The biblical references and implications in ‘The Miller’s Tale’ mockingly inter-relate the tale’s sexual and vulgar content and its religious elements. It is a parody on and critique of the Church, mocking all sacred: the stories from the Bible, the saints, even the Holy Family. The ‘dronken’ miller commences his tale in ‘Pilates voys’, implying that the story will be condemning Christianity, since Pilates, according to the Bible, has condemned Jesus with his words.
As the scholar clerk Nicholas and parish clerk Absolon represent St. Nicholas and Absalom, Son of David, miller sinfully compares two saints with two lustful and immoral men, who are concerned more with secular than the spiritual matters. Since carpenter John metaphorically represents Joseph and Noah, and his young wife Alison therefore represents Virgin Mary and Noah’s wife, the miller this time immorally correlates Joseph/Noah and Virgin Mary/Noah’s wife with a madman and a promiscuous, sly wife, when the Church forbids promiscuous behavior and implies that mad behavior is associated with the Satan.
Further religious mocking is portrayed by the actions of Nicholas in the tale, as he does exact the opposite of what St. Nicholas did. While St. Nicholas was very zealous in his efforts to maintain ecclesiastical discipline and honor, especially in relation to the marriage laws, Nicholas the clerk has no concern for honor and respect toward marriage, as he is successfully pursuing a married woman. When one Countess left her husband for a paramour, St. Nicholas commanded that she should be excommunicated unless she returned to her husband.
Nicholas in ‘The Miller’s Tale’, however, is even using religion to break the sanctity of marriage and influencing Alison to commit adultery, a sin. Nicholas, the clerk, invokes and manipulates the biblical story of Noah and the flood to convince the ignorant carpenter John of the impending flood, and further advance his own plan to sleep with Alison. By using his knowledge and religious references to invoke authority, Nicholas is successful in his deception, since the carpenter does not doubt the teaching of the Church.
Furthermore, Nicholas hypocritically tells John that he and Alison must abstain from sleeping together because they will be awaiting God’s grace. John believes everything Nicholas says; even that Nicholas is so knowledgeable that he knows God’s business. John’s knowledge, on the other hand, is limited, as he does not know there was no mention of Second Flood in the Bible, or that Noah built only one boat, not an additional one for his wife, nor does he know much about Noah’s Arc, as his confusion of ‘Noees flood’ and ‘Noweles flood’ (line 710) shows.
Carpenter John then agrees to make three boats, so that his wife Alison, Nicholas and John himself can be saved from the flood. Although Nicholas presents the story of Noah’s flood as very similar to the story in the Bible, frequently calling upon ‘Goddes privetee’ and ‘Goddess grace’ to validate his reasoning, the story he tells contrasts greatly the story in the Bible. The original story helps to explain the power and compassion of God, since God sent Noah the flood because man had become corrupt and lecherous. These same sins are causing this fake ‘flood’, thus strengthening Satan, and this time the plan is Nicholas’.
In this way, Nicholas uses the sacredness of religion to pursue his private erotic-aesthetic sensual pleasures, with no sacredness attached; therefore he almost embodies Satan. Bible is degraded, in this way, being portrayed as only a tale book, one of many texts which can be played with and rewritten. Although the carpenter shows genuine fear of the flood and says it’s not men’s business to know about God’s secret affairs, suggesting he respects and fears the power of God, by placing his complete trust in Nicholas, embodiment of Satan, he destroys his own piety.
Like a joke on God, Nicholas does know God’s secret affairs and what the future will bring. Nicholas further states that his plan will work because a clerk can fool a carpenter any day – a class distinction and condescension in contrast with the teachings of the Church. The entire scene encompasses several sins. First, the whole story is a lie and thus a sin. Lust, another sin, serves as the driving force behind this lie. Finally, Nicholas and Alison’s intercourse out-of-wedlock for pleasure serves as the sinful result of the story. The miller therefore contorts the most holy image of Noah into a dreadful satanic scene of the tale.
