Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Miller's Tale Madness

By Geoffrey Chaucer


Two characters are perceived as insane in the course of "The Miller's Tale." The first, Nicholas, pretends to be insane to get John's attention, while the second, John, is "holden wood" (held to be mad) by the townspeople when Nicholas and Alisoun paint him that way. The fact that neither of these characters is truly insane emphasizes the way madness may just be in the eye of the beholder. In John's case, moreover, the story links the perception of madness to the inability to make oneself heard, suggesting that the label of madness may be one to which the powerless, who have a harder time getting people to listen to them, are more vulnerable.

Questions About Madness

  1. What behaviors does "The Miller's Tale" associate with madness? Who engages in these behaviors, and why?
  2. What are the explanations John proposes for the madness he perceives in Nicholas? According to these explanations, who is most prone to madness, and why?
  3. How does "The Miller's Tale" link unheard speech to madness?

Chew on This

By portraying John's perceived madness as the result of his inability to make himself heard, "The Miller's Tale" suggests that society's powerless groups are vulnerable to a label of madness.

"The Miller's Tale" defines madness as an inability to participate in the reality of those around you.