In Medieval times, millers operated and worked on the mill where grain was ground to make flour. In the feudal system, millers were generally lower in the social hierarchy, but were important and crucial laborers in every community. In The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, the Miller is the lowest ranked of all of those on the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. Robyn, the Miller, is known for his dishonest personality and throughout the collection of stories, he is portrayed as classless. There are very few critical disagreements about the Miller because he is considered a flat and static character, meaning he does not go through any major changes through the course of the collection. The impression of the Miller that Chaucer the Poet might wish his audience to develop is that he is nothing but a tawdry individual.
The General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales gives a very detailed description of the Miller’s physical appearance and personality characteristics. The external features of the Miller are “regularly associated by the physiognomists with men of his nature. His short-shouldered, stocky figure, his fat face with red bushy beard, his flat nose with a wart on top – these variously denoted a shameless, loquacious, quarrelsome, and lecherous fellow” (Robinson, 665). Robyn is described as a chap of sixteen stone, which means he weighed about 224 pounds. His build is stout and very strong. He could break down doors by ramming into them with his head, which depicts him as vicious and aggressive. His facial features and attire portray him in an unflattering and uncomplimentary way.
The Miller is a redhead, which was known to be a sign of a deceitful and dishonest person in the Middle Ages. On the tip of his nose, Robyn has a wart with a tuft of red hair, such as that of a sow. This reference to such a lowly animal represents his poor social status. “The most striking aspect of the description of his face is the effect of ‘close-up’ that it gives; we can see the hairs on his wart, and his nostrils and mouth gape hugely at us. This is not a face observed from the distance normally observed in polite conversation; it is two or three inches away. This illusion of having a face thrust at us determines our sense of the Miller’s aggressive vigor more than any interpretation we can put on his features” (Mann, 162).
The Miller’s mouth is defined as huge as a furnace, which parallels with the medieval representations of hell. Robyn is an avid jangler and is therefore associated with a classless type of entertainment. He is specifically known for telling many filthy tavern stories, which alludes to his involvement with prostitutes. The Miller is known for having a “thumb of gold to gauge an oat,” meaning that he has the ability to determine the quality of the grain by simply touching it. The grain that he is judging is typically stolen, and then Robyn would sell it for three times its worth. He is an expert on the bagpipes and plays it for the other pilgrims as they are first embarking on their journey.
“In the Medieval iconographic tradition already mentioned, the bagpipe, like ungraduated bells, was a negatively charged symbol because it was incapable of producing harmonious sounds but rather, squeaked and squawked in a droning cacophony connoting irrationality” (Williams, 54). Such an unflattering description of the Miller’s appearance reinforces the author’s attempts to portray the character as a lowly individual.
The Miller’s Prologue gives the reader a glimpse into one of the first heated interactions between the Miller and another pilgrim. The Knight is the first pilgrim to tell his tale, and the other pilgrims as well as the Host think that his tale is a noble and memorable story, and it especially pleased the gentlefolk. The Host wants the tales to be told in the order of decreasing social rank, so he instructed the Monk to tell the next tale. The very inebriated Miller said that he would tell his story next instead of the Monk.
The Host responds by informing the Miller of his drunkenness and requesting that he wait until he is sober for his turn. Regardless of the Host’s orders, the Miller begins his tale, saying that if there are inconsistencies in the story to chalk it up to his insobriety. This interaction shows Robyn’s disrespect for the Host and his system of the order of the tales. The tale that Robyn tells is about a clerk who tricked a carpenter into sleeping outside of the house, so he could have sex with his wife.
This tale is extremely offensive to the Reeve, who’s former profession was carpentry. “He objects that it is a sin to slander any man and shameful to defame women, but the Miller sarcastically retorted that he who doesn’t marry needn’t worry about unfaithfulness. He refers unflatteringly to his own wife and suggests that the Reeve is a bit paranoiac” (Williams, 55). The Miller’s rude and aggressive behavior speaks to his lowly social status.
There are two main male characters in the Miller’s tale, Absolon and Nicholas. Absolon is in stark contrast with the Miller, while Nicholas seems to be based on him. Unsurprisingly, Absolon is the target of much of Nicholas’s tormenting. The tale begins with a brief description of each character. “In most analogues to The Miller’s Tale Absolon’s part is taken by a smith, since the plot requires easy access to a hot colter or something similar for the branding” (Beichner, 118). A typical Medieval smith is much like a Medieval miller: large and strong.
