A swerd and bokeler bar he by his syde.
. . .
A whit cote and a blew hood wered he.
A bagpipe wel koude he blow and sowne,
And therwithal he brought us out of towne.
John, a rich old carpenter of Oxford has a young wife, the eighteen-year-old Alisoun, whom he guards carefully, for he is very jealous. He has a boarder, the clerk Nicholas, who makes advances to Alisoun; she quickly agrees and they determine to consummate the affair. Absolon, the parish clerk and village dandy, also lusts for Alisoun, but he woos her in vain, for Nicholas is there first. Nicholas tricks John into thinking that Noah's flood is coming again; John rigs up three kneading tubs, in which he, Nicholas, and Alisoun can float until the waters recede. When the flood is due, all three climb up into the tubs. John goes to sleep, Alisoun and Nicholas go back to the bedroom. They are interrupted by Absolon, who has come to woo Alisoun at the window. She promises him a kiss and puts her backside out the window. Absolon kisses it. He soon realizes his mistake. He gets a hot coulter (plow blade) from Gervase, the smith, and returns to ask for another kiss. Nicholas puts his backside out, Absolon strikes it with the red-hot coulter, Nicholas yells for water; the carpenter awakes and thinks the flood has come, cuts lose his tub and falls and breaks his arm. The neighbors rush in, and all are convinced old John is mad.
(Students reading this text for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful.)
The Miller's Tale is Chaucer's finest fabliaux; indeed, it is the best of all the fabliaux in English or French. It embodies two widespread motifs -- "The Misdirected Kiss" and the "Second Flood."
The "Misdirected Kiss" can appear in a simple form:
Old Hogyn's Aventure, for example, is a sixteenth-century ballad version of the climax in the Miller's Tale. It is late enough to have been influenced by Chaucer's Tale, but it may also reflect an oral version of the motif in its most primitive form.
The motif can also be developed in an elaborate manner:
Massucio's "Viola and Her Lovers" shows the tale in its fully-developed form, complete with the hot metal implement.
Bèrenger of the Long Arse, employs the motif in a quite different manner, as a means of punishing snobbery of the sort Absolon displays (though the punishment and its effect are quite different).
The motif of prophesying some disaster as part of arranging a lovers' tryst also appears in a simple form:
Morlini's "The Monk Who Prophesied an Earthquake" renders the simple tale in elegant Latin verse.
The combination of the two motifs in one tale does not appear until after Chaucer's time and then only in German sources: Hans Sachs' The Smith in the Kneading Tub. This version, by the famous German Meistersinger, has almost all the elements of the tale as it appears in Chaucer, though in a highly condensed form.
Perhaps Chaucer knew the tale in a form similar to that in Hans Sach's version, or the combination may have been Chaucer's own independent work. However it came about, in the Miller's Tale the two motifs are interwoven into a plot of breath-taking perfection. That moment when all the themes of the tale come together -- when Nicholas is burned in the tout, yells for water, and thus makes the old carpenter think Noah's flood is come again -- approaches the sublime. One critic, Henry Seidel Canby, who regarded the Miller's Tale as a perfect short story, wrote that at that moment when all the strings of the plot are drawn together it seems "as if the heavens opened, and the gods looked down and smiled."
Noah's Flood is a theme that runs throughout the tale; it is mentioned nine times. Some critics see typological significance in this; Jane Zatta's Chaucer page contains some interesting commentary on the significance of Noah, his ark, and his sons. Moreover, Nicholas' interest in astrology fits well with Noah and the Flood: John J. O'Connor, The Astrological Background of the Miller's Tale, Speculum 31 (1956), 120-25.
That, however, is for the intellectuals; the old cuckold who knows not Cato gets his information about the deluge from the popular drama:
"Hastou nat herd," quod Nicholas, "also
The sorwe of Noe with his felaweshipe,
Er that he myghte gete his wyf to shipe?" (MilT (1).3538-40)
For Noah's difficulties with his wife, see: The Townley Play of Noah.
The Miller's Tale also makes full use of the parodic echoes of courtly love so often found in the fabliaux, though Alisoun is more a barnyard beauty than a courtly lady. This is clear in the way that Chaucer parodies the now old fashioned diction of earlier English attempts at the courtly style, such as the Harley Lyrics (see E.T. Donaldson, Speaking of Chaucer, pp. 22-24; Chaucer uses the familiar method of description recommended by the rhetoricians, but he draws on country life for his imagery (See Charles Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition, p. 229). Critics have noted similarities between the description of Alisoun and the description in the Harley Lyric "The Fair Maid of Ribbesdale."
The Miller is a churl who attempts to "quit" the Knight's Tale, so admired by the "gentils." A good many critics have thus been interested in the problems of class that the Tale seems to raise. Two good starting points for considering such matters are:
D. S. Brewer, "Class Distinction in Chaucer," Speculum, Vol. 43, No. 2. (Apr., 1968), pp. 290-305.
For a more detailed account of the Miller's Tale, see Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Miller's Tale (and fabliaux in general) click here.