The Miller's Tale


The Prophetic Symbolism of Noah's Sons

From City of God, Book XVI, chaps. 1 and 2:

IT is difficult to discover from Scripture, whether, after the deluge, traces of the holy city are continuous, or are so interrupted by intervening seasons of godlessness, that not a single worshipper of the one true God was found among men; because from Noah, who, with his wife, three sons, and as many daughters-in-law, achieved deliverance in the ark from the destruction of the deluge, down to Abraham, we do not find in the canonical books that the piety of any one is celebrated by express divine testimony, unless it be in the case of Noah, who commends with a prophetic benediction his two sons Shem and Japheth, while he beheld and foresaw what was long afterwards to happen. It was also by this prophetic spirit that, when his middle son--that is, the son who was younger than the first and older than the last born--had sinned against him, he cursed him not in his own person, but in his son's (his own grandson's), in the words, "Cursed be the lad Canaan; a servant shall he be unto his brethren."(2) Now Canaan was born of Ham, who, so far from covering his sleeping father's nakedness, had divulged it. For the same reason also he subjoins the blessing on his two other sons, the oldest and youngest, saying, "Blessed be the Lord God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant. God shall gladden Japheth, and he shall dwell in the houses of Shem."(2) And so, too, the planting of the vine by Noah, and his intoxication by its fruit, and his nakedness while he slept, and the other things done at that time, and recorded, are all of them pregnant with prophetic meanings, and veiled in mysteries.(3)
CHAP. 2.--WHAT WAS PROPHETICALLY PREFIGURED IN THE SONS OF NOAH.
The things which then were hidden are now sufficiently revealed by the actual events which have followed. For who can carefully and intelligently consider these things without recognizing them accomplished in Christ? Shem, of whom Christ was born in the flesh, means "named." And what is of greater name than Christ, the fragrance of whose i name is now everywhere perceived, so that even prophecy sings of it beforehand, comparing it in the Song of Songs,(4) to ointment poured forth? Is it not also in the houses of Christ, that is, in the churches, that the "enlargement" of the nations dwells? For Japheth means "enlargement." And Ham (i.e., hot), who was the middle son of Noah, and, as it were, separated himself from both, and remained between them, neither belonging to the first-fruits of Israel nor to the fullness of the Gentiles, what does he signify but the tribe of heretics, hot with the spirit, not of patience, but of impatience, with which the breasts of heretics are wont to blaze, and with which they disturb the peace of the saints? But even the heretics yield an advantage to those that make proficiency, according to the apostle's saying, "There must also be heresies, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you."(1) Whence, too, it is elsewhere said, "The son that receives instruction will be wise, and he uses the foolish as his servant."(2) For while the hot restlessness of heretics stirs questions about many articles of the catholic faith, the necessity of defending them forces us both to investigate them more accurately, to understand them more clearly, and to proclaim them more earnestly; and the question mooted by an adversary becomes the occasion of instruction. However, not only those who are openly separated from the church, but also all who glory in the Christian name, and at the same time lead abandoned lives, may without absurdity seem to be figured by Noah's middle son: for the passion of Christ, which was signified by that man's nakedness, is at once proclaimed by their profession, and dishonored by their wicked conduct. Of such, therefore, it has been said, "By their fruits ye shall know them."(3) And therefore was Ham cursed in his son, he being, as it were, his fruit. So, too, this son of his, Canaan, is fitly interpreted "their movement," which is nothing else than their work. But Shem and Japheth, that is to say, the circumcision and uncircumcision, or, as the apostle otherwise calls them, the Jews and Greeks, but called and justified, having somehow discovered the nakedness of their father (which signifies the Saviour's passion), took a garment and laid it upon their backs, and entered backwards and covered their father's nakedness, without their seeing what their reverence hid. For we both honor the passion of Christ as accomplished for us, and we hate the crime of the Jews who crucified Him. The garment signifies the sacrament, their backs the memory of things past: for the church celebrates the passion of Christ as already accomplished, and no longer to be looked forward to, now that Japheth already dwells in the habitations of Shem, and their wicked brother between them. But the wicked brother is, in the person of his son (i.e., his work), the boy, or slave, of his good brothers, when good men make a skillful use of bad men, either for the exercise of their patience or for their advancement in wisdom. For the apostle testifies that there are some who preach Christ from no pure motives; "but," says be, "whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice."(4) For it is Christ Himself who planted the vine of which the prophet says, "The vine of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel;"(5) and He drinks of its wine, whether we thus understand that cup of which He says, "Can ye drink of the cup that I shall drink of?"(6) and, "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,"(7) by which He obviously means His passion. Or, as wine is the fruit of the vine, we may prefer to understand that from this vine, that is to say, from the race of Israel, He has assumed flesh and blood that He might suffer; "and he was drunken," that is, He suffered; "and was naked," that is, His weakness appeared in His suffering, as the apostle says, "though He was crucified through weakness."(8) Wherefore the same apostle says, "The weakness of God is stronger than men; and the foolishness of God is wiser than men."(9) And when to the expression "he was naked" Scripture adds "in his house," it elegantly intimates that Jesus was to suffer the cross and death at the hands of His own household, His own kith and kin, the Jews. This passion of Christ is only externally and verbally professed by the reprobate, for what they profess, they do not understand. But the elect hold in the inner man this so great mystery, and honor inwardly in the heart this weakness and foolishness of God. And of this there is a figure in Ham going out to proclaim his father's nakedness; while Shem and Japheth, to cover or honor it, went in, that is to say, did it inwardly.

