One does not often begin reading a poetic masterpiece with the thought, “somewhere in this book a man gets his ass branded after blowing a fart in another man’s face,” and if only we advertised this fact more to children perhaps it would do wonders for the problems with illiteracy. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales stands as one of the most important documents in the English language. For apart from legitimizing English as a literary language (much as Dante’s Commedia legitimized the Tuscan Italian and Luther’s Translation of the New Testament for German) it presented a mundane vision of Medieval/Early Renaissance lifestyles of the various members of society. Chaucer’s work is a boon to historians and literary analyst’s due to its presentation of humanity as it existed on almost every level of society, but back to the naughty bits.
The Miller’s Tale haunts the very name of The Canterbury Tales, and indeed once you hear even a hint of the depravity that takes place within this tale the perverted demon on your shoulder begins to drool until you open the book for the simple sake of keeping what’s left of your torso dry. The tale, I will admit, is bawdy. Chaucer himself begins his Prologue to the tale by saying
“The Miller had begun,
He would not hold his peace for anyone,
But Told his churl’s tale his own, I fear.
And I regret I must repeat it here,
And So I beg of all who are refined,
For God’s Love not to think me ill-inclined
Or evil in my purpose. I rehearse
Their tales as told, for better or for worse,
For else I should be false to what occurred.”
So great is the debauchery of the tale that the author himself must provide a warning label before reading can commence, a trick yet to be employed by any Heavy Metal artist to date. One might assume there is something pornographic about the text at the rate in which I am smearing this classic work of literature, but I can assure you there is not. The Miller’s Tale, despite the ribaldry, is no more obscene than any Crude Humor website which can deliver sheer atrocity at the click of a button (while adds for erectile dysfunction and veiled Prostitution flicker on side and make you question your own web-surfing habits). In the absence of obscenity is a sauciness that few contemporary authors have ever replicated or achieved in their illustrious careers.
A basic synopsis of the plot may reveal some of the hype centered around this tale. A carpenter is married to a woman named Allison who is a beauty. She is described to us as “slender as any weasel” and Chaucer offers at least three to four lines to describe the arch of her eyebrows, and at least ten or twelve on her penchant for clothes. She has a lecherous eye. She is soft as wool, a description that speaks volumes to historians, for England dominated the wool trade at this period in history and banked on this commodity fueling its overall wealth and further thus contributed to the creation of the lonely Sheppard joke. Finally the Miller concludes his description of her by saying,
“She was a daisy, O a lollypop
For any nobleman to take to bed,
Or some good man of yeoman stock to wed.”
Allison quickly becomes dissatisfied with her marriage and falls for a student of astrology by the name of Nicholas who fancies her and sets up a plan to actually copulate with her. He convinces her husband that he has had a vision foretelling the coming apocalypse and tells the carpenter the means by which he and he alone can stem this plague. While the gullible carpenter rushes to save his life as well as the rest of humanity Nicholas takes advantage. Now there follows that in their village that a young parish clerk (one of many clever jabs at religion inserted skillfully and seamlessly throughout Canterbury Tales) named Absalon who has fallen in love with Allison. His first attempt with wooing her ends in rejection. His second attempt involves him coming to her window professing his longing and she responds in kind by allowing him a kiss. Absalon’s realization is perhaps the most hilarious moment of the text as he remarks the level of hair.
“And back he started. Something was amiss.
He knew quite well a woman has no beard.”
One wonders whether Chaucer never finished the grand epic of Canterbury (over 120 tales apiece) because of a never-ending fit of hysterics that accompanied writing this very scene. Absalon decides upon revenge seeking the help of a local blacksmith. Leaving with a hot brand he tries again. This time her cuckolding partner Nicholas is up taking a piss and decides to have some fun. The window opens and Nicholas has only a moment to blow a massive fart in Absalon’s face before his poor buttocks is destroyed by the hot brand. The tale ends with the whole town gathering at the Carpenter’s house after hearing the scream and laughing at the spectacle.
