A Variety of Love
Throughout The Millers Tale, Chaucer is exploring a variety of attitudes towards love. There is the idealized and fashionable love of court romance an erotic love and there is superficial or conditional love and the devine unconditional love or love of God which is typically that from a devoted husband. These mixed together gives an idea of love in The Millers Tale.
Three types of love are displayed for the same woman because of the way John, the carpenter and husband, Nicholas, the student and lodger, and Absolon, the assistant to the parish priest, all show their love for Alisoun. The Tale demonstrates how each man is in love with Alisoun in their own unique way and what happens when they express their love.
The first man in love with Alisoun is her own husband John. He is an older man who is devoted to her with an unconditional love. He believes his love for his wife is complete and definite. Marriage in the 14th century was mostly based on a business transaction and it is not exceptional for the husband to be older than his wife. John was quite a bit older than Alisoun, For she was wilde and yong, and he was old/And demed himself ben lyk a cokewold(Olsen, p.74, l.3225-3226). Being named a cokewold was not unusual for the husband due to the age difference between him and his wife and also to be jealous and suspicious of her cheating. Marital love is typically connected with God. L. Lerner, author of, Love and Marriage Literature and its Social Context, said, If we are to believe the poets, love and marriage exist in a state of conflict: love exists outside marriage, or ceases when marriage begins, or enters marriage only to destroy it (Lerner 1). This was a standard feeling among men and women during the 14th century. Due to marriages being set up or a woman being forced into marriage, the chance of the couple loving each other was not probable.
The second type of love displayed for Alisoun was from Nicholas. He rented a room from her husband who didnt consider this young, handsome man as a threat to his marriage. Nicholass type of love for Alisoun was the erotic love or the romantic type of love. That style of love in modern times would be the example of a college boy lusting after a girl in school. Nicholas was a student of astrology and studied the stars. He was young and bold to Alisoun, As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte,/And seyde, Ywis, but if ich have my wille,/For derne love of thee, lemman, I spille,/And heeldhire harde by the haunche-gones,(Olsen p.75 l. 3275-3279). This demonstrates the daring personality that Nicholas exposes towards Alisoun. She yells at him to go away yet she is involved in the plan to trick her husband so she can spend the night with him. This type of love was probable because of arranged marriages in the medieval times. The wife was unlikely to love her husband and may be flirtatious with another man. John trust towards Nicholas ends up with him looked upon as a mad man and with a wife who becomes unfaithful.
Thirdly, the superficial love that Absolon felt for Alisoun was one sided. His appearance represented his personality and feelings for her. Perfectly groomed were his hair and his clothes. His clothes were well tailored as his shoes had the window from St. Pauls cut into the leather, With Powles window corven on his shoos,(Olsen p.76 l.3318). The tale also discusses his stockings and the curls in his hair that he combed out before he met with Alisoun. He wanted her affection but she laughed at him and ended up making a mockery of him. This conditional style of love made Absolon dependent of Alisouns feelings. As she didnt have mutual fondness, and she scorned him by giving him a vulgar kiss, he tried to repay her by branding her but instead burnt the arse of Nicholas.
In conclusion, the variety of love expressed by the men of The Millers Tale demonstrates that erotic love that was seen by Nicholas can be hurtful to a husband who exhibits unconditional love for his wife. The marital Godly love John has for Alisoun was torn apart because of her cheating with Nicholas. Superficial admiration from Absolon made him look foolish and the evidence of this was a kiss to Alisouns hairy bum. The Millers Tale is proof that a variety of love is possible towards the same woman all displayed by different men.
Kolve, V.A., Glending, Olson. The Canterbury Tales.W.W Norton and Company, Inc. NY:NY, 2005.
Lerner,Lawrence. Love and Marriage. Literature and Its Social Context.London: Edward Arnold, 1979.