It’s as well to be prepared for bad language and extremely vulgar description when reading The Miller’s Tale in Chaucer‘s The Canterbury Tales (written between 1387 and 1400).
One important thing to bear in mind about the teller of the tale, Robin the miller, is that he was drunk and very pale (“… for drunken was al pale”). Half-on and half-off his horse, he was in no mood for good manners, despite following on from the noble, courteous story which had just been told by the Knight.
In the Prologue to Robin’s tale, Harry Bailly, Host at the Tabard Inn, tries to get the Monk to tell his story immediately after the Knight. It was Harry’s idea that the pilgrims should all take part in a competition, telling one tale on the way to Canterbury and another on the way back, with the prize for the winner being supper at the Inn, paid for by the other pilgrims. But tipsy Robin is having none of it. He ignores the appeal of Oswald, the Reeve, to tone down his language, or even choose another subject (“... thou mayst ynowgh of other thinges seyn“).
The characters in Robin’s tale are an Oxford carpenter named John, his sexy wife Alison, an attractive young student who goes by the name of Nicholas, and the parish clerk, Absolon. Nicholas claims to be an expert in astrology and to be able to foretell the future.
Now it turns out that both Nicholas and Absolon want to seduce Alison …
John the carpenter and Alison are newly married. John is a particularly jealous man, conscious that his eighteen-year-old wife is highly attractive and fearful that she will give in to any approaches by other men – so much so that he keeps her virtually caged up:
“Gelous he was, and heeld hir narwe in cage,
For sche was wilde and yong, and he was old,
And demed himself be lik a cuckwolde”.
Undeterred, Nicholas the student pounces while the carpenter is at work, “down Osney way” – though initially he finds that catching Alison by the genitals and holding her by the thighs doesn’t immediately have the required effect, as she fights him off! His initial chat-up lines also leave much to be desired. But eventually Nicholas’ silvery tongue and a more genteel approach convinces Alison, and they agree that, when opportunity arises, and provided everything is arranged with the utmost secrecy, he can have his way with her. Nonetheless, she fears death at the hands of her husband if he finds out what has happened:
‘Myn housbond is so ful of jelousie,
That but ye wayten wel and be pryve
I woot right wel I am but deed,’ quod sche.
Nicholas puts his thinking-cap on and comes up with a plan. He feigns illness and, finally “regaining consciousness”, pretends to have foreseen, with God’s help, the coming of a huge rainstorm, which will lead to a great flood twice as bad as Noah’s flood, and drown the whole world:
‘Now John,’ quod Nicholas, ‘I wol not lye;
I have y-found in myn astrologye,
As I have loked in the moone brighte,
That now on Monday next, at quarter night,
Schal falle a reyn, and that so wilde and wood,
That half so gret was never Noe’s flood.’
Simple carpenter John is aghast and fears for his life – but more so for that of his beloved wife. Fortunately, Nicholas devises a solution. John must find some large, shallow troughs or kneading tubs (‘A knedyng trowh, or elles a kemelyn‘), one for each of them, together with sufficient food (‘vitaille suffisant‘) for a day, to be hung in the roof below the thatch of the carpenter’s cottage, in which they can all spend the night. An axe will also be needed so that they can hack the ropes and float free in the tubs when the great flood pours into the roof.
Most importantly, Nicholas emphasises, there must be no love making. John and his wife must hang some distance apart, spend the night in prayer and stay quiet, following God’s instructions to Nicholas. John relates all this to his wife, who pretends to be terrified, but of course is in on the scheme. He sets to work to procure the tubs, complete the necessary woodwork, making ladders and rungs and hanging the whole paraphernalia from the rafters. He kits out the tubs with ale, bread and cheese and packs his maid and apprentice off to London. On the Monday night, dog-tired, John says goodnight to the other two and falls sound asleep.
No sooner is John asleep than Nicholas and Alison speed silently down the ladders and into bed ‘in busynesse of myrthe and solas‘, till the morning bells ring out.
Chaucer, through Robin, uses John’s gullibility to warn us of the dangers of having too fertile an imagination. Indeed, he says, ‘A man may dye for imaginacoun‘. His worries about his wife’s attractiveness to other men make him vulnerable to being hoodwinked by Nicholas. But poor John is also led up the garden path by his wife, so surely we should have some sympathy for him? John is a God-fearing man and Nicholas convinces him of the truth of his prophecy but also assures him that all will be well if they each follow his instructions. Many of the Canterbury Tales are allegorical. Chaucer describes John as “seely”, but maybe we can partially forgive his apparent silliness given the lovers’ conspiracy and the fact that he is motivated by his faith in God and his love for his wife?
Meanwhile, Absolon, the parish clerk, is plotting his own course into Alison’s affections. With his golden curls and “neat and proper” attire, including a light blue jacket, white surplice and scarlet hose, he cuts quite a fashionable, if somewhat effeminate, figure. He is well-known for his ability to dance in twenty styles, his guitar-playing and his falsetto singing voice, though he tends to steer clear of saucy barmaids and avoids certain bodily functions:
“But soth to say he was somdel squaymous
Of fartyng, and of speche daungerous”.
Absalon is besotted with many of the women of the parish, and takes the censer around them on holy days. But he finds none of the ladies as attractive as Alison. He even sings outside her window, much to her annoyance and that of her husband. It’s all to no avail: Alison is entranced by Nicholas, and has nothing but scorn for Absalon. She treat him with utter contempt:
“But what avayleth him in this case?
