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451 Study Questions for Chaucer's "Miller's Tale"

Vocabulary: fabliau, low comedy, fourfold interpretation, double entendre, bed-trick, folkloric motifs, senex amans

Useful Middle English terms: quit(e) (pay back, take vengeance), hende (handy, courteous, skillful), privee (secret), prively (secretly), privitee (secrecy), nolde (would not), leman (lover)

Introduction: What does quit mean? How does this Miller's tale "quit" or repay the Knight's tale?

Lecture or Handouts: What are some traits of a fabliau? How does this story mirror the structure of the Knight's tale?

Identify the following characters:

Prologue:the Host Harry Bailey, Robin the Miller, The Knight, Oswald the Reeve
Tale: John the Carpenter, Nicholas the Clerk, Alison, Absolon the Parish Clerk, the servant Robin and the servant Jill (Gille), Gervais the Smith

Review the Miller's Portrait in the General Prologue:

  • What is the physical build of the Miller like?
  • What physical activity is the Miller particularly good at? What prize does he always win in this athletic events?
  • The Miller has an unusual party-trick when he gets drunk. What technique does he use to remove a door from its hinges?
  • What color is his beard?
  • What does he have on the end of his nose?
  • What does it mean to say he was "a janglere and a goliardyes"?
  • What illegal thievery does the Miller engage in?
  • What does Chaucer mean by saying, "yegt he hadde a thombe of gold, pardee"?
  • What musical instrument does he play?
  • Where does he travel in the procession of pilgrims? (Hint: This is revealed in the bit about "And therwithal he broghte us out of towne.")

Reading Questions:

(From the Miller's Prologue):

  • How do all the pilgrims react to "The Knight's Tale"? Which group especially thinks it is worth remembering?
  • Who does the Host ask to tell the next tale? (Hint: It's not the Miller)
  • Who interrupts the Host's request?
  • Why is the Miller all pale and why is he having trouble keeping in the saddle as the pilgrims ride?
  • What does the Miller say his tale will do the Knight's tale? What does this Middle English word mean?
  • How does the Miller respond when the Host tries to talk him out of interrupting?
  • What "protestacioun" does the Miller make about his storytelling and his own condition?
  • If the Miller misspeaks or says anything wrongly, what does he ask the audience to blame?
  • What does the Reeve mean when he tells the Miller "Stint thy clappe!"
  • Why does the Reeve interrupt the Miller? (i.e., how is the Miller's topic likely to hit a bit too close to home?) Hint: Review lines 615-616 of the General Prologue to remind yourself of the Reeve's background.
  • When the Miller goes on at length about God's "privetee" (and a wife's "privetee"), what is the double entendre?
  • Why does the narrator say he "must" recount what the Miller said, even though his story is a "harlotrye"?
  • If anybody doesn't want to hear a dirty story, according to the narrator, what does he advise that reader to do? How is this advice a bit strange--given that we are supposedly sitting and listening to a storyteller? (How does this break the conventions of verisimilitude, or break the boundary between the "real world" of readers and the "fictional world of Canterbury pilgrims?
  • What should men not do when they hear something that is a "game" according to the narrator?

(From "The Miller's Tale" itself):

