Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


Chaucer and the Early Church

Melanie L. Kaiser and James M. Dean

The status of Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales is often considered ambiguous or tenuous. Most readers have received it as the finest example of a saint’s life in Middle English, but some regard the story, which pre-dates the Canterbury Tales, as ill-suited to the Canterbury collection. Derek Brewer, for example, has characterized the tale as “indeed not subtly composed” and observes, “The reference in the Retraction at the end of The Canterbury Tales to his writing of the lives of saints as being to his credit makes one suspect that he wrote this poem for the good of his soul. So we must forgive the lack of artistry and pass on” (Introduction 234).1 Readers have commented that the tale of St. Cecilia differs from most other stories in the Canterbury Tales, although in other respects it is a conventional—and successful—example of the saint’s life genre. Chaucer’s legend of Cecilia is very much a translation (sometimes virtually word for word from Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea and from a Franciscan abridgement of that, the Passio S. Caeciliae),2 but in his translation Chaucer highlights the spiritual, transcendent qualities of the saint. Sherry Reames, the authority on the sources of the Second Nun’s Tale, explains Chaucer’s procedure in this way:

When Jacobus retold the Cecilia legend, around the middle of the thirteenth century, he radically altered its implications by emphasizing supernatural power at the expense of human understanding and choice; when Chaucer retold it, a century later, he went even further than Jacobus in eliminating the material which in the Passio had affirmed the value of human nature and earthly experience. (“Cecilia Legend” 39). Our question is why Chaucer included this story in his tale collection. In this essay we wish to explore the uses of the Second Nun’s Tale, especially in relation to the Canterbury Tales anthology, through an investigation of the early church as it appears in the Nun’s story. Our argument is that the Second Nun’s Tale, while offering a nostalgic view of the early church as unified, simple, and clear in its purpose, presents a critique of Chaucer’s contemporary church, which was literally double and complex in its policies and objectives. St. Cecilia may be admirable and eloquent in her unswerving faith and conversions of husband and fellow Romans, but she represents an impossible model for Chaucer’s modern-day Christians, including most of the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury.

By emphasizing the Chaucer who includes a tale such as the Second Nun’s Tale in his anthology of stories, we do not mean to characterize the poet as “the religious, almost puritanical Chaucer” whom Charles Muscatine identifies as “an essentially new element in the Chaucer tradition” (250). The Chaucer we envisage here might regard this tale as valuable for its religious elements, for its depiction of a valiant woman who challenges the Roman authorities, and for its thematic issues. He might have instructed his scribe to make room for it in his Canterbury book, perhaps near the Parson’s Prologue and Tale;3 but this is not to say that this Chaucer was particularly zealous in his religious or spiritual convictions. Evidence from the Canterbury Tales—the pilgrimage framework, the religious pilgrims (dubious though most of them are), and the religious tales—suggests more than a passing interest in clerical issues, especially as these impact his storytelling. We agree with David Raybin’s characterization of the Canterbury book as essentially “profane” rather than spiritual, but we also think that the religious and spiritual tales enrich the profane (or secular) collection and deepen the narrative art. Chaucer seems to have been equally at home composing spiritual stanzas (the ABC to the Virgin, Truth, Gentilesse, and the ending of Troilus) and secular jeux d’esprit (the lenvoys to Scogan and Bukton, or the Complaints of Venus or Mars or To Rosemounde). There is an insistent, though muted, presence of religious themes in Chaucer’s oeuvre.

