desired to have sovereignty and “to been in maistrie” (to be in mastery) above their husbands. The lothly lady then spoke up before the court, announcing the knight’s pledge, and asking him to take her for his wife. The knight, although now pardoned, was miserable that he had to marry such an old crone, but there was no way for him to get out of it. Privately, the knight wedded the lothly lady the next day, and the two of them lay in bed. She realized his unhappiness, and confronted him about it. He criticized her for not only being old and ugly, but lowborn. She scoffed at his snobbery as a definition and defended her poverty as irrelevant to God. She then gave him a choice, making him see both sides of the argument. Either he could have her as an old and ugly wife who would be entirely faithful to him; or he could have her as a young and fair wife, who would probably cuckold him. The knight sighed sorely, and thought, but finally told his wife to choose herself whichever option would bring most honor to the two of them. “Thanne have I gete of yow maistrie” (In that case, I’ve got mastery over you) she said – and the knight agreed that she had. The lothly lady asked him to kiss her and “cast up the curtyn” (lift up the curtain) to look on her face – she had transformed into a young and beautiful woman. They lived happily ever after: and, the Wife concludes, let Christ grant all women submissive husbands who sexually satisfy their wives, and let Christ kill all men who will not be governed by their wives. Analysis The Wife of Bath is one of Chaucer’s most enduring characters, and rightly, one of the most famous of any of the Canterbury pilgrims. Her voice is extremely distinctive – loud, self-promoting, extremely aggressive – and her lengthy prologue silences the Pardoner and the Friar (who is then parodied at the start of the Tale) for daring to interrupt her. One of the key issues for interpreting the Wife’s tale historically has been the relationship between prologue and tale: some critics have found in the Wife’s fairy-tale ending a wistful, saddened dreaminess from an elderly woman whose hopes for a sixth
husband might turn out to be futile. Other critics have treated the tale as a matter of “maistrie” and control, arguing that the Wife’s tale, starting as it does with a rape (a man physically dominating a woman), is deeply ambiguous at its close about precisely whose desire is being fulfilled. Surely there is little point in the woman having the maistrie if all she is to do with it is to please her husband? Yet it seems to me that the Wife’s tale and prologue can be treated as one lengthy monologue, and it is the voice we attribute that monologue too which proves impossible to precisely define. The Wife’s tale inherits the issue of the woman as literary text (Constance, in the Man of Law’s tale, was “pale”, like paper waiting to be written on, and used as an exchangeable currency by the merchants and – perhaps – by the Man of Law) and develops it. Text, and the interpretation of text is absolutely central to the Wife of Bath’s Tale. The General Prologue describes her as being swathed in textile, and, of course, “textere”, the Latin verb meaning “to weave” is the key to a close relationship between “cloth” and “text” in the Middle Ages. For the Wife, as well as being excellent at spinning a tale, is also excellent at spinning cloth – and is surrounded, problematically in text in just the way the Prologue has her covered in cloth. When, at the very end of her tale, the lothly lady implores her husband to “cast up the curtyn” and see her as she really is, she highlights one of the key problems in the tale: it is very difficult to ascertain precisely where fiction stops and reality begins. The Wife claims to represent female voices – and her tale consists of a set of women representing each other. The raped maiden is represented by the queen, who in turn is represented by the lothly lady, who in turn becomes a beautiful lady: the image which precedes her appearance is, appropriately, twenty four ladies apparently vanishing into one. The Wife speaks on behalf of women everywhere: and against the male clerks who have written the antifeminist literature that Jankin reads in his book of wikked wyves. It is odd then, that the Wife, who claims to stand for “experience”, spends much of her prologue dealing with written “authority”, glossing the Bible in precisely the manner she criticizes the clerks for doing. The Wife is against text, but expert in text; against clerks, but particularly
clerical; and, of course, venomous about anti-feminist literature, but also made up of anti-feminist literature. When the Wife throws Jankin’s book in the fire, she is in fact burning her own sources (Jerome, Theophrastus et. al) which constitutes a bizarre act of literary self-orphanage. It is as if she burns her own birth certificate. When you notice too that the Wife (whose name is Alison) has as her only confidant another woman called Alison, there is an unusual sense that she might be talking only to herself. Add to that her almost uninterrupted monologue of tale and prologue – and the almost-uninterrupted monologues of Jankin (reading from the book of wives) and the lothly lady’s lengthy monologue on poverty and gentilesse – and you see that, in fact, the voice of the Wife does indeed take the “maistrie” in the tale itself. It entirely dominates the tale. The Wife, then, is a far more complicated figure than simply a proto-feminist. She asks the key question herself: “Who peynted the leon, tel me who?”, referring to the old myth that, a lion, seeing the picture of a man triumphing over a lion, asked the rhetorical question which pointed out that the portrayal was biased as it had been painted by a man, not a lion. If the Wife’s tale is a depiction of a woman triumphing over a man (and even that is not easy to decide) can it be similarly dismissed? Perhaps. But of course, for all the Wife decries the clerical tradition and the clerks who leave out the good deeds of woman, she herself as a text is another example of a lecherous, lying, manipulative woman. She falls into the anti-feminist tradition she represents. This is even before you mention that the Wife is being written, at the very least ventriloquised, by Geoffrey Chaucer, a clerk and a man. Is this Chaucer’s opinion of proto-feminism and a disavowal of the anti-feminist tradition? Or is Chaucer endorsing the anti-feminist tradition by giving it a mouthpiece which, in arguing against it, demonstrates all of its stereotypical arguments as fact? Who painted the lion? Whose voice is the Wife’s? Is she worthy of – as she does – speaking for women everywhere? These are all huge, open, fascinating questions that demonstrate why the tale itself is so complex, and interesting to interpret. The key fact not to forget is that you can’t have a Wife without a Husband. Whether married to Chaucer, whether Chaucer in drag, or whether a feminist persona all of her own, it’s important to
view the apparently proto-feminist Wife of Bath from a point of view which understands her strong links to the men in her fictional – and literary – lives.