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Bodies that matter in the court of late medieval England and in Chaucer's 'Miller's Tale.'

Publication: The Romanic Review

Publication Date: 01-MAR-95

Author: Lomperis, Linda
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COPYRIGHT 1995 Columbia University

In the fabliau world of Chaucer's Miller's Tale, private parts, furtive sexual encounters, and a so-called "misdirected kiss" constitute the order of the day. Indeed, critical discussions of the tale generally take for granted its elaborate concern for body parts and bodily activities, these being understood, if nothing else, as evidence of the tale's generic tethering.(1) Equally striking, however, though rarely commented upon, is the way in which the Miller's Tale elides the specificity of those very bodies that it sets quite prominently on display. A good example of this can be seen in the tale's representation of the Miller himself. The prologue to the Miller's Tale locates the Miller initially in terms of physical positioning, introducing him as someone who drunkenly cuts in front of the Monk, the figure whom Harry Bailly invites to tell the next tale (3120f.)(2) Speaking, moreover, in the mode of declamation and oration -- in "Pilates voys" (3124) to be exact -- the Miller assumes the identity of an actor, calling further attention to his physical, dramatic placement as a body on stage. The expression "Pilates voys" however, also points to the fact that voice, not body, ultimately constitutes the mainstay of the Miller's performance;(3) indeed, much of what the prologue reveals is the way in which the Miller himself -- his bodily presence, that is -- finally drops out of the picture. ". . . [I]f that I myspeke or seye, / Wyte it the ale of Southwark, I yow preye" (3139-40). By shuffling the responsibility for his words onto the ale of Southwark, the Miller effectively locates his speech outside his own body. His theatrical delivery thereby turns into a situation of disembodied voice, a narrative instance that detracts from rather than calls attention to the Miller's own bodily location. Interestingly, this double act of self-inscription and self-erasure on the part of the Miller undergoes a repeat performance in the subsequent prologue representation of Chaucer the pilgrim. For just as the Miller pre-empts the speech of the Monk, so Chaucer the pilgrim cuts in on the Miller-Reeve exchange, thereby inserting himself into the narrative in a pre-emptory manner. His speech, moreover, like that of the Miller, provides the occasion for an act of self-effacement: what the pilgrim says pilgrim himself. The apologetic tone of his remarks ("Blameth nat me ..." 3181f.), his self presentation as a mere repeater of someone else's words (3172-75), and his effort (however sincere or ironic) to direct readers' attention away from the tale he is about to tell (3176-77) all work together to absent the pilgrimnarrator's body in the very midst of its textual inscription.

Equally elusive in this respect is the representation of the body of Alisoun, the tale's central character.(4) Of the three character portraits given in the tale-Nicholas's, Absolon's, and Alisoun's -- hers is by far the longest and most artistically accomplished, giving the impression of a vividly delineated character. Much like "hende Nicholas," moreover, Alisoun herself also seems to be defined by basic and seemingly unequivocal bodily attributes. Early on in the narrative Nicholas, we are told, grabs her "by the queynt" (3276), a gesture which for most critics could not be more tellingly graphic or more bodily definitive.(5) And yet, Alisoun is also the figure within the tale about whom much bodily information is noticeably withheld. In the space of her description, for example, elaborate emphasis is given to her clothes, but not at all the specific body underneath. Indeed, every time the specificity of Alisoun's body potentially comes into focus, the language of the description stops short of explicit reference and veers instead in the direction of metaphor: "She was ful moore blisful on to see / Than is the newe pere-jonette tree" (3246-47); "She was a prymerole, a piggesnye ..." (3268); "Ful brighter was the shynyng of hir hewe / Than in the Tour the noble yforged newe" (3255-56). Alisoun's body, it seems, never escapes conventional or euphemistic terminology and this right up to the very end of the tale where we are reminded rather cryptically of the fact that Absolon has kissed her "nether ye" (3852). Even the expressions applied to Alisoun's body in the infamous misdirected kiss scene -- "hir hole" (3732); "hir naked ers" (3734); "thyng al rough and long yherd" (3738)-seem to defy literal reference. Despite the wealth of critical commentary that this scene has elicited, readers have found little common ground in their assessments of the specific bodily vision that Chaucer's language provides at this point.(6)