  • Who lives as a renter with John the Carpenter and his wife?
  • What knowledges or skills does this person have?
  • What does the nickname "hende" mean, according to your footnotes? For what modern word today is hende a cognate? [Try saying the word aloud to see what it sounds like, if you are stumped.]
  • Describe Nicholas's bed-chamber and his lodgings. What stuff does he keep there? How does this suggest two aspects of his identity? (I.e., which items are associated with Nicholas as a student or scholar, and which items are associated with his "extracurricular" activities as a ladies' man?)
  • Who has the Carpenter (John) recently married?
  • How is old is she?
  • What does Chaucer mean when he states, "Jalous he was, and heeld hire narwe in a cage"? (i.e, how does John treat his young wife?)
  • Describe Alisoun's apparel.
  • Describe Alisoun's physical features.
  • When the narrator describes Alisoun, within forty line,s he compares her to ten different animals and plants in nature. List three of these animals or plants in total and explain why they are appropriate or how they characterize her.
  • What does Chaucer mean when he says Alisoun was "a piggesnye, / For any lord to leggen in his bedde, / or yit for any god yeman to wedde"?
  • What does Nicholas do while John is gone to Osenye?
  • When Nicholas finds Alisoun alone, he "prively . . . caughte hire by the queinte." What does that mean, without going into too much anatomical detail? What does this line suggest about the Miller's idea of "smooth" dating behavior?
  • Nicholas tells Alisoun, "but if ich have my wille, / For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille," what is the double-entendre?
  • How does Alisoun initially respond to Nicholas's advances? How does she respond after he tries some "smooth-talking" when he "spak so faire"?
  • What job or occupation does Absalon have?
  • Look up the story of David's son Absalon and Absalon's death in the Old Testament. Why did Chaucer probably choose this name for the character? How is Absalon like this character?
  • What is Absalon's hair like? Describe it.
  • What does Absalon know how to do "in twenty manere"?
  • What does Absalon's voice sound like?
  • At the end of Absalon's description, we find out there are two things he cannot stand. What are these two things of which he "was somdeel squaimous," as Chaucer puts it?
  • After Absalon falls in lust with Alisoun, where does he go with his guitar? What does he do with that guitar? (Be more specific than "play music".)
  • Who (besides Alisoun) reacts when Absalon plays this music?
  • What are some of the things Absalon does or sends to Alisoun to woo her after his serenading fails?
  • How does your textbook interpret the line about about Absalon "playing Herod" on the stage? [Lecture: what's another way of interpreting the comment about Herod according to Brett Mitze?]
  • Nicholas's plan to have his way with Alisoun involves three stages. During the first stage, between Saturday and Sunday, what does Nicholas pretend to be?
  • When John finds Nicholas staring catatonically, what does he assume has happened to Nicholas?
  • John recounts to himself the story of a clerk (student) who gazed too much at the stars doing his astronomy lessons. What happened to that clerk in John's aside? What does John's choice of stories reveal about his own attitude toward learning?
  • What must John and his servant do to get inside Nicholas's bedroom, since Nicholas is still pretending to be "catatonic"?
  • When John commands Nicholas, "thenk on Cristes passioun," as a cure for Nicholas's catatonia, what does this reveal about John's [Chaucer's?] attitude toward medicine and religion?
  • What is John doing when he says he "crouche[s] thee from elves and fro wightes"? What does John's concerns reveal about him as a character?
  • Nicholas, after a drink, says he will reveal to John special information. But if John tells anyone else,what does Nicholas say will happen to John?
  • What does Nicholas say will happen next Monday, according to his astrological predictions?
  • Whom does John express concern about when he learns the world is going to end?
  • According to Nicholas, how long will the flood on Monday last?
  • What three objects does Nicholas order John to hang from the ceiling as emergency escape craft before the flood hits? What three people are supposed to sit in the three tubs?
  • According to Nicholas, what will the only three survivors of this disaster be? What will they be "lords of" when the floodwaters recede?
  • Who personally hand-builds three ladders to place beneath the three tubs?
  • What emergency food rations does John place in each tub/boat?
  • What happens to John about 8:00 PM as he lies in the swaying boat waiting for the flood-waters?
  • Where does Nicholas sneak ("stalketh") John takes his nap?
  • Who notices that John hadn't been out working all day? What does this person mistakenly assume about John's whereabouts?
  • In lines 580 and following, what are some of the preparations Absolon makes that correspond to modern mouth spray?
  • Who or what interrupts Nicholas and Alisoun as they try to have sex?
  • What does Absolon demand before he will go away?
  • What trick or prank does Alisoun play on Absolon?
  • What unusual anatomical feature puzzles Absolon when he closes his eyes to kiss the girl, "ful savourly"?
  • What does Alisoun say before she slams the window shutters closed? (Famous quotation, here--some of the most quoted words in Chaucer!)
  • What does Absolon do to his lips once he realizes he has kissed Alisoun's "naughty bits"?
  • Who does Absolon seek out in the middle of the night to help him in his revenge?
  • What does Absolon take out from Gervais's smithy? (If you don't know what this implement is, look it up in a dictionary or online.)?
  • When Absolon tries to lure out Alisoun with a gold ring, who overhears his enticement? Why was this person up and about rather than asleep?
  • What cunning plan backfires for Nicholas?
  • As Nicholas lets his buttocks hang outside the window, he lets fly . . . . what? How does this connect earlier with Absolon's squeamishness?
  • Nicholas's flatulence is described as a "thonder-dent" it is so powerful. In fact, it nearly does what to Absolon when it hits him?
  • What does Absolon do to Nicholas's butt in retaliation?
  • What does Nicholas cry out for when the hot poker/cultour burns him? Why is this funny, given John's upcoming reaction?
  • When John cuts the ropes and his tub falls, what happens to John (i.e., what injury does he suffer?)
  • When the neighbours come to find out what all the screaming and yelling is about, what do Nicholas and Alisoun tell them about John?
  • How do all the neighbors react to John's "fantasye"?
  • What prayer does the Miller make at the end of his tale? (i.e., whom does he ask for God to save)?


A."But first, I make a protestacioun
That I am dronke: I knowe it by my soun.
And therfore if that I misspeke or saye,
Wit it the ale of Southwerk, I you praye."

B. I moot reherse
Hir tales alle, be they bet or werse,
Or elles falsen som of my matere.
And therfore, whoso list it nought yeheere
Turne over the leef,a nd chese another tale,
For he shal finde ynowe, grete and smale,
Of storial thing that toucheth gentilesse
And eek moralitee and holinesse:
Blameth nought me if that ye chese amis.

C. But with his mouthhe kiste hir naked ers,
Ful savourly, er he were war of this.
Abak he sterte, and thoughte it was amis,
For wel he wise a womman hath no beerd.

D. And on his lippe, he gan for anger bite,
And to himself he saide, "I shal thee quite,"
Who rubbeth now,who froteth now his lippes
With dust, with sond, with straw, with cloth, with chippes?

E. "Teehee," quod she, and clapt the windowe to.


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