Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Nun's Priest's Tale"

Genre: a beast fable, of the sort best known to us in the collection attributed to the Hellenistic African slave, Aesop. The antagonist in this tale has his own "series" of beast fables, the "Reynard the Fox" tradition, which exists in many manuscripts in both French and English. In effect, he's doing a "guest shot" here, but his character would have been extremely well known to Chaucer's audience and his "modus operandi" as a chicken thief and liar fits the type perfectly.  Take a look at a few of Aesop's fables at the MIT Classics web site and compare them with the Nuns' Priest's version.  What makes this a beast fable for adults, and how does the debate between Chaunticleer the rooster and Pertelote his "wife" parody human attitudes and values?  Would you consider C and P to be "round" or "flat" characters, and what does that do to your feelings and thoughts about this fable?

Form: rhyming couplets.

Source:  Marie de France's "Del cok e del gupil" was probably Chaucer's source, by however many intermediary sources, but the treatment of the tale's epic and romance features, the learned discourse of the birds, and the careful linkage of it to so many other places in the tale cycle all are uniquely Chaucer's.

Characters: the poor but self-sufficient and honest widow (compare the "Friar's Tale"); Chaunticleer, the handsomest, best-educated, and most perceptive rooster yet seen in life or literature; Pertelote, his favorite consort among the hens; a murdered traveler who appears in a dream to his friends in Chaunticleer's inset tale to prove dreams really do foretell the future; the col-fox, a sometime "dinner host" of Chaunticleer's father and mother; the dogs, Colle, Talbot and Gerland; Malkyn the maid-servant.

Summary: The rooster, dreaming of an attack by a large, furry, red animal, is advised by his wife not to worry because a little laxative will put things right.  The rooster, proud of his learning, decisively defeats his wife's argument by citing classical authors, including one author's anecdote about a murdered traveler who, in a dream, tells his companions where his killers have hidden his body.  The rooster, satisfied, has a little "whoopee" with Pertelote and then goes to the barnyard where he encounters the fox.  The fox, asking the rooster to sing so he can experience the rapture of hearing him, nabs the rooster by the throat and is chased by the entire household.  The rooster, thinking quickly, tells the fox that if he were in the fox's position, he should surely turn and shout defiance at the pursuers.  The fox, proud of his success, does so and the rooster flies away into a tree.  The fox tries to trick him again, but the wily bird triumphs.

Interpretive Issues:

1)  Just before this tale begins, the Monk has been telling the travelers an apparently unending series of depressing short anecdotes about the fall of famous men and women.  The Knight interrupts the Monk by asserting that tales of "sodeyn fal" without "solas" are not "gladsom to hear." The Host follows up on this line of reasoning by saying that tragedy ought not to be told as part of a "game" because it annoys the audience. Might there be an important truth here? We commonly treat comedy and tragedy as mere literary genres, but in Greek classical times the great tragedies were thought of as medicinal for the political health of the city. They were performed only on religious festivals in carefully controlled circumstances. Could it be that we harm ourselves by reading such things as Hamlet or the "Monk's Tale" without those controls?

2) The Host also warns all tellers that to tell tales that bring hearers to sleep wastes the teller's time. How about a hunting tale, he asks the burly Monk, but the Monk refuses to "pleye" and says "Now lat another telle, as I have toold" (VII.2806-7). This suggests that the Monk has told the tale he intended to tell, and that he's satisfied with its effect. What was his aim in telling it?

3) The Host's turn to the Nun's Priest uncharacteristically moves from a teller of one estate to another from the same estate (clergy). However, in both instances he asks the clergymen to tell tales of a secular nature, either of "huntyng" or a "myrie" tale rather than something reverent. What does this tell you about the way Harry uses the Church and about the way the Church has positioned itself in Harry's culture?

4)  The Norton Anthology version of this tale omits the Host's bantering address to the Nun's Priest as "Sir John" who rides on a horse "bothe foul and lene," and it also omits the epilogue in which the Host delightedly blesses his testicles [sic!] and speculates that he would have been "a trede-foul aright" [an excellent copulating rooster] had the priest remained "secular."   How does that alter the Norton readers' reception of this tale?

5) The tale, itself, presents a great opportunity to see the life of the peasantry, mostly obscured in the tales. The "povre wydwe" runs a marginal homestead farm that barely supports her and her maid-servant, Malkyn. What other aspects of this household tell you things about the economic realities of late C14 English peasant life? Why might the Nun's Priest pay such close attention to this setting before moving into the beast fable that comprises the bulk of the tale? A simple answer would be that it prepares us for the great chase scene, but remember that the medieval church (and the other tellers' tales) has had some things to say about poverty and wealth.

