A lively account of the rights and privileges of a Scottish miller will be found in Chap. XIII. of Sir Walter Scott’s Monastery, and with some difference of terms this will apply very well to Chaucer’s Miller. There was little free-trade in milling in those days, and restrictions survived as late as the eighteenth century. Every one raising corn on a manor would have to take it to the manor mill to be ground, and thus, free from any check of competition, medieval millers became famous for their knavish thefts. In the Reeve’s Tale Chaucer tells how two Cambridge clerks tried to protect the college corn by standing one where the corn went in, the other where the meal came out. But the Miller turned their horse loose and made it run away, and while they were trying to catch it he stole more than ever. Scott suggests that millers in those days had to be ‘stout carles,’ like the Miller of the Prologue, to silence complainants and enforce their fines, when corn was taken to be ground elsewhere. The illustration in the Ellesmere manuscript does justice both to our Miller’s blue hood and to his bagpipe. As to the appropriateness of this last on a pilgrimage, see Introduction.
545. for the nones. The n in nones belongs to the previous word, cp. atte nale=atten ale, at the alehouse (d 1349), then being a corruption of thæm, the old dative of the definite article. Thus, for the nones is ‘for the once,’ for the occasion. In ll. 379, 523 the meaning is clear. The gildsmen took the cook with them, the Parson reproved his erring parishioners ‘for the occasion,’ i.e. for that particular time. It is not so easy to see why we are told that the Miller was a stout carl for the occasion. It has been suggested to me that the order of the words is loose, and that we should take for the nones with Miller, the Miller for the nones being equivalent to ‘the Miller we had with us,’ ‘our particular Miller.’ But perhaps Chaucer means that the Miller was a stouter fellow than you could expect to meet on a peaceful pilgrimage.
547. That proved wel, his muscle and bones stood the test of hard work.
548. he wolde have alwey the ram. The ram was the usual prize at a wrestling match. For ‘have alway’ (E. C. Hn.), H reads ‘bere awey.’
561. And that, i.e. his talk.
562. and tollen thries, take his proper toll or due three times over.
563. And yet he hadde a thombe of gold, pardee.”If the allusion be, as is most probable, to the old proverb Every [An?] honest Miller has a thumb of gold, this passage may mean that our Miller, notwithstanding his thefts, was an honest miller, i.e. as honest as his brethren” (Tyrwhitt’s note). But honest in the fourteenth century did not necessarily refer to scrupulous integrity: it carried with it the idea of skill, just as ‘good’ does at present. The miller’s thumb is said to take a peculiar shape from its constant use in testing the fineness of samples of corn or flour spread out on the palm of the hand. The proverb may be one of those which owe their success to their bearing two meanings, (i.) a clever miller grows rich, (ii.) an upright miller is as rare as one with a gold thumb. But I am inclined to take it here in its good sense and paraphrase, ‘he could steal cleverly and yet he had no need to, since he was skilful and could have done well without stealing.’
These notes are reproduced verbatim from Alfred W. Pollard, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: The Prologue, London: Macmillan, 1903. The book is in the public domain and available for viewing and download from Google Books. Although the book is old, the notes are enlightening and accurate. Nevertheless, users doing detailed research on aspects of the General Prologue should, if possible, also consult more recent notes in print publications such as The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
View more information: https://tigerweb.towson.edu/duncan/chaucer/notes-miller.html