Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Enduring human nature in Chaucer’s ‘The Miller’s Tale’

By DR. DAVID A. KING, Commentary | Published September 21, 2020

This pandemic September marks the first time in 35 years that I have not been on a college campus for the start of fall semester.

I’m teaching remotely, conducting virtual asynchronous courses from my kitchen counter. I miss my seminar room. Most of all, I miss my students. I miss their laughter, and their curiosity, and even their occasional apathy. I miss the students who are brilliant, even gifted, as well as the few dullards who spend more time doing the wrong thing than it would have taken to do the right thing in the first place. I miss their youth, and how they collectively summon from the past my own youth.

Colleges—and college students—are under a lot of scrutiny now. Campuses that were determined to open as usual are now shuttered because of rampant virus. Large football conferences have canceled seasons. Debate rages about the value, or lack thereof, in classes delivered online. And students across the country are openly defying the expectations and regulations that govern life in a global pandemic.

Defiance is part of being a student; it’s a universal and unchanging quality of youth. While many of us wring our hands and complain about the reckless behavior of college kids, we often forget that we ourselves once behaved in similar ways. We may also rightfully question the actions of administrators who opened campuses in the first place, and who must now take responsibility for the inevitable consequences.

I’m not condoning at all some of the idiotic behavior we’ve witnessed so far on campuses, but I’m also hesitant to condemn it with sanctimonious horror. I was a student for years, and I worked hard at it; in my humble dormitory room, I could be as studious as a monk in his cell, and I spent hours in my graduate study carrel in the library. Forgive me the small harrumph that all of this was pre-internet.

When it came time for a good time, however, I was equally adept. In short, I wasn’t much different from students today, or students 600 years ago.

This 16th century image of Geoffery Chaucer is from “Portrait and Life of Chaucer.”

My introduction to Geoffery Chaucer—who knew a good deal about students, politicians, and bureaucrats, and who had profound insight into the universality of human nature—came not from school, but from my father. I had uttered a “bad word,” and my dad said, “You say that as if you’re the first person in the world to use that word. You ought to read some Chaucer. That kind of language is hundreds of years old.” We had a set of Great Books in our home; you know the kind, the faux leather-bound tomes with embossed titles, the spines of which were hardly ever cracked. He pulled from the set Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. “Read ‘The Miller’s Tale,’” he said. “You’ll see.” It was a revelation I have never forgotten, and I tell my students that story every time I teach Chaucer.

The tales of pilgrims

Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales near the end of the 14th century. Like many medieval works, it was meant to be an omnibus of sorts. A group of about 30 pilgrims are on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury; to pass the time, the host suggests that each pilgrim tell two stories on the way, and two on the return. Had Chaucer managed to accomplish this, he would have written nearly 120 tales!  As it is, we have 24 stories and a marvelous prologue, but the sheer range of literary genres and characters that the tales contain represents a great achievement. Another important consequence of The Canterbury Tales is that Chaucer was able to preserve the English vernacular in textual form.  Many people argue that The Canterbury Tales is one of the very few examples of text, rather than the oral tradition, influencing language change.

“The Miller’s Tale” is the second tale in the cycle, and though it is told early on the pilgrimage, its teller is already quite drunk on Southwark ale. The story is notoriously bawdy, but it also reveals some fundamental themes of the collective work, among them the idea that people are not defined by what they do, but by who they are. Further, the story—like almost all the tales—is a fine example of a crucial medieval approach to life: live wholeheartedly in the world but remain spiritually detached from it. In Chaucer’s world, the church is a pervasive and constant presence, even amid human folly.

The story concerns a foolish carpenter, John, who has married a beautiful young woman named Allison.  John is constantly jealous, so afraid that he will be made a cuckold that he cannot enjoy his marriage. As Chaucer reminds us, “youth and age are often out of joint.” John takes in as a boarder an Oxford student named Nicholas. Nicholas is quite clever; he has mastered his curriculum in the liberal arts and is now pursuing a study of astrology. Nicholas is immediately smitten with Allison, and in short order he makes John a cuckold. Into this triangle comes Absalom, an acolyte in the village parish, who is a caricature of medieval courtly love. Obsessed with Allison, Absalom makes a fool of himself serenading and wooing her, all to no avail for Allison loves only Nicholas.

In a plot that is practically a prototype for the modern television sit-com, Nicholas devises a plan to make Allison his own. He convinces John that he has seen a vision of a flood greater than Noah’s that will destroy the world. He has John build three tubs—one for John, one for Nicholas, and one for Allison—that they will set on the rooftop the night of the coming flood. When the waters rise, Nicholas assures John that they will all float safely away in their tubs.

The tubs are entirely a ruse; though they all take positions in them, John falls quickly asleep, and Nicholas and Allison go in the house to pursue their affair. In the meantime, Absalom shows up; bawdy hilarity ensues, and the story ends with the entire village believing that John has lost his mind, not to mention his wife.

The devious cunning of the student Nicholas is an important part of the story, but there are other factors that make it particularly relevant to us in the pandemic. One is the awareness of the fragility of life. John may be a jealous fool, but he is right to note that “This world is now very ticklish, surely. / I saw today a corpse carried to church/That just now, on last Monday, I saw him work.”

Another is the danger implicit in worry or anxiety. As he narrates the tale, the Miller observes “Lo, what a great thing is emotion! / One can die of imagination / So deeply may a mental image be taken.”

Finally, the story depicts a society in which both faith and reason are important, yet it criticizes a blind faith that leaves no room for intellect. “Men should not know of God’s secrets,” says John, who assumes that Nicholas has driven himself mad studying. Rather, John proclaims “Blessed be always an unlearned man/Who knows nothing but only his belief!”

The result of this fallacy is that John learns the truth of Chaucer’s words: “the nigh and sly will make the absent suffer.” Had John trusted and cared sincerely for his wife, he might never have been cuckolded.  On the other hand, had he kept more careful watch upon Nicholas, rather than presuming him to be merely an addled student, he might have prevented the ruin that is brought upon his household.

I’ve always adored The Canterbury Tales because of its blend of practical wisdom and humorous insight into human nature. At the same time the stories instruct, they also provide a respite from troubled times.

Chaucer was no stranger to pandemics; in his own lifetime in England, plague was a real and constant deadly threat. His “Miller’s Tale,” therefore, reminds us of the importance of narrative art that brings both wisdom and pleasure into a frightened world.

It also might make you think twice about sending your kids back to campus; left to their own devices, college students can do some outrageous things.

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.