Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, "Miller’s Prologue and Tale," (ca. 1380-1400)  (all surviving MSS are posthumous, from early 1400s; editio princeps, London: William Caxton, 1477)


Genre:  
A fabliau (pl., "fabliaux"), a French invention that depicts bourgeois characters in satirical or openly comic plots involving unlikely and complex deceptions, usually concerning sex and/or money. There are considerably more fabliaux in French than in English, and Chaucer’s are by far the most sophisticated in Middle English because they often combine elements of several fabliaux into one tightly structured plot. Critics are divided on the issue of whether the fabliaux were intended for noble audiences because the tales made the bourgeois look so bad, or were intended for the bourgeois, themselves, indicating that they had a strong appetite for seeing themselves satirized in literature. The middle ground seems to be that they could work for a mixed audience which might include worldly nobles (excluding those given to extreme religious devotion, of course!) as well as broad-minded and self-confident men and women of the city.

        Because Chaucer has excluded all the higher nobility from his pilgrimage, only the Knight and Squire might be offended at the tales’ raunchiness on the grounds of their estate status, and the Miller proclaims in his prologue that he intends to "quit" (triumph over) the Knight's tale with his own.  Nevertheless, there also are religious pilgrims who certainly ought to have objected were this a realistic scenario: the Monk, Prioress, Nuns, and Parson. Of them all, only the last ever objects to speech on moral grounds (the Parson to Harry Baily’s swearing), though the Monk, Prioress, and Second Nun tell pious tales. The Monk and Prioress also are likely to have been the younger son and daughter of noble families based on their tastes as described in the General Prologue (hunting, rich food, pets, fine clothes). Their reception of a story with strong sexual content might well be complex. For what might be Chaucer-the-poet’s response to the possible objections of people like the Monk and Prioress, see the "Miller’s Prologue" lines 59-78.

        Many excellent studies of the fabliau have been published because of the genre's relation to the modern short story, and because of its interesting problem of audience. For a page listing studies of fabiaux in the Julia Rogers Library, click here.   This would be especially helpful for English 330 students planning papers or tale presentations, or for advanced English 211 student planning midterm or final papers.

Form:  Rhyming couplets, the most common poetic form used for the tales. As in all of Chaucer’s tales in this form, one should pay careful attention to the way he manages to capture the speaker’s voice and dramatic emphases, with a rich range of colloquial (vs. courtly) diction, in a narrative poem hundreds of lines long. Even more interesting is the way in which the Miller’s characters’ voices surface—consider a drunken Miller saying, as Alison does after Absolon’s misdirected kiss, "Teehee" (l. 632). The "voice" effect becomes even more persuasive in the "Wife of Bath’s Prologue," in which some readers are deceived into thinking they are reading the words of a real woman rather than a character Chaucer created from clear literary antecedents.

Characters:

Summary: [Because the Miller is replying directly to the tale the Knight has just told in all surviving MS and print versions, readers need to have at least some grasp of "Knight's Tale."  The Greek hero, Theseus, has just conquered the Amazons, whose queen he has wed and whose sister (Emily) he takes under his protection.  He is asked for help by widows whose husbands fought against the city of Thebes (i.e., the plot of Sophocles' Seven Against Thebes), and who now lie unburied outside its walls (Sophocles' Antigone).  Theseus conquers the city, kills the tyrant, Kreon, and those searching the fallen rescue two Theban princes, Palamon and Arcite, whom Theseus dooms to prison for the rest of their lives.  Both princes, though sworn to be as brothers to each other, see Emily from their cell window, fall in love with her, and immediately declare each other their mortal enemy.  Arcite is pardoned on condition that he never return to Thebes, and Palamon escapes with friends' help, but both begin fighting over Emily in the forest outside Thebes, where they are discovered by Theseus, his queen, and Emily.  The women beg mercy for the knights, and Theseus arranges a tournament in which they and fifty allies each can fight for Emily's hand.  Arcite's forces win the battle, but Arcite is killed falling from his horse in his moment of triumph.  Theseus marries Emily to the surviving Palamon, and at Arcite's burial, Theseus' father, Egeus, delivers a philosophical speech about the cosmic justice which rules the universe.]    

          Pursued by her tenant, the Oxford student, "hende" Nicholas, Alison puts him off. John already has heard the priest's assistant clerk, Absolon, serenading her outside their bedroom at night, but still suspects nothing. When John has work that takes him out of town, Nicholas supplies his room with food and pretends to have fallen into a trance for several days. He tells John, after the servant has broken the door down, that his clerkly studies have revealed to him that God will send a second Noah’s Flood. (If you haven’t read that part of the Bible recently, you will find an immensely comic reason why Nicholas' lie makes a fool of John.) Under Nicholas' direction, John hangs large, wooden bread-kneading tubs from the ceiling so that they may float free with John, Alison, and Nicholas when the "waters" rise. Exhausted, John falls asleep. Meanwhile, Nicholas and Alison disport themselves until Absolon comes begging a kiss from the window. Alison complies (in the dark?) with her rump, which the fastidious Absolon too late realizes he has kissed. Implausibly returning for a second "kiss," Absolon meets Nicholas' rump with a thrust from a hot plowshare he has borrowed from the smith's forge. Nicholas' cries for "Water!" awaken John in the rafters, who cuts the ropes holding his kneading tub and falls, breaking his arm. The people of Oxford, mainly clerks, arrive in response to the household's cries of "Out harrow!" and the clerks all laugh at John, believing the lovers' tale that he madly imagined the second Flood by himself.

