Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Miller's Tale

By Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales: The Miller's Tale Introduction

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Quiet down, readers. The Miller has some feels.

"The Miller's Tale" is the story within Geoffrey Chaucer 's The Canterbury Tales in which the Miller interrupts the Host's proposed order of tale-telling. Although the Host has asked the Monk to continue the game, the drunken Miller interrupts to declare that he knows a tale "sumwhat to quyte with the Knightes tale" (11). By "quyte," the Miller means "answer" or "respond to"; one way of reading "The Miller's Tale" is as a response to "The Knight's Tale." 

The Knight told a highbrow romance about a love triangle between two knights and their ladylove, an impossibly beautiful and unobtainable woman named Emily. "The Miller's Tale" is also about a love triangle, but it's far from highbrow. Instead, "The Miller's Tale" comes from the genre called fabliau. Fabliaux were bawdy stories, usually dealing with adulterous liaisons. 

In contrast with the type of romance the Knight tells, which is concerned with abstract questions of order, fraternity, and love, the fabliau is mostly concerned with sex and the body. Using the fabliau genre transforms the elements of "The Knight's Tale" into more earthy, bodily versions of themselves. In "The Miller's Tale," the love triangle becomes a, uh, sex triangle. And the love interest is difficult to win over not because she is so perfect, but because she's the wife of another man.

This type of earthy, physical story is exactly what we would expect from a lower-class person like the Miller in a "medieval estates satire," the humor of which depended on stereotyping people based on their occupation or social class. Chaucer confirms this in the Miller's Prologue when he says, "The Millere is a cherl, ye knowe wel this; / So was the Reeve eek and othere mo, / And harlotrye they tolden bothe two" (Miller's Prologue 74-76). So another way to think about "The Miller's Tale" is how it conforms with the "harlotrye," or lewdness, expected from the medieval stereotype of a lower-class person. It's true that "The Miller's Tale" is very earthy and physical, as lower-class people were thought to be. But they were also thought to be stupid, all brawn and no brains. 

So what are we to make of the sheer cleverness of this tale's ending? Read on, and see what you think.

What is The Canterbury Tales: The Miller's Tale About and Why Should I Care?

Ever wondered how to get the object of your desire? Well, in "The Miller's Tale" you have three different possibilities: 1) Get a job and a house, 2) Move into her building and aggressively seduce her, or 3) Be really romantic, sending her lots of flowers and gifts and singing moonlight love songs outside her window. Lest you think that seven hundred years later this age-old problem has been resolved, you need only turn to the pages of Men's Health or Cosmopolitan to find headlines that circle the issue: "Convince Her to Date You," "Win Her Over in 10 Minutes," "How to Find Your Summer Fling."

Yet, as we see in "The Miller's Tale," winning her over is only half the battle; securing her for good is another matter. So does "The Miller's Tale" give you any more realistic a picture of love and its limitations than those grocery-store magazines? Well, that's debatable. Let us know what you think.

The Canterbury Tales: The Miller's Tale Resources

Websites

Luminarium
Includes lots of resources for studying "The Miller's Tale," including an audio clip, bibliographies, and selected critical commentary.

Miller's Tale Background
Jane Zatta's background on "The Miller's Tale" gives some interesting information about the symbolism of the Noah's Ark story, relating the story to the class conflict expressed in the tale.

Chaucer and Boccaccio
Learn about the connection between Chaucer and Boccaccio (author of the Decameron).

Movie or TV Productions

BBC's Canterbury Tales: "The Miller's Tale" (2003)
The BBC's modern retelling of "The Miller's Tale" sets the action in a karaoke bar, where the owner's much younger wife is the star. She finds herself drawn to a young guest who promises her fame and fortune.

Pier Paolo Pasolini's Canterbury Tales (1971)
A somewhat raunchy version of Chaucer's classic by the famous Italian director. Available on DVD, but may be a little hard to find.

Historical Documents

First Printed Edition
Images of the pages of "The Miller's Tale" from the first printed edition, by William Caxton.

Illustrations of "The Miller's Tale"
Collects renderings of the events in "The Miller's Tale" from 1573 to 1913.

The Miller
A picture of the Miller from the Ellesmere manuscript.

Decameron: Day 3 Novel IV
Read this excerpt from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron – it has lots of similarities to "The Miller's Tale" and may have inspired Chaucer's work.

Audio

Alisoun's Portrait
Read aloud in Middle English.

Resources to Help Students Learn Middle English

Teach Yourself to Read Middle English
This page, provided by Harvard, offers ten lessons that start with a general explanation of the principles of Middle English pronunciation and move on to actual practice with the tales themselves.

A Basic Chaucer Glossary
This is a helpful glossary of Middle English terms often used in Chaucer. The 100 most common words are denoted by an asterisk.

Video

BBC's "Miller's Tale"
Watch a clip from the BBC's modern adaptation of "The Miller's Tale."

The Miller's Rap
Baba Brinkman raps “The Miller’s Tale.” Wonder what Chaucer would think of this...