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

Genre: Saint's legend.  This extremely popular form usually develops in exactly the same plot structure with strikingly similar characterization.  The saint is recognized as a holy person even when young and uninstructed.  The saint's religious practices are extraordinary for their energetic exertion.  The saint is tested, perhaps by hardship, disease, or friends, but often by heathen or demonic oppressors.  The saint resists, marvelously, and dies singing God's praises.  Miracles often accompany or follow the testing and resistance.   In the sub-set of "Virgin Martyr legends," the saint is usually female, and if she is female, her testing always involves tortures which concentrate upon body parts which typically are eroticized by Medieval male writers when they describe female beauty (breasts, hair, teeth, skin, etc.).  (For more on this aspect of the tale, see #6 below.)

Form: rime royal, seven-line stanzas rhyming ababbccr(This is the same stanza as "MoLT" [Custance] and "PrioressT" [the Miracle of the Virgin] and comparable to "MonkT"'s unique ababbcbc stanza.)

Source: some Latin version of the standard saint's life of Cecelia, of whose actual life few reliable records survive.  The Legenda aurea also may have been a source for the discourse on idleness (VIII.1-28), though as Florence Ridley notes in RC, "such a prologue is conventional" (942).  Click here for an online text of William Caxton's translation of the Legenda aurea (Robert Haslam, Fordham U., Medieval Sourcebook).

Characters: Cecelia, a Roman wife; Valerian, her husband and convert; the angel who guards Cecelia; St. Urban (also Pope, but in hiding in the Roman catacombs because the church is persecuted by Roman law); Tiburce, Valerian's brother and fellow convert; Almachius, the Roman Prefect; Maximus, the officer who served Almachius; various henchmen who boil Cecelia for a day and an evil "tormentour" who is not a good hand with a sword.

Summary: The prologue criticizes Idleness as a great and dangerous sin (i.e., "Sloth"), and justifies the current tale as an attempt to avoid it (a standard authorial pose).  It then invokes Mary (paraphrasing Dante, "Paradiso," 33:1-39) and asks her help so that "I, unworthy sone of Eve" (62) can tell the story.  (2nd Nun as cross-dresser?  Nah, probably not--see RC 943-44 or the Raybin note below for a better solution to this interpretive crux.)  The narrator interprets Cecelia's name according to medieval etymological practices (i.e., it's a rhetorical dance of decoration rather than "scholarly truth"). 

                The hair-shirt-wearing, ever-holy Cecelia, married to Valerian, tells him on their wedding night that had better not betray her virginity because an angel was watching over her to protect it.  Valerian, skeptical, asks for proof and C tells him to seek it from Pope/Saint Urban, who's hiding out in the catacombs.  An angel with crowns of roses and lillies appears to Valerian and he's converted to Christianity.  His brother, Tiburce, follows soon thereafter and becomes "Goddes knyght" (VIII.353).   This attracts the attention of the pagan Roman authorities.  Almachius orders that anyone who won't sacrifice to Jupiter will have his/her head "swapped off."   Maximus and the "tormentoures" (what a job description) efficiently round up the usual suspects, C, V and T.  The guys get axed immediately upon refusing to kneel to the idols, and the sight of their souls being received into heaven by angels converts Maximus on the spot.  Almachius has him beat to death to improve his character, and Maximus' soul goes to heaven.  Almachius is made of sterner pagan stuff than a mere henchman, however, and orders St. Cecelia brought for interrogation, but her "wise loore" converts the messengers (VIII.414).  Almachius, not yet seeing the pattern in these events, interrogates her himself, but she turns the tables by showing him how all his questions are based on folly and are the result of his moral blindness.  Livid with anger, he orders her boiled to death, but she keeps her cool.   He sends a trusty "tormentour" but after three strokes he still can't cut off her head, and a fourth stroke would be strictly illegal (!).  She preaches for three days with her head half-cut-off, and tells Urban that she had asked for three days to convert more souls.  Then she dies and is venerated among the saints.

Interpretive Issues:

1)  The prologue's three-part introduction of the tale constructs the narrator's purposes and authority, as well as the saint's significance, in a formal fashion typical of medieval rhetoric.  Consider the "triptych" as an art form as it would have been familiar to medieval Christians from the decorations of altarpieces.   For the Metropolitan Museum of Art's web page containing images of the Ghent altarpiece by the van Eyck brothers (1432), click here .  The aesthetic of juxtaposition is controlled by assigning each section a moral task or message.  The viewer/reader of the ceremony/tale is expected to assemble and interpret the sections in terms of what they are juxtaposed with.  For instance, on the Ghent altarpiece's closed exterior doors, the angel Gabriel's Annunciation of Jesus' Incarnation to Mary occupies two panels above the images of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Apostle and author of the Book of Revelations (AKA, the Apocalypse).  The relationship is a functional homology of "annunciations": as Gabriel was to Mary, so John the Baptist was to those who were alive to encounter Jesus, and so John the Apostle is to the  rest of humanity who are to encounter Jesus at the time of the Eschaton or Second Coming.   You might even say the mental energies required to assemble meaning from a three-part triptych is a style of reading and interpretation designed to position the reader/interpreter's mind in a meditative space set somewhere among the artifact's multiple messages.  How does the urgency and pathos of the prologue prepare us to read the tale, and how does the tale release those forces?

2)  This tale has a curious combination of comic and pathetic qualities.  How does comedy relate to the narrator's aims in telling the tale?   How does it adjust our sense of what paganism is as an alternative to Christianity?  (See 4 below for a specific case.)

