Geoffrey Chaucer followed his idealistic romance The Knight’s Tale with the bawdy fabliau The Miller’s Tale, providing powerful contrast within the context of his The Canterbury Tales. True to their individual genres, The Knight’s Tale paints nobles in a flattering light and The Miller’s Tale shows peasants acting like foolish simpletons. But neither view seems to reflect how Chaucer viewed his contemporary man. Instead, it is the subtleties Chaucer introduces to the two genres which make his characters seem human and at the same time show Chaucer’s own humanity.
Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale is one of the great short stories of the English language, but finds its origins in the French fabliau. The fabliaux were a group of about 150 short stories with basically interchangeable characters: a cuckolded husband, an offending clergy, and foolish peasants. The plot of a fabliau usually goes, “There was a man who had a wife, and the wife fooled around with some clerk and made the local peasants look like fools.” Of course real life in fourteenth-century towns and villages was never like this; these stories always required incredible degrees of gullibility in the victims and of ingenuity and sexual appetite in the trickster heroes and heroines. The fabliau had flourished in thirteenth-century France, and was largely out of fashion when Chaucer resurrected it 100 years later. But like most comedy the fabliau was irreverent, and this made the perfect vehicle for Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. He used the fabliau in his Miller's Tale, Reeve's Tale, Shipman's Tale, Summoner's Tale, and The Cook's Tale. Other stories, such as The Merchant's Tale, show traces of the genre as well.
A "romance" is a prose or poetic heroic narrative originating in medieval literature. The term was coined to differentiate popular material in the vernacular from scholarly and ecclesiastical literature in Latin. The romance dealt with traditional themes which were linked in some way, perhaps only in a frame story. In late medieval and early Renaissance literature the trend was toward fantastic fiction. Early romances, such as Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur, spawned many imitators and the genre was well received. Heroic and chivalrous knights tended to populate medieval romances, wielding super-human ability in their quest of monsters and giants, all the while following strict codes of chivalry and ultimately winning the heart of some fair lady. But despite the lady’s love, medieval romances focused on adventure, and not love.
But Chaucer’s genius is in how he showed intelligence in his fools and foolishness in his nobility. The carpenter in The Miller’s Tale loved his wife, and believing the prophesies of Nicholas doesn’t seem to make him too gullible; somehow we see a little of our own trusting nature in the carpenter. In The Knight's Tale, Palamon and Arcite are indeed noble, and their love for Emily is at least romantic (perhaps their love has something to do with how we first applied the term to love), but they are foolish nonetheless and Emily isn’t even interested in being a wife. Chaucer avoids the cliches of his chosen genres, and in doing so creates living and breathing characters who survive the now archaic literary forms which first delivered them to us.