The reeve, a wealthy landowner, is upset after the miller tells his tale of a cuckolded carpenter. The reason for this, of course, is that the reeve himself is a carpenter. Determined to get back at the miller, the reeve decides to tell his own tale of a miller being deceived and cuckolded. The reeve, however, worries that his age makes him weak and unable fully to get back at the miller.

In the Reeve’s Tale, a wealthy and sly miller has a beautiful wife, a twenty-year-old daughter, and a baby son. Two scholars from Cambridge come to the miller asking him to grind their grain. The miller decides to help them but, being the deceptive man that he is, he unties their horse, which runs intractably wild, and takes back half of the grain that he ground for them. When the two scholars finally catch the horse, they come back to the miller’s house and ask if they can lodge there for the evening. The miller agrees and sets up a bed for them in the same bedroom where he sleeps with his family. The miller gets drunk and goes to bed. One of the scholars, Alayn, goes to where the daughter sleeps and has sex with her. John, the other scholar, is jealous of Alayn’s pleasure and therefore goes and has sex with the miller’s wife. When Alayn is done having sex with the miller’s daughter, he whispers in what he believes is John’s ear (though it is actually the miller’s) that he has just had amazing sex with the miller’s daughter and that he now wants to take back the stolen grain and flee. The miller wakes up hearing this, is enraged, and starts strangling Alayn, who strangles him back. The wife wakes up, notices the commotion, and hits her husband on the head with a staff, thinking it is Alayn. The two scholars beat up the miller, steal back all of their grain, and escape.

The Miller’s Tale

February 2, 2011

The Miller’s Tale is written in the genre of the fabliau, a medieval French tale that is generally bawdy in nature and that tends to involve the lascivious doings of a member of the clergy. Chaucer’s tale is a loose adaptation of one particular fabliau, though it certainly contains the scatological humor and sexual infidelity characteristic of the fabliaux.

The Miller’s Tale centers around an elderly carpenter, John, who is described as being nescient and overly protective of his young wife, a beautiful and lustful woman named Alison. Though John tries indefatigably to keep his wife contained, she manages to meet a clerk, or scholar, at Oxford named Nicholas with whom she falls in love. Nicholas, an attractive, intelligent young man skilled in astrology and music, falls in love with Alison and begs her to have sex with him. She initially declines the offer and proffers the excuse that her jealous husband would learn of the tryst. Eventually, however, through flattery, Nicholas convinces Alison to have sex with him.

Meanwhile, a parish clerk named Absolon also discovers Alison’s pulchritude and becomes enamored with her. Absolon comes to the carpenter’s house daily and nightly to sing a song of love to Alison, but he is ignored both by her and her husband until later in the story.

Meanwhile Nicholas, believing himself much more perspicacious than the dim-witted John, decides to beguile John so that he (Nicholas) may spend a whole night with Alison. To do this, Nicholas pretends to be ill at home because of an astrological omen he witnessed telling him that the earth is to be flooded again as in the time of Noah. John’s knave, a squire who does his bidding, hears from Nicholas that to prevent being swallowed in the inundation, John must prepare three tubs for his household to sleep in, fill them with food and wine, and tie them up to the rafters in the roof. John does this diligently, being a god-fearing and ignorant man. While John is sleeping in the rafters on the appointed night, Nicholas and Alison have sex. However, they are interrupted by Absolon who, on false information from a cloistered monk, believes that John is out-of-town and that Alison will be free to have sex with him. Absolon begs for a kiss at Alison’s window, and she sticks her hairy butt-hole out the window for him to kiss, which he does. Upset that he kissed an anus and not lips, Absolon acquires a hot poker from a smith and returns to Alison’s seeking retribution. He asks again for a kiss, and Alison instructs Nicholas to stick his butt out the window this time. When Nicholas farts, Absolon inserts the hot stick into Nicholas’s anus, burning him and causing him to shout out for water. John awakes at this, thinks the shout for water is an announcement of the flood, cuts his tub from the rafters, breaks his hand from the rough landing, and becomes the laughingstock of the entire city, all of whom believe he is insane for having believed in the flood.

The Miller’s Prologue

February 2, 2011

After the beautiful tale of the knight, which adhered in many ways to the generic conventions of both the chivalric epic and the courtly romance, the host who is serving as judge declares the tale an excellent beginning to the competition and invites the monk to present his tale next. The miller, a stout and homely man who is drunk on ale, rudely interrupts and declares that he has a tale to tell. The host asks him to wait and declares him inebriated, but the miller threatens the host and the company and his wish to give the next tale is granted. The miller then gives us a taste of what is to come: the miller’s tale will concern itself with a carpenter who is made a cuckold when his wife cheats on him with a clerk, a student at Oxford. The reeve becomes upset at this idea of a tale because of the aspersions it will cast on wives and women generally. The miller assures the reeve that there are many good wives out there and also declares that he believes his wife is faithful to him, although he doesn’t probe the answer to the question with much depth or sincerity and recommends a similar course of action to all men. Lastly, Chaucer the poet warns us that the miller’s tale will be bawdy and that we should not blame Chaucer for reprinting it, which is his rightful job as the honest and accurate reporter of the Canterbury pilgrimage.

