Geoffrey Chaucer drew on various medieval traditions surrounding pigs to characterise one of his most memorable characters in the Canterbury Tales: Robin the Miller.
A boarish fellow
In his Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), Geoffrey Chaucer brings to life a great variety of characters who set out on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. To pass the time, the pilgrims tell each other stories and, along the way, the audience learns about the pilgrims’ appearance, their behaviour and how they react to each other’s tales. Perhaps one of Chaucer’s most memorable characters is Robin the Miller, depicted here in the early-fifteenth-century Ellesmere manuscript:
Chaucer’s Miller behaves like a pig and his demeanour towards his fellow pilgrims is nothing short of boarish: he drunkenly interrupts the Knight and the Host and angers the Reeve by telling a bawdy tale about how a carpenter was tricked by a student (the Reeve used to be a carpenter). The Miller’s interests are also ungentlemanlike: Chaucer reveals in his General Prologue that Robin the Miller is “a janglere and a goliardeys, And that was moost of synne and harlotries” [a buffoon and teller of dirty stories, mostly about sin and deeds of harlotry] (General Prologue, ll. 560-561). Indeed, the Miller’s Tale is all about sex and obscenities. One of the Tale’s highlights is the moment a parish clerk accidentally kisses a woman’s arse (incidentally, the woman’s response, “Tehee!”, is the first recorded instance of the interjection “Teehee!” in the English language). The clerk, disgusted and out for revenge, pretends to return for another kiss and, after being farted in the face, shoves a redhot poker up the offending orifice. Robin the Miller certainly has a wicked sense of humour and a mind like a sow: full of dirty thoughts.
A sow in body and mind
‘A mind like a sow’? Let me explain by first pointing out that the Miller, in his appearance, also resembles a female pig. The Miller is a stout fellow, full of brawn, who likes wrestling and has a big mouth; more importantly, the Miller’s red hair is explicitly linked to the sow:
His berd as any sowe or fox was reed,
And therto brood, as though it were a spade.
Upon the cop right of his nose he hade
A werte, and theron stood a toft of herys,
Reed as the brustles of a sowes erys (General Prologue, ll. 552-556)
[His beard was as red as any sow or fox, and also broad, as if it were a spade. On the top of his nose he had a wart, and thereupon stood a tuft of hairs, as red as the bristles of a sow’s ears.]
These two references to the sow are no coincidence. In the Canterbury Tales, animal imagery is often used to highlight certain aspects a character shares with these animals. The female pig is a good ‘spirit animal’ for the Miller since, according to medieval bestiaries, the sow represents dirty-minded, unclean people. The entry for ‘sow’ in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 764, for instance, explains:
The pig (porcus) is a filthy beast (spurcus): it sucks up filth, wallows in mud, and smears itself with slime. …Sows signify sinners, the unclean and heretics … Sows are unclean and gluttonous men … The pig is also the man who is unclean of spirit. … The sow thinks on carnal things; from her thoughts wicked or wasteful deeds result … (trans. Barber 1992, pp. 85-87)
Clearly, Chaucer’s red-haired Miller, rejoicing in sin and telling dirty stories, is like a sow in both body and mind.
A porky piper
One more intriguing detail links Chaucer’s Miller to a sow: “A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne, / And therwithal he broghte us out of towne” [he well knew how to blow and play the bagpipes and with that he brought us out of the town] (General Prologue, ll. 565-566). Chaucer’s Miller shares his ability to play the bagpipes with various pigs that make their appearance in late medieval art. Porky pipers may be found on wooden misericords…
… hanging from the roof of Melrose Abbey …
… pilgrim badges …
… and in medieval manuscripts:
Exactly what connects the bagpipes to the sow is uncertain: the form of the instrument (a bag with a pipe) might be interpreted as phallic in nature and the bagpipe, like the sow, was associated with sexual sin in the Middle Ages; it was an “impious instrument with sexual connotations” (see Planer 1988, 343). Alternatively, there may be a link between the sound of a screaming pig and the bagpipes (both unpleasant sounds?). Whatever the connection between pigs and bagpipes, we may assume that Chaucer and his audience were familiar with this artistic tradition since most depictions of these porky pipers stem from fourteenth- and fifteen-century England. What better instrument for the boarish Miller, with the body and mind of a sow, than the bagpipes?
