The Music of “Love” and The Lover’s Malady in
Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale
As I have said, libido has its own “melody”, which we hear to our amusement throughout the Canterbury Tales. My personal favourite is the Miller’s Tale, which chronicles the cuckolding of a rich old carpenter by his much younger, trophy wife Alisoun, with the “hende Nicholas”, a poor scholar from Oxford who lodges with them.
Nicholas is one of Chaucer’s typical “courtly lovers”, so-called:
This clerk was cleped [called] hende [courteous] Nicholas
Of derne [secret] love he koude [was capable] and of solas [pleasure];
And thereto he was sleigh and ful privee [discreet],
And like a mayden meek for to see.
A chamber had he in that hostelrye
Allone, withouten any compaignye,
Ful fetisly [elegantly] ydight [adorned] with herbes swoote [sweet];
And he himself as sweete as is the roote
Nicholas’ ability to make discreet, “courteous” love is of a piece with his “fetisly” perfumed chamber and body, and his girlish appearance, all of which convict him of moral effeminacy. His own favourite herbal scent, lycorys, is a typical Chaucerian pun, since “likerous” is the Middle English antecedent of the Modern English “lecherous”.
And then we read of the instrument with which he was wont to “maken melodye”:
[Above his bed] there lay a gay sautrie [psaltery],
On which he made a-nyghtes melodie
So sweetly that all the chambre rong;
And Angelus ad virginem he song.
The psaltery is the instrument of David, composer of the Psalms he intoned in praise of the Creator; and the music that Nicholas plays is the sacred song sung by the Angel of the Annunciation; but a few lines later, we hear the music that this “courteous” Nicholas is especially good at:
so bifel the cas
That on a day this hende Nicholas
Fil with this yonge wif to rage [sport] and pleye,
Whil that hir housbonde was at Oseneye [Osney],
As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte [clever; a pun, as below]
And prively he caught hire by the queynte [see above],
And seyde, “Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille.” [die; pun on—you figure it out]
And heeld her harde by the haunchebones,
And seyde, “Lemman, love me al atones,
Or I wol dyen, also God me save!”…
This Nicholas gan mercy for to crye,
And spak so faire, and profred him so faste,
That she hir love hym graunted atte laste…
Whan Nicholas had doon thus everideel
And thakked hire aboute the lendes [loins] weel,
He kiste hire sweete and taketh his sawtrie,
And pleyeth faste, and maketh melodie.
Nicholas’ tearful entreaties for mercy from his pitiless Lady, and his declaration that he will die for love if she does not quench his ardour, are the stock-in-trade of the courtly lover–pretentions that were later so beautifully undercut by Shakespeare in Rosalind’s famous comment (As You Like It), “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love”.
In Chaucer, any pretense that Nicholas’ lover’s malady is the noble suffering of a martyr for true love is similarly undercut by his own actions: by the crude groping and thwacking, which makes it clear that the lady is merely the object of a rather unromantic animal lust. The post-coital melody that he plays on his psaltery is merely the musical expression of that lust, which stands in obvious contrast to theAngelus ad Virginem he piously recites every night before bed. The latter is, clearly, the music of the heavenly, the former, of the vulgar Venus.