- Chapter 10 The Two Alisouns:The Miller’s Use of Costume and His Seduction of the Wife of Bath
The Miller’s Tale1 is often read as engaging with the Knight and the Reeve, the pilgrims who speak directly before and after the Miller. For Lee Patterson, the tale is a political rejoinder to the Knight, meant to subvert the Knight’s insistence on regal supervision and elevate the value of natural law.2 Along the way, the Miller appropriates the Knight’s own language, immediately putting himself and the Knight at odds.3 Similarly, other critics see the figure of John the Carpenter as a gullible version of the Reeve. John’s eventual humiliation cements an antagonistic relationship between the Reeve and the Miller.4 These interpretations are strong and yet perhaps overly restrictive: Patterson’s reading has forced later scholarship into a strict and limited comparison between the Knight and the Miller or the Reeve and the Miller. Instead of focusing on the traditional butts of the Miller’s joke, I will explore the relationship between The Miller’s Tale and the one pilgrim the Miller unquestionably smuggles into his tale: the Wife of Bath.
That Alisoun is reminiscent of the Wife of Bath should come as no surprise—they share the same first name and are both forced to marry older men. Nevertheless, by meditating on the Miller’s physical description of Alisoun, we can learn about the Miller’s ideals and the way he approaches the world. Moreover, we can see how the tale attempts to map the Miller’s values onto the Wife of Bath. In the process, the tale manages to celebrate and normalize the sexual, socially transgressive, and newly single Wife of Bath.5 However, this is not to suggest that we should read The Miller’s Tale as a progressive text.6 Instead, I argue that the Miller’s description of Alisoun represents an attempt to control and win the Wife of Bath’s sexual attention while undercutting any agency or interiority she may have. While the Miller is certainly interested in lampooning the Knight’s chivalry, he is also trying to find a date.
Before we get to those larger conclusions, however, I’d like to document how the Miller’s description of Alisoun makes it clear she is a stand-in for the [End Page 155] Wife of Bath long before we hear her first name. One of the first details we learn about Alisoun is that her headdress is quite complex: “The tapes of hir white voluper / Were of the same suite of hir coler; / Hir filet brood of silk, and set ful hye” [The ribbons of her white cap/Were of the same color of her collar/Her headband broad of silk, and set very high].7 The complexity and conspicuous height of her headdress draw our attention up toward Alisoun’s face, and the added detail of “silk” emphasizes Alisoun’s newfound wealth. Similarly, in the General Prologue, Chaucer emphasizes the Wife’s “coverchiefs”: “Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground; / I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound / That on a sonday weren upon hir heed” [Her kerchiefs were very fine in texture; / I dare swear they weighed ten pounds / That on a Sunday were upon her head] (1, lines 453–55). Although the Wife of Bath’s costume is somewhat exaggerated here, we can see that both women are wearing intricate head coverings that carry similar implications. The high, complex, attention-grabbing coverchiefs are, for Laura Hodges, the Wife of Bath’s expression of her material wealth and her pride in that wealth.8 Alisoun’s tapes and filet have the same effect.
We also learn that both women like to show off their legs. Again, from the General Prologue: “Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed, / Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe” [Her stockings were of fine scarlet red, / Tied very tightly and shoes very lithe and new] (1, lines 456–57). Similarly, Alisoun’s “shoes were laced on her legges hye” [shoes were laced high on her legs] (1, line 3267). Here, the Wife’s hosen are specifically...