The Miller's Tale

Early English Literature

Early English literature refers to the body of written works produced in the English language from its beginnings until the late 15th century. This period encompasses several distinct phases, each marked by unique linguistic, cultural, and literary characteristics.

Old English Period (c. 450–1066): This era begins with the Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain and ends with the Norman Conquest. The language, known as Old English, was predominantly Germanic. A seminal work from this period is Beowulf, an epic poem that recounts the heroics of its eponymous protagonist. The literature of this time is characterised by a strong oral tradition, with themes often revolving around heroic deeds, warfare, and the struggle between good and evil.

Middle English Period (1066–1500): Following the Norman Conquest, the French language and culture significantly influenced English society and, consequently, its literature. Middle English, the language of this period, was a blend of Old English and Norman French. This era's literature is diverse, ranging from religious texts to secular works, including romances, tales of chivalry, and courtly love. Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories told by pilgrims on a journey, stands out as a pivotal work, known for its rich portrayal of medieval life and its varied cast of characters.

The transition from Old to Middle English literature reflects broader societal shifts, including changes in political power, social structures, and cultural influences. The development of the English language during these periods, from a highly inflected Germanic tongue to a more French-influenced vernacular, also significantly impacted the themes, styles, and accessibility of the literature produced.

Early English literature offers a window into the linguistic, cultural, and social dynamics of England from the Anglo-Saxon era through to the late medieval period. Its study reveals the complexities of a changing language and society, and the enduring power of narrative in various forms.

"The Miller's Tale" - Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale," from The Canterbury Tales, is a vibrant example of Middle English literature that combines humour, irony, and social critique. This tale is notable for its entertaining and risqué narrative, which parodies the traditional courtly love stories of the time.

In "The Miller's Tale," Chaucer introduces a set of characters from different social backgrounds, including a carpenter, his young wife, a scholar, and a parish clerk. The story revolves around their interactions and the ensuing comedic situations, often driven by love, lust, and deception. Chaucer's depiction of these characters is both humorous and insightful, revealing the complexities and absurdities of human behaviour.

The humour in the tale often arises from exaggerated situations and clever wordplay, serving as a tool for Chaucer to underscore the foolishness and vanity of his characters. For example, the elaborate schemes devised by the young wife and her lovers to deceive the carpenter are both ludicrous and ingeniously plotted, highlighting the lengths to which people will go for love and desire.

At a deeper level, "The Miller's Tale" is satirical, critiquing the societal norms and class distinctions of Chaucer's time. Through the absurdity of the characters' actions and the unexpected twists in the narrative, Chaucer exposes the pretensions and hypocrisies of the society he lived in, particularly in the context of romantic relationships and social status.

By analysing "The Miller's Tale," students can gain insight into Chaucer's ability to blend humour with social commentary. This story not only entertains but also provides a critical lens through which to view the social and cultural attitudes of medieval England, especially concerning love, class, and human folly. Through this tale, Chaucer demonstrates his masterful use of narrative to reflect and critique the social dynamics of his time, making it a valuable piece for understanding the intricacies of medieval literature and society.

The Miller's Prologue (excerpt in Old English)

Source: Harvard's Geoffrey Chaucer Website 

Heere folwen the wordes betwene the Hoost and the Millere

Here follow the words between the Host and the Miller 

3109         Whan that the Knyght had thus his tale ytoold,

                    When the Knight had thus told his tale,

3110         In al the route nas ther yong ne oold

                    In all the company there was no one young nor old

3111         That he ne seyde it was a noble storie

                    Who did not say it was a noble story

3112         And worthy for to drawen to memorie,

                    And worthy to draw into memory,

3113         And namely the gentils everichon.

                    And especially the gentlefolk every one.

3114         Oure Hooste lough and swoor, "So moot I gon,

                    Our Host laughed and swore, "As I may move about (I swear),

3115         This gooth aright; unbokeled is the male.

                    This goes well; the bag is opened.

3116         Lat se now who shal telle another tale;

                    Let's see now who shall tell another tale;

3117         For trewely the game is wel bigonne.

                    For truly the game is well begun.

3118         Now telleth ye, sir Monk, if that ye konne,

                    Now tell you, sir Monk, if you can,

3119         Somwhat to quite with the Knyghtes tale."

                    Something to equal the Knight's tale."

3120         The Millere, that for dronken was al pale,

                    The Miller, who for drunkenness was all pale,

3121         So that unnethe upon his hors he sat,

                    So that he hardly sat upon his horse,

3122         He nolde avalen neither hood ne hat,

                    He would not doff neither hood nor hat,

3123         Ne abyde no man for his curteisie,

                    Nor give preference to any man out of courtesy,

3124         But in Pilates voys he gan to crie,

                    But in Pilate's voice he began to cry,

3125         And swoor, "By armes, and by blood and bones,

                    And swore, "By (Christ's) arms, and by blood and bones,

3126         I kan a noble tale for the nones,

                    I know a noble tale for this occasion,

3127         With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale."

                    With which I will now requite the Knight's tale."

3128         Oure Hooste saugh that he was dronke of ale,

                    Our Host saw that he was drunk on ale,

3129         And seyde, "Abyd, Robyn, my leeve brother;

                    And said, "Wait, Robin, my dear brother;

3130         Som bettre man shal telle us first another.

                    Some better man shall first tell us another.

3131         Abyd, and lat us werken thriftily."

                    Wait, and let us act properly."

3132         "By Goddes soule," quod he, "that wol nat I;

                    "By God's soul," said he, "that will not I;

3133         For I wol speke or elles go my wey."

                    For I will speak or else go my way."

3134         Oure Hoost answerde, "Tel on, a devel wey!

                    Our Host answered, "Tell on, in the devil's name!

3135         Thou art a fool; thy wit is overcome."

                    Thou art a fool; thy wit is overcome."

Discussion questions