English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3  




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Syllabus & Schedule





1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam




* 8. Chaucer, The Miller's Tale *


How a scholar comes out on top


 Vol. 1A, pages 293-299, 358-374 in Longman 3rd ed.
"Geoffrey Chaucer" 1A 293-299. "Miller’s Tale" 1A 358-374.
If you have problems with middle English, try a translation,
such as the one at eChaucer or at Harvard U.


The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.  


Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings. Some other journaling ideas for today include:

How is the Miller's tale a takeoff or spoof on aristocratic romance?  Is Chaucer satirizing common people or aristocrats? How can you tell?

How is the story echoing the Bible? How does this use of Biblical story compare or contrast to the use of Biblical story in Beowulf? In Gawain and the Green Knight?

What makes this story funny?

What problems did Chaucer's Middle English present for you as a reader?

For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.

These notes are adapted by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.,
Teaching British Literature
(New York: Longman, 2003).

Middle English
Other medieval authors in our textbook have been translated or modernized, but not Chaucer. Our editors present him as he really is, in royal Middle English.  Compared to the Middle English of the rural Gawain poet and most others of his time, Chaucer 's Middle English seems more modern. His London dialect was the tongue of the government bureaucracy, and in the fifteenth century that official English became codified and spread everywhere in printed books like Caxton's Malory (lesson 7) and Coverdale's Bible and Chaucer's own Canterbury Tales

This is not to say that Chaucer's English is easy. Acquaintance with it takes a few sessions.

Reading aloud helps. Speech is the intended medium. Chaucer read or recited his works to courtiers for their entertainment. Audio guides are available. One helpful CD is Chaucer: Life and Times (Primary Sources Media, [1995]). It provides a full text (from the Riverside edition) with pull-down glosses and notes; more important, the entire text is also in audio form, pronounced with accurate Middle English and considerable drama.  Quite a few readings can be found online also.



Left: the portrait of the Canterbury pilgrim Chaucer from the Ellesmere manuscript.





In medieval England the variety of Englishes strengthened regionalism and localism of the barons and helped to limit national understanding.



A National Epic of England?

Geoffrey ChaucerThe Canterbury Tales
is in the running for recognition as the foremost myth of England, to be compared with other world class foundational texts of great cultures like Sin-liqe-unninni's myth of Uruk (Iraq), Ezra's myth of the Jerusalem temple, Plato's myth of the Academy, Plutarch's myth of Alexandria, Virgil's myth of imperial Rome, and Muhammad's myth of Mecca, among others. As opposed to these institution-centered works, Chaucer's story of pilgrimage to the martyr's shrine at Canterbury Cathedral presents an image of society organized only loosely under a religion. England is presented as a pluralistic culture of individuals whose stories are diverse, without any that are entirely privileged over the others by social station. What Chaucer's pilgrims share in common is not so much the pilgrimage itself as a desire to win a story-telling competition by presenting “tales of most sentence and best solas.” The competition is numerous, varied and formidable. 
The miller jumps out of order to follow the knight in speaking, but he is not silenced.


The General Prologue
Chaucer's fame started within a decade or so of his death, with the production of luxurious copies like the famous Ellesmere manuscript.  Already Chaucer was being remembered as a “great writer” and packaged for consumption of an elite audience. Contemporary authors pitched in by imitating aspects of Chaucer’s style, notably John Lydgate writing under the patronage of King Henry V.

By the seventeenth century, when the first histories of English literature were being written, Chaucer had became the designated "father of English literature," an icon for royalty, democracy, protestant reform, even (in his skeptical and humorous vein) the Enlightenment. One after another, social and intellectual communities of all persuasions claimed him as one of their own.

Chaucer's virtuosity is greater than any other English writer with the exception of Shakespeare and Dickens. The variety of The Canterbury Tales includes almost every known medieval literary genre from sermon and allegory to romance and lai to beast fable and comic fabliau, among others. Chaucer understands that the literary forms can inter-relate by echoing one another, as for instance, the Miller parodies the Knight's romance of courtly love. The plan of the tales seems to have been not simply to display the genres but to explore connections among them.

The story-telling competition among the pilgrims is focused by host Harry Bailey's insistence on the importance of both ideas and feelings in literature. The winner is to be the pilgrim who tells “tales of most sentence [i.e., best ideas] and best solas [i.e., most emotion].” The knight and the miller score much higher on emotion than on ideas, but their emotions are seeming opposites, romantic love versus comic love. Perhaps Chaucer meant to give us a method to score literature with this sentence/solace system, but of course it is only a tavern keeper's system, and Chaucer never lived long enough for the final judgment to be rendered.

Chaucer understands his role as a middle class entertainer for an aristocratic audience seeking diversion from its problems. His satiric presentation of churchmen and generally comic presentation of laborers play to courtly stereotypes of those who pray and those who work. At the same time, Chaucer idealizes some individual clergy and commons to balance these groups and to lead his audience to judge by individual character rather than social role.





