Sexual promiscuity among young women was officially condemned far more in the fourteenth century than it is today. In the fourteenth century in England, Roman Catholicism was not only the official religion but also the only permissible religion. Roman Catholic theology strongly condemned sexual lust of all kinds. This is not to imply, however, that sexual lust did not exist – obviously it did, or there would have been no reason to preach so often against it. And, just as obviously, lustful, promiscuous acts took place, committed not only by members of the church (a group that included practically everyone) but also by officials of the church, often including even leading officials. (It is not by accident that Chaucer so often mocks the Pope.) It was partly to mock and satirize such behavior (one can argue) that Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. Yet Chaucer rarely preaches; instead, he counts on irony to make most of his ethical and religious points most effectively.
Alisoun, in The Miller’s Tale, is not only a promiscuous young woman; she is a promiscuous young wife. Her decision to commit adultery with Nicholas leads her to break several of the ten commandments – a fact that would not have been lost on Chaucer’s audience. Moreover, she often takes God’s name in vain, referring to the Creator in the very process of breaking his laws. Ironically, she swears her “ooth” (that is, oath) to commit adultery with Nicholas by invoking the name of “Saint Thomas of Kent” (183), one of the greatest of English Christian martyrs. Ironically, immediately after agreeing to eventually have adulterous sex with Nicholas, she heads off
. . . to the parish chirche,
Cristes owene werkes for to wirche . . . (199-200).
We are only two hundred lines into the poem, and Alisoun has already revealed herself to be adulterous, dishonest, profane, and hypocritical. And that’s just the beginning!
There are many good reasons to think that Chaucer is mocking Alisoun’s behavior, not commending it. The most important of these reasons is the constant irony implied in the ways she is presented. There would have been no reason to stress Christian ideas so much in this tale if Chaucer had not wanted to remind readers constantly of how often and how variously Alisoun, Nicholas, and Absolon all violate standard Christian teachings. The fate that befalls Alisoun by the end of the tale strongly suggests that she is the subject of ridicule, not sympathy (although Nicholas and Absolon get the worst of it).
Behavior such as Alisoun’s seems less strongly condemned today for many reasons, including the fact that today there is no single church, no single brand of religion, that is anywhere nearly as powerful as the Catholic church was at the time of Chaucer.
For a much fuller discussion of this issue, see my essay, cited below.