The Miller's Prologue and Tale

From Academic Kids

The Miller's Prologue and Tale is the second of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, told by a drunken miller to 'quite' The Knight's Tale. It is a vulgar, ribald, and satirical fabliau.

The Miller's Prologue is the first 'quite' that occurs in the tales (to 'quite' someone is to mock them in a satirical way, or in the Middle Ages, to 'quite' was to match their blow in jousting).

Plot of the Tale

The Miller's tale is about a carpenter/landlord and his wife. (The Reeve, another of the travellers, happens to be a carpenter, and urges the Miller not to joke about his profession; the Miller replies that he does not mean to insult carpenters in general, and tells his tale anyway. Thus, The Reeve's Tale follows, which quites the Miller and pokes fun at his profession)

The story is of a student (Nicholas) who persuades his landlord's wife (Alisoun/Alison) to spend the night with him, making that possible through an elaborate scheme in which he convinces the landlord that God has appeared to him, telling him that a flood of Biblical proportions is imminent. The solution, says Nicholas, is to wait overnight for it in a tub suspended from the barn rafters, and to cut the tub from the roof of the barn when the water has risen. This comic prank allows Nicholas and Alison the opportunity to be together.

While Nicholas and Alison lie together, another suitor, Absolon, appears and asks Alison for a kiss. She sticks her bottom out the window, and he kisses it "with relish," pausing only when he feels bristly hair and considers that no woman has a beard. He realizes the prank and, enraged, disappears to get a red hot poker. Returning, he asks for another kiss. This time Nicholas, who had risen from bed to urinate, sticks his "ers" out the window and farts loudly; Absolon brands him in the rear for his trouble. He cries for water, awakening the landlord, who thinks that the second flood is come at last. He panics and cuts himself down, breaking his arm; the rest of the town awakens to find him lying screaming in the tub on the floor of the barn. After that, he is considered a madman and a cuckold by the whole town.

The Miller's Prologue and Tale

The tale appears to combine the motifs of two separate fabliaux, the 'second flood' and 'misdirected kiss', both of which appear in continental European literature of the period. Its bawdiness serves not only to introduce the Reeve's tale, but the general sequence of low comedy which terminates in the unfinished Cook's tale.

Critics see many Christian symbols in the Miller's Tale. Parts of the tale are similar to the Annunciation, with Nicholas as the Angel Gabriel and Alison as Mary, while the clueless carpenter John is Joseph. Nicholas's singing of the 'Virgin's Angelus', a popular song about the annunciation, hints at the parallel. Also, Medieval scriptural critics associated Mary with the image of the Burning Bush, perhaps inspiring the eventual branding with a poker.

The character of Absolon introduces another theme of the Tales, the corruption of the Church. The Nun's Priest's Tale and The Shipman's Tale deals with the same theme; the Summoner, Friar and Pardoner personify it. Absolon is a clerk, but thinks of little except wooing young women at church, and Alison is for her part perfectly willing to be wooed:

"3339: This Absolon, that jolif was and gay,

Gooth with a sencer (censer) on the haliday,
Sensynge the wyves of the parisshe faste;
And many a lovely look on hem he caste,

And namely on this carpenteris wyf."

A third theme, that of knowledge and science, appears in several marginal comments. Nicholas is an avid astrologer (as Chaucer himself was), equipped with, "His Almageste, and bookes grete and smale, / His astrelabie, longynge for his art..." John the carpenter and his servant Robin (also the Miller's name) represent unintellectual laymen; John tells Nicholas:

"3454: Men sholde nat knowe of goddes pryvetee [God's private affairs].

Ye, blessed be alwey a lewed [unlearned] man

That noght but oonly his bileve kan! [who knows nothing except the ]"

He also recounts a story (sometimes told of Thales) of an astrologer who falls into a pit while studying the stars. The issue of whether learned or unlearned faith is better is also relevant to The Prioress' Tale and The Parson's Tale.


The fifteenth-century Tale of Beryn depicts the Miller trying and failing to explain the stained glass windows of Canterbury cathedral.

Chaucer refers to the Distichs of Cato with this passage: "He knew nat Catoun, for his wit was rude.". The Distihs of Cato was one of the most common textbooks in schools throughout medieval Europe, and was familiar to most anyone with a basic education in Latin. The Miller's Tale and the Distichs of Cato both use two hexameter couplet verse.

External links


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