Noah's Sons and the Social Class Structure

The origins of the working class came to be associated with the tradition of Noah's cursed second son Ham. The social hierarchy that deprived the working class of authority was based on the conception that lordship and servitude were a condition that derived from man's sinful nature and that were necessary to control and coerce man back to a state of godliness, much as Theseus tried to control the barbarous side of human nature in the Knight's Tale.



O žis thre can že folk to brede
And fild že werld o lenth and brede.
O žaim it was sua mani men
O sere kind, sexsith tene.
Knyth, and thrall, and freman,
Oute of žer thre brežer bigan'
O sem freman, o Iaphet knytht,
thrall of cham že maledight.
O žis thre com all, als žou sais,
Has bene in werld and yeit beis;

Cursor Mundi 2129-38



Noah loading the animals into the Ark


Millers came to symbolize the rebellion of the working class during the Peasants' Revolt. John Ball's letter to the Essex Commons recorded in Walsingham's Historia Anglicana, ed. Henry Thomas Riley (London: Longman, 1864), 2:34 refers to an allegorized miller who will grind the country fine in the mill of revolt:

Iohan the Mullere hat ygrounde smal, smal, smal;
The Kynges sone of heuene schal paye for al.
Be war or ye be wo;
Knoweth your freend fro your foo;
Haueth ynow, and seith "Hoo";
And do wel and bettere, and fleth synne,
And seketh pees, and hold you therinne;
And so biddeth Iohan Trewman and alle his felawes.

A series of several other letters purportedly written by Jakke Mylner, Jakke Carter, Jakke Trewman, but probably all due to the radical priest John Ball are found in Chronicon Henrici Knighton, II 138-40.

Jakke Mylner asketh help to turne hys mylne aright. He hath grounden smal, smal; the kings sone of heven he schal pay for alle. Loke thy mylne go aright, with the four sayles, and the post stande in stedfastness. With ryght and with myght, with skyl and with wylle, lat myght helpe ryght, and skyl go before wille and ryght before myght, than goth our mylne aryght. And if myght go before ryght, and wylle before skylle, than is our mylne adyght.

The Allegorical Significance of Noah's Ark

In The City of God, St. Augustine explains Noah's ark as a symbol of Christ's church on pilgrimage through the wicked world, symbolized by the flood. "Without doubt this is a symbol of the City of God on pilgrimage in this world, of the Church which is saved through the wood on which was suspended the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." According to Augustine, the size of the ark symbolized the human body in whose form Christ was to come. The door represented the wound in Christ's side when he was pierced with the spear since from the wound flowed the blood and water of the sacrements of baptism and communion by which believers are initiated.


The dramatic tradition of the middle ages, to which Nicholas referred, portrayed Mrs. Noah as suspicious and reluctant to board the ship, and included comical scenes of marital strife between Noah and his wife. In the York play, Mrs Noah tells him:

"Now Noye, in faythe že fonnes full faste,
This fare will I no lenger frayne,
žou arte nere woode, I am agaste,
Fare-wele, I will go home agayne."


Click here to return to the index of Jane Zatta's Chaucer Web Site