Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,
For al his kepyng and his jalousye;
And Absolon hath kist hir nether ye;
And Nicholas is scalded in the towte.
In the Miller’s Prologue, we perceive tension between social classes for the first time in The Canterbury Tales. The Host clearly wants the Monk to tell the second tale, so that the storytelling proceeds according to social rank. By butting in, the Miller upsets the Host’s plan. Like the Knight’s Tale, which fits his honorable and virtuous personality, the Miller’s Tale is stereotypical of the Miller’s bawdy character and low station. However, nothing about the drunken, immoral, and brutal Miller could possibly prepare the reader for the Miller’s elegant verse and beautiful imagery. The Miller’s description of Alisoun draws on a completely different stock of images from the Knight’s depiction of Emelye, but it is no less effective. Whereas Emelye is compared to a rose, a lily, the spring, and an angel, Alisoun’s body is delicate and slender like a weasel, her apron is as white as morning milk, and her features are compared to plums and pear trees. The Miller’s imagery is less conventional and less elevated than the Knight’s, drawn instead from the details of village or farm life.
Although the narrator is unforgiving in his depiction of the drunk, rowdy Miller, whom he presents according to the stereotypes of the Miller’s class and profession, there are a few intriguing points of similarity between the narrator and the Miller. For instance, the Miller apologizes for the tale he is about to tell, and transfers all blame to the “ale of Southwerk”—in effect, to the Host himself (3140). Thirty lines later, the narrator himself makes a similar apology, and reminds his audience to blame the Miller if it finds the tale offensive. Also, the Miller begins his story by giving little portraits of each of his characters, just as the narrator begins his story of the pilgrimage by outlining each of its members.
The Host asks the Monk to “quite,” or repay, the Knight’s Tale (3119). But when the Miller interrupts and cries out that he can “quite the Knyghtes [Knight’s] tale,” he changes the word somewhat to mean “revenge” (3127). Indeed, the Miller does take “revenge” upon the Knight to an extent. Just as he transforms the meaning of the word “quite,” the Miller takes several of the themes from the Knight’s Tale and alters them. For instance, the Knight’s Tale suggested that human suffering is part of a divine plan that mortals cannot hope to know. In a completely different tone and context, the Miller, too, cautions against prying into “God’s pryvetee,” meaning God’s secrets (3164). He first raises this idea in his Prologue, arguing that a man shouldn’t take it upon himself to assume that his wife is unfaithful. In the Miller’s Tale, John repeats the caution against prying into “God’s pryvetee.” Several times, John scolds Nicholas for trying to know “God’s pryvetee,” but when Nicholas actually offers to let John in on his secret, John jumps at the chance. John also jealously tries to control his young wife, reminding us that the Miller equated an attempt to know God’s “pryvetee” with a husband’s attempt to know about his wife’s “private parts.” The two round tubs that the foolish carpenter hangs from the roof of his barn, one on either side of a long trough, suggest an obscene visual pun on this vulgar meaning of “God’s pryvetee.”
The Miller’s Tale also responds to the Knight’s by turning the Knight’s courtly love into a burlesque farce. The Miller places his lovers’ intrigues in a lower-class context, satirizing the pretensions of long-suffering courtly lovers by portraying Nicholas and Alisoun in a frank and sexually graphic manner—Nicholas seduces Alisoun by grabbing her by the pudendum, or “queynte” (3276). Absolon, the parish clerk, represents a parody of the conventional courtly lover. He stays awake at night, patiently woos his lady by means of go-betweens, sings and plays guitar, and aspires to be Alisoun’s page or servant. For his pains, all he gets is the chance to kiss Alisoun’s anus and to be farted on by Nicholas.
In addition to parodying tales of courtly love, the Miller’s Tale also plays with the medieval genres of fabliaux and of mystery plays. Fabliaux are bawdy, comic tales that build to a ridiculous and complex climax usually hinging on some joke or trick. Nicholas is parody of the traditional clever cleric in a fabliau. As the deviser of the scheme to trick John, he seems to be attempting to write his own fabliau, although Absolon foils his plan. Yet, John is still the big loser in the end. The moral of the play is that John should not have married someone so young: “Men sholde wedden after hire estaat [their estate], / For youthe and elde [old age] is often at debaat” (3229–3230). Justice is served in the Miller’s eyes when Alisoun commits adultery, because she revenges her husband “[f]or . . . his jalousye” (3851). Despite their differences, the two clerics ally at the story’s end to dupe the carpenter, and so nobody believes John’s story about Nicholas’s trick.
The Miller’s Tale also includes references to different scenes acted out in medieval mystery plays. Mystery plays, which typically enacted stories of God, Jesus, and the saints, were the main source of biblical education for lay folk in the Middle Ages. As John’s gullibility shows, his education through mystery plays means that he has only a slight understanding of the Bible. The Miller begins his biblical puns in his Prologue, when he says that he will speak in “[Pontius] Pilates” place. His statement that he will tell “a legende and a lyf / Bothe of a carpenter and of his wyf” is a reference to the story of Joseph and Mary. “Legends and lives” were written and told of the saints, and the story in which Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant (and the many jokes that could be made about Mary being unfaithful) was a common subject of mystery plays. The stories of Noah’s flood, and of Noah’s wife, are also obviously twisted around by the Miller. These biblical puns work up to the climax of the tale. When he says that Nicholas’s fart was as great as a “thonder-dent,” the Miller aligns Nicholas—the creator of the action—with God (3807). Absolon, who cries out, “My soule bitake I unto Sathanas [Satan]” (3750), becomes a version of the devil, who damns God by sticking him with his red-hot poker. The result of Absolon’s actions is that John falls from the roof in a pun on the fall of humanity.