6) The crowing of Chauntecleer is described as a more sure indicator of the hour "Than is a clokke or an abbey orlogge" (VII2854). The first town clocks in England were constructed at Salisbury (1386) and Wells Cathedral (1390), and they were notoriously inaccurate, suggesting there might be a simple truth behind this praise of the bird's sense of time. How does the narrator explain why Chauntecleer knows what time it is with such accuracy, and how does that link the rooster to the first lines of the "General Prologue"?

7) The hero's appearance is a crucial descriptive element in every romance, as is the portrait of the heroine. With what kind of language does the narrator describe this barnyard pair? Compare it with the description of the Prioress in the "General Prologue."

8) Pertelote's name translates from the French as "one who confuses someone's lot or fate" (RC 937). Does she deserve this name?

9) Medieval dream theory is summarized in RC (937) but in brief they thought dreams might be of several kinds. The most important difference was between the somnium naturale which arose from natural causes and the somnium coeleste sent from heaven to warn and instruct. Which kind of dream does Pertelote think Chauntecleer has had, and which kind does the plot indicate it was? What is the Nun's Priest saying about this rooster?

10) How does Pertelote first treat Chauntecleer's fear about his dream and what effect does this have upon the rooster? Does Pertelote's attitude and rhetoric remind you of any of the pilgrims? Similarly, does the rooster's response with a reading of Cato bring any of our previous tellers to mind?

11) Note that the rooster's Latin is dangerously confused (VII.3163-4, and see #7 above). How might that fit into a "bad readers" group of tales in which people who misinterpret situations (especially because of their pride or folly) come to grief? Especially compare his conclusion with his argument (VII.3170-1).

12) The Nun's Priest's claim for the fable's historical truth clearly is ironic, but which pilgrims' tales is he taking a swipe at (VII.3204-14)?

13) The high-style apostrophes that introduce the fox's arrival are part of the narrator's mock-epic style, a strategy that might easily be compared to Henry Fielding's in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, which he called "comical epics in prose." To what kinds of tales does the narrator compare the fox's betrayal of the rooster, and what does this association make possible for this tale? Remember that medieval readers were not shy about seeking hidden philosophical or religious significance in the world of narrative.

14) The narrator's excursion into the problem of fate and freewill brings us into familiar territory once more, with the Boethian question of God's foreknowledge and human choice. What difference does it make that this story is about a fox and a rooster? More importantly, where have we heard a disclaimer like the one he uses to escape women's blame for his allusion to Eve's blame for the Fall?

"[ . . . ] If I conseil of wommen wolde blame,

Passe overe, for I seyde it in my game.

Rede auctours, where they trete of swich mateere,

And what they seyn of wommen ye may heere.

Thise been the cokkes wordes, and nat myne;

I kan noonharm fo no womman divyne" (VII.3262-66)

15) The fox's quick and soothing voice plays on Chauntecleer's vanity with unerring skill. What does he praise and how does it set up the trap he is about to spring? Note the narrative's shift to anaphora (And...And...And...) to dramatize the actual capture, and to set up the anaphoric apostrophe that follows (VI.3331-7 and 3338-54). Which tales and tellers is this narrative making fun of? The mock epic even compares the hens to Roman senators' wives on the night Nero burned Rome, and Chaunticleer's situation to that of Priam, king of Troy. Does this elevate the rooster or deflate epic and history?

16) The long build-up to the fox's capture of the rooster leaves us little time and little hope for Chaunticleer's escape. How does the rooster's rhetorical strategy mirror the fox's and how does this lead to a "sentence" of extraordinary importance to these Canterbury pilgrims? (See especially the fox's conclusion.)

17) The Epilogue occurs only in nine relatively inferior manuscripts (re: their accuracy and completeness, see RC 941). Why do the editors include them and do you agree? Can you think of any reasons to exclude text attributed to Chaucer for the tales?

Critical Articles:

Emily Jensen. "'Winkers' and 'Janglers': Teller/Listener/Reader Response in the Monk's Tale, the Link, and the  Nun's Priest's Tale." Chaucer Review. 32:2 (1997) 183-95.

            Jensen argues that the Monk's series of seventeen "tragedies" are not haphazardly organized or without defensible significance, despite the Knight's and Host's criticism (and the general neglect of modern critics).

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