The Miller’s Tale is a humorous story about an old rich carpenter, his wife and two clerks. The latter two keeps seducing the carpenter’s wife in order to get her to bed. Among the various themes in this story is cuckoldry. The term cuckoldry refers to a man whose wife is unfaithful. This is a word derived from the cuckoo bird. The word can also refer to a man who gains sexual satisfaction by having his wife sleep with another man. The story tells how a woman in the medieval times could use her sexual appeal to deceive many people.
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Cuckoldry, fear of infidelity, battle of the sexes and mortality are some of the major themes that are central to and are found throughout the Miller’s Tale.
The Miller’s Tale: Cuckoldry and Fear of Infidelity
The old carpenter had married an 18 year old woman whom he really loved. He was very jealous and kept her caged for fear of her wild ways, a consequence of which he would be made a cuckold (Chaucer 142). They lived with a young clerk who had a passion for astrology and people would consult him regarding whether it will rain or not.
Cuckoldry is visible when John, the carpenter, withstands his wife’s adultery despite his knowing of it. When Absolon comes to sing with his guitar outside the carpenter’s house, all he asks his wife is whether she can hear Absolon sing instead of chasing him away. This is clear when he says “………he syngeth in his voys gentil and small” (Chaucer 256). According to the story, this does not happen once but takes place several times. Absolon even goes to the extent of sending her gifts in form of spiced wine and cakes. Chaucer says “he sententh hyre pyment, meeth and spiced ale” (line 270). We are not told anything about the protestations of the husband against such habits. Absolon keeps tries to woo Allison for a long time.
The cuckold here is not just John the carpenter but also Absolon because he is aware of the fact that Allison is married. She also makes it clear to him that she loves Nickolas, the clerk (Chaucer 144). Despite the fact that John knows Absolon is trying to woo his wife, he still neglects her and goes to Osenay. This is despite the fact that we are told he would have protected his wife with his life. This shows just how much John neglected his wife leaving her to do whatever she likes even if it meant falling for Absolon’s charms.
We could also say that Nickolas is a cuckold as he knows that Allison is married. The man insists that he loves her regardless of the fact that he knows she is another man’s wife. He also mentions nothing to Absolon about his love for Allison. He does not ask him to leave her alone and in the end he pays for this by having his back branded by Absolon.
The fear of infidelity is evident throughout the tale. First, when the old carpenter marries a young beautiful bride, he is described as being overprotective and jealous. This is evident when Chaucer says “jalous he was, and heeld hire narwe in cage” (line 116). We are told that he is willing to guard her even with his own life. This is because she is young and wild and the carpenter is scared of her making a cuckold out of him or rather scared of her being adulterous. Cato always advised men to marry women of their own age stating that a young person is wild and unpredictable (Chaucer 160). This is a clear indication of the fear of infidelity. The society fears that if an old man married a young woman, then she would betray him by sleeping with other men. The author says “……but since he had fallen into the snare, he had to endure his problem like everyone else” (Chaucer 164).
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The author says that Allison is as graceful as a weasel. A weasel is a sly animal and not a graceful one (Chaucer 159). This could be a satirical description by the author meant to be deciphered only by the readers.
When Allison is first approached by Nicholas, she rejects his advances and even threatens to accuse him of rape. She is scared of being adulterous and getting involved with Nicholas but the desires of her body overcome her and she gives in to Nicholas’ advances. She also asks him to be very secretive as her husband is a very jealous man. She tells him that “…unless we watch well, and keep private, I know very well I am dead” (Chaucer 164)
At this juncture, we should ask ourselves why Nicholas and Allison did not fornicate when the husband was away on business. This is a time when they had every opportunity. But they had to go all the way by planning and executing a plan where they would fool the carpenter just to have an opportunity to fornicate. Only one conclusion can be made from such a situation. This is the fear of infidelity in the community. Absolon (another man who loved Allison dearly) was denied of having her due to the fact that she stated very clearly that she was in love with another man (Chaucer & Richmond 279).