Left: portrait of the Canterbury pilgrim Knight, from the Ellesmere manuscript. The knight tells the opening tale, a lengthy romance of courtly love.
















The Miller's Tale
The General Prologue’s portrait of the Miller as a teller of “harlotries” (dirty stories) is confirmed by his tale, and its reference to the Wife of Bath’s boldness and deafness is dramatized and explained by her own prologue (to be read in the next lesson). Chaucer's unhappy commoners ape courtly fashions and religious conventions, foolishly imitating the airs of their "betters."

Example: at line 179 Nicholas has just grabbed Alison by the crotch and she, for the moment, is having none of it: “Do way youre handes, for your curteisye!” This is a comic high point in the tale’s extended parody of the verbal conventions of courtly love. How do we read it? Is it simply a funny inversion of romance (courtesy=courtly manners)? Is the Miller  mocking courtly love or making a fool of himself? Chaucer's personal opinions are well disguised, as he chooses to present himself as a teller of other people's stories and as the most simple-minded of the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury.

The Miller’s tale is a typical fabliau, with its farcical plot of sexual competition and cuckoldry (and what genteel critics used to call “the nether kiss”), and its punning on terms like “queinte,” “hende,” and “privee.” This is a genre of  the bourgeois—which “quits” the class and parodies the worldview of the knight. However, an aristocratic audience can laugh with condescension toward the story's churls. The narrator’s ambivalence about even repeating the tale (turn the page if you don't want to hear this) reflects some of this potential instability of reception.






Left: the









TChaucer reecites at the court of Richard IIhe miller's plot parodies the story of the Knight’s Tale. There, in a similar love triangle, two captive knights compete (finally in a tournament) for the attention of a young noblewoman whom initially they have not even met, and for whom they wait and suffer unrequited. The  lady, Emelye, is almost entirely passive; her one expressed wish (spoken only in prayer) is to have neither man, and sadly that wish is denied. It seems almost her misfortune to be forced to accept one of these two boring suitors.

The Miller answers with romantic farce that is anything but boring. Nicholas spouts a bit of courtly vocabulary (“For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille,” line 170) then grabs what he wants. Absalon’s aping of courtship conventions is far more extensive but infected by self-love and effeminacy. Alison's description draws in vast areas of plant and animal life, both domesticated and wild, through metaphor and analogy, overwhelming the conventional lily-and-rose beauty of Emelye. She easily turns aside John's and Absolon's unwanted advances, and takes the guy she wants. As in the King Arthur story, marriage doesn't matter a bit, except that appearances should be kept up when possible.


Left: in a medieval illumination Chaucer, as if in a pulpit, recites from his works at the court of Richard II.  We can imagine Chaucer reading in the pretended voice of the miller, and the amusement that this little act would have caused among this crowd. Compare this virtuoso performance  to that of the Anglo-Saxon scop reciting Beowulf or to Charles Dickens reading from a novel on a tour of Victorian cities.


The church also comes in for scorn, and not only in the figure of Absalon. The situation of a young wife married to an old carpenter recasts a Nativity story of sorts, and Nicholas dupes old John by echoing the tale of Noah’s flood. With old John tucked up in the attic, awaiting a second flood, Nicholas and Alison make love "Til that the belle of Laudes gan to ringe, And freres in the chauncel gonne singe" (lines 547–48). Gullibility has been made possible through civic productions of biblical mystery plays such as Noah, the Nativity, or the play of Herod in which Absolon acts (line 276). 

Is this tale criticizing the church? the Bible? Christianity? or is it just a funny story? Chaucer's own opinion seems very well hidden. He uses the drunken miller to speak with license, when a direct criticism of the nobles or the church may have earned him a whipping or worse. As all-around court entertainer, he at times played the fool.






The tale’s close is mayhem, as in the concluding battles of romance. John with arm broken, Nicholas with butt burned, Absolon humiliated, Alison screwed: why are the neighbors all laughing at them?






Medieval comedy works primarily through inversion. The hero is an animal made into man (such as Beowulf the bear); so the comic anti-hero is the man made into animal, as here in "the Romance of Reynard the Fox."


Readings of the Miller's Tale (excerpts) in Middle English  from the Norton Anthology web site.

Chaucer Metapage at UNC.

Texts and materials on the "Miller's Tale" at Luminarium

Geoffrey Chaucer Website:

Chaucer Metapage Audio Files (hear Middle English) http://academics.vmi.edu/english/audio/Audio_Index.html

Canterbury Tales in Middle English and Modern English

Jane Zatta's Chaucer from UNC

Manuscript image:
Incipit (in red), Chaucer, "Miller's Tale"



Know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson? please send it to Dr. G.

 Copyright 2008-12 by Gary Homer Gutchess