Friday, 31 July 2015

The Miller's Prologue and Tale, The Reeve's Prologue and Tale, and The Cook's Prologue and Tale, from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

This week I've finished reading Fragment I of The Canterbury Tales, which consists of the General Prologue, The Knight's Tale, and three shorter prologues and tales from The Miller, The Reeve, and The Cook:

The Miller.
The Miller's Prologue (3109 - 3186)

The Miller was described in the General Prologue as,
... a janglere and a goliardeys, / And that was moost of synne and harlotries
which means he could write but was a bit of a jester producing mostly sinful, bawdy lines. By the time the Knight had finished his tale the Miller is drunk ("The Millere, that for dronken was al pale") - when the host asks the Monk to tell his story the Miller, Robin is his name, interrupts and tells the group he will be the next man to tell a tale - 
... "By armes, and by blood and bones,
I kan a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knyghts tale."
The host, seeing how drunk he is, suggests this is not a good idea but the Miller is determined, though does acknowledge how drunk he is, and says if he does step out of line to blame it on the ale - 
And therfore if that I mysspeke or seye,
Wyte it the ale of Southwerk, I you preye.
An argument breaks out between the Miller and the Reeve (Oswald), but still the Miller is undeterred and Chaucer is forced to conclude the Miller's Prologue with a disclaimer, "M'athynketh that I shal reherce it heere" [I regret I must repeat the tale], and "Avyseth yow, and put me out of blame; / And eek men shal nat maken ernest of game" [Don't blame me, and don't take this game too seriously".

The Miller's Tale (3187 - 3854)

The Miller proceeds to tell the story of a husband, a wife, and a scholar (or "clerk") in Oxford. The scholar, Nicholas, is bright and well-educated, and takes a particular interest in astrology (he even owns an astrolabe, with which Chaucer was well acquainted). He rents a room with the carpenter, John, and his beautiful eighteen year old wife Alison who the Miller describes at length in this rather lovely ode:
Fair was this yonge wyf, and therwithal
As any wezele hir body gent and smal.
A ceynt she werede, barred al of silk,
A barmclooth as whit as morne milk
Upon hir lendes, ful of many a goore.
Whit was hir smok, and broyden al bifoore
And eek bihynde, on hir coler aboute,
Of col-blak silk, withinne and eek withoute.
The tapes of hir white voluper
Were of the same suyte of hir coler;
Hir filet brood of silk, and set ful hye.
And sikerly she hadde a likerous ye;
Ful smale ypulled were hire browes two,
And tho were bent and blake as any sloo.
She was ful moore blisful on to see
Than is the newe pere-jonette tree,
And softer than the wolle is of a wether.
And by hir girdel heeng a purs of lether,
Tasseled with silk and perled with latoun.
In al this world, to seken up and doun,
There nys no man so wys that koude thenche
So gay a popelote or swich a wenche.
Ful brighter was the shynyng of hir hewe
Than in the Tour the noble yforged newe.
But of hir song, it was as loude and yerne
As any swalwe sittynge on a berne.
Therto she koude skippe and make game,
As any kyde or calf folwynge his dame.
Hir mouth was sweete as bragot or the meeth,
Or hoord of apples leyd in hey or heeth.
Wynsynge she was, as is a joly colt,
Long as a mast, and upright as a bolt.
A brooch she baar upon hir lowe coler,
As brood as is the boos of a bokeler.
Hir shoes were laced on hir legges hye.
She was a prymerole, a piggesnye,
For any lord to leggen in his bedde,
Or yet for any good yeman to wedde.
Alison from The Miller's Tale illustrated by
Warwick Goble. Alison here is often mistaken for
The Wife of Bath, also called Alison,
but this image is certainly Goble's illustration
to The Miller's Tale and can be found here on Archive.
Of course Nicholas falls for her, and they begin an affair. However, Nicholas is not the only one that wants her - so too does Absolon. Here is where the Miller's tale shares similarities with the Knight's Tale - two young men competing for a woman. But the tone is much different, the Knight's tale was a courtly romance not even suggestive; the Miller's is far more explicit, and the young wife rejects Absolon from the start in favour of Nicholas. 

