Gospel & Universe

Don't Forget the Miller

This page explores the more realistic side of Medieval thinking -- the down-to-earth worlds of Chaucer and Boccaccio (rather than the theological realms of Aquinas and Dante).

Chaucer & Dante - The Miller's Tale - Boethius

Chaucer & Dante

The Medieval universe wasn't always so neatly packaged, nor so finely conceptualized, as in Aquinas and Dante: Boccaccio and Chaucer show us the earthy, chaotic beauty of less rarified lives. The pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (written toward the end of the 14th Century) may be on a pilgrimage to the holy shrine in Kent, but their earthly concerns are evident at every turn -- especially in the miller, who would be more at home telling stories in a Hogarth pub than praying at the holy shrine of Thomas à Becket: 

In the prologue to The Miller's Tale, the narrator urges the monk to tell a virtuous tale to follow the noble tale of the knight. Yet the miller interrupts this higher chain of command (blaming his lack of manners on the ale of Southwark) and insists on telling a scandalous tale. The host then makes a big point about allowing the miller to tell his tale, for he wants to include all voices, or else be false to [his] design. 

Dante's design is the Divine Scheme of God -- according to which individuals will spend eternity either basking in the rosy clouds of Heaven or writhing in the fires of Hell. Chaucer's design assumes the clouds and fires, yet his focus is the world of the pub, the workplace, and the home. He's more interested in corrupt monks, deluded old men, aggressive wives, and conniving students. They may end up in Hell some day, but Chaucer focuses on what they're doing in the here and now.

Dante and Chaucer both tell the story of people's lives, yet Dante's life-stories -- mostly in the form of fictional interviews with famous figures from history, religion, and myth -- are subordinated to the theological result of these stories. The psychology and sociology of Dante's figures are placed within a cosmological and moral framework that makes final judgements about their souls. One can see this in the main titles of his long poem: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Dante used Commedia for the overall title, which refers to a style of writing which was half-way between tragedy and elegy, yet which also had notes of a lieto fine or happy ending, as in the definition of dramatic comedy. Since the poem is also an allegory about the soul's journey from sin to eternal life, it thus contains the greatest sort of happy ending possible.

Contrast this with Chaucer's title, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's title highlights the aspects of a narrative or story: the physical, mental, emotion, and social descriptions which make for a good story -- as opposed to a life-changing moral instruction. The sub-titles refer to the names of the characters themselves -- The Miller's Tale, The Wife of Bath's Tale, etc. -- and thus point to the specific emphasis of his long poem: the lives of particular and realistic people. 


The Miller's Tale

Chaucer's lack of moral, theological, final judgment allows him to 1) focus on realistic characters and situations, 2) avoid dogmatic interpretations, and 3) promote freedom of expression. At the end of The Miller's Prologue Chaucer argues that if readers don't want to read scandalous tales, they don't have to. Instead, they can just turn over the page. Also, they should lighten up, and not mistake what's playful for what's serious. The implied ethic is, Let people have their say, even though you don't approve of what they're saying. This design is strikingly democratic and liberal -- long before these terms took on their Modern meaning; long before Locke's argument for an open society in Two Treatises of Government (1689), and long before Mill's argument for individual freedom in On Liberty (1859).

After Chaucer makes his anti-censorship argument, The Miller's Tale begins. It's a scandalous tale about an old carpenter and his 18 year-old wife Alison.

Before going into the tale itself, one might note that the stock situation of an old husband with a young wife crops up in another tale by Chaucer --The Merchant's Tale, which in itself might suggest that humans are repeatedly lustful and gullible (the old man) as well as lustful and opportunistic (the young wife). In The Merchant's Tale the old man (January) is blind (literally and metaphorically) and as a result he can't see what is really happening when he helps his young wife (May) climb up a tree so that she can eat a "pear" that she's dying to eat (Chaucer here alludes to the Garden of Eden and its forbidden fruit). May's lover Damian is waiting for her in the branches and the two immediately start having sex: "And sodeynly anon this Damyan / Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng." The moment May climbs up the back of her husband to reach her lover is wonderfully illustrated by Warwick Goble: 

Likewise, the ménage in The Miller's Tale is doomed from the start:

This carpenter had wedded a new wife,

Who he loved more than his own life.

Of eighteen years was she of age.

