The Joy of Lust? The Depiction and Function of Eroticism in Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" and "Reeve's Tale"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010
20 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Chaucer’s Time

3. Church and Faith
3.1 The Attitude towards Sexuality

4. Fabliaux
4.1 Realism
4.2 Language and Morality
4.3 Morals
4.4 Fabliaux and Sex

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

There is hardly any period in history, perhaps apart from Antiquity, that has preoccupied people of later eras as much as the Middle Ages. They have been a recurring popular subject in literature over the last two hundred years. The film industry could not go without them. One reason for this fascination might be the fact that the Middle Ages are both a part of our own history, still visible in magnificent church buildings, and an era that lies half a millennium away from us. This distance and a rather limited knowledge about the ‘real’ circumstances contribute to a hazy image leaving plenty of space for interpretation and imagination. Depictions of the Middle Ages often mirror views and opinions of the time they stem from, which can be seen in shift of emphasis among the abundance of novels and films dealing with this subject in the course of time.

A popular view on the Middle Ages from our perspective is that of jaunty folk, who en- joyed their lives being free of the restraints of our modern society. It is therefore not surprising that the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini chose the Canterbury Tales for one of the films in his Trilogy of Life the other two being Bocaccio’s The Decameron and Arabian Nights. Pasolini made his films in a time which today is referred to as the ‘Sexual Revolution’. Perhaps it was the undisguised depiction of sexuality in some of the Canterbury Tales which had inspired him to adapt them for the screen.

One of the Canterbury Tales we find in Pasolini’s film is the Miller’s Tale. It is the second story being told, after the Knight’s Tale, and it forms a unit, or a diptych, together with the Reeve’s Tale, which follows. One does not have to approve of Pasolini’s intentions in order to acknowledge the erotic elements in both of these tales. Having a closer look at the instances of eroticism in the tales leads to the question of the author’s motivation to employ them. Are the Miller’s and the Reeve’s Tale erotic stories written with the intention to arouse sexual feelings, or were they rather meant to challenge and provoke the contemporary authorities? Was it common literary practice in Chaucer’s time to use erotic or obscene speech, or did he break new ground in literature?

This paper will scrutinize the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale with regard to their erotic contents and the instances of obscene speech. The main emphasis will be put on the on a dis­ cussion on the genre of the tales as well as the question, whether instances of eroticism are re- ally the light-hearted expression of joyful lust, or rather skilful narrative means serving both the authentic representation of the characters and the emphasizing of the tales’ overall morals.

2. Chaucer’s Time

Geoffrey Chaucer was born around 1340 and died in 1400. There is no evidence either of his exact year of birth or of day of death. In the fourteenth century it was no common practice to issue official documents or keep a record about births or deaths, even in a big city like London. Chaucer’s father was a comparatively wealthy vintner, and Geoffrey grew up in an urban bourgeois environment receiving a good education, which, at his time, included classical Latin authors and rhetorics. It is believed, though, that his Latin was not as good as his French or Italian. (Brewer 1978: 60) As a young man he served in a military expedition in France, was captured and subsequently ransomed by the English king for £ 16. (ibid.: 79) Chaucer served at the Royal Court and was sent on diplomatic missions to Spain, France, and Italy. In Italy he saw the intriguingly realistic frescoes of Giotto and other Italian artists, and he was acquainted with Italian literature, which at his time was the state-of-the-art in Europe. (ibid.: 119-131)

Although little or nothing is known about the circumstances of his birth or death, the records we have about his life are considerable. Chaucer was no poet by profession as to ma­ king his living from this occupation. But thanks to his ‘other’ activities he is the first great English author about whom we have an abundance of reliable information at all. In fact, we know more about Geoffrey Chaucer’s life than we know about Shakespeare’s.

