Pearces & Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale”

Larry Pearce

The Original Family Narrative (OFN) claims that Great-great grandfather Richard Pearce was a “miller by trade.” The lives of his family and countless descendants were affected by his decision in 1820 to come to America with his brother-in-law Charles Austen and settle the east side of the Pine Creek, along which sat an “old log cabin and a mill site.” Charles selected the other side of the creek and started from scratch to cut trees and build a cabin and fencing for livestock. The OFN writer says that Richard “commenced at once and repaired the mill and mill-dam and mill-race course.” As we’ve seen from previous articles, the mill provided a good living for the Pearces for 117 years in that fertile land north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, until the County evicted them under the Rule of Eminent Domain in 1927 to build North Park in a new age of conservation and recreation. But, we wondered what it might have been like back in England for a miller and his family. So, first we’ll tell you a little bit about the area in England from which the Pearces are believed to have originated, including a very general historical background from around the 14th century when Geoffrey Chaucer, the beloved poet, scholar, story teller, and politician, was born. We choose this period because of his famous excerpt from The Canterbury Tales, specifically “The Miller’s Tale,” a satirical description of one miller in particular. Finally, we’ll share some interesting stories from that time period being circulated now via the Internet. Let us begin with some background on our family.

We believe that Richard and his twin sister Sarah, Charles Austen’s future wife, came from the County of Wiltshire, west of London between Oxford and Salisbury [see WWW.WILTSHIRE-WEB.CO.UK]. The town of Bourne referred to in the OFN may have been actually what is known today as Aldbourne, or literally “stream of Aelda’s people” (WWW.ALDBOURNECOMMUNITY.COM). Aelda was a Saxon who settled there in the 8th century after the Romans left. Probably the most familiar other spelling of the town, to Americans, is Auburn. The word Bourn(e) comes from both Middle French, meaning a brook or a stream, and Old French, meaning a boundary or limiting line (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary). We can see on any map how creeks and streams serve as natural boundaries in dividing land and establishing borders. Furthermore, in the ages before internal combustion engines, streams provided the power to move the great stones that ground the grain in a miller’s work. So, if Aldbourne was where the Pearces lived and worked before coming to the New World, their mill was probably on the river after which the town is named. Several other major rivers emanate from the nearby Cotswolds, the scenic hill country known for its sheep and wool industry. The Thames flows eastward through Oxford to London, while the Severn flows westward into the Bristol Channel. Just north of Aldbourne in the largest city in the county, Swindon, at exit 15 of the M-4, the major highway between London and Bristol. There you’ll find the Great Western Railway Museum and River and Railway Village. But, this county is at the heart of what once was the ancient kingdom of Wessex. Just south west of Aldbourne is the village of Marlborough, originally a stage coach stop between London and Bath. A college now stands at the legendary place called “Maerl’s Barrow,” the burial site of Merlin, the magician. Further to the south are the mystical Stonehenge, Avebury Stone Circle, and several famous Whitehorses on rural hillsides. Beyond that is the magnificent Salisbury Cathedral [see WWW.ABOUTBRITAIN.COM/SALIBURYMUSEUM for details]. Perhaps you’ve heard the tale of the “moonrakers?” It originated in Aldbourne. Today it’s a derisory term, and no wonder:

It seems that smugglers were carrying illegal brandy about the countryside when they spied a party of revenuers, or whom the British would call excisemen. The bad guys quickly threw their containers into a nearby pond and began raking motions on the water with long-handled tools they had grabbed from a farmer. When the lawmen saw them and stopped to ask what they were doing, the clever crooks replied, “Rakin’ up the cheese.” Apparently, it was a bright full moon, and the reflection looked like a round container of the delicious dairy product. At this, the revenuers were convinced that the “moonrakers” were absolutely crazy and headed with haste down the road to get away from them. The moonrakers fished their bounty out of the pond with their long-handled tools and proceeded to their illicit affairs.

It’s out of this wonderful early English tradition of story telling that the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400) came to fame. He had worked, along with his family, around the Royalty since he was 13 years old. A few years later, the French, knowing of the affection the British throne had for the young Chaucer, then a 19-year old manservant, captured him and held him for ransom during a siege in France at the height of the 100 Years War. King Edward III gladly paid the note. A few years after that, when Chaucer held an appointed position, he moved southeast of London to Kent, the home of our Austens. From there, his reputation as a writer and scholar won him a seat in Parliament. He began the Canterbury Tales in 1387.The Middle English language of that day would have been intelligible only to fellow scholars and clerics [we get our word “clerk” from this title as the clergy were among the few who could read and write until the late 19th century]. The invention of the printing press around the mid 15th century served to stabilize the major European languages and make popular works available to the learned, but Chaucer’s work of the century before was originally recorded and duplicated by hand. Nevertheless, some of his words would be recognizable today, except for spelling: Aprille (April), for example.