Although Chaucer does not dwell on historical particularities of the early church in his legend of St. Cecilia, he manages to convey, with the help of his sources, a sense of an embattled era for Christianity and for Christians, but also a time of triumph and growth for the undeveloped church. We hear about the catacombs, the Via Appia (mentioned both in the Legenda aurea and the Franciscan abridgement),4 and the necessity for secrecy. Almachius the Roman prefect demands that Cecilia and her fellow Christians worship the “ymage of Juppiter” (SNT 364; 413), and he threatens them with men skilled in torture, “tormentours” (373, 376). Cecilia sends her husband Valerian to Pope Urban I, who lurks among the burial sites, fearful of the Roman authorities. As John McCall has stated the case, “The Roman setting of Cecilia’s story has both specificity and historicity” (109), although Piero Boitani disagrees and characterizes tales such as the Second Nun’s Tale as “entirely romantic and fabulous in nature.” “The Canterbury Tales,” Boitani adds, “do not have a historical, geographical, cultural and political centre like the Florence of the Decameron . . . it belongs to a trans-temporal and trans-spatial plane, the plane of stories, of fabulae, not that of historia” (253). While Boitani makes a good point about historical inaccuracies and the “romantic” style and content of tales like the Second Nun’s Tale and the Man of Law’s Tale, the intent of the legend of Cecilia, both in the sources and in Chaucer’s adaptation, seems to be to highlight the remote Christian past and the era of early martyrs and to allow the tale, in effect, to comment on the historical present as represented in and through the pilgrims and their tales. This highlighting includes not only Cecilia (historical dates uncertain) but also Pope St. Urban I (reigned 222-30), and features contrasting Chaucer’s time with that earlier era. The Second Nun’s retelling of the legend of St. Cecilia portrays the epoch of the early church as a time of rapid expansion, of miracles, and of simple faith.

If a number of the pilgrims’ stories seem marginal or even contrary to the pilgrimage mission, especially as defined in the Parson’s Prologue, the Second Nun’s Tale on its surface addresses the purpose of the Canterbury journey. Pilgrimages concern penance and conversion, and the Second Nun’s Tale illustrates changes of heart and conversion in the earliest Christian times. Derek Pearsall explains how the Second Nun’s Tale “is specifically described as a form of penitential exercise, in a manner reminiscent, if it is reminiscent of anything in Chaucer, of the close of the Parson’s Tale” (Canterbury Tales 252). Talk of the motive for pilgrimage emerges most strongly in the opening lines of the General Prologue and in the Parson’s remarks about his own storytelling in the Parson’s Prologue. The Pardoner seems to allude to a related concept, the voyage of life, when the mysterious old man points out the way to the three rioters: “Now sires . . . if that yow be so leef / To fynde Deeth, turne up this croked wey” (PardT 760-61). The three rioters eagerly head off on their crooked path to find the gold that leads to their deaths. This restatement of the journey motif seems to occur about at the midpoint of the Canterbury Tales in almost all the tale-order schemes.5

We acknowledge the problems of even suggesting there are possible orders for the Canterbury collection, but it makes sense to us that the Pardoner’s Tale, and the reconceptualizing of the pilgrimage embedded in it, should appear about midway en route. The position of the Second Nun’s Tale is especially problematic because, broadly speaking, it appears in two quite different locations in the order of storytelling: before fragment VI (Physicians-Pardoner) for many manuscripts of the types b, c, and d—hence in the middle of the stories—or after fragments VI and VII in the type a manuscripts, hence toward the end. Helen Cooper assesses the two positions of fragment VIII, determining that its location just before fragment VI in the pre-Ellesmere ordering might suggest a central placement for the tale (Canterbury Tales 364); but even if Chaucer did not intend the Second Nun’s Tale as part of a closing sequence of stories (Second Nun-Canon’s Yeoman-Manciple-Parson-Retraction), the tale’s issues speak with considerable immediacy to Canterbury themes generally and to closure themes particularly, especially concerning issues of saintly attributes, transformation (as conversion), and penance. If penitence and pilgrimage make an appearance at the conclusion of the Canterbury Tales, the Second Nun’s Tale itself concludes with Urban’s establishment of a church and monument in Cecilia’s honor:

Seint Urban with his deknes prively
The body fette and buryed it by nyghte
Among his othere seintes honestly.
Hir hous the chirche of Seint Cecilie highte;
Seint Urban halwed it, as he wel myghte;
In which, into this day, in noble wyse,
Men doon to Crist and to his seint servyse. (547-53)
Urban’s action and the language he uses to characterize it speak to the motive for pilgrimage and especially to the goal of the Canterbury pilgrimage: the hallowed shrine of St. Thomas Becket in the cathedral at Canterbury. In the fictional tale, as the Second Nun relates it, folk still honor Cecilia’s resting place.6 It could be regarded as one of those “ferne halwes” mentioned in the opening lines of the General Prologue (14). Thus, the Second Nun’s Tale serves as a reminder of the common goal—the holy site—of each pilgrim storyteller and provides an antidote to the pilgrim Pardoner, who embodies the “croked wey” he outlines in his exemplary fable of greed.