The fourteenth century has often been described as a ‘period of change’, which in a way is a misleading term; it implies that the preceding and the subsequent centuries were compara- tively quiet, peaceful and prosperous, which, in fact, was not the case. There was, however, one incident in this century that doubtlessly had a most profound effect on all realms of society: the Black Death. This epi- or rather pandemic, spread and advanced with its lethal force from the Mediterranian all over Europe and eventually reached England in 1349. It is estimated that the population fell from a maximum of about six million in 1300 to as little as two and a half mil- lion by the mid-fifteenth century. (Rees Jones 2007: 60) The Black Death was the culmination of a series of catastrophic events such as climate change, crop failures and famines that struck England in fourteenth century. As a result, radical changes in society took place during the following decades caused by labour shortage, rising prices and a redistribution of wealth. The long-term effect of the fourteenth-century crisis was the strengthening of the economic power of some cities in the Southern England such as Exeter, Canterbury and particularly London, as well as the decline of other cities in the North such as Lincoln or York. (Ibid.: 62)

The most radical changes took place in the countryside. The prevailing socio-economic system of the Middle Ages in Europe was that of feudalism. This meant, roughly, that society was structured hierachically through a system of bonds and dependencies. The king was the highest feudal lord. Medieval kings usually had no standing armies. They were dependent on the military contingents of their vassals, who could be dukes or earls or even bishops.

On the lowest level of this system were the unpropertied peasants, most of whom were serfs. Serfdom means that the peasant was tied to the piece of land he cultivated not being allowed to leave it without permission of his lord, or even to marry. A serf had to pay taxes to his lord and to the Church, in addition to personal labour services. In return his lord granted him protection, which in the Middle Ages was not unimportant. The entire land, however, did not belong to lords or the church alone. There was also a class of free peasants, who owned the land they cultivated. The ploughman in the Canterbury Tales belongs to this class.

The basis of the feudal system began to erode in the aftermaths of the Plague. There were not enough farmers left to cultivate the land, or do services on the lords’ manors. Besides, much farmland, on which crops had been cultivated before, was now used as pasture for grazing cattle and sheep for the expanding wool and clothing industry, and growing markets for meat in the prospering towns. By and by, servile tenures disappeared, the peasants were released from their unfree status and either bought or leased the land for a cash rent from their former feudal lords. “In this new climate some peasant cultivators flourished and contributed to the formation of a new ‘middling class’ of small independent farmers.” (ibid.: 60) But even if many of them achieved a change in their official status, and some even a clear improvement of their economic situation, the majority of farmers remained poor.

Another development accelerated by the Plague was the growing importance and self- confidence of the towns, some of which could strengthen their positions as important centres of commerce. Craftsmen and merchants, often organized in guilds, became prosperous town- dwellers. The growing wealth of the towns attracted migrants from the countryside, which led to the depopulation of the countryside in some parts of the country. The ruling class, anxious to defend their pre-crisis privileges, tried to stop, or at least contain this development by a series of labour laws in the years after the crisis. This lead to a social conflict culminating in the so-called Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. (Rigby 2007: 35)

3. Church and Faith

According to ‘natural law’ medieval scholars perceived human society as being subdivided into “the three estates of the oratores, bellatores and laboratores (those who pray, those who fight and those who work) and this familiar model of society continued to be reproduced in the later Middle Ages.” (ibid.: 26) These estates were also referred to as the First Estate (pray), the Second Estate (fight) and the Third Estate (work). As celibacy was a precondition for clergymen, a medieval individual was (officially) either born into Second or the Third Estate. Only free peo- ple could enter the clergy, high positions like a bishop or an abbot/abbess of a monastery were usually reserved to men and women who belonged to the nobility, i.e. the Second Estate.

The Catholic Church had played an eminent role in politics since Anglo-Saxon times. Bishops and abbots were vassals of the king some of them being lords of vast estates. The conveyance of property (including the peasants who lived and worked on that property) to the Church and to monasteries was common practice among noble landowners. As for a long time clerics were the only social group able to read and write, the Church virtually held the monopoly of educa- tion. Their assistance in administration was indispensable for medieval rulers. After the Norman Conquest the feudal relationships between the King and the Church were intensified. Within a few years all Anglo-Saxon bishops and abbots were replaced by Norman vassals of the King.

The close connection between the Church and the ruler dates back to the Roman Emperor Constantine I and his idea of an imperium christianum. (Prinz 2000: 33-44) This notion of the concordance of worldly power and religious authority was later taken up by the Frankish kings and the medieval Popes. By the fourteenth century all kinds of clerics held various ‘worldly’ positions in society. Belonging to the First Estate, however, did not necessarily mean prosperity. Originally all clergymen were supposed to be personally unpropertied, according to the canon law. This was a serious claim, not to be taken lightly. Indeed, many clerics devoted themselves to poverty and led a humble life in a monastery, unlike the Monk in the Canterbury Tales, who is apparently pretty well off. Especially in the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries a series of mendicant orders were founded, the best known of which today is the Order of the Friars Minor, or simply the “Franciscans”. (Sarnowsky 2002: 134-135) The Friar in the Canter­ bury Tales belongs to such a mendicant order, although we are not told which one. Altogether, there were clerics of all classes of wealth to be found, from the very rich to the very poor. The clergy as a whole constituted an inherent part of medieval society, which is mirrored in the Canterbury Tales: among the twenty-four pilgrims mentioned in the General Prologue we find nine clerics plus a pardoner, who ‘works’ for the Church.