England of the 14th century was an uncertain place where feudalism and chivalry were on the decline. Peasants held nobility under suspicion. London, today one of the largest cities in the world, was only one square mile in circumference then. The squalor was rampant to the point where, in 1349, the Black Plague killed nearly half of all London’s residents. But, the British are an optimistic people, and they continued to enjoy holidays, games, sports, and especially Royal pageantry. An improved legal system of that time brought a renewed patriotism and hope for the future. One of the dreams of every Brit was to take the pilgrimage to Canterbury, the Church of St. Augustine [see earlier article] and the sacred shrine of Thomas Beckett [enjoy the film A Man for all Seasons]. To escape into the countryside was a wonderful thing, and such a pilgrimage was very much a social affair with singing and storytelling.

Chaucer, using a French literary form known as “fabliaux,” or what we might call today satire in short stories, constructed a series of depictions of middle class characters in “unlikely and complex deceptions, usually concerning sex and/or money” (HTTP://FACULTY.GOUCHER.EDU/ENG211/MILLER). He avoided the highest nobility and the lowest classes, although, as we shall see, the miller is very close to the bottom. According to Bryson in The Mother Tongue: English & How it Got That Way:

Millers were unpopular throughout much of history because of their supposed tendency to cheat the farmers who brought them grain. So it was not a flattering name. A modern equivalent might be the name Landlord. Most Millers in America were in fact originally Muellers or Mullers. The German word had the same meaning but did not carry the same derisory connotations. (203)

The miller’s diction is definitely colloquial compared to the more courtly tone one might expect from a poet of that day with Chaucer’s position. The bard establishes each of 29 pilgrims in his prologue. They gather in a tavern before beginning the trip to Kent. Each is challenged to tell two stories on the way to and from Canterbury. The best story wins the teller a free meal. The characters come from four basic social classes: the Church, which includes a parson, a monk, and nuns; Nobility, which includes a knight and a gentleman (called a Franklin); the new Merchant class, featuring a lawyer, a doctor, and shop keeper; and finally Commoners, including the miller and a plowman. Chaucer only finished 24 stories before his death. The plowman’s tale was never written, although a book called Piers Plowman was a popular contemporary work that gives us a look at the virtue of hard work and which may reference members of our own family as Piers and Pearce are both derivations of “son of Peter.” Ironically, according to Chaucer’s prologue, the plowman was the exact opposite of the miller, though they were from the same social class. He was brother to the Parson, loved God and his neighbors, and always paid his tithe on time. A simple man of the earth, he works hard and periodically helps his neighbors with plowing and threshing without expecting any pay. Fortunately for us, history is more likely to remember our virtuous surname than the early reputation of Richard Pearce’s vocation.

Another irony is set between the miller and the knight, the latter of whom has a very idealistic view of love and marriage and tells his story just before the miller. The knight’s love is faithful and his faith believes in divine justice (Knapp). The miller makes burlesques of chivalric love and his Christianity is a means of duping the old man in the story. The young lovers in “The Miller’s Tale” are unfaithful and justice is crude. Chaucer uses each of the characters in his tales to deliver sermons, teach lessons, give us instruction in legends, and relay romance. How does Chaucer describe the teller of “The Miller’s Tale” in the prologue?

As we said, the miller is a commoner, but we’re not convinced in any way that this characterizes our ancestors, let alone Richard Pearce. Chaucer’s miller has bristly red hair all over his face, which includes a beard and protrusions from a wart on his nose. He has a gaping mouth and wide nostrils. He reeks of garlic, onions, and leeks, incongruously wearing a garland of flowers on his head (HTTP://LONESTAR.TEXAS.NET/~MSEIFERT/CARNIVAL). The miller is heavy and brawny, a champion at wrestling. He could butt down a door with his head. Wearing a white coat and a blue hood, he is truly frightening with a sword and buckler at his side. But, his vulgar language is not his worst characteristic. As Bryson reminds us, British use of Miller as a surname is almost unheard of because of their reputation for corruption. The poet has the miller stealing grain from villagers and overcharging his customers. At the end of the prologue, Chaucer has him playing a merry tune on bagpipes as the pilgrims depart the tavern for Canterbury. This is ultimate irony in sight and sound.

Now for a very brief non-poetic rendering of the story, which has nothing to do with the miller himself, but rather is the medium through which it’s told (I’ll paraphrase for the sake of good taste):
The miller is drunk and sits unsteadily on his horse as he tells his tale. In Oxford an older, wealthy, and upright carpenter named John rents a room to a half-hearted student named Nicholas. John’s wife Alison, just 18 years old, is well kept but less than faithful. One night, while John is asleep, Nick and Alice are together in the same house while another suitor comes calling on Alice from beneath her window. This is Absolon, the clerk to the cathedral priest, who begs a kiss. Instead of her mouth, Alice laughingly sticks out her butt in the dark and it is passionately kissed. Sensing something is wrong, Absolon runs off to the town smithy and returns with a hot branding iron bent on revenge. Again he calls to his beloved Alice from beneath her window. This time, it’s Nick who laughingly “put his arse out, showing the whole bum.” Instead of a pucker, Absolon gives Nick the hot poker. Nick runs down the street screaming so that the whole town is awakened.

