Academic journal article Medium Aevum

'Shot Wyndowe; (Miller's Tale, I.3358 and 3695): An Open and Shut Case?

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

'Shot Wyndowe; (Miller's Tale, I.3358 and 3695): An Open and Shut Case?

Article excerpt

What kind of a window is the `shot wyndowe' that is such a crucial feature of the Miller's Tale? The term itself is rare: it occurs nowhere else in Chaucer's works, and is not recorded again before Gavin Douglas's translation of the Aeneid (1513).1 This lack of linguistic context produced an early uncertainty about the form and meaning of shot. The word is found unchanged in the two earliest and best manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales, Ellesmere and Huntington, and in a majority of others, but in a significant portion of the total (some twenty of the eighty surveyed by Manly and Rickert) there is considerable variation. 2 For Miller's Tale line 3358 there are ten occurrences of schutte, four of shoppe, and two of short, and for line 3695 four of shet, eight of shoppe, and one of short. Furthermore, within the variant manuscripts there is little consistency between the two lines. For example, the same scribe will write schutte on the first occasion and shoppe on the second, or change short to shoppe, or schutte to shot. Editors and other scholars evince a similar doubt about the precise meaning of `shot wyndowe', and the prevailing definition is itself questionable. Thomas Wright (1847) formed the opinion that the term denotes a projecting window from which the inhabitants of the house might shoot in order to prevent forced entry.3 This seems an unlikely use for a domestic window in late fourteenth-century Oxford, even if the periodic brawls, assaults, and riots made residents feel defensive.4 F. N. Robinson (1957) suggested that `shot wyndowe' might designate a window equipped with a fastening bolts but there is no indication of one in the Miller's Tale. The idea was abandoned by Douglas Gray, the editor of the Miller's Tale for the Riverside Chaucer (y87), who gives what is now the generally accepted gloss, simply `hinged window (one that opens and closes)'.6 This interpretation can be traced back through Skeat (yoo) - `a hinge-shutting window" - to Thomas Tyrwhitt (i779) who wrote, with more hesitancy: `That is, I suppose, a window that was shut.'8

A wide range of other modern authorities supports the Riverside gloss,9 and it seems churlish to quibble when there is a virtual consensus, but there are two objections. The first is this: if `shot wyndowe' means `hinged window' it is a redundant term, because other details in this most economic of narratives make it abundantly clear that it is a window that opens and shuts; why then would Chaucer go on to use a special term to denote its obvious properties? The second objection concerns the elision of shot and shut. With the exception of Wright and Robinson, commentators imply that these two words are synonymous, when in fact shot is not necessarily related to ME shetten, `to shut', and needs to be re-examined. OED is of some help here, both in acknowledging that `The precise sense of the first element [of `shot wyndowe'] is difficult to determine', and in suggesting a connection with Middle Dutch schotdore, sliding door, and schotpoorte, portcullis. In each case, schot occurs in a compound noun describing an opening and shutting device that is distinctive precisely because it operates without a hinge. Thus, schot denotes not so much the action of shutting, but the nature of that action. The sliding door and portcullis `shoot' into place, as we would say, with potential for the action of shutting being a sudden, abrupt movement.

Should we imagine the `shot wyndowe' of the Miller's Tale as a similar kind of sliding device? To do so, it might be argued, enhances our understanding and appreciation of that joyous line in the Miller's Tale when, with a giggle and one deft action, Alisoun shuts out the astonished Absolon: "`Teehee!" quod she, and clapte the wyndow to' (line 3740). For Alisoun's jape to work well, she needs to remain in full control of the aperture (so to speak) and close the window quickly and decisively. A sliding window, which can be closed easily from the inside of the house, would seem to facilitate this action, whereas to reach for a wide-open window would run the risk of confrontation with an enraged suitor. …

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