The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Miller's Tale Summary

When the Knight has finished his tale, the Host, Harry Bailey, asks the Monk to tell a tale next. But the Miller interrupts, saying his tale should come next.

The Miller tells the story of an Oxford student named Nicholas, who is well-versed in astrology but also in “the art of love,” or flirtation and seduction. Nicholas is boarding with a carpenter and his wife. The carpenter, John, is old and ignorant in many ways. Although he is rich, the only thing he guards with jealousy is his sexy eighteen-year-old wife, Alisoun.

One day while John is out, Nicholas convinces Alisoun to sleep with him. She agrees to do so, but only if it can be done without John finding out. Nicholas is sure he can outwit the old carpenter, so he starts making plans.

Meanwhile, Alisoun receives multiple visits from another admirer, a local parish clerk named Absolon. He’s besotted with her, and he serenades her every night, brings her gifts, and gives her money, but she will not give him the time of day.

Nicholas sets his plan into motion by shutting himself in his room and telling Alisoun to tell the carpenter that he is ill. When John checks on Nicholas, he finds the student staring at the ceiling mumbling to himself. John writes off Nicholas’s behavior as madness, saying that it’s what he gets for prying into God’s private affairs (which is what John believes Nicholas’s study of astrology amounts to). Still, he enters the room to talk to Nicholas.

Nicholas tells John that he has had a vision from God: next Monday, a flood twice as great as Noah’s flood will cover the land, killing everything in its path. John is frightened and begs Nicholas to tell him how to spare Alisoun from the flood. Nicholas tells him that he must fill three tubs with provisions and an ax and hang them from the rafters in the barn. On Monday night, they will each sleep in one of the tubs, and when the waters rise, they can cut the tubs free from the rafters and float in them until the waters subside. Nicholas also tells John that God has ordered them not to speak when they are in the tubs – they must do nothing but pray.

On Monday night, John, Nicholas, and Alisoun each climb into a tub. When John begins to snore, Nicholas and Alisoun climb down from their tubs and go back into the house to sleep together in the carpenter’s bed. Before they leave the bedroom, Absolon appears at the bedroom window and begs Alisoun for a kiss. She agrees to give him one, but instead of putting her face out the window to be kissed, she puts her butt out the window instead.

Absolon, not amused by this little trick, swears revenge. He runs to the blacksmith’s shop and comes back with a red-hot iron poker. At the window, he asks Alisoun for another kiss and promises a gold ring in return. Nicholas, who has gotten up to relieve himself, responds to Absolon’s plea by sticking his butt out the window and farting in Absolon’s face. Absolon responds by jabbing Nicholas in the rear with the poker, burning him. Nicholas’s shouts of “Water! Water!” wake John, who, assuming the flood has come, cuts down the tub he’s been sleeping in – falling from the barn roof and breaking his arm as a result. The commotion draws a crowd, which laughs at Nicholas, John, Absolon, and Alisoun, assuming all of them have gotten what was coming to them.

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