ENGL 252: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

The Canterbury Tales III: the Miller's Tale (MT)

The Miller's Tale is an example of a fabliau, a short humorous narrative genre popular in France starting in the thirteenth century. Fabliaux (the plural), unlike romances, are characterized by greater realism (absence of magical characters and events); a setting in the "here and now " (not the "long ago and far away" of romance); ordinary everyday sorts of characters (who are commoners rather than aristocrats); earthiness of tone and subject matter; an emphasis on the body in all its physicality -- sex, defecation, farting, the appetites -- rather than the emotions or the spiritual; coarse language. They tend to flout authorities of all sorts and are frequently subversive. Characters are often "tricksters" admired for their cleverness rather than their morals (morality is not an issue in most fabliaux); a common theme is the gleeful adultery of a repressed wife and a clever cleric. Chaucer's term for fabliau is a "churl's tale" (cherles tale, Miller's Prologue, line 61, p. 88 in Penguin Classics translation); it is thus implicitly contrasted with the "aristocratic" or "courtly" genre of romance (e.g. the Knight's Tale which immediately precedes it).  Do note however that fabliaux are found in the same manuscripts as romances, indicating that they were intended for and enjoyed by the same aristocratic audiences; thus, fabliaux were not in fact the "genre of the lower or middle classes." Keeping these ideas in mind, consider the Miller's contention that his tale will "repay" the Knight's Tale (pp. 86-7, Miller's Prologue line 19; other possible translations of the Middle English word quite are "requite," "avenge" or "be an answer to"). As you read, compare/contrast the Miller's Tale with the medieval romances we have read or learned about (in addition to the Knight's Tale, consider e.g. the Romance of Tristan, the Knight of the Cart, Cligés, or the Romance of Eneas).  Consider in particular the treatment of relationships between the sexes, the attitudes toward sex and sexuality, and the depiction of women in these works.

Note Chaucer's disclaimer concerning the racy subject matter and crudeness of language in the Miller's Tale (p. 88, Miller's Prologue lines 59-78): he claims that he is only repeating faithfully what he heard on the pilgrimage (clearly untrue, since the pilgrimage is an imaginary one) and that if any reader is offended, he should not blame the author but himself (he is after all free to turn the page and read another tale!) What are the implications concerning an author's responsibility to his readers? What sort of truth is he bound to? Compare General Prologue p. 22-3 (lines 727-748), where Chaucer insists upon the necessity of telling his tales "truly." Can you see any connection between this sort of statement and Chaucer's unusual literary enterprise -- a collection of tales told by the "sundry folk" (General Prologue line 25, Penguin Classics translation p. 3) on the pilgrimage, that is, by people from all walks of life and social classes?

Compare and contrast the treatment of love in the Miller's Tale and the Knight's Tale.  First, consider the young ladies who play the role of the feminine love interest in each case.  Unlike Emily, who is initially glimpsed from afar and described in vague and ethereal terms, Alison is depicted up close and natural.  Note the physicality of her description.  What details emphasize her youth? her vibrancy? her healthy young body? her playfulness?  her sensuality?  What type of imagey is used? (To what is she compared?)  What is the effect of these metaphors? Then, consider Alison's attitude toward sex.  Is she a willing partner in the love affair with Nicholas?  Compare / contrast Alison's cheerful lustiness with Emily's distinct lack of enthusiasm about sex.  (Recall that when Emily prays to Diana, the Goddess of Chastity, her initial request is to be allowed to remain "a virgin all [her] life" [KT p. 65]). What might the Miller (or Chaucer) be saying by depicting Alison in this way?

An equally striking contrast is found between the rivals for the heroine's hand in the two tales.  In the Knight's Tale, Palamon and Arcita fell in love with Emily at first sight, but that love remained curiously abstract, seemingly divorced from physical reality. Their passion consisted primarily of flowery speeches and descriptions of conventional Ovidian love sickness.  The Miller's Absalom is a parody of these courtly lovers (as well as of the portrait of the Squire in the GP); he appears to have read too many romances like the Knight's Tale and to have taken them far too seriously.  He attempts to woo Alison with flowery speeches (see MT p. 102) but succeeds only in making himself ridiculous.  His efforts are rewarded not with Alison's love but with a humiliating "butt-kiss" and a fart in the face.  These "rewards" underscore that for the Miller, "love" isn't an abstraction: it is about SEX, not courtly language, and desirable women are won through hands-on ACTION, not talk.  Whereas in the Knight's Tale, Palamon (the man of emotion) won Emily over Arcita (the man of action), in the Miller's Tale it is the man of action Nicholas who wins the vibrantly sexual Alison, not through flowery speeches but by by grabbing her "quim" (p. 91; quim = female genitalia; the Middle English original is a racy pun).  By contrast, Absalom's silly attempts at love poetry are so much hot air and are fittingly rewarded with a fart in the face.

But the satire of the conventions of courtly love is only one of the ways in which the Miller's Tale refutes and responds to the Knight's Tale.  It also rewrites the power relationships between men and women.  First, note that Alison is free to choose for herself betwen the two rivals for her affections, or to reject both of them. This sexual autonomy is in marked contrast to Emily's situation in Knight's Tale, where her love life (like that of her sister Hippolyta) is controlled by Theseus. Also, the Miller is surprisingly sympathetic to Alison's position as a  young wife imprisoned in a loveless marriage.  Consider in this regard not only his overt statements about the inappropriateness of an old man wedding a much younger bride (Miller's Tale lines 113-125, p. 89), but also the fact that Alison alone gets off scot free at the end of the story. What punishments are meted out to each of the male characters at the end of the fabliau?  Are these punishments fitting?  Why or why not? Why isn't Alison punished? (Is she blamed for her role in the deception of John, her liaison with Nicholas, or for her behavior toward Absalom?)  Is this sympathetic perspective toward Alison more likely to be the Miller's, or Chaucer's?  Why do you think so? Keep the issues of sexual autonomy and male-female power relationships in mind as you turn to our final Chaucer reading, the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, which offers a very different (and distinctly feminine) perspective on love, sex and marriage than is found in either the Miller's Tale or the Knight's Tale.

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2013

Click here for Study Questions for the General Prologue

Click here for Study Questions for the Knight's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

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