Usage of Satire in the Miller’s Tale to Parody the Ideas of Courtly Love and Chivalry in the Knight’s Tale

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

Throughout Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”, the ideas of courtly love and chivalry are present throughout many of the tales, however these ideas are only in part. In order to understand how these notions are only partially present, it is important to understand what exactly each is, and how they present themselves, particularly within medieval society. Courtly love, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, is “the faithful love of a knight for a married lady, with whom he can never have a relationship” (Oxford Learners Dictionaries).

Chivalry is defined as the “polite and kind behavior that shows a sense of honor, especially by men to women” (Oxford Learners Dictionaries). These ideas are present in some shape or form in the Knight’s Tale, and the ideas are then parodied in the Miller’s tale. This paper will explain how these notions are presented in both of the tales, and how exactly the Miller’s Tale parodies the Knight’s Tale.

The Knights’ tale describes a story of two men, both of whom are longing for the love of the maiden Emelye. The knight (Theseus) has fought the tyrant, Creon, and he has taken Palamon and Arcite as prisoners (Chaucer, Knight’s Tale). Palamon delivers a very flattering description of Emelye, as he observes her from the tower, comparing her beauty to the likeness of May flowers and not knowing which was fairer, Emelye or the flowers. This passage (line 1034-1055) demonstrates Palamons’ initial infatuation with the maiden. He is so taken by her beauty the he cries out “A!” (Chaucer, Knight’s Tale). This startles Arcite and causes him to question what has caused him to yell. Palamon responds with:

“Cosin, forsoothe of this opinioun

Thou hast a vain imaginacioun.

This prison caused me nat for to crye,

But I was hurt right now thurghout myn eye

Into myn herte, that wol my bane be.” (Chaucer, Knights Tale 1093-1097)

At this point, Palamon has only caught sight of Emelye, but is already announcing that she is going to be the destruction of him. Of course, Arcite watches to see what Emelye looks like, as Palamon has intrigued him. Arcite announces that he in fact loves her more than Palamon does, and the bickering begins as to who will have her. Arcite finally says that while Palamon can love her as a wife, loving her soul, and he will love her romantically, loving her body (Chaucer, Knight’s Tale) This a rather ironic situation, as the two knights’ bicker over who will get to have Emelye, all the while she is unaware of their existence.

As the tale progresses, Arcite has since been freed from the tower on the mise that if he ever returns to Theseus’s land, he would lose his head by a sword (Chaucer, Knight’s Tale 1215). Palamon has also escaped from prison. Neither of the knights have yet to see Emelye again, however they continue to feud over her. Their fight is broken up by Theseus and Palamon announces to him that they should both be killed, as they were captives, initially asking Theseus to kill him first, but later changing his mind to have Arcite killed first, as he has been banished (Chaucer, Knight’s Tale 1715-1725). It is revealed at this time that they are both in love with Emelye, who happens to be Theseus’s sister. It is decided by Theseus that a fight of sorts will be held, and the winner will be awarded Emelye to wed (Chaucer, Knight’s Tale 1860). This desire to fight for Emelye, by both men, is a demonstration of courtly love in a sense. Having never met the lady in person, they are both faithful to her, so much that they are willing to partake in a fight to the death for her hand.

Unbeknownst to all three men, Emelye has expressed her

“Desire to been a maiden al my lif,

Ne never wol I be no love ne wif.” (Chaucer, Knight’s Tale, 2304-2306)

This further adds to the theme of courtly love throughout the story, as courtly love refers to the faithful love of a knight to a married lady, with whom they will never have a relationship. While Emelye is not married, she has expressed desire to never be a wife. She has no desire to be anything but a maiden, and as such, a relationship will never occur with either Arcite, or Palamon. While it is true that they are unaware of this profession, they are faithful to her, which in part, holds true to the meaning of courtly love.

Later in the tale, the battle between Arcite and Palamon is set to take place. Theseus makes it clear that the battle should occur with blunt weapons, and none of the knights are to die; the point of this fight is not to be destructive. However, it is a bloody fight, ending in Palamons’ death. While making his victory lap, Emelye casts Arcite a:

“Frendly eye-

For women, as to speken in commune,

They folwen al the favour of Fortune-” (Chaucer, Knight’s Tale, 2680-2682)

This holds great significance as it further reinforces the fact that Emelye is not going to have a relationship with Artie, despite the fact that he has just killed Palamon for him. Rather, she is merely giving him looks because she is following fortune, as all women do; not because she wants to be with him. This aspect of courtly love is further reinforced by this clarity.

