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"Of Goddes pryvetee nor of his wyf":
Confusion of Orifices in Chaucer's Miller's Tale
Louise M. Bishop
Other critics have connected the word "pryvetee" in the Miller's Tale, referring to both human genitalia and secrets, to the Biblical story of Moses seeing God's "back parts" (posteriora). 1 There appears to be general agreement that the complex of secrets, genitalia, and divinity points to many levels of meaning in the Tale, including a parody of the Knight's Tale 2 and an invocation of theological commonplaces such as the Holy Family. 3 I would suggest an even more challenging and terrifying, certainly blasphemous and heretical reading of the Tale's meaning, taking a different tack from Frederick Biggs and Laura Howes to tie Chaucer's purposeful confusion to epistemological questions and, in turn, gender issues. This train of thought inflects the word pryvetee's purposeful confusion between "secret" and "genitalia" with a Biblical story in Exodus 33: God, after hiding Moses in a rock's cleft, shows him His back parts. Augustine's commentary on the Biblical episode illuminates the Tale's connections between (and confusion about) the body and knowledge. The Tale's confused orifices—backsides taken for mouths—parody the Bible story's concern with the unseen and seen, and Augustine's understanding of the Bible story as an allegory of the means and limits of human knowledge. By successfully concatenating divine and female "pryvetee," the Tale plays with concepts of bodily knowledge by alluding to divine genitalia. Combining confused orifices—holes—and the desire to "know" in its varied intellectual and bodily meanings with purposeful punning on "secret" and "private parts" leads to a blasphemous conclusion—or purposeful lack of conclusion—about God's private parts. Alison's escape from injury in the Tale forms part of this complex of meaning. The connection between divine knowledge and the knowing of women's secrets—so powerful a theme in the Wife of Bath's Tale 4 —here finds a different "end."
"Pryvetee" first appears in the Tale's prologue as the Miller advises the Reeve, and everyone else who is listening, "An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf / Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf." 5 Twice more in his tale the [End Page 231] Miller repeats the phrase "Goddes pryvetee": first, in John's nervous apostrophe to Saint Frideswyth after he has been advised of Nicholas's plight (I.3454); and then in Nicholas's caution to John while telling him about the impending flood (I.3558). The word "pryvetee" and its variants, such as "pryvely," appear seven more times, describing various secret communications, such as Alison's advice to Nicholas to be secretive around John (I.3295) and John's telling Alison about the plan with the tubs, a "pryvetee" of which "she was war, and knew it bet than he" (I.3603-4). The word and its variants become a leitmotif through the tale, alerting us to the comedy inherent in domestic secrets and the misprision and misuse of divine ones, no matter how mistaken they—the characters or the secrets—may be. Significantly, the leitmotif begins by yoking "Goddes pryvetee" with that of a "wyf": divine secrets join women's secrets. The Miller's introductory link between God and wife suggests a way to read the Tale's complex of confused orifices and bodily knowledge.
The Tale's narrative concern with bottoms—Alison's, Nicholas's, John's concern for Alison's, Absolon's preoccupation with Alison's— suggests that Chaucer's audience could catch, each time the Tale uses "pryvetee," the word's other meaning: not only "secrets," as above, but "private parts" or genitalia 6 —how to know a boy from a girl. Earlier critics of the Tale may have shied from so indecent a pun, but current criticism accepts and trades on the pun's vitality. 7 The pun on "secrets" and "private parts" provides feminist critics...