Quaint Clitter: Chaucer’s Qualified Use of Profanity in The Canterbury Tales
Many undergraduates are shocked to discover that some of their favorite obscenities have thrived in the English language for hundreds of years. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales often provides an occasion for this discovery. Chaucer was not indiscriminate in his use of profanity, however; the failure to note the where and why of his profane eruptions can lead to categorical judgments, such as those made in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where a “Chaucer’s jest” was something vulgar or tasteless, and a “Canterbury Tale” meant “either a story with no truth in it, or a vain and scurrilous tale” (Spurgeon qtd. in Ross 8). To avoid these sorts of accusations, our examination of obscenity in Chaucer begins with two qualifications. The first relates to Chaucer’s many “retractions”; the second, to considerations of genre.
At several instances in The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer reminds us that he is not directly responsible for the exact words in which the Tales are rendered; he underscores that his role is that of the messenger, that he relays the words of other (sometimes quite indecorous) personages. In the General Prologue, the narrator prepares his audience for the obscenity to follow, claiming, “I pleynly speke in this mateere / To telle yow hir wordes and hir cheere” (ln. 727-28). Chaucer seems to recognize that the unpolished vernacular of his “low” tales will inevitably invoke ire, and that some listeners will make judgments regarding the moral character of the poet (“plain speaking”, to some extent, must stand in for “low speaking”). Therefore, Chaucer makes an early show of separating his own voice from the vulgarity that ensues. Critic Thomas W. Ross, however, would have us problematize distinctions of this sort; he likens them to other rhetorical “postures”, such as the obsequious self-deprecation assumed by some medieval poets. Ross argues, “It is no doubt naïve to take Chaucer at his word in every passage where he makes these disclaimers” (2). However, it is also foolhardy to discard Chaucer’s “disclaimers” outright; the author obviously is selective in how and when he deploys profanity. Chaucer intends to create the impression that crudity is necessary to his enterprise, which involves faithfully reproducing the verbal tenor of the pilgrims.
Chaucer’s filthiest Tales are also his most comic, which points to generic implications. The “Miller’s Tale”, and “Reeve’s Tale” are often identified as fabliau. Originating in medieval France, the fabliaux is “a short story in verse…relating a comic or bawdy incident from middle-class life” (Preminger 270). The fabliaux, which rose to popularity in the fourteenth century in England, is often associated with ribaldry, and, according to M. H. Abrams, “its favorite theme is the cuckolding of a stupid husband” (86). As we shall see, the “Miller’s Tale” exhibits many important features of the fabliau, such as the anticlerical satire that emerges in its treatment of Absolon. Moreover, the position of the “Miller’s Tale”—which arrives immediately after the high romance of the “Knight’s Tale”—exemplifies the fabliaux’s tendency to deflate the conventions of courtly love, and especially the deification of women involved therein.
Profanity in “The Miller’s Tale”
Blasphemy and obscenity abound in The Miller’s Tale, in which Nicholas, a “povre scoler” (82), concocts religious pretense (he divines a second Flood) as a means to philander. We are told that Absolon, an assistant to a parish priest who rivals Nicholas for the love of the “carpenteres wyf” (240), is “somdel squaymous / Of farting, and of speche daungerous” (234-35)—apparently, the Miller values all sorts of free expression. At the center of the Miller’s bawdy yarn is a dirty joke played by Alison, the carpenter’s wife. Absolon interrupts Nicholas and Alison during a session of “hote love” (651), and she playfully summons the parish clerk to the open window:
Derk was the night as pich, or as the cole,
And at the window out she putte hir hole
And Absolon, him fil no bet ne wers,
But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers
Ful savourly, er he was war of this. (628-32)
Alison, here, obviously plays against the type of the blotless maiden; there is no deification of the carnal, hairy, dirty-minded carpenter’s wife. Absolon is duped by Alison’s stratagem (“‘Tehee!’ quod she” (637)), and vows revenge, “I shal thee quyte” (643) (possibly punning on “queynte”, which, according to Thomas W. Ross, “was the forerunner of ‘cunt’” (175)). An opportunity soon arrives: when “Nicholas was risen for to pisse” (695), Absolon steals up behind him. Nicholas “leet fle a fart / As greet as it had been a thonder-dent” (703-04), and Absolon, who was poised with his “iren hoot”, smote Nicholas “amiddle the ers” (707). Chaucer’s fabliaux clearly emphasizes the materiality of the body: his characters fart, fornicate, and urinate; they are creatures of the flesh, rather than idealized figures of high romance. Absolon, a representative of the clergy, foolishly thinks himself above such vulgarity: he is squeamish of his body functions, and his quixotic overtures would be more at home in romance than fabliau. He is properly ridiculed for his delusions.
Identifying Profanity in Middle English
How can we be sure that words such as “ers” and “pisse”, used by Chaucer, were actually vulgarisms in Middle English? Indeed, the 1382 Wycliffite bible contains language that seems surprisingly coarse, such as: “Thei ete her toordis, and drynke her pisse” (OED, “piss”, n. 1). Later versions of that text employ euphemisms, suggesting that “pisse”, at least, was on the outer rim of acceptability. (A similar example, from the same text, involves the word “arse”.) Perhaps the strongest indication that such words were deemed vulgar in Middle English relates to their (relative) abundance in Chaucer’s “low” tales, and their almost total absence from his “loftier” ones.
Chaucer’s Obscenity in Context
In Chaucer’s Bawdy, Ross argues, “In all his [Chaucer’s] works, there is hardly a word of bawdiness for its own sake” (1). He claims that “Chaucer uses risqué words for one major purpose: to delineate comic characters and thus to make us laugh” (1). Chaucer’s ribaldry is certainly humorous, but it would be wrong to think of the poet as a comedian who recourses to foul language for laughs. Rather, the vulgar “Miller’s Tale” generates meaning within a field that includes the lofty “Knight’s Tale” and dire “Pardoner’s Tale”. Chaucer’s bawdiness is made richer when understood in its context: his sexual and scatological language is part of a comic device that lends texture and nuance to The Canterbury Tales entire.
For Further Reading
Burnley, David. A Guide to Chaucer’s Language. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.
Franklin, Julian. A Dictionary of Rhyming Slang. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1961.
Grose, Francis. A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. ed. Eric Partridge. London: Routledge, 1931.
Hughes, Geoffey. Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991.
---. A History of English Words. Malden: Blackwell, 2000.
Leith, Dick. A Social History of English. London: Routledge and Kegan, 1983.
McDonald, James. A Dictionary of Obscenity, Taboo and Euphemism. London: Sphere, 1988.
Partridge, Eric. A Dictionary of Historical Slang. (Abridged by Jacqueline Simpson) Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.
Ross, Thomas W. Chaucer’s Bawdy. New York: Dutton, 1972.
Wyld, Henry Cecil. A History of Modern Colloquial English. 3rd ed. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1936.