Absolon is unlike the typical Medieval smith, but very much like a materialistic, young squire. He is a parish clerk and a skilled barber. As a clerk, he could “take either the road to major orders and become a priest or the road to marriage and remain a parish clerk or earn his livelihood by work as a scribe, an accountant, or a performer of odd jobs of the white-collar variety” (Beichner, 119). Absolon is named after Absalom, the son of the biblical figure, David. Absalom was the most beautiful man in Israel with his perfect hair and unblemished skin.
The only sign of his masculinity is his sparse beard. “The Miller and the poet behind the Miller would have their audiences gain their first impression of the parish clerk by associating him with the Biblical character; by giving him the name Absolon and by making his hair golden and ridiculously conspicuous, they would subtly suggest that the gay young clerk was effeminate” (Beichner, 122). On the other hand, Nicholas is a poor scholar of Oxford who dwells with the carpenter and his young wife, Alisoun. He is a student of the arts who takes a great interest in astrology and is known in his village for his ability to predict the weather. He is very sly and deceitful, like the Miller.
Nicholas uses this gift to trick the carpenter into spending the night sleeping on the roof, while he sleeps with Alisoun. In the tale, both Absolon and Nicholas are in love with the carpenter’s beautiful, young wife. Nicholas plays harsh and lowly pranks on Absolon during his attempts to win over Alisoun. The Miller’s seedy tale provides the audience with a strong indication of his low-class behavior.
Of all the tales that are told on the pilgrimage to Canterbury, the Miller’s is one of the most vulgar. The term “hende” is used to describe Nicholas many times throughout the tale, and each time it was used it has a different meaning depending on the context. Nicholas is a young student who lives with a carpenter and his young wife. He is hende because he is living in close proximity to Alisoun, who he is in love with. One day while the carpenter is doing business in another village, Nicholas attacks Alisoun by grabbing her genitals and trying to force her to have sex with him. He is hende in the sense that he is dexterous and skillful with the hands.
When he attacks her, Alisoun pushes Nicholas away and threatens to cry “rape!” Nicholas immediately switches gears and becomes hende, meaning pleasant, gentle, and courteous, and begs Alisoun for forgiveness. Alisoun and Nicholas devise a plan to sleep together without the carpenter knowing. Nicholas lies to the carpenter and says that he has a vision of a flood that will hit the village that will be twice as powerful as Noah’s flood. He suggests that the three of them tie bathtubs to the roof the night before the flood, and when the water comes, they will cut themselves down from the roof and float in the flood waters in the bathtubs. Nicholas is being hende in that he is clever and deceitful. The night of the fake flood, the three of them go to bed on the roof.
When Nicholas and Alisoun hear the carpenter snoring, they sneak into the house and have sex in the carpenter’s bed. All the while, Absolon knocks on the window of the bedroom, begging Alisoun for just a kiss. Alisoun agrees, but when he puckers up to kiss her, she sticks her bare butt out of the window. Absolon angrily goes to his metal shop and brings a hot iron back to the carpenter’s house. He knocks on the window and begs for another kiss. This time, Nicholas goes to the window and sticks his bare butt out of the window.
Absolon proceeds to brand his butt with the hot iron, and Nicholas screams in agony for water. The carpenter, still in the bathtub on the roof, wakes up and thinks that Nicholas is yelling about the flood waters. He then cuts himself off the roof and falls to the ground in the bathtub. Although considered to be a very comical story in Medieval times, the Miller’s classlessness can be seen through the malapropos tale that he told.
Geoffrey Chaucer wants the readers to view the Miller as nothing but a disgusting man, which is portrayed through all of his appearances in The Canterbury Tales. His low-class status and the way that he is viewed by the other pilgrims is evident in his description in the general prologue. His abrasive and aggressive personality can be seen in his interactions with the Host in the Miller’s prologue. His classlessness is displayed in the tale he tells and the similarities of the characters to him. Although the Miller is not a major character in the collection of tales, he is used to enhance many other characters through contrast.