Chaucer’s Weasel: A Love Story

weasel

Least weasel (M. nivalis) photographed by Medien-gbr and licensed for use under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

In one of Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’, the main character Alisoun is described as a weasel. Most scholars have taken this as a parody of courtly love, a sign of Alisoun’s promiscuity or the character’s weakness. Could this actually be a complement?

Species: A ‘wesele’. The term was generic in the medieval period  but most probably referred to Mustela nivalis, M. erminia or M. putorius.

Source: ‘The Miller’s Tale’, Chaucer’s most adult and therefore most well-known story.

Date: c.1380-1400.

Highlights: Alisoun, the main female character is compared to a weasel in her introduction. How could Chaucer say that about the poor innocent girl? Oh I remember. She’s a right weasel.

THE CONTEXT
‘The Canterbury Tales’ are the center-piece of Middle English literature. They were written by Geoffrey Chaucer c.1380-1400 A.D. and contain examples of every kind of story. The tales are remarkable for how well they’ve aged as literary creations. Some of them are even still held up as models of ‘good literature’ today, which is quite unusual. It’s more usual to find medieval texts studied as examples of ‘developing literature’ or looked at for their historical significance, but Chaucer scholars refer to themselves as an audience and marvel at the author’s complex creations.

The frame narrative of the ‘Canterbury Tales’ explains that each of the stories was told by a pilgrim to his/her fellows on a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. This is a fiction, but at the same time, the Canterbury Tales were probably written over years and are not neatly passed down to us in a single manuscript. That’s why it’s more customary to treat the ‘Canterbury Tales’ as a series of individual texts rather than as a single text. Today’s extract comes from ‘The Miller’s Tale’. The title is another reference back to the frame narrative: ‘The Miller’s Tale’ is the one of the ‘Canterbury Tales’ which is told by a miller.

THE TEXT
‘The Miller’s Tale’ is one of the most popular Canterbury Tales read in classes today because it still engages interest with its off-colour plot and toilet humour. An old, rich carpenter marries a young women called Alisoun, who is desired by both a clerk staying with them and the local priest. She challenges the clerk to provide a private environment for them to have an affair, and the story starts from there. Instead of a moral the story ends with a reminder of what’s happened to each of the characters:

Thus swyved [laid] was the carpenteres wyf[e],
For al his [the carpenter’s] keping and his jalousye;
And Absolon hath kist hir nether [e]ye [her bum]
And Nicholas is scalded in the toute [tush]

THE WEASEL
I explain all this because I think it helps us understand a very small piece of animal terminology used earlier on. Here is how Alisoun, the young woman who is at the centre of all the trouble is first described:

Fair was this yonge wyf, and ther-with-al [actually]
As any wesele hir body gent and smal

The primary meaning of the second line is clear: Alisoun’s body is as graceful and as small as a weasel. Now that’s not too surprising at face value. Mustelids (the term weasel was generic in the medieval period) do have long and sinuous bodies. But it’s definitely not the usual cliché and most editions and translations pass the line over without comment. Raffel’s translation in the Modern Library edition is the only one I have seen to even admit there is a problem. There the weasel is apologetically translated as ‘well-fed’ (p.89). An interpretation at face value is no satisfying. Not even well-fed weasels are typically associated with beauty, and the text is quite clear in its comparison with ‘any’ old weasel. What else is being insinuated here?

The most popular opinion, explained by for example, Mandel (1985) is that the description is an intentional parody of romantic love, and forms part of the Miller’s answer to the Knight, whose tale he follows. This idea continues to have good currency. Alisoun is not a noble lady, despite the priest’s melodramatic courting. She is not a swan but a weasel. She is also compared to a young colt, a cow calf and goat kid. The idea here seems to be that she is just as young and playful and naive as them. She sings like a barn swallow (Hirundo rustica), which presumably means with more enthusiasm than careful tune. It’s clear that Chaucer is playing games with literary expectations in this story, and there does seem to be a strong contrast in the last lines where Alisoun is good enough:

For any lord to leggen in his bedde,
Or yet for any good yeman to wedde.

And yet, Alisoun’s description is not a parody. Her expensive and beautiful clothes are described without any hint of humour, as is her body. Mandel was wrong to depict her (or the weasel) as a helpless victim too. Weasels are predators which fearlessly prey on animals many times their own size. Alisoun not only helps deceive her elderly husband she also tricks the lovelorn priest into kissing her ‘ers’ and seems to enjoy the trouble even more than the clerk.