Traditional mortality is brought about when death occurs under normal circumstances for example due to old age or sickness (Chaucer 160). Mortality at work is first seen when Nicholas asks Allison to be with him lest he dies. According to him, he has a deep desire to be with her such that if this need is not satisfied, he is as good as dead. Chaucer & Richmond writes “……and seyed, lemman love me al atones or I wol dyen or God save me” (line 172-173).
In the second instance, Allison tells Nickolas to be secretive lest her husband finds out and she “…………..(becomes) dead” (Chaucer 234). Here, death is symbolic in that it refers to what would happen if her jealous husband finds out that she is sleeping around with another man.
Allison and Nicholas had decided to pull a prank on the carpenter by pretending that he had an astrological premonition. In the prank, the carpenter thought that he was sick and the first utterance from his mouth was “God shield him from dying suddenly” (Chaucer 300).
Not only were the people religious, but mortality was also a revered topic and it was not seen as a good thing. The only thing the carpenter could have prayed for is life for Nicholas. There is an illustration of another student of astrology who had died after trying to understand what they called “God’s secrets” (Chaucer 160). There is belief in a supernatural being that punishes wrong doers by death and therefore death is seen as a punishment from God.
There is also a belief in evil creatures whose main aim is to finish off men through death. The servant exclaims “I protect you by the cross from elves and creatures” (Chaucer & Richmond 34). Elves and creatures are signs of evil and death while the cross is a sign of life. Chaucer writes “I crouche thee from elves and fro wightes, therwith the nyght spell seyed he anon rightes” (lines 373-374).
Nicholas tells the carpenter about his premonition and the carpenter laments the death of his wife. This is another indication of the fear of death. The carpenter even goes to the extent of building tabs and filling them with food to protect his wife against death from drowning. However, Nicholas tries to trick the carpenter to remain behind by telling him that Noah loved his wife so much that he would have left her the ship. He says “the sowre of Noe with his felawshipe er that he mighte gete his wyf to shipe ?” (Chaucer 431-432).
At one time, Allison goes to church and that is where she meets Absolon who falls madly in love with her (Chaucer 162). The fact that there is a church is an indication of the belief in life after death. The tale even refers to Allison as a good woman who goes to church when the author writes “to church this good woman went” (Chaucer 43). A supreme being was supposed to save mankind from all evil, including death.
At the end of this tale, everyone gets hurt as a result of their relationship with a woman. This means that the woman is the cause of death to all men. John fell and broke his arm, a fall that would have led to his death. Absolon had a phobia of being farted on (Chaucer 178) which Nicholas did and Nicholas ended up with branded buttocks. Allison was the only one who never got hurt.
Death is feared to the extent that the carpenter sends his servants away after being advised by Nicholas that he cannot save them (Chaucer 178). Sin is also seen as a cause of death in man. The tale states that “for it is God’s own wish that your wife may hang away from you, so that there is no sin between you” (Chaucer 178). It continues “thy wyf and thou moote hange fer atwynne for that bitwixe you shal be no syn” (Chaucer 482-483).
The author goes on to narrate how shaken the carpenter was after learning that he is about to lose his life. Allison also pretends to be shaken when her husband tells her of what he had learnt from Nicholas. This is to show how much death and life meant to the people in those days and time. The carpenter even wailed at the thought of losing his Allison. Cuckoldry, battle of the sexes and mortality are thus very evident in the text. If an old man married a beautiful woman during those times, he had the responsibility of keeping her away from other men. But he was bound to be careful when doing this just so that he does not offend his bride because he might lose her. Men fight against each other to gain the attention of a woman. Mortality was a sacred subject and human beings feared death. It clearly describes what people at that time believed could bring death and mortality.
Chaucer, Geoffrey & Richmond, K. The Canterbury Tales. Virginia: Hesperus Press, 2007.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: The Millers Tale. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
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