Sche loveth so this heende Nicholas,
That Absalon may blowe the bukkes horn –
He ne had for al his labour but a skorn.
And thus sche maketh Absalon hir ape,
And al his ernest torneth to a jape“.
Resolute Absalon finds out from his friends that John hasn’t been seen since Saturday (as we know, he’s been busy with the necessary construction work). He deduces that John has gone away and that now – Monday morning – might be an excellent opportunity for him to make amorous approaches to Alison. He gets dressed with great care (‘him arrayeth at poynt devys‘) and, just for good measure, chews some liquorice to ensure his breath is sweet.
Reaching her window, he entreats her to come and speak with him:
‘What do ye, hony comb, swete Alisoun?
My layne bryd, my swete cynamome?
Awake, lemman myn, and speketh to me.’
He uses all the sweet words and compliments he can muster to express his “love-longyng”, adding that he can scarce bring himself to eat because of his passionate love for her.
Alison has no interest in him whatsover. She tells him to leave immediately or she’ll throw a stone at him. “I love another”, she says, someone better than him. But finally, after further pleading, Alison unexpectedly agrees to Absalon’s request to kiss him. Absalon is buoyed up by this promise, thinking “I am a lord at alle degrees”, as he awaits her appearance to allow him a kiss, imagining a possible future with her: “For after this, I hope, there cometh more”. He is in for a cruel shock …
Wiping his mouth dry, in the inky blackness of the night (“dark was the night as piche or as cole”), Absalon prepares for the kiss. But precisely what he kisses is not what he had in mind, as, after Alison opens the window:
“Out atte wyndow putte sche hir hole,
And Absalon, him fel no bet ne wers,
But with his mouth he kist hir naked ers
Full savorly: whan he was war of this,
Abak he sterte, and thought it was amys;
For wel he wist a womman hath no berd”.
Having got Absolon to kiss her “ers”, Alison finds the whole thing highly amusing (“‘Te hee!’, quod sche”), as does Nicholas, who is watching from the room. She tells Absalon to go to hell.
Absalon is distraught, rubbing his lips with dust, sand, straw, cloth and chippings. He is instantly cured of his flirtatiousness and his search for paramours. He vows revenge … and turns to the dark side. “My soule bytake I unto Sathanas” (Satan), he says to himself.
The clerk goes to see his friend Gervase, a smithy, and borrows a red-hot coulter (probably part of a plough, like part 4 in the diagram below).
Re-visiting Alison’s window, he coughs quietly, before repeating his sweet entreaties. But this time his motive is very different. Once more he requests a kiss, saying that he has brought her a golden ring his mother gave him. Nicholas, who has “risen for a piss”, thinks he can improve on Alison’s jape, opens the window and repeats what Alison did earlier:
“And out his ers putteth he pryvely
Over the buttok to the haunche bon”
Absalon asks Alison to speak, as he can’t see her in the black of night:
“‘Spek, sweete bryd, I wot nat wher thou art”.
In reply, Nicholas lets rip a fart, as loud as a thunderclap in the night, which almost blinds Absalon:
“This Nicholas anon let flee a fart,
As gret as it had ben a thundir dent,
And with that strook he was almost y-blent”
But Absalon is ready and hits him “amyd the ers” with the hot iron. In terrible agony, Nicholas cries out for water:
“Help! Watir! Watir! Help, for God’s herte!”
John the carpenter is startled awake from his slumbers and immediately thinks, “Allas! For now cometh Nol’s flood!” He sits up and smites the ropes in two – and everything crashes down. He flops down onto the floor and swoons, incurring a double fracture to his arm.
Of course, all this had to be explained to the people of the town. Nicholas and Alison tell them that John had got a strange fantasy into his head, and that he was mad. The townsfolk all find it a great laugh, streaming up the stairs to see his strange constructions, which convinces them even more that John is a lunatic.
Chaucer ends The Miller’s Tale by showing the folly of the actions of all four main characters: John is now regarded as mad (“wood”) and everyone laughs (“gan lawhen”) at him; his wife has been fucked (“swyved”); Absalon had kissed Alison’s “ers”; and Nicholas is branded on the bottom.
“They seyde, ‘The man was wood, my leeve brother,’
And every man gan lawhen at his stryf.
Thus swyved was the carpenter’s wyf,
For al his kepyng and his gelousye,
And absolon hath kist hir nethir ye,
And Nicholas is skaldid in his towte –
This tale is doon, and God save al the route'”
And so, when we find out “That her face at first just ghostly, turned a whiter shade of pale …”, we perhaps find that hardly surprising …
Notes and credits
Illustration of Robin the Miller: Miniature illustration of Robin, the Miller, with a 16th century note “Robin with the Bagpype” from folio 34v of the Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. For more information, click here.
Dinner – there is no explanation available about the source of this woodcut (1484) which seems to illustrate the dinner shared by the pilgrims at the end of their journey to and from Canterbury . Source: Wikipedia Commons
Geoffrey Chaucer – 19th century image. From The Illustrated Magazine of Art. 1:1 (ca. 1853). Note: This publication was a precursor of “The Magazine of Art” (1878-1904).
Flask – this rare pilgrim’s flask, one of only a few to survive intact, was made to be worn around the neck as a protective talisman. It was once filled with holy water from the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury. It is held by The Walters Art Museum.