Parry (2001) gives a great deal of attention to the metaphor. Other than parody, he suggests alternates between a series of readings, each with their own problems:

First, we might see Alison as innocent. This is especially suggested by the cat and mouse metaphor later on, and indeed all descriptions of her describe small or young animals. She is described as a weasel, kid, swallow, colt, and wether. (Parry is not clear about why we should see this animal as wither small or young). Parry also suggests that by this Chaucer ‘situates the desire in her companions’ and Alisoun herself is just their helpless prey. This would also help explain why she alone is not punished by the ending of the play. It might also fit with the idea of her as a young and ‘undomesticated’ (by which Parry means untrained) animal. She is not yet broken in, and refuses Nicholas’ early advances, but by describing her as a colt Chaucer is insinuating that this is her destiny. She herself is therefore blameless, as a liberating innocent force of nature.

Photograph of  an harmless, innocent little weasel (Mustela nivalis) preying on a rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Photograph from Animal Life of the British Isles (1921) believed to be in the public domain.

But this interpretation is not satisfying either, as Parry himself admits. Alisoun seems to have her very own agency, and indeed plots with Nicholas to make the adulterous affair work. She is not naive, she is fully complicit in the action, and even initiates teasing Absolon. If we focus on the description of her as ‘lykerous’ (lecherous), we come up with the idea of an promiscuous red blooded young woman married to an elderly man. She is an amoral figure – she did what she did because she could not control her nature, like the animals she is compared to.

This interpretation does not stand up to feminist scrutiny. For example, Hansen (1992, p.224-5) emphasises Alisoun’s freedom from punishment as a sign of her objectification and lack of agency in the story. She does not escape punishment because she is innocent. Indeed Absolon plots to rape her with a red hot iron blade, and is only prevented by an accident. Her sexuality is not emphasised but hidden from view and only spoken about approximately and euphemistically

Parry (2001) follows Olsen (1963) in suggesting that all of the viewpoints he has suggested may actually be a reflection of the critics points of view. He attempts one more reading of the text, based on the common bestiary legend of the weasel, conceiving via the ear and giving birth via the mouth. There is a related legend which describes Mary also conceiving Jesus via the ear and Parry suggests the two might be connected in the minds of Chaucer’s audience. He finishes by suggesting that although none of these interpretations are entirely satisfactory, especially in explaining why Alisoun was not punished, this confusion was intended by Chaucer to draw readers into the story and persuade them to answer the questions for themselves.

From a scholarly point of view, some of these interpretations are more likely than others, but each of them is possible. In my opinion though, scholars have missed an obvious possibility. Descriptions like ‘weasel-words’ ‘he’s such a weasel’ and ‘weasely’ suggest some kind of sneaky behaviour or person. According to the Oxford English Dictionary these senses of the word are only clearly attested from the beginning of the 20th century, but the connotation may have existed prior to this time. Shakespeare twice describes weasels as sneaking egg thieves. Jon Ford and Ben Jonson both use the term as an insult in the seventeenth century. Could Alisoun’s description have been intended to emphasise her bold and slippery nature? If so, we need not think of her escaping punishment because she is an objectified victim, or even an amoral force of sexuality. She may have just weaseled her way out of the situation. Perhaps critics have been too concerned about justice. This story is, ostensibly, a fabliau. The situation is not too far distant from the animal fables of ‘Renard’ the fox. The whole point of the medieval and early modern comedy genre was that there was no neat resolution, only a punchline.
CONCLUSIONS
It seems clear that Chaucer had a purpose in comparing Alisoun to a weasel. It was not the straightforward compliment which it appears at face-value, but considering the rest of the description it is unlikely to have been a satirical description either. Other options are that she might be innocent, unable to control her urges, an object, or like Mary. To me, none of these interpretations seem satisfying In medieval and renaissance literature weasels are most often anthropomorphised with a sneaky personality, although the adjective ‘weasely’ and the verb ‘to weasel [esp. To weasel out of]’ are not attested until the twentieth century. This role is not inconsistent with Alisoun’s role in the rest of the story, but given the paucity of evidence each reader may have to decide the force of the description for themselves. What do you think?


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REFERENCES
Hansen ET (1992)
Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender. University of California Press

Mandel J (1985) Courtly Love in the Canterbury Tales. The Chaucer Review. 19:277-289.

Olsen P (1963) Poetic Justice in the Miller’s Tale. Modern Language Quarterly. 24:231.

Parry J (2001) Interpreting female agency and responsibility in the Miller’s Tale and the Merchent’s Tale. Philological Quarterly. 80:133-168.

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