Chaucer weaves a rich description into “The Miller’s Tale” along with a sub-plot, which is equally entertaining. It seems that to cover his affair, Nicholas convinces John that he has had a vision of God sending a second Great Flood upon mankind. John hangs bread kneading tubs from the ceiling so that the occupants of the house may escape when the rains come. When Nicholas is branded in the middle of the night and cries out for “water, water, water” to put out the fire, John awakes suddenly and naturally thinks that the flood is upon them. He cuts the tubs loose and they fall down breaking his arm. Nicholas and Alison later use this incident before the townsfolk to make it look like Old John is crazy and thus excuse his jealous tantrums. As Chaucer says, “This tale is done, and God save all the rout! Here ends the miller’s tale” (WWW.LITRIX.COM/CANTERBY].

Several articles have been circulating on the Internet recently pertaining to the origins of some of our old-fashioned sayings and expressions. Many, no doubt, come to us from early England. Thanks to one of my colleagues and her clipping from the Hancock News in Maryland, I obtained a summary of most of these. I think they fit nicely in our discussion of early Pearces here, especially in the context of trying to appreciate the writing of Chaucer and his depiction of millers and life in general over 600 years ago:

Most people got married in June because they took their yearly bath in May and still smelled pretty good by June. However, they were starting to smell so brides carried a bouquet of flowers to hide the body odor.

Baths consisted of a big tub filled with hot water. The man of the house had the privilege of the nice clean water, then all the other sons and men, then the women, and finally the children – last of all the babies. By then the water was so dirty you could actually lose someone in it – hence the saying, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.”

Houses had thatched roofs – thick straw, piled high, with no wood underneath. It was the only place for animals to get warm, so the dogs, cats, mice, rats, and bugs all lived in the roof. When it rained it became slippery and sometimes the animals would slip and fall off the roof – hence the saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs.”

There was nothing to stop things from falling into the house. This posed a real problem in the bedroom where bugs and other droppings could really mess up your nice clean bed. Hence, a bed with big posts and a sheet hung over the top afforded some protection. That’s how canopy beds came into existence.

The floor was dirt. Only the wealthy had something other than dirt, hence the saying, “dirt poor.” The wealthy had slate floors that would get slippery in the winter when wet, so they spread thresh [straw] on the floor to help keep their footing. As the winter wore on, they kept adding more thresh until when you opened the door it would all start slipping outside. A piece of wood was placed in the entryway – hence, a “thresh hold.”

They cooked in the kitchen with a big kettle that always hung over the fire. Every day they lit the fire and added things to the pot. They ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat. They would eat the stew for dinner, leaving leftovers in the pot to get cold overnight and then start over the next day. Sometimes the stew had food in it that had been there quite a while – hence, the rhyme, “Pease porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old.”

Sometimes they could obtain pork. Which made them feel quite special. When visitors came over, they would hang up their bacon to show off. It was a sing of wealth that a man could “bring home the bacon.” They would cut off a little to share with guests and would all sit around and “chew the fat.”

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food, causing lead poisoning and death. This happened most often with tomatoes, so for the next 400 years or so, tomatoes were considered poisonous.

Most people did not have pewter plates, but had trenchers, a piece of wood with the middle scooped out like a bowl. Often trenchers were made from stale paysan bread, which was so old and hard that they could sue them for quite some time. Trenchers were never washed and sometimes worms and mold got into the wood and old bread. After eating off wormy, moldy trenchers, one would get “trench mouth.”

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the top, or “upper crust.”

Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days. Someone walking along the road would take them for dead and prepare them for burial. They were laid out on the kitchen table for several days and the family would gather around and eat and drink and wait to see if they would wake up – hence, the custom of holding a “wake.”

England is old and small and they started running out of places to bury people. So they would dig up coffins, take the bones to a “bone house” [or vault or tower in the church], and reuse the grave [read about the visit to the early Pearce graves in an earlierarticle in “Bourne.”]. When reopening these coffins, one out of 25 supposedly were found to have scratch marks on the inside, and they realized that they had been burying people alive. So they tied a string on the wrist of the corpse, lead it through the coffin and up through the ground, and attached it to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the “graveyard shift”) to listen for the bell; thus someone could be “saved by the bell” or was considered a “dead ringer.”

This has been a “triangulation” on life in the 14th century. Triangulation is a term from research indicating a three-perspective viewpoint of something in question. In this case we wondered what life may have been like in Wiltshire, England, for our early Pearces. We’ve taken the lead from the Original Family Narrative that Richard Pearce was a “miller by trade” and explored what Chaucer had to say about men in such occupations. We closed with a general look at living conditions during this time as discovered via the Internet. While most of the details of this discussion can only be inferred through these sources, we hope that you have enjoyed the storytelling and the surmising. With all due respect to our ancestors, we believe that they would have enjoyed this article too.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.