Book Reviews Conference Papers
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Ed. David Crystal The Unspeakable Act in the Miller's Tale
The Matter of Scotland, James Goldstein Medieval Child Marriage
Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray Fiddling in the Poconos: Survival or Revival
The Age of Spiritual Machines..., Ray Kurzweil  
The Religion of Technology.... David F. Noble  
Images of Salvation, CD-ROM, Gen. Ed. Dr. Dee Dyas
The Position of Magic in Selected Medieval Spanish Texts. Francis Robienne, Jr.
Michael Murphy’s Reader-Friendly Editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: and Michael Murphy, with James Clawson, Companion to Medieval Literature.

The Unspeakable Act in the Miller's Tale

John McLaughlin, PhD

English Department, East Stroudsburg University, Now Emeritus

A paper delivered at a session honoring Larry D. Benson at the 34th Annual International Conference of Medievalists at Kalamazoo, MI, May, 1998

I first met Larry Benson at Harvard in the Fall of 1960, when I was more or less fresh off the boat and he was freshly hatched from Berkeley. Admittedly, I had done some time at Boston University's now-defunct College of General Education with what turned out to be the last batch of GIs from the Korean War, but things were moving pretty fast back then, and I don't know if any of us ex-servicemen were really prepared to pursue genuine higher education beyond that point. I'd been on trampships in the British Merchant Navy for a couple of years, there were a couple of ex-Marines and MPs in that class -- basically anti-Communists facing professors who'd gone thro McCarthy investigations not too long before. The Miller was a churl, ye know well that. But "eek men shal nat maken ernest of game" (MP,3185: all quotations are taken from the Riverside -- or Benson -- Chaucer, Boston: Houghton Miflin, 1987).

In any case, when I first met Larry, it was in a non-honors English tutorial at Harvard with a couple of fresh-faced preppies, and I must say, looking back, I don't think any one of us -- Larry included -- knew which handle to pick one another up by. As a transfer student on scholarship, I was pretty dogged about getting somebody's money's worth out of Harvard, so I don't think I can have been much fun to be around. The other elegant lads had different plans in mind, I think, probably having to do with the Harvard Lampoon and maybe some Wellesley girls, for all I knew. And Larry....

Looking back, I now realize that Larry was going thro what a lot of young people at Kalamazoo are going thro right this moment. He was getting his feet wet at Harvard, but he was also getting his feet on the first rung of the ladder leading to tenure and promotion. And if he was anything like most of the frantic kids I've seen at Kalamazoo, he was busier than a one-armed paperhanger on Hogmanay, to quote one of my mother's favorite sayings. But of any of this, I was as ignorant as any other undergrad at the time, which might have been just as well. At that time, the Chaucer course at Harvard was firmly in the hands of BJ Whiting, who treated the dream vision poems with amused, almost Freudian cynicism, or so it seemed to a fascinated transfer student actually trying to make sense out of that way of approaching this odd literature. This was as nothing compared to how Bill Alfred treated the Tales, in the second semester of that course, as gently amusing Catholic belief-systems. Or so it seemed to me, anyway. Larry was not yet allowed to put his own stamp on English 115, which of course is now at least partially available on the Internet which, unlike some other scholars, he has since embraced wholeheartedly. But that gets a little ahead of my story.

In the second half of my junior year, having been admitted to Honors status in the English department, I had the privilege of individual tutorial with Larry Benson, which amounted, since I'd indicated my desire to focus on medieval studies -- and who wouldn't, with this battery of talent available -- in the end, to rapid-fire run thro Lady Guest's Mabinogion, as much Chretien de Troyes as I could stomach -- I mean handle -- and a cool dip into Malory's lovely prose. What a time that was. Larry's job was to feed me this stuff, stand back while I just wallowed in it, and then quiz me on the particulars, on a weekly basis. Many of those particulars are long gone, but the experience, in his office in Quincy House, across the street from Club 47's original site, next to Cahaly's Grocery, is one of the highlights of a career which has since taken many's the strange turn. Thank you, Larry.

