A Clerk and an Astrologer Within the Miller’s Tale
Alison in “The Miller’s Tale” is described as young and wild, like an animal: “Thereto she koude skippe and make game/ As any kyde or calf folwynge his dame”, and we know that she would be willing to follow any idea as long as it is “fun”. We observe her childish immaturity in the scenes where she lets Absolon “kiss” her. Similarly, it does not take much persuasion on Nicholas’ part to talk Alison into having an affair with him, as the idea of tricking her husband is a game for her. With impish delight she conspires with Nicholas to create the outlandish plot of convincing her husband that a great flood is coming, and with her husband safely ensconced in a bathtub hanging from the roof, Alison successfully plays with Nicholas.
Differences between Nicholas and Absolon emerge early on, yet although both men compete with each other and with John for sexual access to Alison, true to type, the male rivals actually demonstrate less interest in the female object of their alleged desire than in their own gender and class identity and hence their relations to each other are in a closed sphere of male objectivity.
Nicholas, with his mixture of esoteric learning, outrageous sense of humour and eager pursuit of love is a type still recognisable today. He is introduced as “hende Nicholas”, yet his conduct does not at all answer to the usual sense of the adjective, which implies great courtesy, but rather to a suggestion of approval, which is repeatedly invoked as the Miller refers to his protagonist by this formula. We also learn at once that he is knowledgeable, “hadde lerned art”, and of his interest in astrology. Astrology was seen as a respectable branch of learning, and Nicholas is aware of its power to impress others. The imaginary flood of which Nicholas tells John shows us his cunning, his ingenuity, his contempt for the obtuse tradesman and his confidence. His reputation(earned by genuine astrology in the past) is the linch-pin of his scheme to assist Alison cuckold John. In carrying out his plot, however, Nicholas must act convincingly the part of one struck briefly dumb by what he has foreseen. Though he later will laugh at John’s credulity, before he has had his night of bliss with Alison, he resists the temptation to betray himself by laughter or facial expression. Though John’s comments about the clerk who fell into the marl-pit, “he saugh nat that”, reflect chiefly on his own lack of foresight, they may apply to Nicholas, who, in his over-confidence, receives the punishment Absolon has devised for Alison. Nicholas’ capacity as an astrologer is not compromised by this, however, as he acts on impulse, having “risen for to pisse”, rather than after consulting his “astrelabie” or his “augrim stones”.
Though Nicholas takes astrology fairly seriously, he is otherwise cynical, unscrupulous and blasphemous. He has no honourable intentions towards Alison, although to be fair, he does not deceive her, as his attitude is frankly shown in his direct approach towards her. As a scholar of the university he is in minor orders, and required to be celibate. Though John is fond of him, albeit patronisingly, he regards his host as a fool whom he has no qualms about cuckolding. He is foul-mouthed and uses blasphemous oaths, and a far greater blasphemy lies in his claim of divine authority for his “discovery” of the imminent flood, to say nothing of the use this blasphemy serves.
In spite of this, the Miller contrives that we shall like Nicholas. He does this by making John seem deserving of punishment for his unwise marriage and subsequent jealousy. Nicholas’ youth and attractiveness may make us less critical of his impropriety, and the comic manner of the tale’s telling makes his conduct seem less worthy of censure than would be the case with real people. Nicholas seems a more appropriate partner for Alison than does John, and the Miller’s repetition of the formula “hende Nicholas” encourages us to be more sympathetic towards him.
Absolon, the other male protagonist in “The Miller’s Tale” superficially resembles Nicholas in that he is a handsome young man with musical and other talents. To some he might be attractive, but to Alison, as to the Miller’s audience, he is ridiculous. In his general attire, as in his preparations for his nocturnal visit to Alison, there is fastidious attention to detail: the red hose, the white surplice, the “pointes” and the fashionable shoes; the arraying at “point-devis”, the chewing of grain and liquorice, the placing of the “trewe-love” under the tongue. Absolon also has a superficial notion of love, which issues in a parody of the courtly code, made all the more ridiculous by the everyday setting of the tale. Absolon serenades Alison, sends her a variety of gifts and swears to be her page. He even serenades her, we are told earlier, in the presence of her husband, John the carpenter. When Absolon plans to visit Alison in John’s absence, the reader is struck by what Absolon hopes for, “kissing atte leeste”, and what we know Nicholas and Alison are already doing. Absolon’s reading of the “omens” – his dream and his itching mouth – shows his naivety where women are concerned. This contrasts to Nicholas’s apparent exhaustive knowledge of women. Similar to Nicholas, however, Absolon is lecherous and vain, attempting to use courtly love as a means to seduce the attractive Alison.
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