One begins to understand Chaucer’s trepidation in the prologue, for even by Medieval standards this tale is risqué.
Why then does The Miller’s Tale garner such magnetism to readers? I will admit, apart from the Pardoner’s Tale, the Clerk’s Tale, and the general Prologue, I have not read the work in its entirety. Chaucer in fact tends to suffer in today’s literary establishment due to the fact that expertise in witty Medieval English authors and their poetry is not highly prized in the job Market. It seems that Canterbury Tales only lives on due either to dim exposure in public education, brief mentions of it in episodes of Big Bang Theory, and some genuine affection for the work on the part of a few dedicated readers. Yet still the work lives on in our memories and public consciousness and The Miller’s Tale is partly responsible for it. Perhaps Jeff’s words on the television program Coupling say it best, “We’re like moths drawn to a perverted fire.”
Now it is the common experience of every generation to suffer the tyrannical morality of the past generation that’s been wizened and embittered to realities of life. We have all heard in some form or fashion the sentiment, “In my day people behaved decently and sex was something private. We weren’t crude.”
On a side note, the very beginning of that sentence is enough to make eyes roll for it refuses to yield to outside experience as well as denoting sanctimonious egoism.
How often as we age there is a tendency to look back upon our past experience as “the good old days.” This tendency is one of the unfortunate side effects of the aging process and reflects one of the greatest negative paradigm problems of our culture. As we age we gather experience both painful and pleasurable and unfortunately painful memories possess great staying power, accumulating and lingering in our memories more than pleasurable ones. Along with this our mind distorts our earliest experiences for as developing children we dramatize or hyperbolize events because our imaginations possess free reign and have yet to be stamped out by “adulthood.” Finally as children we do not completely understand the reality around us, particularly the difficult topics such as sex, death, love, algebra, and the list goes on and on. All of this accumulates until there is a worldview that the years of our childhood were a sexless, fartless, pure time devoid of murder, rape, pedophilia, and foreigners.
The Miller’s Tale should be enough to kill that ridiculous worldview and yet it persists. Therefore we should now discuss Tijuana Bibles.
Otherwise known as eight-pagers, jo-jo books, blusies, gray-backs, two-by-fours, Tillie-and-Mac books, etc., Tijuana Bibles were eight page pamphlets of pornography that hit their popularity peak during the Great Depression. The time of the Greatest Generation, before the war that created that particular and sometimes over-employed moniker, was an economic nightmare in which the stock market had written far too many checks that far too many butts could not cash. With a nationwide shut down of the banks, millions of Americans lost their jobs and homes thereby requiring some sort of emotional uplift from the day to day grind. In walk the eight-pagers. These small pamphlets, many can fit inside of your hand, were comical, portraying well known celebrities or publicly known characters in-flagrante-de-licto. Numerous examples include well known actors such as Cary Grant, James Cagny, Mae West, while other issues caricatured popular characters such as Betty Boop, Flash Gordon, Popeye, and even Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (the latter instance happens to be my favorite as the poor duck is stricken desperately horny and seeks relief at a local whorehouse only to discover he’s hired a transvestite prostitute). What is essential to note about these books is that they are incredibly graphic in terms of their presentation of sexuality and seemingly unashamed of it. Penises can be seen clearly erect and penetrating the vagina’s which are displayed openly and well lubricated. The language of the characters is at time innocent and foppish until the actual coitus begins, in which case words like, “Fuck, ass, pussy, lick, stroke, etc” are used freely and frequently to boot. Men and women perform a majority of the actual copulation however there are instances of women performing cunnilingus and using strap-ons. There is little male on male material with the exception of the Donald Duck book, but that is presented more for comedic purposes than actual sexual stimulation and therein lies a certain charm to these books. While they are sexually explicit the sex presented is designed not just to titillate the audience. Despite the pornographic presentation, each book was designed to satirize the subject at hand. The Tijuana Bible acted as a distraction from the harshness of everyday life and, like the medium of comics in general, an easier way to escape into a new world. The question now arises, what does this mean about the good old days and how do we connect these “fuck-books” to Geoffrey Chaucer?
