The Miller's Tale

The Miller's Tale is one of the best known and popular of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.
Known as a fabiau involving bourgeois and rural characters in plots that are often lewd, (osé) the fabiau was largely a French speciality, but Geoffrey Chaucer excelled in such tales, of which there are about four examples in the Canterbury series. In fact The Miller's Tale is considered one of the best fabiau in any language.

To condense the prologue and the main part of the story-
The Miller (Robyn) is considered a churl and a drunkard by most of his travelling companions, and the Reeve tries to dissuade him from telling his tale. The Miller admits to his state-

'That I am dronke: I know it by my soun.°         °sound of my voice
And therefore if that I mis° speke or saye,        °misspeak
Wite it° the ale of Southwerk, I you praye;       °blame it on
For I wol telle a legende and a lif
Bothe of a carpenter and of his wif, (...)'

His tale is of a simple, jealous carpenter of a certain age who marries a beautiful, 18 year old, frisky young bride.
The carpenter rents out rooms in his house, and a young clerk, Nicholas, is one of his lodgers. His room is tidy and full of books, for Nicholas is, or at least seems to be, a learned young man whose interests include astrology.

Nicholas falls in love with Alisoun, John, the carpenter's wife, and soon manages to seduce her. They promise each other to have lovers' meetings whenever opportunities permit.

At the same time, Absolom, an assistant to the local parish priest, has also fallen in love with Alisoun, and hopes to win her love by serenading to her sweetly with his guitar below her window.

Nicholas however, eager to spend a whole night with the carpenter's young wife, devises a plan.
He stocks his room with sufficient food and drink, locks his door and stays out of sight until the carpenter begins to worry about his absence. Believing him to be ill or even dead, the carpenter arranges that Nicholas' door be lifted off its hinges so that he can enter his room to see what's wrong. He is thus able to discover Nicholas sitting on his bed staring at the moon, completely motionless.

The carpenter shakes him and shouts loudly to try to bring the young man to his senses. Nicholas, feigning to 'wake up', then recounts his 'vision' and the secret information gleaned from his studies of astrology.
He tells the carpenter that a great deluge will flood the whole world beginning at dawn the following Monday. Similar to Noah, it is the Lord's will that the carpenter must procure three large brewing tubs or kneeding troughs. He must put sufficient food and drink into each vessel to last a day, and must drag the tubs onto the roof securing them with ropes. But on no account must he tell anyone else other than his wife (who is already aware of the plot). Such is the 'Lord's command.'

The gullible carpenter goes to all this trouble, and on Sunday night the three of them climb up the ladders the carpenter also made in preparation, and lie in their tubs. The carpenter, completely exhausted from his work and worry, is already snoring fast asleep when Nicholas and Alisoun quietly descend from the roof to pass their night together.

Before dawn however, Absolom comes to try his luck once more. Below Alisoun's window he beseeches her, his lemman (sweetheart) to kiss him. She replies that she loves another, but will kiss him only if he promises to go away afterwards. This he accepts.
As the open window is fairly low and because it's still very dark, Alisoun neatly presents her backside from it. Absolom taking this to be her face, kisses her ardently. Puzzled by the impression that she seems to have a modest beard, he slowly realises that he has been made a fool of, and immediately seeks vengeance.

He visits the local smithy to make a request. The smithy, surprised by such an early visit, nevertheless is perfectly willing to lend him what he requires- a plough shear, newly forged and still very hot- even though he has no idea why Absolom would want to borrow it.

So armed, Absolum returns to the carpenter's house and again sweetly asks for another kiss.
Nicholas, having risen for to pisse, decides that they should improve on the joke, and he sticks his backside out of the window. At this most critical stage we now return to the final part of Chaucer's verse :

"Speek, sweete brid, I noot nought wher thou art."
This Nicholas anoon leet flee° a fart                            °let fly
As greet as it hadde been a thonder-dent°                  °thunderbolt
That with the strook he was almost yblent,°               °blinded
And he was redy with his iren hoot°                             °hot
And Nicholas amidde the ers he smoot:°                     °smote
Of° gooth the skin an hand-brede° aboute;                  °off/handsbreadth
The hote cultour brende so his toute°                           °buttocks
That for the smert° he wende for° to die;                     °pain/thought he would
As he were wood° for wo he gan to crye,                       °mad
"Help! Water! Water! Help, for Goddes herte!
This carpenter out of his slomber sterte,
And herde oon cryen "Water!" as he were wood,
And thoughte, "Alas, now cometh Noweles° flood!"   °confusing Noah & Noel
He sette him up° withoute words mo,                             °got up
And with his ax he smoot the corde atwo,
And gooth al: he foond neither to selle
Ne breed ne ale til he cam to the celle*
Upon the floor, and ther aswoune° he lay.                    °in a swoon
Up sterte° hire Alison and Nicholay                                °started
And criden "Out" and "Harrow" in the streete.
The neighebores, bothe smale and grete,
In ronnen for to gauren° on this man                            °gape
That aswoune lay bothe pale and wan,
For with the fal he brosten° had his arm;                      °broken
But stonde he moste° unto his owene harm,                °must
For whan he spak he was anoon bore down°               °refuted
With° hende Nicholas and Alisoun:                               °by
They tolden every man that he was wood-
He was agast so of Noweles flood,
Thurgh fantasye, that of his vanitee°                             °folly
He hadde ybought him kneeding tubs three,
And hadde hem hanged in the roof above,
And that he prayed them, for Goddes love,
To sitten in the roof, par compaignye.°                        °for company's sake
The folk gan laughen at his fantasye.
Into the roof they kiken° and they cape°                      °peer/gape
And turned all his harm unto a jape°                            °joke
For what so that this carpenter answerde,
It was for nought: no man his reson° herde;               °argument
With othes grete he was sworn adown,
That he was holden° wood in al the town,                   °considered
For every clerk anoonright heeld with other:
They saide, "The man was wood, my leve brother,"
And every wight gan laughen at this strif.°                  °fuss/affair
Thus swived° was the carpenteres wif                          °had (baissée)
For al his keeping° and his jalousye,
And Absolom hath kist hir nether° yë,                         °backside
And Nicholas is scalded in the toute:
This tale is doon, and God save al the route!°             °company

*He found time to sell neither bread nor ale until he landed. (He lost no time).   
Introduction and synopsis © Mirino. Source- The Norton Anthology English Literature Volume 1, with thanks. Top illustration from the Ellesmere Manuscript. Below- page from the Miller's Tale (Oxford, Corpus Christi College). December, 2011

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