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“The Miller’s Tale” A Fabliau

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1 “The Miller’s Tale” A Fabliau

2 Background Set in Oxford, England, “The Miller’s Tale” is an absurd and comedic story about adultery and practical jokes. “The Miller’s Tale” is a fabliau, yet vulgar tale containing life-based themes. Like the Miller’s character, the tale is raunchy and offensive. Unlike “The Knight’s Tale,” the leading female character is neither pure nor faithful, but deceitful and immoral. These contradicting themes—the righteous woman and the unfaithful wife—are prominent throughout Chaucer’s collection of tales.

3 GENRE FABLIAUX: a short, humorous, bawdy tale in verse
CHARACTERISTICS: 1. realistic 2. setting is spare and utilitarian 3. imagery is often associated with animals, food, baskets, chests, and other middle class furniture 4. characters: various rascals engaging in the Seven Deadly Sins 5. descriptive traits economically chosen

4 Characteristics, cont. 6. vivid action
7. dialogue: short and vividly conceived 8. set in contemporary, everyday world 9. concerns mankind’s most basic functions: sex, but also excretion, etc. 10. more concerned with cunning and folly than with virtue and evil 11. opposes all pretensions to authority

5 GENRE: Fabliaux FABLIAUX: A humorous tale popular in Medieval French literature. The fabliaux were stories of various types, but one point was uppermost—their humorous, sly satire on human beings. These stories, which were often bawdy, dealt familiarly with the clergy, ridiculed womanhood, and were pitched in a key that made them readily and boisterously understandable to the uneducated.

6 GENRE Typical fabliaux contain a vast array of characters, including cuckolded husbands, rapacious clergy, and foolish peasants, as well as beggars, connivers, thieves, and whores. Two groups are often singled out for criticism: the clergy and women. The status of peasants appears to vary, based on the audience for which the fabliau was being written. Poems that were presumably written for the nobility portray peasants (vilains in French) as stupid and vile, whereas those written for the lower classes often tell of peasants getting the better of the clergy.

7 FABLIAUX, cont. Although fabliaux often had ostensible “morals” appended to them, they lack the serious intention of the FABLE, and they differ from the FABLE, too, in always having human beings as characters and in always maintaining a realistic tone and manner.

8 AUTHORSHIP? Fabliaux were often written by monks practicing Latin
Some are written in French Only 6 Fabliaux survive in English All are from The Canterbury Tales Tales of the Miller, Reeve, Summoner, Merchant, Shipman, and the Cook’s fragment

9 NOTHING SACRED In his tale, the Miller mocks: The Knight’s Tale
The Annunciation The Holy Family The Reeve

10 THE WORLD UPSIDE DOWN “The Miller’s Tale” is “The Knight’s Tale” upside down Unholy Triangle / Holy Triangle Chaos vs. Order Lust vs. Love Worldliness vs. Religion Body vs. Head

11 Prologue: The Rise of the Middle Class
The Monk should tell his tale after the Knight but the Miller is drunk and interferes. The Knight is courteous (knightly virtues) and lets him. This mimics the “vulgar” middle class encroaching on the formerly “aristocrats only” territory.

12 “The Miller’s Prologue,” cont.
When the Miller says that he will tell a legend and a life (biography) about a carpenter and his wife, who does the audience expect to hear about? Why is the Reeve so angry at the Miller before he even begins this tale?

13 Why? Does Chaucer tell us that the Miller is a churl and tells a Churl’s tale? Does Chaucer say to turn the leaf and choose another tale? And why does he say that the Reeve and others are churls also and only told tales of wickedness? Why does Nicholas live in John’s house?

14 In the Middle Ages, bodily functions were readily discussed.
The euphemism was rather new to the Middle Ages. Lechery was low on the list of the Seven Deadly Sins. Pride was first. Speaking of—Let’s review them.


16 1. PRIDE Pride is excessive belief in one's own abilities that interferes with the individual's recognition of the grace of God. It has been called the sin from which all others arise. Pride is also known as Vanity. Pride sins against the virtue Humility. Your punishment in Hell: You'll be broken on the wheel. Pride is linked with the horse and the color violet.

17 2. ENVY Envy is the desire for others’ traits, status, abilities or situation. Envy is a sin against the virtue Love. Your punishment in Hell: You’ll be put in freezing water. Envy is associated with the dog and the color green.

18 3. WRATH Wrath (anger) is manifested in the individual who spurns love and opts instead for fury. Wrath is a sin against the virtue Kindness. Your punishment in Hell: You’ll be dismembered alive. Anger is linked with the bear and the color red.

