The Two Kinds of “Melodye” and the Lover’s Malady
in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale, concluded…
The hende Nicholas has a rival, however; indeed one who is even more ridiculous in his courtly pretensions. Directly after the melodious consummation of her adultery, we read of Alisoun:
Thane fil it thus, that to the paryssh chirche,
Cristes owene werkes for to wirche,
This goode wyf went on an haliday…
Now was ther of that chirche a parissh clerk,
The which that was ycleped Absolon.
Crul was his heer, and as the gold it shoon,
And strouted [stretched out] as a fanne large and brode;
Ful straight and evene lay his joly shode [parted hair].
(That this “good wife” should go immediately to Church to do “Christ’s work”, without a contrite thought for the work she had just been doing with Nicholas, tells us that in praising her piety Chaucer is, as usual, exercising the muscles of irony.)
Absolon’s beautifully coiffed blonde hair, along with the fashionable shoes and “gay” surplice that are subsequently described—“gay”hardly being the appropriate adjective to modify an ecclesiastical vestment–are somewhat out of keeping with his employment as a parish clerk. Chaucer has named his character, in fact, after the biblical Absolom, who betrayed his father King David, and whose luxuriant blond mane was, in scriptural commentaries, taken once again as a symbol of his moral effeminacy.
As it turns out, this rival for the old carpenter’s wife is also an accomplished musician:
In twenty manere koude he trippe and daunce
After the scole of Oxenforde tho [then],
And with his legges casten to and fro,
And pleyen songes on a small rubible [rebeck];
Thereto he song som tyme a loud quynyble [high treble];
And as wel koude he pleye on a giterne.
In all the toun nas brewhous ne tavern
That he ne visited with his solas [entertainment],
Ther any galard tappestere [merry barmaid] was.
Absolon’s elegant shoes, hair, and surplice bespeak the sort of fashion-conscious dandy who knows the twenty latest dances on the Oxford hit parade; his high treble merely completes the picture.
We then learn that not only does he enjoy visiting the wenches of the taverns but, in execution of his ecclesiastical duties, he goes round the parish with his censer to sanctify his parishioners, paying particular attention, as it happens, to the wives. On one such holy errand Absolon meets the carpenter’s wife, who was so “likerous” to look on that, as Chaucer comments,
I dar wel seyn, if she hadde been a mous,
And he a cat, he wolde hire hente [seize] anon;
This parish clerk, this joly Absolon,
Hath in his herte swich a love-longynge.
Naturally, every night, Absolon pours out his lust-sick heart in a kind of music that is anything but the harmony of the spheres:
The moone, whan it was nyght, ful brighte shoon,
And Absolon his gyterne hath ytake;
And forth he gooth, jolif and amorous,
Til he cam to the carpenteres hous
A litel after cokes ycrowe,
And dressed hym up by a shot-wyndowe
That was upon the carpenteres wal.
He syngeth in his voys gentil and smal [high],
“Now, deere lady, if thy wille be,
I praye yow that ye wole rewe on me”,
Ful wel acordaunt to his gyternynge.
Besides nocturnal concertizing and praying that his lady have mercy on him, Absolon in due course exhibits all the classic symptoms of the lover’s malady:
Fro day to day this joly Absolon
So woweth hire that hym is wo bigon.
He waketh al the nyght and al the day;
He kembeth his lokkes brode, and made him gay [pretty];
He woweth hire by meenes [go-betweens] and brocage (use of agents],
And swoor he wolde been hir owene page;
He syngeth, brokkynge [trilling] as a nyghtyngale;
He sente hire pyment [spiced wine], meeth, and spiced ale,
And wafres, piping hoot out of the gleede [oven]…
Meanwhile, hende Nicholas, whose academic specialty is astrology, convinces John, the old carpenter, that he has read in the stars that there is to be a reprise of Noah’s Flood, and that John must build and provision three boats and hang them from the rafters if they are to be saved. Thus, on the evening before the Flood is to occur (according to Nicholas’ arcane astrological calculations), they duly take their positions in the boats. John, exhausted from his labours, falls quickly and deeply asleep, as signaled by his loud and rhythmic snoring, which is the cue for Nicholas to put his plan into action:
Doun of the ladder stalketh Nicholay,
And Alisoun ful softe adoun she spedde;
Withouten words mo they goon to bedde,
Ther as the carpenter is wont to lye.
Ther was the revel and the melodye;
And thus lith Alison and Nicholas,
In busyness of myrthe and of solas,
Til that the belle of laudes gan to rynge,
And freres in the chauncel gonne synge.
Here again, the nocturnal “melodye” of mirth is contrasted with the singing of lauds in the morning by the brothers in their monastic chancel.
Meanwhile, the jolly Absolon, whose mouth has been itching all day long, takes this as a sign that he is about to enjoy a feast of kissing, and so decides to venture another visit to his beloved Alisoun.
Whan that the firste cok hath crowe, anon
Up rist this joly lovere Absolon,
And hym arraieth gay, at point-devys [in every detail].
But first he cheweth greyn and lycorys,
To smellen sweete, er he hadde kembd his heer.
Under his tonge a trewe-love [sprig of herb] he beer,
For therby wende he to ben gracious.
Having combed his golden mane and freshened his breath in anticipation of his banquet of osculation, Absolon sets himself under Alisoun’s low-hanging bedroom window and tries to rouse her with these words:
“What do ye, hony-comb, sweete Alisoun,
My faire bryd [bird; pun on bride], my sweete cynamome?
Awaketh, lemman myn, and speketh to me!
Wel litel thynken ye upon my wo,
That for youre love I swete ther I go.
No wonder is thogh that I swelte [faint] and swete;
I moorne [yearn] as dooth a lamb after the tete.
Ywis, lemman, I have swich love-longynge
That lik a turtel [turtledove] trewe is my moornynge,
I may nat ete na moore than a mayde.”
Sweating, fainting, unable to eat, Absolon is suffering sorely from the lover’s malady, which, of course, is nothing more than an uncontrollable carnal itch. His “courtly” behavior therefore seems all the more affected, especially when he is addressing the equally feral Alisoun with the exalted words of the Song of Songs, the epithalamion or marriage song that–as it was allegorically interpreted—expressed the love between the heavenly Bridegroom, Christ, and his Bride, the Church.
Since I don’t want to reveal the joke to those who haven’t read the Tale, let me say only that Absolon gets his kiss, although, in the dark, Alisoun offers up to his lips an unexpected part of her anatomy. This, as the poet says explicitly, quickly cured him of the lover’s malady:
His hoote love was coold and all yqueynt [quenched; another pun];
For fro that tyme that he hadde kist hir ers,
Of paramours he sette nat a kers [cress: something of no value],
For he was heeled of his maladie.
I leave the conclusion of the Tale for your adult reading pleasure. It is only one of many literary expressions of the opposition between the two kinds of “melodye”, as the carnal kind gives rise, in turn, to the lover’s malady that inevitably afflicts those who practise it.