Interpretive issues and general research sources:

        Chaucer may have found the tale's matter in as many as three unrelated sources which be brought together: the "misdirected kiss," the "branding," and the "second Flood." How much of the tale's excellence depends upon the union of the three, or upon our neglect of one plot while another occupies our attention? Nicholas, for instance, behaves as if he thinks he's in the plot of the first tale type, even though Absolon would have to be extremely dense not to have awakened to the deception after hearing "A berde! A berde!" and Alision's "Teehee!" Meanwhile, Absolon has "graduated" to the "branding" tale type and changes the course of Nicholas' plot. Consider the coarseness of the "misdirected kiss" and "branding" plots as a strategy to focus the audience's attention. What does it do to our response to John's fall and injury? Without the "kiss" and Absolon's revenge, how might we have reacted to John's predicament? Note that the Miller explains the town's reaction to the events in terms of social solidarity of one group against an outsider: "For every clerk anonright heeld with oother" (3847, Riverside; 739, Norton). If we laugh with the Miller, with whom are we declaring community?  For some background on Oxford and the town-gown violence that beset medieval university communities, click here.

        Chaucer-the-Pilgrim explicitly warns readers that the Miller will tell a bawdy tale.  However, I wouldn't want you to think that's what all of CT was about.  In fact, tales of moral and ethical instruction far outnumber the bawdy ones, but who remembers them?  Why does the Norton choose this particular tale to illustrate Chaucer's craft?  Consider the possibility that even the bawdy tales can be designed to have a moral effect if read by sophisticated readers who are aware of the frame-narrative's influence on the tale's significance.  As I said in class, watch who laughs and why in its conclusion.  The Norton skips to the Man of Law's Epilogue, bypassing the tale's reception by the Canterbury pilgrims in the Reeve's Prologue, an ambiguous description that contrasts directly with the reception Chaucer-the-Pilgrim says was given the Knight's Tale, which the Miller sought to "quit" or beat.  What do you make of the pilgrims' responses and how might it affect our reading of the Miller's Tale?

        How much does it cost to get drunk in 1385-1400?  This hyperlink will take you to my copy of Kenneth Hodges' aggregation of historians' records of prices paid for various goods and services in England between roughly 1300 and 1450.  The original page was hosted on Paul Halsall's Medieval Sourcebook site at Fordham University, an excellent place to look for context-building evidence about the many cultures that comprised the medieval world.


Good General Sources:

J. A. W. Bennett, Chaucer at Oxford and at Cambridge, (1974). 826.2 C49HcaSbe
The Oxford location of the Miller's and Reeve's tales, as well as the pilgrim clerk's identification as an Oxonian, makes Bennett's study of contemporary college history in these two towns particularly useful. He also provides background on the mystery plays performed in the countryside and in which Absolom performed as Herod. The Wife of Bath also was a great fan of these dramatic cycles.
Cobban, Allan B.  English University Life in the Middle Ages.  Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State UP, 1999.  378.42 C653e
Oxford and Cambridge have been around since the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and, because they were the only universities in England until after the Earl Modern Period, they exercise an unparalleled influence over English ideas of the intellectual life vs. the active life, where authority comes from, etc. 
--------.  The Medieval English Universities: Oxford and Cambridge to 1500.  Berkeley: U California P, 1988.  378.42 C653m
See above.
E. T. Donaldson, Speaking of Chaucer, (1970).
Donaldson discusses the Miller's ironic use of vocabulary Chaucer's audience would have associated with high romance. The words "hende" and "derne" were codes for aristocratic attitudes toward love affairs among lords and ladies, and their appearance in MT suggest useful ways to understand the Miller's claim that he will "quit" the Knight's tale of such a high romance.
Charles Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition, (1957, rpt. 1965).  826.2 C49Smu
This major early study helps us see the French literature that the young Chaucer would have been trained to read as a courtier in the household of Prince Lionel's wife, and which he drew upon for his Middle English compositions in later years. Specifically, Absolon and Alison are characters with deep roots in the French fabliau tradition and would have been, to some degree, "type characters" to Chaucer and his audience.
Gabriel, Astrik L. Student life in Ave Maria College, mediaeval Paris; history and chartulary of the        
            college.     Notre Dame, Ind.: U Notre Dame P, 1955.  (378.44 A94Eg )   Since MT is, among other things, a "town  vs. gown" battle, you might be interested to compare student life in a medieval French university with the behavior of Hende Nicholas.  Is he typical or a gross aberration?   378.44 A94Eg

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