St. Cecilia is more than just the main character of this Middle English saint’s life; she is also a personified representation of the early church, but not in an allegorical manner like Prudence of the Melibeus. She is, in a sense, an emblem of the church triumphant, the institution that conquers its adversaries through conversion.7 The church generally has a humble, ostensibly powerless aspect to it, but the lowly Cecilia defies and ultimately triumphs over the proud Roman Empire.

Cecilia’s marital situation affords an opportunity to review marriages portrayed in other Canterbury stories, although we do not believe Chaucer composed the story for that specific purpose. Rather, we agree with David Raybin’s statement that “Somewhat paradoxically . . . the effect of incorporating the Second Nun's Tale in marriage is not so much to foreground a virginal model for all spiritually minded contemporary women to follow as it is to emphasize how rare, connubially impractical, and generally unworldly real-life saintly behavior actually is” (201). Cecilia, unlike the lowborn Griselde of the Clerk’s Tale, is “of noble kynde” (SNT 121, 425), and expectations are that she will enter into a fruitful marriage with a worthy counterpart. On their wedding night, however, Cecilia quickly puts her new husband, Valerian, on notice that their marriage will not match his likely expectations. The narrator sets the scene in a way that would be appropriate for a profane story: “The nyght cam, and to bedde moste she gon / With hire housbonde, as ofte is the manere” (141-42). The language would be appropriate in a fable such as Chaucer’s legend of Hypermnestra in the Legend of Good Women: “The frendes taken leve, and hom they wende; / The nyght is com, the bryd shal go to bedde” (2621-22).8 Cecilia, though, wears a hair shirt (like Thomas Becket) and has a guardian angel watching over her. She explains to Valerian that if he so much as touches her, the angel will slay him (152-57). One can only imagine how the Wife’s husbands or Januarie of the Merchant’s Tale might respond to such a warning, but the Wife’s husbands have being in much different narrative fictions.9 Valerian replies that he wants to see this angel for himself, and he will slay Cecilia if she has another lover.

Valerian’s receptivity to this supernatural being and his conversion to the new religion occur naturally and as a matter of course in this saint’s life. In the Knight’s Tale, Emelye petitions Diana to remain a virgin, but a trinity of pagan deities overrule her prayers. If anything, Emelye has less control over her fate than Palamon and Arcite have over theirs. Griselde may have saintly qualities of patience and forbearance, but one would have to engage in special pleading to argue that she is in charge of her marriage or her domestic destiny. Cecilia in fact resembles none of the other wives in the Canterbury Tales with the possible exception of Melibeus’s wife Prudence, who lectures her husband on several subjects, including the interpretation and uses of advice and the importance of patience and seeking reconciliation rather than war. Prudence, though, for her undoubted allegorical qualities, operates within the conventions of medieval wifehood; like a scholastic philosopher she marshals precedence for her conversations with her vengeance-seeking husband. Cecilia deals in absolute truth as defined within the conventions of the saint life’s genre. When the “oold man, clad in white clothes cleere” (201) shows Valerian his book with words about the one true God and asks whether Valerian believes what he reads, the new, sudden Christian replies, “I leeve al this thyng . . . / For sother thyng than this, I dar wel say, / Under the hevene no wight thynke may” (213-15). The text that convinces Valerian of the truth is quoted, apparently in full; yet that text contains the simplest articles of faith: there is one God, one faith, and “O Cristendom” (208).