3)  The major source of Cecelia's power is her authoritative use of language.  How does she persuade Valerian and how does Valerian borrow Cecelia's divine rhetoric to persuade Tiburce, his idolatrous brother?  Compare this tale's use of divine manifestations of the speaker's truth with the "Man of Law's Tale."

4)  Almachius is an excellent example of the saint's-life pagan persecutor.  If Warner Brothers had been making cartoons in this era, he'd have been played by Daffy Duck in his blustering, exasperated mode.  Just think of what a hash Cecelia's making of his orderly Roman prefecture!  What role do pagans play in expounding the saint's goodness?  How could you be a saint if it weren't for pagan "tormentours"?  Could this be a plan?

5)  Look carefully at the way Cecelia controls the interrogation by Alimachus (and, earlier, by Valerian).  Why might Chaucer have thought this tale appropriate to a nun?  What kind of thematic "solidarities" or "alliances" might this tale be declaring with other pilgrim tellers?

6)  Chaucer's choice of Cecelia as the subject for his saint's legend may be significant, since the "virgin martyr legends" were a small but very widely reproduced subset of all saints' vitae.  Among other things, the English versions are known for the increased emphasis on the torturers' sadism and on the eroticism associated with both the saint's attractiveness and the tortures' natures.  As you will have noted, Cecelia's legend is almost unique among these virgin martyr legends in that she is married, is not described in erotic terms as the object of her persecutor's attentions, and is not tortured in an explicitly sadistic/erotic fashion.  Like the subjects of some of the other English versions of the VMLs, Chaucer's Cecelia is a talented rhetorician, but unlike them, there is nothing said of her body's beauty, nor is she ever stripped even for the "bath of flambes rede" (515).  Why would Chaucer choose such an atypical subject from such a common set of narratives?  Does it relate to his characterization of the Second Nun, or is it more indicative of his own attitudes toward representations of spirituality, even in the extreme cases of martyrdom.  To investigate further Chaucer's adaptation of the VML for the Canterbury Tales, consult Corey Wronski's senior honors thesis, Sexualized Sainthood: Sex, Eroticism, and the Female Body in Medieval Virgin Martyr Legends and Associated Texts (Goucher College, 2002).  The library contains many of her sources for the other legends, in Middle and Old English, as well as in Modern English translation (but be careful of translations!).   To see an image of the recto or right hand page of a 1522 Parisian Book of Hours with woodblock prints of the VM saints with icons of their tortures, click here.  For the verso or back of the same page, click here.

7)  Given that this tale is followed by the hasty arrival of the Canon and the Canon's Yeoman, what connections might you draw between the two tales?  For a start, the "Second Nun's Tale" presents the triumph of Christian faith in a traditional narrative form, whereas the "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" presents the deception (by a clergyman!) of a faithful Christian in a disruptive, innovative narrative form.  Can this give us clues to Chaucer-the-poet's evolving literary aesthetics?

Critical Articles:

Raybin, David.  "Chaucer's Creation and Recreation of the Lyf of Seynt Cecile."  Chaucer Review.  32:2 (1997)196-212.

.             Since Chaucer almost certainly began this tale as an independent devotional exercise, Raybin describes it as having been twice translated, first into the sacredly dedicated English of its independent form, and then into the secular frame of the Canterbury Tales.  He contrasts the sacred purity of Cecelia's effortless defeat of Alimachus with the sweaty, failed attempt by the Canon and his yeoman to purify base elements into gold.  The former represents a pure but difficult path open only to those who can become "death walkers" to seek God, whereas the latter is the low road, which leads to the Parson's sermon on the necessity for penance and self-knowledge.  This useful article touches on the "Man of Law's Tale" and "Clerk's Tale," those secular saint's lives, as well as the countless other women characters whose struggles for power and virtue mostly meet with considerably less success than Cecelia's, if one can call "a cool Cecile preaching semi-decapitated and 'half deed'" successful (207).  As Raybin also points out, "To live as a saint is not what we normally think of as being alive" (204).  This paradox, he says, is explored in the juxtaposition of this saint's life with the rest of the tale cycle.

Political Appropriations of Religious Images--Richard II and the Wilton diptych:

        If you're interested in visual iconography in medieval culture, you can follow the exploration of the "triptych" structure above with further investigations of these multi-part objects of art.  Some fuse political and religious messages in interesting ways which might help you read Chaucer's tales when they appear to be doing the same thing.  Some time during his reign (1377-99), while Chaucer was composing the Canterbury Tales, King Richard II commissioned a diptych devotional painting showing himself being presented by John the Baptist, Saint Edmund, and Saint Edward the Confessor, to the Virgin and Child in Heaven surrounded by angels.  Look carefully at Richard's and the angels' dress for the white hart, the personal badge identifying Richard's royal guard.  To see this image, click here.   What kind of relationship do these visual images attempt to construct, and what is its political message?  While Richard was known as a somewhat unusually egotistical king, he is not alone in using the visual vocabulary of the saints to mediate messages to his political followers.  To see the "Donne Triptych," commissioned from Hans Memling by Sir John Donne around 1475, click here.  (This Donne is not the poet!)

Web-Based Scholarly Materials:

Click here to visit the Monastic Matrix, a scholarly web site on Medieval women's religious communities that was begun at the Yale Divinity School but has since moved out into a genuinely "virtual" community of scholars. 

Cynthia Ho, Amelia Washburn, and Tim Gauthier of University of Wisconsin offer more links to online sources for studying Medieval women at this web site.


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