The fundament of all medieval thinking was the Christian conception of the world, which was based on the Bible, the writings of the Church Fathers and the canon law. The Catholic Church claimed the monopoly of interpretation1, and any idea or theory that did not correspond to the official doctrine was condemned for being heretical. According to medieval belief, all wis- dom came from God and was thus revealed in the Holy Scriptures. As the beginning (the Crea- tion) and the end (doomsday) of mankind were preordained, people believed that they lived in last of all ages, the Christian age. The Plague, just as other catastrophies before, was seen by many as a token that doomsday was near.

Medieval people were taught to believe in miracles and saints and purgatory. They vene­ rated their saints, believed in their intercession and made pilgrimages to their shrines--the basic idea of the frame narrative of the Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath, e.g., has visited various shrines scattered all over Europe throughout her life. This, however, shows above all that the Wife of Bath loves travelling and that she can afford it. People were very pious and they loved to show it. They had a tendency to mysticism which was often concomitant with superstition and the aptitude to judge people by their physical appearance.

For someone who was born in the second half of the twentieth century it is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how the medieval society was proverbially ‘soaked’ with Christian ideas, and how this thinking affected almost every realm of life. In such an environment even the notion of laicism would be unthinkable.

3.1 The Attitude towards Sexuality

“Oh Lord […] give me chastity and continence, but not yet!“ (Saint Augustine, Confessiones)

There is hardly any aspect of human life that has preoccupied the Church as much as the sexuality of their flock. This does not mean that sexual sins were the only concern of the Church but they were--and still are--definitely a major one. To comprehend Christian belief primarily as an appeal to brotherly love and mutual respect rather than a collection of precepts and menaces is a very modern conception of religion ‘refined’ through the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and doubtlessly the two world wars. But Chaucer’s time was another. The official medieval conceptions of morals were in line with strict verdict of the Church about ‘lustful’ sex: it was a sin! Sex was not just any other sin, but a conglomerate of severe misdeeds ordered in a hierarchy. Some sexual practices were considered petty sins, pu­ nished by five or seven years of purgatory, whereas others could, if not repented, be equivalent to eternal condemnation, i.e. burning in hell.

The roots of the Church’s hostile attitude towards sex and lust trace back to the beginnings of Christianity and the time of the apostles. They result from an amalgamation of Jewish and Early Christian law and tradition with the Roman and Hellenistic perception of sex and gender role. (Crawford 2007: 55-63) The Jewish Bible or Tanakh, which was later to become the Old Testament in the Christian tradition, tells us explicitly in the book of Leviticus which sexual practices and coital positions are allowed and which are not. Its overall attitude towards sexuality is not a hostile one, but rather a set of measures apt to grant the survival and continuity of the Jewish people, who were a nomadic society at that time. (ibid.)

The comments Jesus makes about love, marriage and chastity in the New Testament are ambivalent: “His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. But he said unto them, All [men] cannot receive this saying, save [they] to whom it is given.“ (Matt. 19, 10-11) This passage calls for interpretation. The Early Christians interpreted it as an advice to chastity, as Jesus himself seems to have been celibate, and one way to salva- tion, according to their belief, was the imitatio Christi, the imitation of Christ. “The assumption according to Christian interpretation is that one who is not married will avoid sex altogether.”


1 except for the realms of the Orthodox Churches in the eastern parts of the former Roman Empire

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The Joy of Lust? The Depiction and Function of Eroticism in Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" and "Reeve's Tale"
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
Hauptseminar “English Literature from Chaucer to Shakespeare”
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Chaucer, Prof Dr Colin Wilcockson, sexualtity in the Middle Ages, Fabliaux, Canterbury Tales, Miller's Tale, Reeve's Tale
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Michael Pieck (Author), 2010, The Joy of Lust? The Depiction and Function of Eroticism in Chaucer's "Miller's Tale" and "Reeve's Tale", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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