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After the Knight's Tale, the Host remarks, "unbokeled is the male" (line 7), meaning the pouch containing the tales is unbuckled, but also meaning a man's pants are undone. This sets us up for the crudeness of the drunken Miller's tale, in which double meanings abound.
The Miller promises a tale to get back at the Knight.
This isn't a personal rivalry, like the Miller's with the Reeve, but reminds us that the tales work on two levels: presenting different points of view from tale to tale on various issues, and setting the actual pilgrims against one another.
The Miller also lets on he'll parody religious themes by saying he will tell "a legende and a life" (line 33), which usually means a life of the saints. But this one's about a "clerk" (scholar) who makes a fool of a carpenter. This infuriates the Reeve, a carpenter by trade.
The "Chaucer" who's narrating the pilgrimage apologizes for repeating the Miller's vulgarity, but emphasizes he has to repeat what he hears. If you want, you can turn to another tale that's more morally uplifting. But whatever your choice, don't blame him!
Right off we're told that the carpenter is a rich scoundrel, and a poor scholar lives under his roof. This leads us instantly to be sympathetic to the scholar. He knows so much about astrology that he can predict when it will rain (it is this talent that later makes John believe him), and also, like a joke on God, knows what the future will bring. Nicholas knows about love that is "derne"- discreet and private, but also meaning secret and sinful. He looks meek as a maid, but appearances are deceiving, an important point to keep in mind.
The old carpenter, who doesn't know he should marry someone his own age, has a young wife because he fell into the "snare" of love. This will cause him trouble, as we shall see.
Alison is compared to a gold coin, a valuable piece of material goods, but she is vividly human. We even know how far up her legs her shoes are laced. She's "noble" (a kind of gold coin), fit for a lord, and also fit for a yeoman (servant). This prepares us for the humorous contrast throughout the tale of the courtly with the common.
There is also a contrast between this and the preceding Knight's Tale. Both deal with two men after the same woman, and both concern the issues of love and what is beyond man's control, though on very different levels.
When Nicholas makes a bold pass at Alison, the sexual references come hot and heavy. He grabs her "queynte" (lines 89-90), which can mean strange, or sly, or a woman's genitals (here it's used in the last two senses). He must have her or he will "spille" (die or ejaculate). He adds that his plan will work because a clerk can fool a carpenter any day. This class distinction is humorous in the circumstances, since all the characters are common even though they're trying to be noble and courtly.
Right after planning adultery, Alison is off to church, juxtaposing the profane and the sacred in a way some might find sacrilegious. By the same token, "jolly" Absalom shouldn't, as a parish clerk, be hanging out in every tavern in town. He goes to church to check out the wives, Alison among them.
He falls for her, offering her things as befits the conventions of courtly love. But there is an undercurrent of foolishness and lechery: instead of rich gifts, he woos Alison with pies and ale, and he offers a bribe. He even plays Herod as in a mystery play, a role that involves exaggerated language and contortions. But Alison prefers Nicholas.
When Nicholas disappears for two days, John gets genuinely worried. When he discovers Nicholas' "fit," John says it's not men's business to know about God's "privetee" (secret affairs), a word that will appear again, in reference not to God but to the affair of Alison and Nicholas.
John tells Nicholas to "look down" (line 291), i.e., away from God's business, and think about Christ's passion instead. But the silly carpenter then falls for Nicholas' scheme, believing that Nicholas is indeed as knowledgeable as God. He's put his money on the wrong spiritual horse. Nicholas says he won't tell "God's privetee" (again, an ironic usage), as if he knows what God's plans really are.
Hypocritically, Nicholas tells John that he and Alison must not sleep together because they will be awaiting God's grace. The joke here is that Nicholas doesn't realize that God sent Noah the flood because man had become corrupt and lecherous. The same sins are causing this phony "flood," even though the plan this time isn't God's.
John tells Alison his "privetee" (secret), although of course Alison knows exactly what the "queynte" plan is, in both senses of the word. She tells John she is his faithful wife-another word that John accepts as Gospel-and John follows Nicholas' instructions and makes the preparations, just as Noah obeyed God even though everyone laughed at him.
Alison and Nicholas have a merry time of it until the morning church bells ring. The reference to the couple's sex in the same breath as the church is meant to shock, and to show that man's plans often unintentionally mirror God's order.
Absalom goes to the house, believing Alison is alone, and performs a parody of a morning prayer, asking for Alison's grace and mercy instead of God's. The "kiss" she gives him brings him down to earth in a hurry. His love is "all y-queynt," all quenched, but again this is a pun. Like someone in the Old Testament, he vows revenge. It's interesting that he chooses to come back with a hot "colter" (a plowshare), a backward use of the Biblical adage about turning swords into plowshares.
Nicholas gets what he deserves. And Absalom, because he is squeamish of farting," gets what he deserves also, for wishing for something he shouldn't have. And their whole world comes crashing down with John when Nicholas cries for water to cool his burned behind. Justice is served and God's order is reestablished at the expense of a lower kind of plan.