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EllesmereMiller

The Miller as depicted in an early manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. The manuscript is now in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

"The Miller's Tale" (Middle English: "The Milleres Tale") is a bawdy comic short story in verse from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is very different in both tone and subject matter from "The Knight's Tale" which precedes it.

The characters in the story are a foolish old carpenter named John, his beautiful young wife Alisoun (often modernized as "Alison"), a student named Nicholas who rents a room in John's house and a handsome young man named Absalon. Both Absalon and Nicholas are in love with Alisoun but she only returns Nicholas' affections. Nicholas hatches an elaborate plan in order to get John out of the way so that he can sleep with Alisoun. When Absalon hears that John has not been seen all day, he believes that he has a chance to sleep with Alisoun too. All three male characters are badly humiliated before the end of the story.

It is no accident that this story, told by a miller in which a student outwits a foolish carpenter, is followed by "The Reeve's Tale", told by a reeve[1] who used to be a carpenter in which a foolish miller is outwitted by two students.

Plot

In Oxford there lives a student named Nicholas who is highly knowledgeable about astrology. Nicholas rents a room in the house of an old carpenter named John who is married to a beautiful young woman named Alisoun. Nicholas is consumed with lust for Alisoun. She agrees to sleep with him but insists that he must find a way to get John out of the way first, because her husband jealously keeps a close watch over her.

The handsome young parish clerk Absalon is also madly in love with Alisoun. He often sings outside her bedroom window at night. He gives her several presents and even money in an attempt to win her affections but to no avail. Alisoun only loves Nicholas.

Chaucer-canterburytales-miller

The Miller as depicted in a 15th-century edition of The Canterbury Tales.

Nicholas hatches an elaborate plan which will allow him to spend the night with Alisoun. He spends an entire day alone in his room. When John begins to worry about Nicholas' health, he finds the student apparently in a trance. When Nicholas finally speaks, he says that his astrological studies have revealed that a flood worse than the one in the Biblical story of Noah is going to come the following day. Within an hour, the entire world will be flooded and all people will drown but a day later all of the flood water will be gone. Nicholas tells John to get three barrels, one for each of them and one for Alisoun in which to travel over the flood waters. He tells John to tie the three barrels to the ceiling and to carry an ax with which to cut the rope when the flood begins. John is told that he must keep his preparations for the catastrophic flood secret. When John goes to sleep inside his barrel, Nicholas and Alisoun go off to bed together.

Absalon hears that John the carpenter has not been seen all day and is assumed to be out of town. Believing that he finally has a chance to make love to Alisoun, Absalon goes to her bedroom window and begs her to at least give him a kiss. Alisoun sticks her rear end out of the window and, in the dark, Absalon kisses it. Absalon is disgusted and furious. He no longer feels any love for Alisoun but instead wants to get his revenge on her. He borrows a piece of red hot metal from a blacksmith and goes to Alisoun's window once more, telling her that he has a gold ring for her. Nicholas decides that it is his turn to play the same trick on Absalon which Alisoun played before. He goes a step further by breaking wind in Absalon's face but Absalon thrusts the piece of hot metal between Nicholas' buttocks as he does so. Nicholas cries out for water. John hears his cry, thinks that the flood has started, cuts his rope, falls to the floor and is knocked unconscious.

In the morning, John's neighbors find him talking about "Nowell's flood"[2] Nicholas and Alisoun claim that they have no idea what John is talking about and say that the old man has gone mad.

The Miller ends his tale by detailing once again the humiliations which the male characters suffered. The story ends with the memorable lines:

And Nicholas is scolded in the towte
The tale is doon and God save all the rowte!

In the popular Modern English translation by Nevill Coghill, published by Penguin Classics, this is rendered as:

And Nicholas is branded on the bum,
And God save all of us to Kingdom Come.

Footnotes

  1. A reeve was a local official in medieval England. The modern word "sheriff" is derived from "shire reeve"..
  2. "Nowell" is an old English word for Christmas.

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