How, then, are we to understand the body of Alisoun, and what also are we to think about the bodies of the Miller and the Chaucerian pilgrim narrator? What sorts of bodies are these, and why should the Miller's Tale be so actively involved in producing them as absences? Why, moreover, should these three figures be allied by virtue of their common absence? What might they have in common? Or to turn this question in a slightly different direction, what collectively do they serve to hide? If the Miller's Tale is a narrative in which bodies do indeed matter -- and so it certainly seems to be -- why are these very important bodies precisely those that remain hidden, those that are produced as secrets or "pryvetee" of the narrative as a whole? This article investigates the parallel obfuscation of authorial and female bodies in the Miller's Tale, attempting thereby to shed new light on the political positioning of this narrative both within late medieval England and within modern critical reception.

As a way of addressing the question of bodies in this tale, let us begin by exploring more generally the tale's investment in particular notions and constructions of identity. Many readers of late have focused on the representation of gender categories in the Miller's Tale; their concern has been with questions having to do with "men" and "women" and with the various intrigues and animosities in the tale that pit the sexes both for and against each other.(7) And yet, such preoccupations with matters of sexual difference, it seems to me, are at best, limited and at worst, simply inappropriate largely because no one in the Miller's Tale can be said to inhabit his/her gender identity in any sort of simple or straightforward way. John's putative status as a jealous husband who keeps his wife "narwe in cage" (3224; 3294) simply is not borne out by the events of the narrative. Within the space of this tale Alisoun is never caged; on the contrary, she seems to have plenty of freedom of movement -- enough, at least, so that she is able to join forces rather comfortably with Nicholas in orchestrating the Flood plot. Jealousy, moreover, does not appear to be John's dominant character trait. More often than not, the narrative depicts his relationship to Alisoun as one of loving -- not to say maternal -- concern. When Nicholas describes to John the events of the impending Flood, John thinks first of Alisoun's well-being: "'Allas, my wyf! / And shal she drenche? Allas, myn Alisoun!'" (3522-23).(8) Alisoun, for her part, cannot be regarded simply as a passive woman-sex object, the pawn of male homosocial designs, as some readers have maintained, for when it comes to her relationship with Nicholas the tale presents her first and foremost as an equal and a partner. Alisoun, after all, agrees to be Nicholas's lover completely on her own terms, only "[w]han that she may hir leyser wel espie" (3293), and the tale emphasizes the fact that spending the night with Nicholas was "his desir and hire also" (3407). Moreover, unlike the Miller's Tale source narratives in which the buttocks,out-the-window joke is performed exclusively by men, Chaucer's tale not only makes this joke equally the province of male and female performance, but also makes Alisoun herself into the joke's author: she, not Nicholas, performs the joke first, vaunting her own trickster capacities to Nicholas along the way: "'Now hust, and thou shalt laughen al thy fille'" (3722).(9) Alisoun's gender identity, thus, cannot be understood simply in terms of conventional (i.e., binary and hierarchical) gender attributes, and neither can the identities of Nicholas and Absolon. Ostensibly the tale pits Nicholas's aggressive masculinity in clear opposition to Absolon's passive effeminacy, and yet here once again the narrative as a whole does not uphold such rigid and binary categorization: Absolon is not so effeminate as to be unable to wield a phallic coulter as he does at the tale's end, and Nicholas is not so masculine as to refrain from perfuming his room "with herbes swoote" (3205), in the same manner as Absolon who perfumes himself by chewing cardamon and licorice (3690). Early on in the narrative Nicholas himself is compared to licorice (3207). Both he and Absolon, it appears, are equally sweet-smelling.

Class categories set forth in the tale also do not seem to provide secure foundations of identity. Alisoun, one presumes, is a commoner, and yet she, like Absolon, is wearing fashionable clothes made of expensive fabric: "A ceynt she werede, barred al of silk" (3235); "... hir smok ... broyden al bifoore / And eek bihynde, on hir coler aboute, / Of col blak silk, withinne and eek withoute" (3238-40); "Hir filet brood of silk" (3242); "... a purs of lether, / Tasseled with silk . . ."...

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