Born almost halfway through the 1300’s to “a prosperous wine merchant,” Geoffrey Chaucer would later write one of the “most famous medieval frame tale[s],” The Cantebruy Tales. (Abrams 173, 176) Contained within that work is “The Miller’s Tale” which can be read as a meditation on the ills of knowledge not used for the benefit of society. Through the characterization of ‘hende Nicholas’, readers are made aware of the depths to which an individual may sink when scholarship is subject to carnal desires, and are shown the harrowing outcome of such perversion, the effects of which are not limited to a single individual.
Glossing over the initial three lines setting the stage, The Miller’s Tale starts off with a thirty-one line description of a ‘poor scoler’(82) living ‘After his friends finding and his rente’ which we are told means ‘In accordance with his friends’ provision and his own income’.(Abrams 201) This scholarly individual is depicted as having ‘lerned art’(83), that is ‘completed the first stage of university education (the trivium)’.(Abrams 200) We are further told of his interest in ‘astrologye’(84), and his ability to extrapolate future outcomes from ‘interrgaciouns’(86). His scholarly aptitude is fleshed out by the description of his chamber where:
His Almageste and books grete and small,
His astrelabye, longing for his art,
His augrim stones, layen faire apart
On shelves couched at his beddes heed. (100-104)
He has no house of his own and his landlord, in interesting juxtaposition, is an old carpenter painted as a ’rich gnof that gestes held to boorde’(80) who lacks book learning. We are told “He knew nat Canton”(119), a reference to “Dionysious Cato, the supposed author of a book of maxims used in elementary education”.(Abrams 201) This old, ignorant carpenter “hadde wedded newe a wif”(113), and not just any wife, but one that was “wilde and young”(117).
Nine different times we are told that this poor scholar is ‘hende’, a word which means “courteous, handy, attractive”.(Abrams 201) The first time the word is used is when we are told that “This clerk was clepped hende Nicholas”(91) and in the subsequent line we are informed that “Of dene love he coude, and of solas”(92), meaning that he “knew about secret love and pleasurable practices”(Abrams 201). Despite his good looks, erudition, and “his merye throte”(110), but probably due to his lack of finances, this pauper is ‘Allone, without any compaignye’(96), an interesting contrast to his old, rich, ignorant landlord who is wedded to a beautiful young wife. We might be allowed to overlook this disparity since knowledge is the crown of humanity, as Ibn Kathīr writes “fa sharafuhu wa karamuhu bil cilm wa huwa al-qadr alladhī imṭāẓa bihi abū al-barriyyah ādam calā al-malā’ikah (the honor of mankind is because of knowledge, an ability that distinguished the father of mankind, Adam, from the angels)”.(8:437) An individual, thus distinguished might be considered just as well off as a person blessed with other gifts.
In spite of his education, Nicholas does not seem to have acquired moral uprightness. The knowledge which he has attainted has not penetrated into his heart and caused a transformation of his character in a manner that would give benefit to himself and his society. The second time we are introduced to ‘hende Nicholas’, he is engaged in a flagrant act of betrayal and violation as he attempts to flirt with his landlord’s wife while the latter is away. We are told “[t]hat on a day this hende Nicholas/ Fil with this yonge wif to rage and play,/ while that hir housebonde was at Oseneye”(164-166) In the absence of his landlord, Nicholas commits such actions that border on rape, and can certainly be described as molestation, as he physically “caughte hire by the queinte”(168) and “heeld hire harde by the haunche-bones”.(171) Only the wife’s physical efforts and verbal pleas to let go or she would “crye ‘Out, harrow, and allas!’”(178) bring his foul physical assault to an abrupt halt. Though he lets her go, he does not desist from his sinful actions, instead switching tactics, now attacking with words until “she hir love him granted atte laste”.(182) The carpenter has given Nicholas a place to stay, and he has repaid this kindness with treachery unbecoming even an ignoramus, to say nothing of a learned person.