The fact that a man such as Nicholas sings ‘Angelus ad Virgenum’ is itself mocking of the Church. Carpenter John’s wife Alison portrays promiscuous behavior almost continuously throughout the tale; from the sinful encounter with Nicholas, agreement to deceit her husband to her indulge in adultery. When Nicholas tells her to sleep with him immediately, or he will ‘spille’ (l. 170) so ‘God [him] save’, it is another pun on religion as this ‘spille’ could perhaps mean ‘waste the seed’, God forbid, as opposed to depositing it with Alison’s ‘mercy’ (180).
Right after she and Nicholas made a plan how to arrange their next adulterous encounter, Alison goes to church, juxtaposing the profane and the sacred in the same way. She is further sarcastically characterized by her name, as in Old English and German it means ‘honest’, ‘noble’ and most, or least, of all ‘holy’. After her husband tells her of the evacuation plan, Alison tells John she is his faithful wife – something he accepts and believes as a word of God, and John follows Nicholas’ instructions just as Noah obeyed God even though everyone laughed at him.
While John sleeps in the boat, Alison and Nicholas are in the bedroom until the morning church bells ring. The reference to the couple’s intercourse in the same breath as the church bells is meant to perhaps show that man’s plans sometimes unintentionally mirror God’s order, or that their time in the bedroom ‘is up’. Their ‘doings’ in the bedroom are even compared to ‘revel and melodye’, music in God’s praise, further mocking the Church. Absolon, who represents Absalom, Son of David, is a parish clerk who spends much time in taverns and looking at and flirting with other women, especially Alison.
The miller suggests that this irreverent priest only performs his duties to engage in other secular, sinful practices. As a religious pun, Absolon in the tale has a ‘natural attraction’ to women and all things secular, while Absalom, Son of David, was known for his ‘unnatural revolt’. By pursuing Alison, Absolon clearly shows that he has no intention of keeping his vow of chastity. It is emphasized that Absolon is combing his hair before going out, which is an added joke to confirm whom he represents, since Absalom, the Son of David, was also famous for his luxurious hair.
Absolon knows that Alison has a husband, for she wears a head covering typical of married women, but he ignores this fact and lusts after her anyway, making his pursuit even more sinful. The head-coverings of the married women were designed to protect their hair, which St. Paul had deemed as holy. However, even this holy image is twisted into that of Satan later on in the tale. Absolon them goes to Alison’s house, believing she is alone, and performs a parody of a morning prayer, asking for Alison’s grace and mercy instead of God’s. When he asks for her kiss, he kisses ‘beard’ and realizes it was her pubic hair.
In this way, Alison’s pubic hair corrupts the holy hair image, because she uses it to conduct a dirty, sexual joke to combat the lustful longings of Absolon. Her ‘beard’ is also perpetrated against, so it presents another pun on the holy hair image. Having vowed revenge, Absolon comes back to Alison’s house with a hot ‘colter’ (plowshare), which is a backward use of the Biblical adage turning swords into plowshares. Nicholas gets his punishment, and as he screams, word ‘water’ triggers the double action of John cutting the rope that suspends his tub as he thinks the flood came, and Nicholas acting to soothe his pain.
While the Church (Catholic Church, Jewish synagogue, etc. ) teaches respect for authority, ultimately invested in God, the Father, to whom the Jesus, the Son, submits, it regards adultery as a mortal sin, and teaches prudence and severe restraint in sexual matters. ‘The Miller’s Tale’ is the opposite, as the father figure, John, is overthrown by youth, Nicholas, and ironically, by the invocation of God’s authority. From a pious point of view, this story laughs at the belief that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Perhaps the miller is insinuating that Jesus was conceived by Mary’s unfaithfulness to Joseph, not by any Holy Spirit.
As an added pun, if Absolon also symbolizes the worshippers, as he worships Alison, then the wind Nicholas passes in Absolon’s face is the award for any pilgrim, worshipping ‘true’ beliefs in the Holy Tale of Conception and Sanctity. The miller further implies that Church’s preaching against greed, blasphemy, gluttony, adultery and all things related to the Satan is hypocritical, as he parodies the sacred discipline and Church by showing characters representing the Church, behaving in all the forbidden and blasphemous manners.