When folks had laughed at what had come to pass 3855
For Absalon and Handy Nicholas,
Different ones had different things to say
But for the most part took it all in play.
I didn’t see the tale one man aggrieve,
Except, that is, for old Oswald the Reeve. 3860
Since carpentry had been the fellow’s craft,
The tale left him with ire while others laughed.
He started grumbling, carping right away.
“As I may thrive,” he said, “you I’d repay
With blearing of a haughty miller’s eye 3865
If I chose to give ribaldry a try.
But I’m too old for playing anyhow;
Grass-time is gone, my hay’s cold fodder now.
This white top all my lengthy years declares,
And my heart, too, is moldy like my hairs. 3870
It’s as if I were like the medlar tree,
The fruit of which will worsen gradually
Till rotten in the refuse or the straw.
We old men live, I fear, by that same law,
Until we rot we never can be ripe. 3875
We jig as long as this old world will pipe;
It ever pricks our will just like a nail
To have a hoary head and a green tail,
As does a leek. Although our might is gone,
Our will is that the folly carry on. 3880
What we can’t do we still can well expound;
In our old ashes fire can still be found.
“Four burning coals, I’ll tell you, we possess:
Boasting, lying, wrath, and covetousness.
The elderly are keepers of these embers, 3885
And although weak may be our aged members
Desire will never fail us, that’s the truth.
Yet I have always had a coltish tooth,
Though many a year has gone by since the one
When first my tap of life began to run. 3890
Yes, surely at my birth, without delay,
Death drew the tap that life might run away,
And ever since the tap of life has run
Till almost empty has become the tun;
The stream of life is dripping all the time. 3895
The simple tongue may well ring out and chime
Of wretched woes that passed so long before;
The old are left with dotage, nothing more.”
On hearing such a preachy sort of thing,
Our Host spoke up as lordly as a king: 3900
“Now all this wisdom, what’s the use of it?
Are we to speak all day of Holy Writ?
The devil’s turned a reeve to preacher’s mission,
A cobbler’s now a skipper or physician.
Now tell your tale at once, don’t be so wordy. 3905
Here’s Deptford, it’s already seven-thirty.
There’s Greenwich, where there’s many a rascal found,
And of your tale we’ve yet to hear a sound.”
“Now, sirs,” responded then Oswald the Reeve,
“I pray that none among you I’ll aggrieve 3910
Though I shall make this Miller look the fool.
Meet force with force and that’s a proper rule.
“We now have heard here from this drunken Miller
Of the beguiling of a carpenter,
Which may have been in scorn, for I am one. 3915
And, by your leave, now justice shall be done.
In his own churlish terms shall be my speech.
God, may his neck be broken, I beseech;
He well can see a speck that’s in my eye,
But in his own a beam he can’t espy.” 3920
Near Cambridge there’s a brook, at Trumpington,
And there’s a bridge that stands above the run,
And by that brook there stands a water mill.
Now it’s the truth I’d tell you and I will.
A miller there had dwelt for many a day; 3925
As proud as any peacock, he could play
The pipes, knew how to fish, mend nets to boot,
Turned many a cup, could wrestle well and shoot.
A long knife by his belt was always seen,
Also a sword, no other blade as keen; 3930
His pouch contained a dagger. He was such
That none, for fear of death, would dare to touch
Him. He’d a Sheffield knife inside his hose.
Round was his face, and snub-like was his nose,
His head as bald as any ape’s. He fully 3935
Was a swaggerer, a market-bully,
And on him none a finger dared to lay
Or one would pay, he promised, right away.
He also was a thief of corn and meal,
A sly one, too, his habit was to steal. 3940
Now he was known by name as Haughty Simkin.
He had a wife who was of noble kin;
Her father, who was parson of the town,
As dowry many a brass pan handed down
To get this Simkin in the family. 3945
She had been brought up in the nunnery;
Simkin would take no wife, he used to say,
Except a virgin raised the proper way,
So that his yeoman status not be hurt.