Chaucer’s Miller truly is a pig, in more ways than one.
- Planer, John H. 1988. “Damned Music: The Symbolism of the Bagpipes in the Art of Hieronymus Bosch and His Followers.” In Music from the Middle Ages Through the Twentieth Century: Essays in Honor of Gwynn S. McPeek, ed. C.P. Comberiati & M.C. Steel (New York), 335-356.
- Barber, Richard. 1992. Bestiary: Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Bodley 764 (Woodbridge)
*This is a slightly adapted version of a blog post that was published earlier on the Leiden Medievalists Blog*
Various medieval English kings sought to identify themselves with the boar, including Henry II, Edward III and Richard III of York. This blog post calls attention to the role of the boar in medieval English royal prophecies.
King Arthur as the Boar of Cornwall
The frequent use of the boar in royal prophecies in medieval England can be traced back to Geoffrey of Monmouth’s famous Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). Book 7 of this foundational work of the Arthurian legend describes the prophecies of Merlin. These prophecies include a list of various animals who represent future rulers of Britain, including the White Dragon, the Lion of Justice and the Hedgehog (who will rebuild a town and lure many birds with the apples on its spines). Greatest among these animals is the ‘boar of Cornwall’:
For a boar of Cornwall shall give his assistance, and trample their necks under his feet. The islands of the ocean shall be subject to his power, and he shall possess the forests of Gaul. The house of Romulus shall dread his courage, and his end shall be doubtful.
This boar of Cornwall turns out to be none other than King Arthur, who comes to the aid of the Britons, conquers France and also attempts to conquer Rome. The “doubtful end” may anticipate Arthur’s departure for Avalon, mortally wounded but not quite dead.
Since Arthur came to be regarded as the epitome of the ideal king, various English monarchs have tried to link themselves to the Arthurian legend. As a result, the boar also became a popular royal symbol, found in various texts that are based on the tradition of Merlin’s prophecies.
Boar-pretenders: Henry II and Edward III
A 14th-century, Latin copy of a list of Merlin’s prophecies now in Cambridge, Parker LIbrary, MS 404, spelled out the symbolic interpretation of Merlin’s prohetic animal-rulers by adding the names of prior English monarchs in the margin. The “Lion of Justice”, for instance, was identified as Henry I (r. 1100-1135); the Crab whose reign brings war and suffering was associated with the unfortunate Stephen (r. 1135-1154); and their succesor was the heroically tusked boar Henry II (r. 1154-1189).
The tradition of Merlin’s prophecies was not only used retrospectively, to make sense of the succession of prior rulers, but it could also be applied for propaganda purposes. This appears to have been the case for Edward III (r. 1327-1377), who sought to associate himself with the “Boar of Windsor”. According to a version of Merlin’s prophecies that circulated with the Middle English Brut Chronicle, this boar of Windsor would succeed the malfunctiong Goat:
Aftre þis goote, shal come out of Wyndesore a Boor, þat shal haue an heuede of witte, a lyons hert, a pitouse lokyng; his vesage shal be reste to sike men; his breþ shal bene stanchyn of þerst to ham þat bene aþrest þerof shal; his worde shal bene gospelle; his beryng shal bene meke as a Lambe… and he shal whet his teiþ vppon þe gates of Parys. (source)
This image of a heroic, holy boar that would ‘whet his teeth on the gates of Paris’ was appealed to by the poet Laurence Minot (1300-1352), when he celebrated the victories of Edward III against the French in Normandy during the 1340s:
Merlin said thus with his mowth:
Out of the north into the sowth
suld cum a bare over the se
that suld make many man to fle.
