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The Miller's Tale: Chaucer's Fabulous Fabliau

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  1. 0:32 Fabliau
  2. 1:08 The Miller's Tale
  3. 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

In this lesson we'll talk about the medieval genre of fabliau, which is full of wonderfully low-brow humor. We'll also discuss the plot of the Miller's Tale, a fabliau about a carpenter and his straying wife.

Quick Review of The Knight's Tale

Sometimes we think that people in the Middle Ages were all about chivalry and keeping it in their pants. You might still think that if you read the Knight's Tale, which is Chaucer's first tale. It's all about two cousins who fall in love with the same woman just by looking at her - never talking to her or touching her - it's all from afar.

Fabliau

Luckily, the Miller's Tale comes right after it and basically tells you that you're wrong if you think that. It's an example of a fabliau, which is a medieval genre originating in France (that's why it has a French-sounding name) and is a short little story characterized by sex and potty jokes. It's kind of like any movie by the Farrelly brothers, or like that horrific (but terrific) scene in Bridesmaids. The legacy is there, and fabliau is the originating thing.

The Miller's Tale

Let's talk about what happens in The Miller's Tale, it's a good one. He deliberately tells it to upset the Knight, who's just gone before him and told a very courtly, restrained story. The miller's a little drunk and uses this as an excuse to say whatever he wants to and doesn't mean to offend whomever he offends.

I think we all have a friend like that. It might even be you!

So here's the setup for the story. John, who's an old carpenter, lives in Oxford with his wife Alisoun. This creates some inevitable problems because she's young and hot. All the Oxford students (they're called clerks in the tale) want to get with her.

John, who's this old carpenter, decides to rent out one of the rooms in his house to a student to make some extra money. This is a terrible idea! This student, Nicholas, moves in and immediately sets to work at convincing Alisoun to sleep with him. It doesn't take him too long and they start sleeping together.

Meanwhile, another student, Absolon (who works at the church), falls madly in love with Alisoun too. But between John and Nicholas, she's got as much as she can handle, and she's not going to take on Absolon too.

Some time goes by and Nicholas starts turning his brilliant scholar mind to figure out how to spend a night with Alisoun, rather than just sneaking off to the broom closet whenever John starts sawing really loudly (Nicholas is obviously a romantic, nice guy).

He comes up with a genius, but also insane, plan. He's going to convince John that another biblical flood is coming. Nicholas believes John will believe him, because he's a fancy scholar. He tells John, the only way to ride it out, is to suspend each one of them in their own little bathtub (with ropes from the ceiling). So, they're each going to hang out in their own wooden bathtub and when the flood comes, they're all going to cut the ropes and sail to safety.

The idea is that if John is in his own bathtub, he won't notice that Alisoun is missing. Amazingly, this works, and Nicholas and Alisoun start going at it.

Absolon decides that this is the perfect time to come and harass Alisoun for a kiss. It's dark out and he just wants a kiss out the window with her. She and Nicholas are in bed together at this point. She reluctantly agrees, but actually sticks her butt out the window instead. Apparently, Absolon can't tell because it's dark (must've been really dark back then), and Chaucer describes it but with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers. That's arse in modern English, ers is how they said it back then.

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