She was proud as a magpie and as pert. 3950
A fair sight were these two on which to gaze:
He’d walk before her on the holy days
Wearing his hood all wrapped about his head,
And she’d come after in a cloak of red
(His hose were of the same). And not a one 3955
Called her a thing but “Madam”; there was none
So hardy, as they went along their way,
Who dared to flirt, to have the slightest play,
Lest Haughty Simkin take the fellow’s life
With bodkin or with dagger, sword or knife. 3960
For jealous folks are dangerous (or so
They want their wives to think). This woman, though,
Was somewhat smirched and talked about, for which
She’d stand aloof like water in a ditch,
And she was full of scorn and great disdain; 3965
That she deserved respect she thought it plain,
What with her kin and all the wisdom she
Had learnt while she was in the nunnery.
These two had raised a daughter who was then
Aged twenty; there was no one else, save in 3970
The cradle lying, one half year of age,
A child who looked a proper future page.
The daughter was a well-developed lass;
She had a snub nose, eyes as gray as glass,
Her buttocks broad, her breasts were round and high; 3975
Her hair was very fair, I wouldn’t lie.
The parson of the town, as she was fair,
Had in his mind to make this girl his heir,
Both of his chattels and his house, so he
Made sure she’d not be wed too easily. 3980
His hope was to bestow this little bud
Upon a house of fine ancestral blood;
For Holy Church’s goods must be intended
For Holy Church’s blood that’s well descended.
His holy blood he’d honor and empower 3985
Though Holy Church he thereby might devour.
This miller made great profit without doubt
From tolls on wheat and malt from all about–
Especially the wheat and malt they’d haul
From that great Cambridge college Solar Hall; 3990
His mill was where they had to have it ground.
Now it so happened that one day they found
The college manciple sick in his bed;
They thought in fact he was as good as dead.
With that the miller’s theft of grain was more 3995
(A hundredfold) than he had dared before;
Where once he stole as if with courtesy,
He now performed his theft outrageously.
The college warden fussed about the deed
Although the miller didn’t give a weed, 4000
He’d only bluster and deny his crime.
Two students, young and poor, were at the time
Residing in this hall of which I spoke.
Headstrong and lusty, both were playful folk,
And simply for their mirth and jollity 4005
They pleaded that the warden let them be
The next to have a turn at going round
To take corn to the mill and have it ground;
Each hardily proposed to risk his neck
To see the man did not steal half a peck 4010
By sleight or use of force. To their intent
The warden finally granted his assent.
Now one was John and Alan was the other;
They had both been born in a town called Strother
Far in the north, I do not know just where. 4015
This Alan now was quickly to prepare,
The sack was on a horse without delay
And students John and Alan rode away,
Each with a sword and buckler by his side.
John knew the way, they didn’t need a guide, 4020
Soon at the mill the sack was on the ground.
Spoke Alan first: “Hail, Simon, faith abound!
How fares thy lovely daughter and thy wife?”
Said Simkin, “Welcome, Alan, by my life,
And John as well! How now, what brings you here?” 4025
“Need,” John replied, “by God, hath not a peer.
Who hath no knave must serve himself someway
Or else he be a fool, as clerics say.
Our manciple, I think, will soon be dead,
So aching aye the molars in his head; 4030
And therefore here now I and Alan be
To grind our corn and take it back. And thee,
I pray, will speed us quickly on our way.”
Said Simkin, “By my faith, I shall! I say,
What would you do while I take this in hand?” 4035
“By God, right by the hopper I will stand,”
Said John, “to see how ’tis corn goeth in.
Yet saw I never by my father’s kin
How that the hopper waggeth to and fro.”
Then Alan answered with “John, wilt thee so? 4040
Then I will go beneath it, by my crown,
To see how that the cornmeal falleth down
Into the trough; that shall be my disport.
