Above: A well-known woodcut of the Miller in an early edition of the ‘Canterbury Tales’. He is shown sitting on his horse, playing his bagpipes. The depiction is not quite correct because it fails to show the Miller’s red beard that was ‘broad as well, as though it were a spade’ and it also misses the wart on his nose with hairs on it that were ‘Red as the bristles in an old sow’s ear’.
If you are a person who just takes a brief look at the picture and then skims through an article like this one, you will derive very little from this blog. We are taking a look at the Miller – as described by Geoffrey Chaucer in his ‘Canterbury Tales’. It was written in the 1380s, well over 600 years ago, about an activity that was commonplace in London – and, indeed, across England and the continent of Europe – pilgrims and pilgrimages.
In 14th century England, a few people owned a horse, which they used for their personal transport, but most people just walked everywhere. Even so, nearly everybody aspired to make at least one pilgrimage throughout their lives and at Easter there were more people travelling on the highways and by-ways of England, to make a pilgrimage to a holy shrine, than any other time of the year. One of the most popular shrines in England was that of Thomas a Becket – whose tomb was inside Canterbury Cathedral. With better weather on the way, many set out around the time of Easter to make the four-day pilgrimage from London to the City of Canterbury. Chaucer knew this all too well and, in the 1380s, he described the scene of pilgrims staying overnight in one of Southwark’s largest inns before setting off early next morning, heading east. Chaucer knew London exceptionally well and he would have known the Tabard Inn, in Borough High Street, whose yard is still in existence but it has been reduced in status to one of the side entrances for vans delivering supplies to Guy’s Hospital. The turning is now called Talbot Yard.
Chaucer used the scenario of the pilgrims setting off to Canterbury to describe the ‘nine and twenty’ people in the group in great detail – so much detail that each one almost lives in front of our eyes as we read the narrative. Because the text was written in Old English, a modern translation will be used to help the reader gain a clearer picture. We shall just look at the Miller who, from what Chaucer says about him, was not full of social graces. Everybody knew a miller because he produced flour from which bread was made. The miller was rather like a builder or a garage car mechanic today. Everybody uses either or both of them and everybody has a story of poor workmanship. Those two trades have suffered from a lot of bad publicity over the years. In Chaucer’s day, it was millers across England that got the bad press because everybody claimed to know a dishonest one. With that in mind, let’s read Chaucer’s graphic description, in just 24 lines of verse, pausing to add a few comments along the way. Chaucer begins by describing his size . . .
The Miller was a chap of sixteen stone,
A great stout fellow big in brawn and bone.
He did well out of them, for he could go
And win the ram at any wrestling show.
Broad, knotty, and short-shouldered, he would boast
He could heave any door off hinge and post,
Or take a run and break it with his head.
The Miller was clearly not a man who you argued with and, from the description, he had a tendency to become violent. He obviously knew how to take care of himself if it came to a fight. He was also no ‘picture book’ to look at and it is here that we can almost ’see’ him in front of us as the description proceeds . . .
His beard, like any sow or fox, was red
And broad as well, as though it were a spade;
And, at its very tip, his nose displayed
A wart on which there stood a tuft of hair
Red as the bristles in an old sow’s ear.
His nostrils were as black as they were wide.
The miller was obviously not acquainted with the finer side of life. It is very likely that other members of the pilgrim group would have avoided him – if only to get away from his foul mouth . . .
He had a sword and buckler at his side,
His mighty mouth was like a furnace door.
A wrangler and buffoon, he had a store
Of tavern stories, filthy in the main.
Chaucer also has a few words to say about the Miller. The problem with any miller was a simple one. A miller took sacks of grain from the farmer and ground it into flour. When the flour was bagged up, it had a different volume and weight from the original sacks of grain. When a farmer said to the miller ‘I thought that my grain would have produced more flour that this’, the miller would reply ‘I can assure you that all the grain has been milled and put into these sacks’. It, therefore, raised an obvious question. Did the miller honestly grind all the grain and hand it back to the farmer? It is just possible that the miller, knowing that there was no way of telling how much flour was produced from a given quantity of grain, kept a couple of sacks for himself? In that case, the farmer was being cheated. This went on so frequently that it was a common talking point among country-folk of how millers used to steal the grain. In Chaucer’s couplets we notice that he takes a swipe at this Miller . . .
His was a master-hand at stealing grain.
He felt it with his thumb and thus he knew
Its quality and took three times his due –
A thumb of gold, by God, to gauge an oat!
Finally, just as we today have to put up with noisy people on their mobile phones or people playing their music too loud on their headphones, so – over 600 years ago – there was another menace. The Miller liked to play his bagpipes . . .
He wore a hood of blue and a white coat.
He liked to play his bagpipes up and down
And that was how he brought us out of town.
With this week being the run-up to Easter, it is good to remember Chaucer’s pilgrims and their slow progress from London to Canterbury. If you have been following these blogs for some time you will know that we have described the pilgrims before. This year we have taken a look at one of their number – the Miller. Surprisingly, this character from the 14th century exhibits traits that are remarkably up to date. He could easily be someone we are familiar with from the 21st century.