I have always had a fascination with the “how” and “why” of things.
As you might have noticed in my last post this fascination with how things work also applies to language – how did it develop and evolve – the study of which is called etymology:
The study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history.
So great was (and still is) my fascination with the written word that my major in college was English – my Masters courses revolved around English Literature from 700 AD to 1700 and my thesis was exploring “Order and Chaos in the Knight’s Tale” from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” In order to understand exactly what Chaucer was imparting, I had to learn to read Middle English – the form of language that was used during the Middle Ages (12th -15th Centuries) – much different from our English of today as you will see below from one of my Chaucer editions – you can still see my translation notes:
And one of the most delightful discoveries in reading Chaucer’s work in its original form? I learned that Chaucer was a dirty old man.
Unfortunately, translations into Modern English used most often in High School and College courses dilute Chaucer’s bawdy language, so let me share with you some of his more lascivious stories from his most famous tome.
The Canterbury Tales is framed around the context of a journey of 29 Pilgrims as they wend their way from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas a Becket in Canterbury, England. The travelers are a wide swath of people – from a Knight to a cook to a monk, a merchant and more. To past the time, each tells a story with plots that run the gamut from tales of high morals and purity to lowly tales of petty jealousies to down and dirty treacheries. You might already be a bit familiar with The Miller’s Tale since it was mentioned in an episode of the TV show Big Bang Theory, so this post will explore that narrative.
THE MILLER’S TALE
THE PLAYERS John, an old carpenter Alison, the carpenter’s beautiful young wife Nicholas, a scholar Absalon, a parish clerk Gervase, a blacksmith
The Miller has, along with the other pilgrims has just listened to a classic tale of courtly love as told by The Knight. The Miller insists on being the next to tell a story. However he warns his listeners that though he too is going to tell a noble tale similar to The Knight’s in which men fight for the love of a woman, he is quite drunk so he can’t be held accountable. How sly.
The story has a time-worn popular premise: an older husband (the carpenter John) is to be cuckolded by his much younger beautiful wife (Alison):
with the scholar Nicholas:
By the way – this sets off the ire of another pilgrim, Oswold The Reeve who was also a carpenter. This sets up another bawdy rebuttal as Oswold’s tale will disparage The Miller – that story for a following post.
The Miller’s Tale begins – and although what transpires was set in The Middle Ages its sexcapades and general raunchiness could be a plot in a modern-day television show or movie. In fact, thinking on it, I am surprised no one has thought of producing this or other stories from The Canterbury Tales. Perhaps after reading this you can help by letting me know if you have seen a recent show or movie with this storyline.
As a side note, according to one of the writers of the new hit series “Empire” on FOX TV all of its episodes are based on quotes from Shakespeares’ works – for example this past week’s story, entitled “Dangerous Bonds” comes from Act 3 Scene 2 of “Cymbeline,” another story about mistaken identity, love affairs and death. So I guess my idea isn’t half-bad.
The Miller, despite being quite wealthy decided to bring in some additional money by setting up a kind of AirBnB in his home and the poor scholar Nicholas rents out a room. Nicholas is so well-known for his sexual prowess and exploits that he is called “Fly Nicholas.” Funny how that adjective has such similar meaning today. He immediately starts to woo Alison, who is at first hesitant/playing hard to get but eventually falls under his spell and into bed upon a day when The Miller is occupied in town. Thus begins their hot and heavy affair.
Ah but Nicholas isn’t the only young man who has the hots for Alison. Absalon, a rather fastidious and prim fellow is also head over heels for Alison and seeing that The Miller is away, arrives at the window of the house to entreat Alison to be his love. Alison, however isn’t interested (being already occupied surely helped). Now the twists.
Being rather a naughty lady, Alison “agrees” to at least give Absalon a kiss and tells him to close his eyes. The lovesick Absalon readily agrees, but his lips do not reach her face (NB frat-boys – your “mooning” dates WAY back). Here is the action – in Middle English and translation to help you get the picture:
This Absolon gan wype his mouth ful drie.
This Absolon wiped his mouth very dry.
Derk was the nyght as pich, or as the cole,
Dark was the night as pitch, or as the coal,
And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole,
And at the window out she put her hole,
And Absolon, hym fil no bet ne wers,
And Absolon, to him it happened no better nor worse,
But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers
But with his mouth he kissed her naked ass
Ful savourly, er he were war of this.
With great relish, before he was aware of this.
Abak he stirte, and thoughte it was amys,
Back he jumped, and thought it was amiss,
For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd.
For well he knew a woman has no beard.
He felte a thyng al rough and long yherd,
He felt a thing all rough and long haired,
And seyde, “Fy! allas! what have I do?”
And said, “Fie! alas! what have I done?”
“Tehee!” quod she, and clapte the wyndow to.
“Tehee!” said she, and clapped the window to.
Absolon, now enraged, swears vengeance and gets a hot iron from the Blacksmith Gervase and returns to Alison’s house hoping for a repeat performance so he might brand her butt. Nicholas, however, wants to join in the merriment and when Absalon cries for a kiss, it is Nicholas’ butt that appears. Nicholas also ups the ante by exploding such a potent fart that Absolon is almost blinded. Nicholas’ triumph was short-lived as Absolon promptly brands his rear end:
This Nicholas was risen for to pisse,
This Nicholas was risen to piss,
And thoughte he wolde amenden al the jape;
And thought he would make the joke even better;
He sholde kisse his ers er that he scape.
He should kiss his ass before he escapes.
And up the wyndowe dide he hastily,
And he opened up the window hastily,
And out his ers he putteth pryvely
And he puts out his ass stealthily
Over the buttok, to the haunche-bon;
Over the buttock, to the thigh;
And therwith spak this clerk, this Absolon,
And then spoke this clerk, this Absolon,
“Spek, sweete bryd, I noot nat where thou art.”
“Speak, sweet bird, I know not where thou art.”
This Nicholas anon leet fle a fart
This Nicholas immediately let fly a fart
As greet as it had been a thonder-dent,
As great as if it had been a thunder-bolt,
That with the strook he was almoost yblent;
So that with the stroke he was almost blinded;
And he was redy with his iren hoot,
And he was ready with his hot iron,
And Nicholas amydde the ers he smoot.
And he smote Nicholas in the middle of the ass
Nicholas shouts for water, awakening The Miller who was home and asleep on the roof. He comes crashing through the floor of his house, landing in the cellar, breaking his arm. To save his own skin – that not burnt – Nicholas quickly creates a story about The Miller’s insanity and the neighbors all have a great laugh at The Miller’s expense.
Thus ends The Miller’s Tale with the famous lines uttered by Amy Farrah Fowler in “The Big Bang Theory:”
Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,
Thus screwed was this carpenter’s wife,
For al his kepyng and his jalousye,
In spite of all his guarding and his jealousy,
And Absolon hath kist hir nether ye,
And Absolon has kissed her lower eye,
And Nicholas is scalded in the towte.
And Nicholas is scalded in the rump.
This tale is doon, and God save al the rowte!
This tale is done, and God save all this company!
See what you missed by only reading Cliff Notes?