John, by my faith, we two be of a sort,
I be as ill a miller as art thee.” 4045
This miller smiled at all their foolery;
He told himself, “All this is but a wile;
To trick them they think no one has the guile.
But by my thrift, hoodwinked they both shall be
For all the craft in their philosophy. 4050
For every trick, each clever move they make,
The more that I can steal the more I’ll take;
Instead of flour I will give them bran.
‘The greatest scholar’s not the wisest man,’
As to the wolf, they say, once spoke the mare. 4055
For all their learning I don’t give a tare.”
Then out the door he hurried secretly,
When he had seen his time, and stealthily
He looked both left and right until he spied
The horse the clerks had ridden, standing tied 4060
Behind the mill beneath a shady limb.
The miller then went softly up to him
And stripped him of his bridle on the spot;
When he was loose, the horse began to trot
Toward the fen, where with wild mares he then 4065
Let out a whinny, ran through thick and thin.
The miller went back in, no word he spoke;
He set to work, and shared with them a joke
Or two, until their corn was fully ground.
But once the meal had all been sacked and bound, 4070
John went to find their horse had run away,
And started crying, “Harrow! Welladay!
Our horse is lost! Come, Alan, by God’s bones,
Get on your feet, man, come! The horse,” he groans,
“Our warden’s palfrey now, alas, he’s lost!” 4075
Both meal and corn from Alan’s mind were tossed,
Precautions no more had him occupied.
“What sayest thee? Which way’s he gone?” he cried.
The wife came running over to them then
And said, “Alas! he headed for the fen, 4080
Where mares are wild, as fast as he could go–
Thanks to the careless hand that tied him so,
For someone should have better tied the rein.”
“Alas!” said John. “Alan, by Christ’s sweet pain,
Lay down thy sword, I’ll lay down mine also. 4085
I be as swift, God knows, as is a roe,
And, by God’s heart, he won’t escape us both.
But why did thee not barn him? By my oath!
Alan, by God, thee art a fool!” he cried.
These hapless clerks immediately hied 4090
Toward the fen, Alan as well as John.
And when the miller saw that they were gone,
One half a bushel he was quick to take
And bade his wife go knead it for a cake.
He said, “It goes, I think, as both clerks feared. 4095
Yet can a miller tweak a student’s beard
For all his learning. Let them go their way!
Look how they run! Yea, let the children play.
Their catch is not so easy, by my crown.”
These hapless students trotted up and down 4100
With “Whoa now! Whoa!” and “Stay there! Stay!
Go whistle thee, I’ll try to keep him here!”
To keep it short, right up to fall of night
They still had failed to catch, try as they might,
This horse, for he would run away too fast, 4105
Till in a ditch they captured him at last.
Then wet and weary, like beasts in the rain,
Came John and Alan trudging back again.
“Alas,” said John, “the day that I was born!
We’ll be derided now with shame and scorn. 4110
Our corn is swiped, we’ll each be called a fool
Both by the warden and our friends at school,
And mainly by this miller. Curse the day!”
Thus John complained as they were on their way,
Bayard in hand, back to the mill with ire. 4115
They found the miller sitting by the fire,
For it was night, no farther might they fare.
They begged, for love of God, that he might spare
Some lodging, for which they’d pay rent to him.
“If there be any,” he replied to them, 4120
“Such as it is you’re welcome to your parts.
My house is small, but you have learnt the arts
And by your arguments can make a place
A mile in width from twenty feet of space.
Let’s see if there is room, or else you may 4125
Make room by using words as is your way.”
“Now, Simon, by Saint Cuthbert, I can tell
That thee art bright,” John said, “and answer well.
‘Tis said, ‘A man takes one of these two things:
That which he finds or else that which he brings.’ 4130
But specially I pray, our host so dear,
Get us some meat and drink for our good cheer.
We’ll pay ye for it fully, that’s for sure.
There’s nary hawk an empty hand can lure;
Look, here’s our silver, ready to be spent.” 4135
This miller into town his daughter sent
For ale and bread, and roasted them a goose.