The sources, for the most part, parallel the language of Chaucer’s rhyme royal stanza for the old man’s text; our point is that someone—Jacobus de Voragine or Chaucer (or both)—imagines the confrontation between a third-century pagan and the articles of Christianity. The old man’s language is simple and direct, but to a pagan accustomed to a multiplicity of gods the words of the text might be stunning in its economy: “Unus dominus, una fides, unum baptisma; unus deus et pater omnium, qui super omnes et per omnia et in omnibus nobis” (One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in us all; Legenda aurea 507, trans. Reames).10 One can see the impulse toward straightforwardness in later medieval literature such as Piers the Plowman’s Crede or Langland’s Piers Plowman.

The Second Nun’s Tale fails to envision what is amply illustrated in and through the Canterbury framework and its stories: a church that in significant ways has betrayed its humble, faithful, and unified beginnings. During the time of the early church, as portrayed in the Second Nun’s Tale, people convert in only one direction: to the new Christian religion. There is no hint of apostasy from Christianity even as former pagans line up to convert to the religion of Urban and Cecilia. Shortly after Cecilia converts her husband, she converts Valerian’s brother Tiburce as well. The transformation occurs because of “truth.” The mysteries of the Christian religion bring about a miraculous change in those exposed to them, or who let themselves be exposed to them since not everyone accepts the truth. Valerian begins to change from within when he confronts the old man and reads his text, which he instantly recognizes as the truth.11 Soon an angel appears with crowns of roses and lilies originating “Fro paradys” (227). When Tiburce then visits his brother, his transformation begins with the flowery odor, but it brings an experience that Tiburce has never before encountered. “The sweete smel,” he says, “that in myn herte I fynde / Hath chaunged me al in another kynde” (251-52). He locates the smell in his heart, and he seems to undergo a profound alteration of his state of being.

The appearance of the angel bearing crowns of roses and lilies to Valerian and Tiburce represents an unusual moment in Chaucer’s writings, one of divine (Christian) intervention into the story. There is something close to divine intervention at the close of the Prioress’s Tale when the abbot plucks away the grain of wheat from the child’s tongue and the little Christian martyr—mirabile dictum—sings his O Alma redemptoris mater despite a throat slashed to the neck bone. In his tale of Custance, the Man of Law asks a rhetorical question about who preserved Custance on the wide, hostile ocean. The answer is “God” (MLT 476) or “Crist, sanz faille” (501), but the Lawyer is careful to situate the preserving agent not in some supernatural apparition but in Custance’s virtue and her exemplary life: “God liste to shewe his wonderful myracle / In hire, for we sholde seen his myghty werkis” (477-78). We work backwards, that is, from the mysterious salvation to the saving force. We can infer that Christian providence spirits Troilus to the eighth sphere, but his ultimate destination will be determined, in the story’s fiction, by “Mercurye,” the classical psychopomp (TC 5.1827).

In other writings Chaucer depicts divine intervention in human affairs but this intervention is portrayed through pagan forces (the classical gods). In the Knight’s Tale, the narrator takes us right into the classical, or perhaps the classical-Christian,12 heaven as Saturn determines the fates of Palamon, Arcite, and Emelye. We hear his speech (KnT 2453-78), and we understand, as the Grecian knights do not, that Arcite’s death occurs through divine intervention, although we do not witness that intervention on the Athenian battlefield. In the Merchant’s Tale the intervention occurs through the archetypal forces represented by Pluto and Proserpina, surrogates for Januarie and May. They appear as characters in the fabliau-like story, and we witness how Pluto restores Januarie’s eyesight and how Proserpina provides May with a sufficient answer. We understand, though, in both the Knight’s Tale and the Merchant’s Tale that this intervention has metaphoric value in ways that the angel’s appearance in the Second Nun’s Tale does not. The angel on some level is Christian truth; he is not a metaphor, he is the thing itself (in the fiction of the story). We are not saying that Chaucer as storytelling translator is making a special point about truth, but the story does make that claim.