But I had also fallen under the spell of a sweet, gentle man by the name of Albert Lord, for good or ill, and insisted on pursuing what might have been an ill-advised senior thesis on the Noble Acts and Valiant Deeds of Schir William Wallace, attempting to find, in its curious mixture of French dream poetry and barbaric slaughter of the hated English, oral formulaic sources for its curious deviation from the known historical facts surrounding the career of Scotland's hero. Larry was, shall we say, reluctant to involve himself in this enterprise, for reasons which became clear a few years later in one of the landmark essays on the limitations of oral formulaic theory, appearing in PMLA as a discussion of the very interesting compositional peculiarities of the formulaic poetry in Old English [Larry D. Benson, "The Literary Character of Anglo-Saxon Formulaic Poetry, PMLA 81 (1966), 334-341."] He demonstrated, in this small article, the hole in the middle of the theory big enough to drive a Mack truck through, if I may so express myself: if poetry like "The Phoenix," clearly derived from literate sources, could be as elaborately composed in what would otherwise have been described as oral formulae as was this Old English poetry, then clearly the theory did not offer much in the way of distinguishing oral from literate sources in compositional technique. Oh, I was reluctant to pick up on this, and as late as 1975 even went so far as to attempt to apply Chomskean analysis of the deep structure of the Middle English romance *Sir Orfeo,* trying to cling to the oral theory. [Journal of American Folklore, Summer, 1975, 304-07].

But the fat had been in the fire since Larry Benson's mid-sixties article, and in the end there was no going back, oh well. Do I say, "Thanks, again," Larry? By this time, of course, the middle-seventies, Larry Benson was firmly ensconced at Harvard, and had produced, with Ted Andersson, one of the standard works on our subject today, The Literary Contexts of Chaucer's Fabliaux (Bobbs-Merrill, 1971). Later, of course, he was to go on and produce, with the assistance of a galaxy of scholars, the magisterial replacement for what we all knew as " The Robinson Chaucer," the 1987 Riverside Chaucer, or, as it is referred to in my classes, The Benson Chaucer.

Simply keeping all of those academic stars on track and moving towards that ultimate goal would have been the culmination of a career for any scholar. But that does not take into account Larry's further work towards the electronic version of this text, now appearing embedded within this Chaucer: Life and Times CD-ROM, whose brochure I hope he will have no objection to my holding up here: and on the "Glossarial Database of Later Middle English," a report on its current status forming part of Session 231 tomorrow at 1:30 PM in Fetzer 1005 at this very conference.

Enough. I have admired his career from afar, having chosen, foolishly or otherwise, to devote my own career to teaching students very like myself when I first entered college, long, long ago, when I did not fully realize the implications of that career choice -- or of my other perhaps foolish involvement in anti-Vietnam War activities -- in rendering me primarily a consumer rather than a producer of scholarly research. This is a curious choice which is, of course, no longer available to the harried graduate students and young faculty members thronging the halls at Kalamazoo, who are now required to become both producers and consumers of such scholarship, all at once, both together, thus carrying incredibly onerous burdens of both teaching and research unimaginable to us back in those now-distant halcyon days of the profession. Perhaps a digression. Perhaps not.

In any case, I stand before you today, self-assigned the task of discussing, in mixed company, a case of "inadvertent cunnilingus" (I believe the term originated on the Internet Chaucer-list, but regret I did not take notes at the time), accompanying what an older scholar has delicately described as "cauterization *in ano*" (Beryl Rowland, "Chaucer's Blasphemous Churl: A New Interpretation of the *Miller's Tale*," in Chaucer and Middle English Studies in Honor of Rossell Hope Robbins (Kent State, 1974, ed Beryl Rowland, p. 51).

Perhaps I can comment, before I close, on my use of what I admit is by now a quaint term for a scholarly gathering, "mixed company," revealing as it does my own advancing age and, of course, sexual orientation -- two matters which, once upon a time, people kept to themselves as a matter of common decency. Oh well. First, however, I should like to make it clear that, as far as I am concerned, there is no anatomical ambiguity in this matter, and more than there is in the French fabliau, Guerin's "Berenger of the Long Arse" (Benson and Andersson, The Literary Context of Chaucer's Fabliaux," pp.10-25, esp. 22-23, and "la crevace" comprised "Du cul et du con, li resanble/Que trestot li tenist ensanble" -- "the crevice/Of the arse and the quim, and it seemed to him that it was all one" [lines 242-44]. The action of the lady in thus presenting the target to the abashed lover reinforces for me the sense of domination requiring submission inherent in this act of sexual aggression, in both tales. When Alysoun sticks her backside out the low shot-window to the probably- kneeling Abasalon (regrettably, J.A.W. Bennett's otherwise-admirable architectural reconstruction of old John's house -- Fig.2a, p. 28 of Chaucer at Oxford and at Cambridge, Oxford University Press, 1974-- puts the window in question around the gable-corner, so we can't be sure; but I've always thought that a "shot-window" could well have been round, like a cannon-ball, and hinged from the top, like the port-hole on a ship -- blame my background, I think this makes a lovely picture in the early morning light), what he puckers up and kisses is not, I insist, the mere anus that will be presented to him in the next application of this jest:"Abak he stirte, and thoughte it was amys, /For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd. /He felt a thyng al rough and long yherd, /And seyde, "Fy! allas! what have I do? (MT, 3736-39) That "thyng al rough and long yherd" is, I insist, quite obviously her womanly parts. Now, I will admit I shipped out, in the long ago days, with a number of what we then, in our innocent years, called, "hairy-arsed seamen."