And in the se, he said ful right,
suld he schew ful mekill might,
and in Franse he suld bigin
To mak tham wrath that er tharein. (source)
Thus, the boar from Merlin’s prophecies became a powerful symbol that could be used by kings to raise their status (see, e.g. Coote).
The last royal boar: Richard III
The English royal most famous for his use of the boar as a sigil was King Richard III (r. 1483-1485), whose followers wore livery badges with the image of a white boar. Belonging to the House of York, the use of the boar has been associated with the English etymology of York (eofor-wic ‘boar-town’), but it is possible that Richard, too, was inspired by the (predominantly positive) portrayals of the boar in the tradition of Merlin’s prophecies. Be that as it may, Richard’s reign would not last long, nor was it as positive as the boar-ish reigns once prophesized by Merlin. In 1485, Richard III died in the Battle of Bosworth, which was won by Henry Tudor. The Welsh poet Guto’r Glyn, in a poem priasing one of Henry’s Welsh knights, referred ironically to Richard as a boar:
King Henry won the day
through the strength of our master
He killed Englishmen, capable hand
He killed the boar, he chopped off his head (source)
Perhaps it is Richard III’s eventual loss and his strong association with the boar that has led to the fact that no other English royal would ever appeal to the royal boar prophecy again. However, it is possible that the printed edition of Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte Darthur also played a role.
How a bear became a boar: Mouvance in William Caxton’s Le Morte Darthur (1485)
The most widely read version of the Arthurian legend is Le Morte Darthur by Sir Thomas Mallory, composed some time before 1470. The text of this work survives in a printed edition by William Caxton, dated to 1485, and the so-called ‘Winchester Manuscript’ (London, British Library, Add. 59678). This Winchester Manuscript is dated to a decade after Thomas Mallory’s death in 1471 and was probably used by Caxton in his print shop, along with another manuscript now lost. Comparing the Winchester Manuscript to Caxton’s later printed edition allows a glimpse at how Caxton made subtle alterations in Mallory’s text. Crucially, for the purpose of this blog, Caxton changed the text of a prophetic dream that King Arthur has while he is on his way to conquer Rome in book V, chapter 4. According to the Winchester manuscript, Arthur dreams of how a dragon defeats a “gresly Beare”; after Arthur wakes up a philosopher explains that Arthur need not worry: he is the dragon that will defeat the bear, who, in turn, symbolises a cruel and powerful tyrant that torments its people.
In Caxton’s version, printed in 1485, the bear has been changed into a boar: “the bore”! This appears to be a conscious change, inspired by the political situation of the day, as P. J. C. Field has noted:
“In C, the bear is (six times) turned into a boar. The change must have been deliberate, and it created a bold political allusion: the boar was the badge of King Richard III and the dragon that of Henry Tudor. The allusion would only have made sense in or just before 1485, and it is difficult to see who could have been responsible for it but Caxton himself …” (cited in Crofts)
By exchanging the bear for the boar, Caxton has altered Mallory’s prophetic dream to be a comment on the political situation of 1485. Notably, the dream, as altered by Caxton, came true! Caxton had published his Le Morte Darthur on the last day of July 1485 and, less than a month later, Henry Tudor, flying a dragon banner, defeated Richard III, flying a boar banner, at the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485.
Following Richard III, no other English monarch seems to have appealed to a royal boar prophecy. Perhaps this was, in part, due to Caxton’s introduction of an alternative, negative royal boar prophecy that featured prominently in one of the most popular works of the Arthurian Legend.
- Lesley Coote, Prophecy and Public Affairs in Later Medieval England (Woodbridge, 2000)
- P. J. C. Field, “Caxton’s Roman War,” Arthuriana 5 (1995): 31-73.
- Thomas Crofts, Malory’s contemporary audience the social reading of romance in late medieval England (Woodbridge, 2006)
*This is a slightly adapted version of a blog post that was published earlier on the Leiden Medievalists Blog*