All the descriptions given of Emelye, by both Palamon and Arcite, are very endearing and proper. As discussed in Jerome Mandel’s paper Courtly Love in Chaucer, the tale describes lover of “appropriate rank, compelled by an ennobling passion for a woman worshipped from afar… The lovers speak and behave as have long since learned to expect of courtly lovers…” (Mandel, 1985). Nearly every aspect of the adoration that both Palamon and Arcite have of Emelye is indicative of a courtly love.

The Miller’s Tale on the other hand is a rather vulgar tale, to the point that Chaucer himself has warned his readers that it is a vulgar tale, and they may want to go on to the next one (Chaucer, Miller’s Tale 3167-3187). The drunken Miller promises to tell a tale of a carpenter and his wife, in which the carpenter in made a fool by the clerk, to quite (or repay) the Knights tale. The Miller starts off by telling of a Clerk, named Nicholas, who completed the first stages of university education and was very smart, but desired to be an astrologist (Chaucer, Miller’s Tale 3190-3210). Nicholas lived with a Carpenter who had just recently married a lady of eighteen years old (Chaucer, Miller’s Tale 3220-3224). He was jealous and concerned for his relationship “for she was wild and yong, and he was old” (Chaucer, Miller’s Tale 3225), and as such he kept a very close eye on her. We are given a description of the wife that appears to be pure and flattering in describing her physique (Chaucer, Miller’s Tale 2333-3270), however the last two lines shift to speak about how she is fit do lay in any lord’s bed. This shift is indicative of the tale that is about to ensue.

He then goes on to tell of a day that Nicholas happened to “flirt” with the young lady. As it reads:

“Whil that hir housbonde was at Oseneye…

And prively he caught hir by the queinte,

And said, “Ywis, but if ich have my wille,

For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille,

And heeld hir harde by the haunche-bones” (Chaucer, Miller’s Tale 3274-3279)

Nicholas has grabbed her, while the carpenter was away, and attempted to coax her into being unfaithful to her husband. She expressed concern of being caught, but Nicholas calmed her, and she promised him that she would let him have her when they could safely get away with it (Chaucer, Miller’s Tale 3294-3296). They agree to wait until the time is right and fool the carpenter to bide them some time.

Shortly thereafter, she attends church to pray, and the parish clerk, Absalom becomes completely infatuated with her. He tried to win and buy her love, however she was not interested, as she was in love with Nicholas. Feeling the urge to act soon, Nicholas devised a plan to trick the carpenter, a plan that would allow the two of them to spend a night together. Nicholas convinced the carpenter that he had had a vision that there was going to be torrential downpours and flooding, and that on Monday night, they should sleep in bathtubs, in total silence, fixed to the roof of the barn so that they may float in safety once the flooding began (Chaucer, Miller’s Tale 3513-3600).

Unbeknownst to the carpenter, on Monday night the three would climb into their tubs, and once the carpenter was fast asleep, Nicholas and Alison would sneak back into the house to spend the night together. This plan eventually comes to fruition, and they spend the night together. While this may be mistaken for courtly love, as Alison is a married woman, it does not meet the ranking typically seen in traditional courtly love. As stated in Hebert Moller’s “The Meaning of Courtly Love”, a key aspect of courtly love is that the “[intense yearning for gratification, ideally should never become a reality].” (Moller, 1960). This attempt at courtly love does come to fruition and become a reality, and such it becomes more of a situation of infidelity.

The Millers’ tale attempts to “quite” the Knights’ tale, however, it lacks the meaning to tell the story of a true courtly love. The Knights’ tale tells the story of two men both longing and yearning for the company of a beautiful woman, whom they will never have. The language used is full of meaning and passion throughout the Knight’s tale. The Millers’ tale uses the right kinds of language, providing elegant description of the lady, and the fact that she is married suits the tale. However, the fact that neither Nicholas nor Absolom is a knight does not fit the story, and the terms that both characters use lack the very meaning that characterizes courtly love (Mandel, 1985). Rather than trying to win her love, both characters attempt to coax her into love; by asking for pity in Absalom’s case, or in Nicholas’s case by professing his love for her, all the while groping her. These words are contradicted by their actions.

The combination of empty words and contradictory actions creates a tale full of parodied courtly love. The Knight’s tale is laden with chivalry and courtly love, both in terms of the language used as well as the actions portray by both men. The Millers’ tale attempts to portray the same meaning, however the lack of consistency between action and language undermines the characters, resulting in a vulgar tale of infidelity and trickery.

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