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Comedy in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: ‘Moral’ Pilgrims and the Stories They Tell

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  1. Introduction
  2. The fabliau plot in the Miller's tale
  3. The lover's role
  4. Nicholas' alleged astrological education
  5. The two clerks seeking lodging in the miller's house
  6. Conclusion
  7. Bibliography

Viewed in a certain light, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales offers a realistic slice of life from a diverse cross section of fourteenth century English society. Represented among the travelers are members of all three estates, the church, nobility and peasantry, as well as the middle class, bourgeoisie, and various professionals . Yet, upon close reading of the tales, one sees that life as these medievals would have lived is warped when read through Chaucer's lens. In the Miller's Tale and the Reeve's Tale, sentiments of piety one would expect of a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury are nowhere to be found; rather, the prevailing attitude of the characters within these two tales is one of total amorality. As Derek Pearsall argues, In religious tales and saints' legends, [a] self-transcending system of values operates, in this case proving the significance of life through the demonstration of its ultimate insignificance in relation to life eternal. Comedy sets all this aside, and asserts that there are no values, secular or religious, more important than survival and the satisfaction of appetite.

[...] An analogue to the Reeve's tale, written in French, does not elaborate on the devious nature of the miller, or on the clerks' plan to make sure they don't get cheated. It simply says that two clerks, who, having fallen on hard times, chose to become bakers to support themselves, happened to use a miller who ?knew his trade too well (Analogue to Reeve's Tale).? Other than the Reeve's augmentation of the motives behind the story, it follows very similar lines as the Miller's tale. [...]

[...] Nicholas and Alison ?tolden every man that [John] was wood and so those townspeople, instead of punishing Nicholas for his sins, revel in the humor of John's plight: The folk gan laughen at his fantasye; Into the roof thy kiken and they cape, And turned al his harm unto a jape 3840-42). If the ending is disturbing in its unfairness to the characters, one must recall that there is nothing in the tale to suggest that fairness is requisite in this little world. [...]

[...] Sure enough, both clerks have passionate trysts with the miller's women, and the miller would never be the wiser if Aleyn didn't tell him, having also been confused by the switched cradle. Suddenly a raging fist fight breaks out, with the miller strangling and punching Aleyn so that ?Doun ran the bloody streem upon his brest 4276).? They awaken the others, and the miller's wife shrieks, manus tuas! Lord, to thee I calle! not yet realizing her adultery, which might prohibit her from receiving God's aid, were God actually present. [...]

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