THE MILLER’S TALE
Old John, the Carpenter
He is a wealthy old Carpenter who foolishly marries a young girl full of life.
She is the passionate young wife of Old John who schemes with a young student to have an affair.
He is a lodger of the Carpenter and lusts after his young wife. He has a deep knowledge of astrology and impresses the Carpenter with his art.
He is a young Clerk who falls in love with Alison, but is slightly effeminate. He cannot abide bad odors and crude behavior.
Old John, the Carpenter is a very jealous man who has married an eighteen
year-old girl called Alison. Also residing in the Carpenter’s house is a young student named Nicholas, who rents a room.
Nicholas has a reputation for reading the stars and forecasting the advent
of rain or drought.
He falls in love with the young Alison and soon makes his intentions known by grabbing her. She resists his advances for fear of being discovered by her jealous husband, but the pair conspire together to play a trick on Old John.
Alison also has another admirer the effeminate Absalon, who swings the
incense burner at church on Sundays, and cannot abide people who fart in public.
Nicholas convinces Old John that a flood equal to that suffered by Noah in
the Bible will visit the town.
In order to survive, they must build and fasten three boats to the rafters and store them with provisions. They must also have an axe ready in order to cut the ropes when the flood approaches. On the eve of the so-called flood, the three climb into the boats and Old John soon falls fast asleep. Alison and Nicholas descend to the bedroom and make love all night.
Absalon has noticed that the Carpenter is not home and decides to serenade
Alison at her window. It is pitch black, and the pair of lovers are concerned that Absalon’s noise will wake Old John.
Nicholas encourages Alison to get rid of Absalon by granting his request for a kiss. She agrees. However, instead of her mouth she extends her rear out of the window. Absalon fastidiously “kissed her naked arse, most savorously”, but wonders “a woman hath no beard”. He hears the two laughing and realizes his mistake.
He decides to return to obtain revenge and with him now, he has a red-hot
He calls again to Alison saying that he has a golden ring for her and she can have it if she gives him one more kiss. This time Nicholas decides to play a trick on Absalon and he sticks his rear out of the window and farts in Absalon’s face. He recovers in time to thrust the red-hot poker up the middle of Nicholas’ arse. Nicholas shouts, “Water. Help. Water. Water.”
Old John wakes and thinking that the flood has come, cuts the ropes with the
axe, and the boats crash to the ground. Old John suffers a broken arm and the neighbors stream out from their houses wondering at all the noise.
They learn of Old John’s preparations for the flood and laugh at his lunacy.
Arguably, this is Chaucer’s best work of humor and he strikes the right
balance between bawdiness and vulgarity.
Again we have a triangle relationship between Old John, his young wife, and
the lodger, repeated many times in literature since. Even to this present day, much ridicule is made of old men who marry young girls, and who cannot satisfy their desires.
We get a good impression of how relationships were conducted between the
lower classes in Chaucer’s time.
Although Nicholas is eloquent in his speech to Alison, he is physically rather crude towards this married woman. His first approach to her is quite physical. He doesn’t hold her hand or caress her face, or even fondle her breasts, but goes straight to her “quiente” (vagina), and holds her sensuously by the “haunche-bone” (groins).
Chaucer shows his skills at forming this joke by providing a careful
presentation of Absalon’s character. He is described as being effeminate and used to sweet smells of an exotic and sensuous nature.
He no doubt expects to win a sweet kiss from a fragrant Alison, but all he gets is her arse.
The story is very neat. We have Nicholas who can foretell the
weather. We have Old John who constructs the boats, no doubt wishing to show off his joinery abilities to his young wife.
Although John is a good Carpenter, he is gullible in that Nicholas was able to persuade him about the oncoming flood. He is foolish by thinking that he can keep his young wife happy. He obtains a broken arm for his trouble, and whilst he was asleep his lodger was making love to his wife. The lodger’s penance is a severely burnt arse, and the effeminate incense swinger is violated twice, first kissing Alison’s rear, and then suffering Nicholas’ fart. Will he ever be able to wash it off?
The whole company laugh at the Miller’s tale except the Reeve, for he was
once a Carpenter.
He vows to repay the Miller with his story. He stresses the fact that
advanced age is not necessarily a disadvantage for man can boast, lie or covet.
The host encourages the Reeve to stop his banter with the Miller, and get on
with his story.