19 4. SLOTH Sloth is the avoidance of physical or spiritual work.
Sloth is a sin against the virtue Zeal. Your punishment in Hell will be: You'll be thrown into snake pits. Sloth is linked with the goat and the color light blue.

20 5. AVARICE Avarice (or greed or covetousness) is the desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual. Avarice is a sin against the virtue Generosity. Your punishment in Hell will be: You'll be boiled alive in oil. Avarice is linked with the frog and the color yellow.

21 6. GLUTTONY Gluttony is an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires. This does not pertain only to food, but to entertainment and other legitimate goods, and even the company of others. Gluttony is a sin against the virtues Faith and Temperance. Your punishment in Hell: You'll be force-fed rats, toads, and snakes. Gluttony is linked with the pig and the color orange.

22 7. LUST Lust is an inordinate craving for the pleasures of the body.
Lust is a sin against the virtue Self Control. Your punishment in Hell: You'll be smothered in fire and brimstone. Lust is linked with the cow and the color blue.

23 Return to The Miller’s Tale
In Fabliaux, everything is there for a reason. Reference to the window—necessary for plot. Reference to the floor of Nicholas’s room covered with rushes and spices—allusion to Nicholas’s namesake* Reference to Nicholas studying astronomy—necessary to plot Absolom squeamish about farting—necessary to plot

24 ALLUSION: *St. Nicholas
A wealthy merchant named Nicholas was out walking in the Christmas season. He got lost and came upon a poor cottage. He overheard three sisters inside talking about their poverty while mending their freshly washed stockings. They had nothing to eat, little fuel, and their parents were too ill to work.

25 St. Nicholas, cont. Unless a miracle occurred the maidens would be forced sell themselves as prostitutes. Weeping in despair over their impending fate, the maidens hung up their stockings to dry and went to bed. Nicholas found his way back to town, loaded up a donkey with goods, and returned to the cottage around midnight.

26 St. Nicholas, cont. Slipping into the cottage, he filled the girls’ hanging stockings with food, money, medicine, and other necessities. He stacked fuel by the fireplace. He felt so wonderful about helping those in need that he started a tradition of visiting the homes of the poor at Christmas and leaving desperately needed food and clothing. This was all done surreptitiously so that no one would know who had given these gifts.

27 St. Nicholas, cont. Of course, a secret like that cannot be kept.
Word got out but Nicholas continued his good works. When he died, his tomb always smelled of sweet spices, indicating his purity of spirit. So, one should associate “hende” Nicholas with St. Nicholas—or not.

28 MOTIFS Several motifs arise in “The Miller’s Tale” that were popular during medieval times. The corruption of the church The misdirected kiss The “May/December wedding” This phrase refers to the marriage between an older, often rich, man and a young, pretty woman The cuckolded husband

29 Biblical Allusions “The Miller’s Tale”, in addition to satirical situations, contains a number of biblical allusions. Elements of the annunciation arise when, according to Christianity, the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced that she would conceive the son of God. In this instance, Alison represents Mary, Nicholas is Gabriel, and John is Joseph. Chaucer also hints to this allusion with mention of “Angelus ad virginem,” or “Virgin’s Angelus,” a popular medieval hymn.

30 Biblical Allusions Another allusion includes the prank played on John, which parallels the story of Noah and the ark. Noah’s name is, in fact, directly mentioned in the narrative.

31 Town vs Gown In Oxford, a law was passed requiring citizens with extra rooms to rent the room to a student. Town (average citizen) vs Gown (students) No one wanted to rent to rowdy divinity students. They were admired for scholarly learning and despised for lecherous behavior. Scholar = head Carpenter = hands

32 SUMMARY Nicholas is renting a room from John and his wife, Alison.
Nicholas is attracted to Alison, and eventually she engages in an extramarital affair with him. Meanwhile, the parish clerk, Absalom, is attempting to court Alison to no avail. One day while John is away, Alison and Nicholas conspire a plan to humiliate him so he can claim her as his own.

33 SUMMARY Nicholas locks himself away in his chamber and feigns being sick in a trance. John believes the trance is attributed to Nicholas’s study of astronomy. Nicholas tells John that his study of the stars has allowed him to realize that a second great flood in the same vain as the story of Noah and the ark is imminent. He advises John to hang 3 bathtubs from the rafters of his roof in preparation for the flood so that the three may be kept safely afloat.

34 SUMMARY Absalom hears that John hasn’t been at work for a while and, thus, attempts to court Alison again. Alison again rejects Absalom, and in his resignation, Absalom requests one last kiss. Alison agrees. Instead of kissing her lips, however, Absalom realizes that he is, in fact, kissing her butt.

