The Big Bang Theory and Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale: Representations of the Medieval Period in Popular Media

Recently I was watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory and I was quite surprised to come across a reference to Geoffrey Chaucer.  In this particular episode Penny is having a girls’ night at her apartment and the intellectually gifted but socially awkward Amy Farrah Fowler recites Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale as her example of a dirty story, prompting Penny to respond with ‘What the hell was that?’.

The Big Bang Theory – Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale

Film and Television are interesting media as they both reflect and have the power to affect contemporary society, thus I began to think about how the Medieval period (and its literature) is depicted on screen and, in turn, how this reflects and/or shapes the general public’s perceptions of these periods.  How does the general public imagine the Middle Ages?  For instance, how does this little scene from The Big Bang Theory reflect (and propagate) ideas surrounding Medieval Literature?

One of the prime sources of comedy in The Big Bang Theory comes from the dichotomy between the nerdy, socially inept people (all with varying degrees of social ineptitude) like Sheldon and Leonard and the ‘normal’ people, namely Penny.  Typically, the language that defines this dichotomy is scientific (although it can also be comic book or video-game related).  Whenever Sheldon, a theoretical physicist and the nerdiest, most socially inept person in his group, mentions anything scientific it seems like he is speaking a foreign language and thus placing the viewers without expertise in physics onto the other side of the divide between nerds and normal people.

In the aforementioned scene, Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale is firmly situated on the nerdy side of the dichotomy.  Amy Farrah Fowler, socially inept neuroscientist, makes Chaucer’s Middle English as indecipherable as Sheldon’s theoretical physics.  If the viewer was in any doubt as to where Middle English literature belonged, all they need to do is note the laugh track and Penny’s reaction – ‘What the hell was that?’  Penny is not impressed; obviously she did not understand the bawdy tale!  Interestingly, Bernadette, a PhD student and waitress,  bridges the two by commenting: ‘I thought it was pretty spicy, especially the part where he kisses her nether ye.’  Yet, although she bridges the gulf between the socially challenged nerds and the socially adept Penny, she is still highly educated, nearing the end of her PhD – a degree of education that most people don’t attain.

So how does this reflect popular ideas about medieval literature?  Are works like The Miller’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer unapproachable? Is it just for geeky professionals? Is it just someone like Amy Farrah Fowler who would enjoy it?  How should ‘normal’ people react to it?  If the very normal Penny, a socially competent waitress, isn’t interested in Chaucer – does that mean that understanding Chaucer’s works, like understanding very complicated Theoretical Physics, is limited to a select group of professionals at a university?  What is its purpose in the quotidian world?  Why study English Literature, or, the question that infuriates all arts students, what’s the purpose of an arts degree?

By placing Middle English onto the ‘geeky’ side of the dichotomy, represented through Amy Farrah Fowler, the general public are alienated from Chaucer’s work.  The idea that Medieval literature is inaccessible for ‘normal’ people is reflected and communicated through Penny’s reaction to the risqué Miller’s Tale.  I wish that Amy Farrah Fowler didn’t recite The Miller’s Tale so quickly, that it took up more than a minute in a thirty minute show, because many who watch The Big Bang Theory and wouldn’t dream of reading Chaucer might find themselves pleasantly surprised.  Yet the show, which I must admit I love, allies the viewer with Penny.  The laugh track tells the audience who to side with and that Amy Farrah Fowler is to be laughed at.

12 Comments on “The Big Bang Theory and Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale: Representations of the Medieval Period in Popular Media”

  1. scanlon65 says:

    Love this show! Great read, I do wish she had recited the whole thing aswell. Interesting parallels too given that the show often circles around various love triangles.

  2. Great idea for a post!

    “Yet the show, which I must admit I love, allies the viewer with Penny. The laugh track tells the audience who to side with and that Amy Farrah Fowler is to be laughed at”

    I guess so, but the laugh track also tells the audience to laugh at the whole situation and not just one character. Amy and Bernadette clearly appreciate the humor. Penny doesn’t initially understand it so she plays it cool so her friends won’t think she is stupid and that it is they who actually aren’t funny, however, when Amy explains the meaning of “nether yë” with little or no subtlety (as usual!), Penny gets the joke. It’s funny because it actually turned out to be a joke that was so dirty that Penny had to go to the bathroom!

  3. Manny says:

    Actually I disagree with you saying that the show allies the viewers with Penny. Everything and everyone on the show are there to be laughed at, including Penny. And in my opinion the scene was funny because of all three girls. Amy’s unusual sleepover story, Penny’s response, as well as Bernadette’s remark.

    Its been a little while since I have seen that episode but toldebytheweye, if I remember correctly Penny went to the bathroom because the other two girls were asking her uncomfortable questions about Lenard.

  4. Lyd says:

    That door actually leads to the bedroom,the bathroom is off the bedroom and I dont recall them saying she went to the bathroom

  5. TexasGonzo says:

    If you can’t get a simple thing like there being NO LAUGH TRACKS in use on BBT, how can anything you say be taken seriously? Hrm. Its filmed in front of a live audience, for the record, and the laughs are genuine. Needless to say, I’m a fan of the show. Imho, it’s one of the best written, smart, and hilarious shows to come out of Hollyweird in a very long time.
    Anyway, just sayin’, check your facts…..accusing BBT of using them is unacceptable😉

    Peace n laughter yall…..

  6. talthy says:

    Very interesting take on the social interplay on BBT and the use of the laugh track to prod the viewer to identify with the ‘mainstream’ Penny and mock the ‘outsider’ geeky intellectuals.

    Although in general, I think the show tries to make the outcast personas of the guys approachable and understandable to a general audience. We are to laugh at them, but we also grow to laugh with them.

    For example: the episode where they send an internet signal around the world to turn down the volume on the stereo, ‘because they can’. We might laugh at them for doing it, but at the same time we think its pretty damn cool.

  7. I agree with this article. It’s true that from this one episode or rather this clip, it would appear that Amy is the one who should be laughed at for coming up with something so “dusty” as medieval literature. Nevertheless, the BBT has often cast made us laugh at the four male nerds as well for their lack of social. This shows balances it quite well and i have heard Sheldon ramble on theories in physics but i have always been able to make sense of it all. But then, hollywood has always portrayed geeks and nerds as “outcasts” and the Big Bang Theory has made u aware of the fact that these guys are as interesting as the “normal’ population. All we need to do is take more interest in their work and find that sweet spot.

  8. Reblogged this on Danny's Reflections and commented:
    Makes me wonder what people think of me when I paraphrase Shakespeare in normal daily conversations

  9. KKHausman says:

    Multiple students in the combined High School and undergraduate workshops asked for an interpretation after this episode aired. This led to a month-long exploration of linguistic drift over time, which spawned extended sessions examining the impact of linguistic variations over cultural assumptions between European, Asian and Micronesian examples. I believe the writers gave us a tremendous tool for developing opportunities for instruction in this use of early writing of Chaucer, not isolating “nerdy” separation.

    Kalani Kirk Hausman

  10. Carole says:

    I think that episode causes people like me to go read Chaucer.
    I think it’s nice to challenge the viewer with intellect. I for one abhor most lame & degrading American sitcoms. The Big Bang Theory is one of the best on TV today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s