Both The Miller’s Tale and Tijuana Bibles demonstrate that humanity takes an active interest in sex and relies upon humor to relieve certain tensions and anxiety’s surrounding the act. In the Miller’s Tale we have a story concerning adultery, and had the Miller chosen to tell a serious tale, we the reader would be forced to confront our own personal emotions and ideas associated with such an act. However the tension we might feel from such a topic is dissolved as the Miller presents everyone associated with the act of adultery as nitwits or fools who receive their comeuppance in the end. We’re able to laugh and understand that the parties involved are not to be taken seriously, and therefore the humor serves to provide us with a kind of catharsis from the pain that experience so rarely denies us. The ability to laugh at something diminishes its power. We have all observed the political cartoon or Prime-Time comedian who performs an impression of the President or Prime Minister and thus helps us alleviate the tension of taking politicians seriously. A lesson for the age: when the comedians are silenced the writers are next to go.
Sexuality is perhaps the most troublesome and wondrous component of our existence. At times it can be the charming stuff of magic that inspires love, lust, and rapture. At times it can be a sticky painful mess that we wish we could just forget. There is perhaps no topic that assumes as great weight in the mind of adolescence during development whether for males or females. We as a society revel in sex. Pornography is a multi-billion dollar business that forwards almost every communication based technological advance on some level. Playboy regularly revives the now-long-dead-but-somehow-still-kicking-like-a-dead-fish myth of sexual wonder. Advertisements allow us to drink in vision after vision of veiled sexuality. As such tensions develop around an act that should just be an enjoyable biological reaction to a rush of hormones. The complication arises as individuals are stunted by society that argues that sex is something obscene, depraved, and not to be discussed.
Comedy and satire then become necessary to preserve our mental health. Satire is nonsense in the employ of reason. Donald Duck shags a transvestite prostitute. Nicholas farts. Absalon brands an ass. Allison needs to shave her butt. All of these inspire in us a sense of the absurd and so we are to able to laugh away the tension and resume behaving naturally in our environment. Without an ability to translate absurdity we are forced to deal with the raw discomfort of emotion. That is not to say we are to abandon our senses completely, for difficult decisions will always arise and we do have to face them. Nevertheless, to suggest that we are to stifle our sexual impulses because such actions simply aren’t done anymore is both foolish and foul to the good of our society.
Sexuality has existed since the dawn of our species. The fact that our species exists is proof enough. The way that sexuality manifests itself takes different forms, and indeed, the image of gender as being limited to the white polygon figure on the bathroom door is becoming an outdated paradigm. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is bawdy in places but accurately presents various shades of humanity that we, the audience, can and should appreciate, but the Miller’s Tale will continue to garner attention due to our society’s sexual fascination and disgust with its own urges. In short, fucking is never going to stop, and until our species figures out a means of reproducing that does not entail exchange of fluid based DNA it is unlikely to stop any time soon. Rather than be depressed by this, or protest that outdated morality is the successful notion for governing behavior, we have an option at our hands that is much more efficient and is suggested by the author himself:
“The Miller was a churl, I’ve told you this
So was the Reeve, and other some as well,
And harlotry was all they had to tell.
Consider then and hold me free of blame;
And why be serious about a game?”
Simply put, we should and need to laugh at our own absurdity. We’re an obnoxious species that makes horrid smells and have a tendency to hump too much.
But at least there’s still the one about the Irishman and the Supermodel who couldn’t find her crown.
I have not included any image from Tijuana Bibles for fear that WordPress would take this post down for considering it pornographic. Images from these books can be found by simply Googling Tijuana Bibles if the reader is interested.