God to Noah, after the
Flood: Genesis 9:8-13
8 And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying,
9 And I, behold, establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you;
10 And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of this earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth.
11 And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.
12 And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
13 I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.
So why wasnt John aware of this part of the
Noah story? Medieval Christians knowledge of their faith
was largely dependent upon sermons they heard or the teaching of
itinerant monks. Literacy was still rare, perhaps below 15% of
the total population in Chaucers day. Therefore, most
people were cut off from direct access to the basic stories upon
which the religion was based. As a clerk, Nicholas certainly was
literate, however, and this suggests that the tales humor
turns upon the triumph of a learned man over one who is
"lewed" (M.E., unlettered, ignorant). Nicholas implies
as much when he says, "A clerk hath litherly beset his whyle
/ But if he coude a carpenter bigile" (3299-3300, Riverside;
191-2, Norton). This assault upon the mans profession
motivates the Reeves anger, for the General Prologue tells
us that Oswald "was a wel good wrighte, a carpenter"
(614 Riverside; 616 Norton). How do you suppose the Reeve,
briefly silenced in the Millers Prologue by the Millers
shifting the topic to cuckoldry and away from the dupes
profession, will respond when he tells the next tale of deception
The Millers Tale offers a wonderfully concise example of the way Chaucer could organize tales in the pilgrimage tale-telling competition as he happened to find material and inspiration. The plot of the tale offends the Reeve because of the dupe is a carpenter, but the tales clerks also can hardly have been pleasing to a serious student like the pilgrim "Clerk of Oxenford." Add to that pair of lazy and lecherous clerks the pair of foolish and vindictive Oxford clerks in the Reeves tale, which follows, and the pilgrim clerk might have a wonderful motivation for a tale about millers, carpenters, or reeves. (As it happens, by the time the pilgrim Clerk tells his tale, he has become more concerned with the Wife of Bath and the problem of loyalty in marriage.) The Wife of Bath, as the pilgrimages representative secular woman, might have been either amused or outraged by Alisons portrayal, and the religious women (Prioress and Second Nun) surely would object to the Millers prurient and unashamedly erotic housewife. Each tale betrays its tellers appetites and quarrels, and each tale can stimulate a wide range of potential answering narratives.