So, the two carry on their affair but grow frustrated that they cannot spend more time together. So Nicholas hatches a plan worthy of Boccaccio - they convince John that there is to be a flood of biblical proportions and that God will save them if they each hang in a bucket on the outside of the house, which will float when the water hits it. John does so and Nicholas and Alison spent the night together, however Absolon arrives early in the morning once again attempting to seduce Alison. In a rather graphic description the Miller then describes how Alison,
 ... at the wyndow out she putte hir hole [bottom],
And Absolon, hym fil no bet ne wers,
But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers [arse]
Ful savourly, er he were war of this.
Needless to say on discovering this Absolon is infuriated and decides to get his revenge by getting her to do the same again and then branding her with a hot poker. But it is Nicholas who gets the hot poker when he thrusts his arse out of the window and farts ("As greet as it had been a thonder-dent"  nearly blinding the clerk in the process just to add further insult). But the clerk is ready and "And Nicholas amydde the ers he smoot." Nicholas shrieks and cries for water, "Help! Water! Water! Help, for Goddes herte!" and John, still sitting in his bucket, takes this as a sign that God's flood has been sent and he cuts the rope from the roof ready to float. Of course there is no flood and he comes crashing through the ceiling and lands amidst the chaos. The whole town hearing all the shouting comes to see and poor John is mocked.

This is a very lewd and silly tale, but very entertaining indeed! There are elements - a jealous, older husband and an unfaithful wife. I couldn't find the source of this tale, but it did put me in mind of a story from The Decameron - the fourth story on the third day narrated by Panfilo, in which he tells how Dom Felice taught Friar Puccio how to attain blessedness by doing a very long and convoluted penance. As he does so Dom Felice has his way with the Friar's wife, Monna Isabetta. It is great fun, but it is understandable why this story was always cut out of various editions of The Canterbury Tales! It also serves as a warning - Nicholas has convinced John that he had a divine revelation that the great flood would come, suggesting that one should not always trust those who claim to be prophets as they may simply be telling tales to further their own end.


The Reeve's Prologue (3855 - 3920)

This follows directly from the Miller's Tale, and we see the reaction of the company -
Whan folk hadde laughen at this nyce cas
Of Absolon and hende Nicholas,
Diverse folk diversely they seyde,
But for the moore part they loughe and pleyde.
Ne at this tale I saugh no man hym greve,
But it were oonly Osewold the Reve.
Oswald the Reeve was described in the General Prologue as a thin, choleric man whose tenants "were adrad of hym as of the deeth". He takes issue with the Miller for making carpenters look foolish (the Reeve was once a carpenter), so in reply to the Miller's Tale he tells his own dark tale.

The Reeve's Tale (3921 - 4324)

*** I'll start by saying there's a description of rape in this tale, so should you not want to read it go straight to the final part, 'The Cook's Prologue and Tale'.***

This was quite possibly inspired by Boccaccio's tale of Pinuccio and Adriano in The Decameron (the sixth tale on Day IX), which I summarised: 
Panfilo tells the story of Pinuccio and Adriano. Pinuccio falls in love with a young woman, Niccolosa (Panfilo is reminded of this young woman by Fiammetta's tale). She reciprocates, and so Adriano helps Pinuccio work out a way for them to spend time alone together. They go to stay at Niccolosa's father's inn and that night Pinuccio finds his way into Niccolosa's bed. Such is the confusion over sleeping arrangements (they are all sharing one bedroom), the innkeeper's wife gets into bed with Adriano thinking he is her husband (he is now alone as Pinuccio is with Niccolosa), and Adriano "gave her a most cordial reception". Before morning, Pinuccio must now get back into his own bed. He assumes Adriano and the innkeeper's wife are actually the innkeeper and his wife, he climbs into bed with the real innkeeper and begins boasting of his night with Niccolosa. The innkeeper's wife realises what has happened, so quickly gets into bed with Niccolosa, tells her husband Pinuccio was lying or sleep-talking, and no harm done. 
The Reeve tells the story of a miller, Simpkin, who is described as a sly thief:
A theef he was for sothe of corn and mele,
And that a sly, and usaunt for to stele.
His name was hoote deynous Symkyn.
When he steals flour however by distracting two students, John and Aleyn, two fun-loving chaps from up north ("Fer in the north; I kan nat telle where"), they decide to get their revenge. They stay at the miller's house with his wife and daughter. After an evening of good food and wine they go to bed, the miller and his wife in one bed, the daughter in another, and John and Aleyn in the third. As in Boccaccio however, there is some bed-swapping however the tale is blacker - it appears the two men rape the daughter. For example, when Aleyn goes to the daughter's bed it is written,
This wenche lay uprighte and faste slepte,
Til he so ny was, er she myghte espie,
That it had been to late for to crie,
And shortly for to seyn, they were aton.
Next, John tricks the miller's wife into his bed. The Reeve suggests that the wife enjoys what takes place,
Withinne a while this John the clerk up leep,
And on this goode wyf he leith on soore.
So myrie a fit ne hadde she nat ful yoore;
He priketh harde and depe as he were mad.
Either the wife was not raped, or this is a misogynistic Reeve claiming that she enjoyed being raped. He's an unpleasant man, and I wouldn't be surprised if in this case it was the latter. Furthermore, I do believe the daughter was raped repeatedly, and by the end the Reeve claims she had come to enjoy it, and even bids him a fond farewell when the pair leave, but not before the miller has discovered what has taken place and beats them.