But the disgust with which the horrified Abasalon treats what has been done to him -- what he has done -- added to the merry laughter from within as he staggers off -- "Tehee!" quod she, and clapte the wyndow to," as from inside can be heard the happy cry of Nicholas, "A berd! A berd!" leads me, inevitably I believe, to conclude that "This sely Absolon," who indeed "herd every deel," knows exactly what he has put his lips on, and what he has kissed in his misguided bid for the lips of the lovely maiden. He has, in the phrase of my cherlish youth, "eaten her pussy," albeit by skilfully guided mistake, and his horrified, enraged response to this trick played upon him by the young lady -- "Who rubbeth now, who froteth now his lippes /With dust, with sond, with straw, with clooth, with chippes, /But Absolon, that seith ful ofte, "Allas!"My soule bitake I unto Sathanas, /But me were levere than al this toun," quod he, /"Of this despit awroken for to be." (MT 3746-52) shows a disgust with kissing the female genitals which remains to this day proverbial among a certain class of males, with the adjectival or nominal phrase derived from its observed or imputed action still one of the gravest insults that one male may hurl at another -- at least, among the "cherlish" classes, of whom the teller of this tale may, in my opinion, be regarded as a Rabelasian ancestor. I freely admit to knowing whereof I speak, having grown up among them and knowing a number of them to this day.

But in fact, Linda Lomperis, in a recent article in Romanic Review ("Bodies that matter in the court of late medieval England and in Chaucer's 'Miller's Tale,' March 1995 v 86 n 2, p 243 (21)--
--posits a degree of textual ambiguity concerning this very scene that leads her further to posit something rather more intricate -- if I may borrow one of Larry Benson's synonyms -- even than the plotting which has been universally admired in this apparent conjunction of analogous tales in the past.

Prof. Lomperis goes further; citing what she believes to be the practice of cross-dressing in the mystery plays in which the Miller himself might have been an actor "in Pilatis voys," she goes on to suggest the possibility that in fact Alysoun is no woman at all, "but rather a cross-dressed theatrical performer or female impersonator: a man, that is, in woman's clothing" (p. 5/18 of printout); that Nicholas discovers this to be the case when he grabs her/him by the private parts in that earlier scene that drives him to furious music-making thereafter ("Indeed, what Nicholas desires from Alisoun could very well have been the same-sex sexual relations which, according to my argument, he does in fact receive" --p.10/18); and that indeed old John the carpenter, rather than being a "sely" old fool, is in on this from the beginning, since Nicholas is not his first boarder ( "John's jealousy, to which the narrative occasionally alludes, may indeed derive largely from past experience, that is to say, from situations involving scholars whom Alisoun has known and loved in the past" -- p.8/18); and therefore when Absalon, rather than kissing the private parts of the village maiden, finds himself doubly tricked into kissing the nether parts of Nicholas' male bedmate, he at once understands how he has been at least doubly tricked --"this devastating recognition" (p. 5/18) -- and proceeds from there onwards to wreak his revenge -- either way -- on one of the male conspirators who have thus debased him: "Absalon has finally been brought into contact with a 'vir(i)toot,' with the 'toute' or bum, that is, of a man, a vir." (p. 5/18).

I must admit I am not fully persuaded to abandon my position regarding inadvertent cunnilingus in favor of swiftly-plotted homosexual osculation. But that this -- all of this -- should be taking place in what I earlier described as "mixed company" is, I hope, the final point to which I would now like to turn.

It is, admittedly, a curious phenomenon, at Kalamazoo as at the Modern Language convention. Perhaps it's an advance over the kind of discourse community which prevailed when I first was introduced to scholarly speech-acts, all those years ago. I note, for example, that we have on our program a session devoted to Medieval Female Monastic Communities and Same-Sex Desire (Session 36), which, perhaps courageously, addresses itself to "Guenevere Among the Nuns," to "The Beguine Phenomenon" as perhaps "An Act of Cultural Resistance to the Heterosexual norm?" -- even to "Same-Sex Desire in the Anchorhold: Julian of Norwich's Book of Showings." I can't help but feel there is an advance in candor and honesty in discussing these interpretations of medieval literature out loud, in front of peers, even if I must admit these were not what sprang to mind when I first read Malory and Julian.