Their horse he tethered, no more getting loose.
In his own chamber he made them a bed
With sheets and blankets that were finely spread, 4140
Not more than ten or twelve feet from himself.
His daughter had a bed all by herself
That in that very chamber stood nearby–
The best that they could do, the reason why
Being the lack of room within the place. 4145
They supped and talked at ease, and all the space
They drank strong ale, and drank it like the best.
About midnight they finally went to rest.
The miller was shellacked out of his head,
So drunk that he was pale instead of red. 4150
He hiccuped and was talking through his snout
As if with head cold or asthmatic bout;
To bed he went, and with him went his wife,
Feeling as free as any jay with life,
Her jolly whistle she so well had wet. 4155
At their bed’s foot the cradle had been set,
To rock the child and let it suck the dug.
And after all had been drunk from the jug,
The daughter off to bed was quick to go;
And then to bed went Alan, John also, 4160
And that was that, no sleeping draught they need.
The miller had imbibed till like a steed
He snorted in his sleep, and paid no mind
At all to what his tail might do behind.
His wife provided bass both loud and clear, 4165
Their snoring for a furlong one could hear.
The wench was snoring too for company.
The student Alan heard this melody,
Gave John a poke, and said, “Thee sleepest? How?
Hast ever thee heard such a song till now? 4170
Hear what a compline by them one and all.
The fire of hell upon their bodies fall!
Is there a stranger sound that so offends?
Yea, theirs shall be the flower of evil ends.
This whole night I’ll get nary bit of rest. 4175
But wait–No matter, ’tis all for the best.
For, John,” he said, “if ever it be true
That I may thrive, yon wench now I will screw.
Some recompense by law is given us,
For, John, the law so reckoneth and thus: 4180
If at one point a man should be aggrieved,
At yet another he shall be relieved.
Our corn is stolen, that is safe to say,
And he hath given us a fit all day;
I can’t amend the loss, but there’s an action 4185
By which at least I’ll get some satisfaction.
By God’s soul, it shall not be otherwise.”
“Now, Alan,” John replied, “let me advise,
The miller is a dangerous man,” he said.
“If from his sleep he hap to rear his head, 4190
He might do both of us some villainy.”
But Alan said, “He’s less than is a flea.”
Then up he rose and to the wench he crept.
She was supine as peacefully she slept,
Until, when she awoke, he was so nigh 4195
It would have been too late to give a cry,
And so, I’ll briefly say, she took him on.
Play, Alan! Meanwhile I will speak of John.
John lay the time a furlong takes to walk
And gave himself a rueful little talk. 4200
“Alas,” he thought, “this is a wicked jape!
Now may I say that I be but an ape.
My friend’s appeased somewhat now for his harms,
He hath the miller’s daughter in his arms.
He took a chance and now his needs be fed; 4205
I lie here like an old bran sack in bed.
And when this jape be told another day,
I’ll be a fool, a ‘cockney’ they will say.
I’ll rise and risk it, by my faith, instead!
‘The cowardly’s unlucky,’ so it’s said.” 4210
So up he rose and softly headed for
The cradle, which he picked up from the floor;
To his bed’s foot he softly carried it.
Soon after this, the wife her snoring quit
As she awoke and went outside to piss. 4215
She came back in, the cradle then to miss;
She couldn’t find it as she groped along.
“Alas,” she thought, “I almost headed wrong!
I almost got into the students’ bed.
Ah, bless me, to what ill I would have sped!” 4220
She kept on till she found the cradle and,
By groping ever forward with her hand,
Then found the bed. She thought this well and good,
Being the bed whereby the cradle stood;
It was so dark she didn’t know that she 4225
Crept in right by the clerk. There quietly
She lay, all set to sleep again, until
John soon leapt up and with a hearty will
Was lying on her. Hardly had this wife
Had such a merry fit in all her life, 4230
So hard and deep he thrust as if gone mad.
