As I snickered my way through some of The Canterbury Tales I got to wondering why on earth Chaucer isn’t favored reading in every high school English class and college fraternity in the entire world. Of course, I know it’s because one has to dig hard so hard to get through the language, but the Middle English is what makes it all the funnier. It’s like stumbling across salaciousness where you least expect it, say in the King James Bible in the middle of a church service. The Chaucer translators are hopeless. Their prudish word choices and euphemistic footnotes are a study in discomfiture.
Take The Miller’s Tale. Here’s the cast of characters:
John, an old carpenter, wealthy and gullible
Alisoun, his young sexy wife
Nicholas, a poor scholar who boards with John and Alisoun
Absolon, a parish clerk
John is possessive and jealous of his pretty young wife. Alisoun is fun-loving and lusty. Both Nicholas and Absolon are interested in Alisoun but only Nicholas is succeeding with her.
Nicholas hatches a scheme to keep John occupied so he and Alisoun can get into bed with each other. He fakes a trance and reports to John that he’s had a vision of God is sending flood twice as great as Noah’s. John packs three tubs with provisions and fastens them to the roof of the barn. The night before the predicted flood, he, Alisoun and Nicholas climb up into the tubs, the idea being that when the water gets high enough, John will cut them loose and they will float out, safe and dry. But as soon as John starts snoring, Alisoun and Nicholas climb down, run into the house and jump into the master bed. There was a line in Chaucer’s description of Alisoun and Nicholas having sex that made me smile:
“Ther was the revel and melodye.”
In early morning after the revel and the melodye, Absolon comes sauntering along the still dark street. He tries to flirt with Alisoun through the window of the house. To make him go away she says she will let him have one kiss. He puckers up. The translations say that Alisoun put her “backside” or, at best, “naked arse” out the window. But this is what Chaucer says:
And at the windowe out she putte hir hole,
And Absolon, him fil no bet ne wers,
But with his mouth he kiste her naked ers,
Fulk savourly, er he were war of this.
Abak he sterte, and thought it was amis,
For wel he wiste a womman hath no beerd.
He felte a thing al rough and longe yherd.
So Alisoun sticks her “hole” out the window and when Absolon kisses her, he starts back thinking, “a woman doesn’t have a beard.” Yet he had felt something rough and hairy. All the translations and commentaries dance around the obvious: Alisoun sticks her vulva out the window and Absolon kisses it. There now. Was that so hard?
More fun to come: Absolon goes into town and acquires a red-hot iron poker from the blacksmith. Back at the carpenter’s house, he begs for another kiss. Nicholas who had “risen for to pisse,” sticks his butt out the window and “let flee a fart as greet as it hadde been a thonder-dent.” The fart flames out and nearly blinds Absolon who thrusts the poker at Nicholas’ naked arse. Nicholas screams for water, which wakes the carpenter who assumes the flood has come. He cuts the ropes of the three tubs, comes crashing down from the barn and breaks his arm.
The Miller’s Tale ends thus:
Thus swived was the carpenter’s wif (to swive is to have sex with)
For al his keeping and his jalousie,
And Absolon hath kist hir nether yё, (kissed her lower “eye”)
And Nicholas is scalded in the toute:
This tale is doon, and God save al the route!
Don’t you just love it?