But equally, of course, reading a paper on Chaucer's tale of inadvertent cunnilingus -- that phrase again -- might have been ruled out of bounds in an earlier incarnation of the Kalamazoo Conference, certainly if the earlier organizers had known the brutality of the language in which this topic would be addressed, in front of -- here I go again -- "mixed company." Possibly I am wrong, but cunnilingus and Queer Theory alike do not seem to me to have been subjects that would have gained much of an audience at earlier Kalamazoos. Therefore in closing, I would like to suggest a way of looking at this exercise in public discourse, thro the perspective of someone who may be regarded by some members of the audience as having got it wrong for half the human race -- no mean achievement for one career -- but who may nevertheless, even at this date,shed some valuable light on this perhaps interesting social practice.

I refer, of course, to Sigmund Freud -- or "Frood," as we pronounced his name back at Boston University, just off the boat or out of the service. I am indebted for this reference to Professor Nina Rulon-Miller, who, in a discussion on the Chaucernet discussion list on the Internet this past Spring, asked, following up on a discussion of a new work on "Chaucer's Masculinities," quasi-casually, "Would you like to hear Freud's take on sexist jokes?" (Feb 21, 1998: e-mail to Chaucer Discussion Group )). How intriguing; she had just published an article entitled, "'Cynewulf and Cyneheard': A Woman Screams," in Philological Quarterly, Vol 76, No. 2, Spring 1997, 113-132, in which this Freudian essay featured interestingly, in reference to "the intimidating 'presence of a woman'" and resultant masculine anxiety (p.118, note 32). The reference is to Volume 8 of The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, translated from the German under the General editorship of James Strachey (1905: reprinted London: Hogarth Press, 1960); the essay in question is "The Purposes of Jokes," and in particular jokes with sexual content, what the translator is pleased to call, "smut."

"Smut is like an exposure of the sexually different person to whom it is directed. By the utterance of the obscene words it compels the person who is assailed to imagine the part of the body or the procedure in question and shows her [sic?] that the assailant is himself [sic] imagining it. It cannot be doubted that the desire to see what is sexual exposed is the original motive of smut." (p.98)

Keeping in mind that, in our present context, role-reversal may in fact be in process of taking place, and that "sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander," to quote BJ Whiting, and further:

"Smut is thus originally directed towards women and may be equated with attempts at seduction. If a man in the company of men enjoys telling or listening to smut, the original situation, which owing to social inhibitions cannot be realized, is at the same time imagined. A person who laughs at smut that he hears is laughing as though he were the spectator of an act of sexual aggression." ( p.97)

And if the perhaps-woman in question is perturbed at this behavior, exhibiting "defensive reactions"? In that case the sexually exciting speech becomes an aim in itself in the shape of smut. "[The aggressiveness] becomes positively hostile and cruel, and it thus summons to its help against the obstacle the sadistic components of the sexual instinct." ( p. 99)

In Freud's day, of course, such "defensive reactions" might be counted upon, in the name of Victorian modesty -- in particular, he observed, among what we might call the "non-cherlish" classes. Among country people or in inns of the humbler sort it will be noticed that it is not until the entrance of the barmaid or the innkeeper's wife that smuttiness starts up. Only at higher social levels is the opposite found, and the presence of a woman brings the smut to an end. The men save up this kind of entertainment, which originally presupposed the presence of a woman who was feeling ashamed, till they are 'alone together.' So that gradually, in place of the woman, the onlooker, now the listener, becomes the person to whom the smut is addressed, and owing to this transformation it is already near to assuming the character of a joke. (p.99)

It is perhaps, then, to be regretted somewhat that Freud never turned his attention to Chaucer and his pilgrimage, in particular to these fabliaux that we are gathered together today to address. Perhaps it might also be an occasion of some regret that he did not live long enough to see a social occasion in which even young men and women of the "better sort," -- represented of course by the present company -- outlived such quaint beliefs and attitudes as would have induced perhaps a faint blush in the cheeks of Chaucer's ladies at the telling of such intricately interesting tales as these, of not only heterosexual but homosexual character, if the critics may be believed. But this perhaps takes me away from my present subject somewhat, and I am sure I have come close to if I have not over-run my allotted time today.

Thank you for the invitation, Zachary; thank you for your patience, fellow panel members; and thank you once again, after all these years, Larry.

John McLaughlin, PhD