A jolly life that night these students had
Until the cock a third time was to sing.
Alan grew weary, day about to spring,
For he had labored all the livelong night. 4235
He said, “Farewell, my Molly sweet! The light
Of day is come, I may no longer bide.
But evermore, where I may go or ride,
I be thy clerk, as I may thrive ’tis so!”
She said, “Dear lover, fare-thee-well, then, go. 4240
There’s one thing I should tell you, though, and will:
When you are heading homeward by the mill,
Right by the entrance of the door behind,
A loaf of half a bushel you will find,
And it was made out of the very meal 4245
That’s yours, that which I helped my father steal.
God help you, lover, may he save and keep!”
And she, with that, almost began to weep.
Alan arose and thought, “Before ’tis day
I’ll creep back in with John.” Then right away 4250
His groping hand the baby’s cradle found.
“By God,” he thought, “I’ve turned the wrong way round.
My head is dizzy from my work tonight,
It hath me straying. This is not the right
Direction, by the cradle I can tell; 4255
The miller lieth here, his wife as well.”
Then he, by twenty devils, took his way
To that bed where in fact the miller lay.
Thinking to find his comrade John, he crept
Right in beside the miller where he slept. 4260
He grabbed him by the neck and softly said,
“Hey, John, wake up, for Christ’s soul, ye swinehead,
And listen. Wouldst thee hear of noble games?
I tell ye by that lord they call Saint James,
In this short night three times, without a slack, 4265
I screwed his daughter, flat upon her back,
While like a coward thee hast been in dread.”
“You rascal, so you did?” the miller said.
“You false, you traitorous clerk,” continued he,
“You shall be dead, then, by God’s dignity! 4270
Who dares to be so bold as to disgrace
My daughter, come from such a worthy race?”
Then he grabbed Alan by the Adam’s apple,
And Alan then with him began to grapple,
And with his fist he smashed the miller’s nose, 4275
And blood streamed down upon the miller’s clothes.
Bleeding from nose and mouth, upon the ground
Like two pigs in a poke they roll around;
They both get up, then down again they’ve gone–
Until the miller, tripping on a stone, 4280
Goes falling backwards, landing on his wife
(Who nothing knew of all this silly strife,
As she, contented, had been sleeping tight
With John the student, who’d been up all night).
She started from her slumber when he fell. 4285
“Help! Holy cross of Bromholm,” was her yell,
“In manus tuas! Lord, I call to thee!
Wake up, Simon! The fiend’s on top of me!
My heart is broken! Help, I’m nearly dead,
One’s on my belly, one is on my head! 4290
Help, Simkin, these false clerks are in a fight!”
John jumped right up as quickly as he might
And groped along the walls both to and fro
To seek a staff. She jumped right up also
And, more familiar with the place than he, 4295
Found by the wall a staff immediately.
She saw a little shimmer then of light
(For through a hole the moon was shining bright),
And by that light she caught sight of the two
But couldn’t tell for sure just who was who. 4300
But something white then caught her eye; when she
Gazed at this white thing, she thought it must be
A nightcap that the student wore; she then
Drew nearer with her staff, went closing in,
And, thinking to give Alan quite a whop, 4305
She hit the miller on his barren top,
And down he went, and cried, “Help, or I die!”
The clerks then beat him up and let him lie,
Made ready, took their horse without delay
(Also their meal), and rode off on their way. 4310
And at the mill they also took the cake
From the half-bushel flour he had her bake.
And so the haughty miller took a beating,
And lost the grinding fee for all his cheating;
He bought and paid for all they had to sup, 4315
Both John and Alan, those who beat him up;
His wife was screwed, his daughter too. That’s how
It is for millers who are false! And now
This proverb’s truly said and understood:
“Who evil does should not expect some good”; 4320
One who beguiles, beguiled himself shall be.
And God, who sits above in majesty,
Save all this group, both high and low, for glory!
I’ve thus repaid the Miller with my story.