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 wasn’t 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 Chaucer’s 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 tale’s 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 man’s profession motivates the Reeve’s 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 Miller’s Prologue by the Miller’s shifting the topic to cuckoldry and away from the dupe’s profession, will respond when he tells the next tale of deception and betrayal?

The Miller’s 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 tale’s 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 Reeve’s 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 pilgrimage’s representative secular woman, might have been either amused or outraged by Alison’s portrayal, and the religious women (Prioress and Second Nun) surely would object to the Miller’s prurient and unashamedly erotic housewife. Each tale betrays its teller’s appetites and quarrels, and each tale can stimulate a wide range of potential answering narratives.