The Canterbury Tales

The Effeminate Carpenter: The Actions and Attitudes of John in “The Miller’s Tale”

Carpenters are traditionally regarded as hard-working, rugged men with calluses on their hands and dirt beneath their fingernails. They are strong and silent; they take pride in their work and are generally self-assured. One of the main characters in “The Miller’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, however, breaks the typical carpenter mold. John the carpenter falls prey to the wily Nicholas who, in planning an elaborate one-night-stand with John’s wife, convinces John that the world is ending Old-Testament-Flood style. At Nicholas’ urging, John fastens three tubs to the rafters of the barn so that Nicholas, John, and his wife might escape a watery grave. As John embarks on this venture of hanging the tubs in anticipation of the “prophesized” flood, he periodically lapses into a state of despair, worrying solely about the safety of his wife and fulfilling the classic cuckold role. In this part of the tale, the Miller uses specific language to characterize John’s actions and attitudes as effeminate, insinuating that irrational behavior is unequivocally linked to feminine sentimentality.

The term “feminine” can be subjective and, therefore, problematic, but Chaucer graciously provides an example of proper femininity...

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