I was teaching Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale on Friday and had a sudden insight: laughter, even blasphemous laughter, is not an enemy to spirituality. In fact, it can be a means of deepening our connection with the divine. I will make my case through Chaucer.
The Miller’s Tale is about as bawdy as it gets and, for the Canterbury pilgrims, it would have seemed especially lewd because it comes right after the refined and polished Knight’s Tale. The knight tells a story about two friends who, while in prison, fall hopelessly in love with a woman they see through the bars. Their subsequent actions are propelled by their pure love for Emelye, and Chaucer’s pilgrims (especially the upper class gentlefolk) all feel they have been elevated:
In al the route nas ther yong ne old
That he ne saide it was a noble storye,
And worthy for to drawen to memorye
And namely the gentils everichoon [the gentlefolk especially felt this way].
Pleased at how well the storytelling has begun, the innkeeper/master of ceremonies turns to the monk for the next tale.
At that point, however, the blowhard miller (he plays bagpipes) comes bursting in and insists on telling his story next, even though he is drunk (he says he knows he is so by the sound of his voice). The innkeeper throws up his hands and relents, the narrator denies any responsibility for the story (he’s just recording what transpired, he says in his defense), and the miller proceeds.
The miller’s story is about an old carpenter, John, who marries the young, wild, coltish 18th-year-old Alison. (Most in the community would probably judge such a marriage as General Sternwood does in The Big Sleep: “[A]ny man who has lived as I have and indulges for the first time in marriage at my age deserves all he gets.”) Alison is drawn to their boarder, the “hende” scholar Nicholas, and vice versa.
Nicholas is handy is every sense of the word and figures out a way to get John out of the way. He pretends to have a vision in which the entire world will be flooded. Concerned about his young wife, John spends the entire day constructing tubs, which he hangs from the rafters. Exhausted, he falls asleep in his tub, and Nicholas and Alison go off to sport in the master bed.
Enter one Absolon, a fair-haired effeminate songster who has fallen in love with Alison and sings love songs to her outside the window. To play a trick on him, Alison agrees to kiss him but instead offers him her rear end. Absolon gets ready, wiping his mouth to make sure it is dry and pursing up his lips. I’ll let Chaucer take over at this point:
But with his mouth he kiste her naked ers,
Ful savourly, er he were war of this.
Abak he sterte, and thoughte it was amis,
For wel he wiste a woman hath no beerd.
He felte a thing al rough and longe yherd,
And saide, “Fy, allas, what have I do?”
“Teehee,” quod she, and clapte the windowe to.
Thoroughly disenchanted, Absolon vows revenge, goes to his friend the blacksmith, and returns with a red hot poker. He begs for a kiss again and this time it is Nicholas who obliges:
This Nicholas were risen for to pisse,
And thoughte he wolde amenden al the jape [improve on the joke]:
He sholde kisse his ers er that he scape.
And up the windowe dide he hastily,
And out his ers he putteth prively,
Over the buttok to the haunche-boon.
And therewith spak this clerk, this Absolon,
“Speek, sweete brid, I noot nought where thou art.”
This Nicolas anoon leet flee a fart
As greet as it hadde been a thonder-dent
That with the strook he was almost yblent [blinded],
And he was redy with his iren hoot,
And Nicolas amide the ers he smoot:
Of gooth the skin an hande-brede aboute;
The hote cultour brende so his toute
That for the smert [pain] he wende for to die . . .
As Nicholas frantically cries for water, John wakes up and thinks the flood has come. He cuts the ropes on his tub, at which point it plunges to the floor, breaking his arm. Nicholas and Alison run out into the streets telling everyone that he’s crazy, the town comes in and laughs at him, and “this tale is doon, and God save al the route [company].”
In my mind’s eye I see the court of Richard II, to whom Chaucer would have read his poem, rolling on the ground laughing as the poet delivers it. They would have appreciated the knight’s tale but loved the miller’s tale. And there are aspects to the bawdy story that make it even more scandalous.
It’s not only an inversion of the knight’s tale (two men fighting over a woman). It is also an inversion of the Virgin Mary’s impregnation by the Holy Spirit. It was a standing blasphemous joke in the Middle Ages that Joseph, a carpenter, had been cuckolded by God, who then told him to live with it. In the miller’s perversion of sacred story, Alison is Mary and Nicholas, with his vision from God, stands in for the Holy Ghost. Edgy stuff.
There is a third inversion as well since the kissing of a man’s rear-end by an effeminate Absolon, and then the insertion of a poker, hints at homosexual sex. When, later in life, Chaucer wrote a retraction asking for God’s forgiveness for any offensive works he had written, Miller’s Tale was probably high on the list of the words he had in mind.
But I don’t want him to retract. The danger of spiritual practice is that is can become arid, bloodless, and dangerous. If our earthy humanity drops out, we can turn into humorless fundamentalists who punish any deviations from orthodoxy. Chaucer is as grounded a writer as any that I know. He believed deeply (everyone at the time did) but he also appreciated life.
I think his inner balance couldn’t help himself. Once he told the knight’s story, he knew that he had to follow up with the miller’s. And to look ahead to the Wife of Bath, my favorite of his characters, he falls in love with her love of life, even as he also believes in the spiritual ideals that the old crone lectures about to her young knight husband (in the Wife’s tale).
In short, open yourself to the divine. That’s what the Sabbath is for. But don’t lose touch with makes you a creature of this world. This includes laughter and sex. In fact, loving rather than denying the world is a powerful foundation for loving God.