We are again introduced to ‘hende Nicholas’ after the eyes of another immoral individual have fallen upon the carpenter’s wife, Alisoun. This individual, “a parissh clerk,/ The which that was yceleped Absolon”(203-205), is described in a lecherous manner. He goes about on “the holiday/ Cencing the wives of the parissh/ And many a lovely look on hem he caste”.(232-234) This Absolon attempts to seduce Alison with songs, and sends her gifts “For some folk woo be won for riches, And som for strokes, and som for gentilesse”.(274-275) However, his efforts go in vain because Alisoun “loveth so this hende Nicholas”.(278) So much greater is Alisoun’s love for the traitorous scholar that we are given a proverb to explain why Absolon’s efforts are futile. “Men saith right thus: ‘Alway the nye slye/ Maketh the ferry leve to be loth.’”(284-285) In plain English it would be rendered thus “Always the sly man at hand makes the distant dear one hated”.(205) Courteous, handy, attractive Nicholas is a sly serpent at Alisoun’s side who has used his knowledge and keen mind to blind her so that she sees good in no one but him. So manipulative is ‘hende Nicholas’ that he has turned Alisoun against her own husband, the man who has taken vows in the name of God to protect and provide for her, vows which Nicholas has not taken, and has expressed no intention of taking.
Another case of that scholarly acumen being bent to evil purposes is portrayed as we are told that “hende Nicholas and Alisoun”(293) have decided “[t]hat Nicholas shal shape hem a wile/ This sely jalous housbonde to bigile”(294-295), after all “A clerke had litherly beset his while,/ But if he coude a carpenter bigile”.(191-192) Nicholas would have “[p]oorly used his time”(203), we are told, if he could not pull the wool over that ignorant carpenter’s eyes. Not content with merely isolating Alisoun, Nicholas is intent on moving the carpenter out of the way so that they can consummate their illicit affair, “[f]or this was his desir and hire also”.(199) Given the devious nature so far exhibited by Nicholas it is questionable whether this desire on Alisoun’s part is a natural one bubbling up out of her subconscious or a superimposing of Nicholas’ will on her own. After all, the evidence of her adulterous actions will show on her in the form of a pregnancy. No such visible sign will appear on Nicholas, thus he can ‘afford’ to sow his oats without fear of repercussions, to a certain extent.
The next time we see ‘hende Nicholas’ he has ensconced himself in his room so long that his landlord has become worried and sought him out to enquire after his condition. This well-wisher is met with perfidy as “hende Nicholas/ Gan for to sike sore, and saide, ‘Allas,/ Shal al the world be lost eftsoones now?”(379-381) Nicholas does not immediately unveil his plot, but works a subtle web, drawing the carpenter in inch by slow inch, baiting the poor man with a question meant to perk his interest, then withholding the answer to his riddle by ordering the man to “Fecche me drinke,/ And after woo I speke in privetee”.(384-385) His machinations are designed to beguile the unwary, and it is here that we see his wicked mind and awful craft on full display. Before it was merely alluded to, but now the author uses nearly two hundred lines fleshing out this scene, ending with the carpenter’s reaction to, so to say, sign off on this masterful trickery. We are shown how skillful Nicholas is by the effect his words have on the carpenter even after leaving his company. Having left Nicholas “[t]his sely carpenter biginneth quake”(506), but his reaction is not due to fear for his own imminent demise, rather “[h]im thinketh verrailiche that he may see/ Noees flood come walwing as the see/ To drenched Alison, his hony dere”(507-509), and these thoughts cause him to “weepth, waileth, maketh sory cheere”.(510)
The last time ‘hende Nicholas’ is presented to the listeners he is shown to be a heartless rogue concerned only about his own reputation. Confronted with the townspeople and the imminent exposure of his ill deeds by Alisoun’s husband, he reveals the true extent of his depravity. “For whan [the landlord] spak he was anoon bore down/ With hende Nicholas and Alisoun:/ They tolden every man that he was wood”.(723-725) Faced with a chance to confess and right the wrongs he has wrought, courteous Nicholas chooses instead to conceal the truth in order to protect his reputation by calling his benefactor ‘wood’ or “crazy”.(Abrams 214) Throughout the tale, ‘hende Nicholas’ is depicted as a slimy libertine, unrefined by the bookish learning that he has been blessed with, and as we leave him his character development has only made this point more poignant. Nicholas raises the question of whether or not knowledge that is not applied for the betterment of oneself and one’s environs is worth acquiring, especially when it is used to beguile the innocent, conceal the truth, and wreck marriages, one of the foundational pillars of a health society.
Chaucer, Geoffery. “The Miller’s Tale.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.
Ed. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2001. 679-680. Print.
Ibn Kathīr, Abū Ismacīl Ibn Umar. Tafsīr Al-Qur’ān Al-Adhīm. Riyadh, K.S.A. Dar Tayyibah. n.d. Electronic.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.