Judith

July 17, 2010

The story of Judith is a medieval reworking of a biblical text, considered apocryphal to Protestants but an official part of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). One third of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poetic texts are biblical in nature, and Judith is a paragon of the genre.

Though the poet is unknown and the first (likely 100) lines of the text is lost, Judith recounts the story of a prudent and god-fearing woman, whose name is the title of the work, who uses her beauty to enter the enemy’s camp. Her people, the Jews of Bethulia, had fallen under the attack of one of King Nebuchadnezzar’s generals, the nefarious Holofernes. Her people in distress, Judith entices Holofernes by her pulchritude and becomes a mistress unto him. One night, after bacchanalian excess, Holofernes requests to sleep with Judith. She waits in his bed not anticipating sex but with a sword in hand which she uses to decapitate him in two strokes. Taking his head with her in a sack, she leaves Holofernes’s camp and returns to her own people, informing them of the timeliness of a prompt attack. The Jews attack their captors with much success, as the leaders of the enemy’s army fruitlessly wait around the perimeter of Holofernes’ shrouded bed for him to wake, the net of which allows only Holofernes to look out and none to look in. By the time one man finally musters the bravery to open the bed shroud, he sees his decapitated captain and laments the inevitable doom that will befall them all. The Jews do win the battle, appropriating the enemy’s riches and weapons. Judith receives both Holofernes’s armor and the assurance that she will dwell in the eternities with God.

The Middle Ages

April 6, 2010

The beauty in studying the literature of the Middle Ages is that because so few people were literate and because literacy was primarily a trait associated with the clergy, much of the writing that survives from that time period is religious in nature and thus does not always warrant an intense literary study. Thus, as I approach this time period, I face a much less daunting quantity of writing. However, I also must accept the converse of that pleasantry—that the culture and language is far removed from my own, making the hermeneutic circle even more difficult to penetrate.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature’s introduction to the Middle Ages begins by defining the years of the epoch, which they indicate as beginning around the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century CE to the Renaissance for Europe generally (which began at sundry times for differing countries and according to different scholars), and 1485 for England specifically, an arbitrary but useful date in that it marks the rise of Henry VII, the first Tudor, to the English throne. Though these years provide a useful distinction between this era and those before and after it, the changes that English culture and language underwent during the medieval years hardly make them appear as a cohesive time period.

A brief history of England seems an appropriate place to begin. In the first century CE, the Romans conquered the original inhabitants of England, the people known today as the Celts, and ruled them as an imperial province that they named Britannia after the “Britons” who lived there. After the Romans pulled their people from the island to protect their continental empire from collapse, three tribes—the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes—began to invade the coasts of England. The original Britons were largely eradicated, but some escaped to the western part of the island and speak the language that today is called Welsh. Although the Romans had imposed Christianity on the Britons after the conversion of Emperor Constantine, the invading tribes were pagan and brought with them their respective cultures and spiritualities. However, due to missionary efforts and the conversion of various kings, much of England became Christian again.

The language that we know as English today began as a Germanic language called Old English or Anglo-Saxon, derived from the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes that inhabited the geographic space. This heavily-inflected language changed drastically after 1066 when the Normans invaded and conquered England, adding enormous numbers of French words into English vocabulary and softening the inflection of Old English. The Normans were themselves originally Germanic peoples who had adapted to Christianity and the French language on the continent. During the Anglo-Norman period, the originally Germanic language of Old English received influence from the Latin of the clergy, the French of the aristocracy and political sphere, and the Celtic from the remnant Britons. After a period of wild change and growth of the language, various dialects now known as Middle English arose, the most notable of which was Chaucer’s East Midland dialect, a form still recognizable to speakers of English today though largely variant in spelling and pronunciation from modern English.

Beginning in the late fourteenth century, the English language began to acquire its own clout as a language worthy of poetry and emulation by continental Europeans. Writers like Chaucer, Langland, Gower, the Pearl/Gawain poet and Julian of Norwich began to use English as their primary language of expressing emotion and experimenting with literary form. By the fifteenth century, English was used to write mystery plays, which were cyclical plays based on the Bible, and morality plays, which personify the trials and condition of the everyday Christian in an allegory. Writers such as Lydgate, Hoccleve, Margery Kempe, Henryson, and Thomas Malory continued to further the belief in English as a reputable language worthy of serious students and practitioners. When Caxton introduced the printing press into England in 1476, a new era of reading and writing had arrived, and the Middle Ages had effectively ended.

Old English poetry differs from other poetry in a few marked ways. Lines of Old English poetry typically consist of four accented syllables with as many non-accented syllables as desired by the poet. The four are split into hemistiches of two accented syllables separated by a caesura. Instead of rhyming, Old English poets used alliteration, with typically both of the first two accented words beginning with the same sound as the first accented word after the caesura. Old English poetry is also notable for its dramatic understatement called litotes, its kennings, such as ring-giver for king, and its synecdoche and metonymy. Middle English poetry, such as that of Chaucer, has rhyme in the way that we conceive of it today and treats accents more similarly to our style. Chaucer is arguably the father of iambic pentameter, the most English of all poetic forms.