Jealous he was, and held her narrowly in cage,

For she was wild and young, and he was old

And deemed himself likely to be a cuckold. [...]

The description of Alison brims with earthy detail: 

Fair was this young wife, and then withal

Like a weasel’s her body, shapely, small.

A belt she wore, one all barred with silk;

An apron too, as white as morning milk,

Upon her hips, full of many a gusset.

White was her smock [...]  

We soon get lost in the details of the story and forget about any bigger moral dimensions: into this precarious ménage comes a young student boarder, Nicholas. Smooth and sophisticated, Nicholas plays music, sings, and has a copy of Ptolemy's Almagest. After getting an eyeful of Alison, the young student can't keep his hands to himself:

Now sirs, now, so things came to pass,

That one day this handsome Nicholas

Began with this young wife to fool and play,

While her husband was down Osney way –

As clerks are full of subtlety and tricks.

And covertly he caught her by the sex,

And said: "Sweetheart, unless I have my will

For secret love of you, then die I will!"

And held her hard by the haunch bones,

And: "Sweetheart, love me, now,’ he moans,

Or I will die, as God shall me save!"

She leapt as does a colt, in its way

Of being shod, and turned her head away.

The seduction of Alison shouldn't really be called a seduction since she's more than willing to be seduced. Although she pretends to be coy, she gives in very quickly. In the flurry of their heated moment, she also manages to make plans to have a more lengthy tryst. 

She said: "I will not kiss you, by my faith!

Why, let be" cried she, "let be, Nicholas!

Or I will cry Now, help! and shout Alas!

Remove your hands, by every courtesy!"

Then Nicholas began to cry for mercy,

And spoke so fair, so earnestly did cast,

That she was hooked, and pledged her love at last,

And swore an oath, by Thomas, Saint of Kent,

That she would be at his commandment [...]

At the end of this scene, Chaucer sends Alison off to church, underscoring the slippage between physical realities and heavenly ideals: 

Then it befell, that to the parish church,

There to perform Christ’s own works,

This good wife went, on a holy day.

Her forehead shone as bright as any day [...]

Nicholas then manages to convince the old carpenter to build an ark to save himself from the coming Flood. When the old man finds refuge in his ark, Nicholas sleeps with Alison. Chaucer isn't suggesting that the story of Noah is for gullible geezers like the carpenter. Rather, the biblical story becomes secondary to the story of human lust -- the old man's lust for the beautiful young Alison, Nicholas' lust for Alison, and Alison's lust for Nicholas.

The earthly doesn't so much negate as overshadow or eclipse the spiritual

Even Chaucer's prioress, sitting so demurely on her horse -- as in the 15th century Ellesmere manuscript below -- appears to be more interested in fine manners, her little dogs, and her French accent, than in spiritual matters. 

Despite Chaucer's attacks on religiosity and hypocritical clerics, he didn't doubt that God was in His Heaven. Nor did he doubt that this life was a trial for the life to come. Like Boccaccio, whose work he emulated, Chaucer lived through the horrors of the Black Death, which during the 1340s and 50s killed at least a third of the population of Europe. 



Chaucer also follows in the footsteps of his favourite author Anicius Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison in 523. In this work, Boethius sees the meaning -- and deep trials -- of life less in religious terms and more in philosophic terms. His concept of the Wheel of Fortune influenced both Boccaccio and Chaucer, and can be seen in the illustrated pages below, where men go up and down according to Fortune, and where Boethius himself started high (as a teacher) and ended low (as a prisoner):

Unlike Aquinas and Dante, Boethius and Chaucer don't feel the need to explain the vicissitudes of fate in terms of Christian doctrine. Not everything in the Christian world of the Middle Ages had to refer back to the Bible or Jesus. Chaucer's design or plan in writing his chef d'oeuvre is to reflect the types of people in his society. Yet neither do Boethius or Chaucer turn from Christianity -- to science or atheism. The reasons may be multiple, yet one of the most important reasons has to do with the state of science at the time.

Even for fun-loving late Medieval writers like Boccaccio and Chaucer religion was the only big explanation on offer. Science was in too embryonic a stage to be of much use in questioning the Grand Design offered by writers like Aquinas and Dante. What explanations of science there were, weren't as clear as the logic of Plato, Augustine, and Aristotle. Nor were they as coherent as the historical framework of the Bible.


Next: Summa Post Theologica

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