It's a remarkable tale that seemed to promise some light-hearted fun but turned so very dark and unsettling. The tale is entirely in keeping with the Reeve's character, I think, and though awful, Chaucer writes very well. What is also important about this tale is that the two men, John and Aleyn, speak in dialect. I do admit I didn't pick up on this myself but read it in the introduction of my book, but it is one of the very first examples of an author writing in a dialect that is not his own. Here's an example -
"Symond," quod John, "by God, nede has na peer.
Hym boes serve hymself that has na swayn
It is the "na" that is important - still today we from the North East of England would say "Na" instead of "No", which would have been how Chaucer would have said / written in his own dialect. Another example, the use of "man",
Step on thy feet! Com of, man, al atanes!
"Man" is a form of address to either a man or a woman in the North East (the "a" of "man" is a short vowel sound rather than the usual slightly longer southern or RP way of speaking) - something I'm struggling to explain very clearly, I'm afraid! Even so, as I said, it's an interesting piece of writing for that detail on the dialogue.


The Cook's Prologue (4325 - 4364)

From the Prologue of the Cook (Roger) we see his reaction to the Reeve's previous tale - a malicious trick done in the dark, but God forbid we linger on this subject:
He hadde a jape of malice in the derk.
But God forbede that we stynte heere;
He promises to tell a fun tale - "A litel jape that fil in oure citee" and the Host encourages him to do so.

The Cook's Tale (4365 - 4422)

Alas, Chaucer did not complete the Cook's Tale - all we have are fifty-seven lines about an apprentice, an attractive, brightly dressed womaniser:
A prentys whilom dwelled in oure citee,
And of a craft of vitailliers was hee.
Gaillard he was as goldfynch in the shawe,
Broun as a berye, a propre short felawe,
With lokkes blake, ykembd ful fetisly.
Dauncen he koude so wel and jolily
That he was cleped Perkyn Revelour.
He was as ful of love and paramour
As is the hyve ful of hony sweete;
When his apprenticeship is ended he celebrates, and he moves in with his friend who has a wife who keeps a shop only for appearances - "And hadde a wyf that heeld for contenance", and with the following line, "A shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance" (saying that the wife was a prostitute) we are at the end of The Cook's Tale.

How Chaucer envisaged this is unknown. Fragment I has been full of stories of two men and one woman: the Knight's tale was about Arcite and Palamon who both wanted Emily, in the Miller's Tale Nicholas and Absolon want Alison, and in The Reeve's Tale John and Aleyn want the miller's daughter. We could assume the two men are the apprentice and his friend, and the wife is the desired one. There is a tale in the Decameron (VIII.i) of a man who falls for his friend's wife. She consents to sleep with him but asks for payment, and so he borrows the money from his friend, when he pays he instructs her to give it to her husband thus the debt is paid and he sleeps with her free of charge. I wonder if our fun-loving apprentice does something like that. It's impossible to say!

So with that, Fragment I is at an end. Next week Fragment II, which only consists of the Man of Law's Introduction and Tale.

See also:

← Previously: The Knight's Tale


  1. I'm still on The Reeve! I'd better hurry!

    1. Can't wait to see what you make of The Reeve... And The Cook will only take five mins, it's only a few lines. Well, sixty, but compared to The Knight that is minuscule :)

  2. Okay, I finished all three now. I didn't think that the daughter was raped, nor the wife. I don't know why. Personally, I didn't appreciate the bed-swapping but the intent appeared all in good fun. And I assumed that Chaucer was again juxtaposing the church and sinful activities, ie. a Parson's daughter appears pure but sleeps with a student (otherwise, why mention that she's a clergyman's daughter?). I don't know. Honestly, while on one level I'm enjoying the tales, on another I don't quite know how to take them.

    Well, on to The Man of Law, which I don't have in either to my editions and then The Wife of Bath. Eeeek!!! It's looooong .....

    1. I think this set of tales were tricky - I mean, like you, I wasn't quite sure how to take them either. I enjoyed reading them, though I really didn't like The Reeve at all!

      The Wife of Bath is long, but not as long as The Knight's Tale! Looking forward to it, hoping to read it this evening :)

      I LOVE CHAUCER! Really enjoying this!


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