35 SUMMARY Absolom is enraged over his insult and, shortly thereafter, swears revenge. He visits a blacksmith, Mr. Gervase, and borrows a red hot iron poker. Absolom returns to visit Alison claiming he has a gold ring for her. Nicholas, desiring to “get in” on the fun, sticks his butt out the window and farts in Absolom’s face. In a rage, Absolom retaliates by burning Nicholas’s butt with the red hot iron poker.

36 SUMMARY: In agony from the pain, Nicholas begins screaming for water.
John, upon hearing Nicholas’s cries for water, fears that the great flood is beginning and uses his axe to cut down the cord freeing the tub from the rafters of his roof. Everyone thought John was crazy. The story concludes as John’s reputation is ruined and he loses Alison to Nicholas.

37 SATIRE: In “The Miller’s Tale,” Geoffrey Chaucer is, again, satirizing the medieval church. How does Chaucer make a negative statement about the church in this tale? Consider the characters in the tale, their roles in society, and the events which befall them and comprise the plot. What kind of satire is Chaucer using to mock the church? Is he using Juvenalian or Horatian satire? Explain your answer in one or two paragraphs. Be prepared to share your responses.

38 “The Knight’s Tale” was a flowery tale of chivalry and ideal love.
“The Miller’s Tale” is a tale of what the Miller assumes is the reality of love. The tale is a parody of the The Annunciation “Hende” Nicholas sings “Angelus ad Virgenem” to Alison Irony: Nicholas is no angel; Alison is no virgin.

39 Mary was filled with fear (awe) at the Divine Plan
Alison is thrilled by the “divine” plan Holy Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Ghost (Joseph, Mary, Angel) Unholy Trinity: John, Alison, and Nicholas (or Alison, Nicholas, and Absolom) Consider physical description of Alison. Conveys symbolic and literal meaning.

40 SATIRE amongst Characters:
Chaucer shows the HYPOCRISY of the Church Nicholas (named after St. Nicholas) Oxford cleric studying to join the church He studies astronomy  violates the teachings of the church He commits an extramarital affair with his landlord’s wife on his landlord’s own property He plays a hymn celebrating the annunciation for Alison. The hymn is a PARODY against the Annunciation because Nicholas is no angel, and Alison is no virgin.

41 SATIRE amongst Characters
Absalom (parish clerk) works for the church yet desires a married woman Like Nicholas, he seeks to commit adultery Is the victim of Nicholas’s flatulence through Juvenalian Satire. Nicholas farts in his face. This essentially shows how Chaucer felt about the church.

42 SATIRE amongst CharactersL
Absolom Who rubs now, and who chafes now, his lips with dust, with sand, with straw, with cloth, with chips, but Absolom, who says over and over, “Alas! I commend my soul unto Satan”? But I would rather be revenged for this insult” he said, “than own this entire town. Alas,” he said, “alas, that I did not turn aside!” Q. Which of the following lines demonstrates satire against the character of Absolom? How do you know?

43 SATIRE amongst Characters:
Reference to King David’s son, Absalom (known for his beautiful hair and bad behavior. He killed his brother who raped their sister; he rebelled against his father and slept with his father’s concubines. When his army was defeated he fled but his long hair was caught in the branches of a tree. His father’s troops found and killed him.) Long, curly blonde hair; grey eyes Sings, dances, plays musical instruments Madly in love with Alison; so in love that he serenades her when she is in bed with her husband.

44 Absolom, cont. He sends go-betweens to tell Alison how wonderful he is
He sends Alison gifts: spiced wine, mead, and spiced ale He sends her wafers (sweets) He offers her money He is willing to be in a play

45 SATIRE amongst Characters:
Alison (Reread her description) This young wife was fair, and her body moreover was as graceful and slim as any weasel. She wore a striped silken belt, and over her loins an apron white as morning’s milk, all flounced out. Her smock was white and embroidered on the collar, inside and outside, in front and in back, with coal-black silk; and of the same black silk were the strings of her white hood, and she wore a broad band of silk, wrapped high about her hair. And surely she had a lecherous eye; her eyebrows were arched and black as a sloe berry, and partly plucked out to make them narrow. She was more delicious to look on than the young pear-tree in bloom, and softer than a lamb’s wool. From her belt hung a leather purse, tasseled with silk and with beads of brass.

46 ALISON: Consider the following:
Why is she compared to a weasel? Why are her apron and smock white? Did you notice how much of her description is tactile? What is the importance of the colors black and white?

The plots are joined by one word: WATER Chaucer has brought John back into the story with the one word

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