The Miller's Tale: Chaucer's Fabulous Fabliau
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- 0:32 Fabliau
- 1:08 The Miller's Tale
- 5:44 Lesson Summary
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.
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.
Alisoun and Nicholas think this is hilarious, but Absolon is predictably not happy about it. He goes off to find a red hot poker to do some damage with. He comes back and asks for another kiss. This time Nicholas sticks his butt out the window and farts. Chaucer describes this Nicholas non leet fle a fart/ As greet as it had been a thunder-dent. Basically, he lets fly a fart as big as a thunderclap, is what that roughly translates to.
But he gets a hot poker to the butt in the process from Absolon who's ready this time. So, he's not happy about this. He's in pain and screams Help! Water! Water! Help for Goddes herte! (for God's heart).
So, John, still in the bathtub, freaks out because he thinks that the flood is coming. He cuts the rope on the bathtub and crashes into the floor. The townspeople wake up and make fun of them, and that's how the story ends.
So, it's crazy, right? But it's also pretty awesome. Chaucer is full of stuff like this, the Miller's Tale isn't the only moment of levity.
Medieval people were just as disgusting and sex-and-fart-obsessed as we are.
So, we've learned the term fabliau, which is the name of this kind of story. Everything awesome that happened is what characterizes fabliau. It comes out of the French tradition; again, that's why it sounds like a French word.
We've also gone over the plot of the Miller's Tale, which is basically an old carpenter (John), and his young wife (Alisoun) has an affair with their lodger, a student called Nicholas. Nicholas convinces John to hang out in a bathtub to wait out a biblical flood so that he and Alisoun can spend a whole night together.
Absolon, another student, wants Alisoun too. He comes to her window and asks for a kiss, but instead she sticks her butt out of the window. He's upset, and comes back with a hot poker. Then, he pokes Nicholas and Nicholas cries out for water. It makes John think the flood is coming and that's how the story ends. So, that's the Miller's Tale, that's fabliau and it's fantastic.
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