When Tiburce experiences the odor and the angel, he wonders whether he is in a dream, to which Valerian replies, “In dremes . . . han we be / Unto this tyme, brother myn, ywis. / But now at erst in trouthe oure dwellyng is” (SNT 262-64). This is a new life, a new mode of living in which one’s highest aspirations could involve, as the angel puts it to Valerian, “the palm of martirdom,” which will usher him into Christ’s “blisful feste” (240-41). When Valerian explains that the idols the brothers have worshipped are worthless and “deve” (286), unheeding stones, Tiburce instantly recognizes the truth of his brother’s lecture. In this tale there is Christian truth (“trouthe”) and there is pagan error; there are no shadings. Christians may be forced to lurk in the darkness of the catacombs or in enclosed chambers, where they exchange the secrets of their new religion; but their existence otherwise is illumined by the “brightness” or “clearness” of their spiritual experiences. They have been recruited into a new kind of army. As Cecilia says to Valerian and Tiburce at their christening: “Now, Cristes owene knyghtes leeve and deere, / Cast alle awey the werkes of derknesse, / And armeth yow in armure of brightnesse” (383-85). This “armor” for the new Christian knights is, of course, Paul’s “armor of Christ” in his epistle to the Romans.13 The two new soldiers for Christ go to their deaths gladly and without fanfare.

It is not surprising to find biblical language in a saint’s life; that is more the norm than the exception. But the discourse of conversion in the Second Nun’s Tale and its sources seems to derive immediately from Romans 13:

And we knowen this tyme, that the our is now, that we rise fro sleep; for now oure heelthe is neer, than whanne we bileueden. The nyght wente bifore, but the dai hath neighed. Therfor caste we awei the werkis of derknessis, and be we clothid in the armeris of light. As in dai wandre we onestli, not in superflu feestis and drunkenessis, not in beddis and vnchastitees, not in strijf and in enuye; but be ye clothid in the Lord Jhesu Crist, and do ye not the bisynesse of fleisch in desiris. (Wycliffite Bible 11-14)14 Romans 13 seems to be a governing text for the original composition of the saint’s legend that became Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale. Here we note the themes, expressed in imagistic phrases, of spiritual alertness rather than pagan sleep or earthly dreams; the “dai” of Christian truth rather than the “werkes of derknessis”; Christian good works rather than pagan “superflu feestis and drunkenessis”; and Christian virtues such as chastity rather than human “bisynesse of fleisch in desiris.” The Christians of the early church may endure the torments of the city of man, but they are poised to enter the new life as full citizens of the city of God and the celestial Jerusalem.

Valerian and Tiburce are by no means Cecilia’s only converts. Perhaps her most notable conversion occurs with the pagan Maximus, Almachius, the agent of the Roman prefect, and the executioners. Almachius charges Maximus with bringing the Christians before the idols; those who refuse to worship will be executed immediately. But Maximus weeps for pity when he hears the Christians’ preaching, and he arranges to bring them and the executioners to his house. The preaching is so successful that they convert “the tormentours,” Maximus, and Maximus’s “folk echone” (375-78). When Almachius martyrs the brothers, Valerian and Tiburce, Maximus enjoys the special vision of their souls gliding “to hevene” (402). For his pains, Almachius martyrs Maximus with a “whippe of leed” (406). One would think this savage punishment would give others pause, but when Almachius sends his “ministres” to bring Cecilia into the court, the ministers too succumb to Cecilia’s lethal persuasiveness. These ministers, at their peril, cry out:

Crist, Goddes Sone, withouten difference,
Is verray God—this is al oure sentence—
That hath so good a servant hym to serve.
This with o voys we trowen, thogh we sterve! (417-20)
We do not learn what happens to these ministers, although we can suppose that they suffer the same fate as the executioners. Cecilia converts almost everyone she comes into contact with and sends most of them to martyrdom, with the notable exception of Almachius, whose heart seems to be hardened against the truth-expounding saint. His staunch resistance to Cecilia’s truth-speaking—the truth that other characters in the story perceive and respond to—sets up the dramatic confrontation between Cecilia and Almachius in the court.

If Cecilia seems to have being on a spiritual plane, utterly without fear of physical punishments in the material world, Almachius by contrast inhabits and in some way embodies that material world. He is a representative of the early church’s chief antagonist, the Roman Empire. Almachius is arrogant, self-willed, violent, vengeful, superstitious and, in context of the miracles occurring all around him, irrational and foolish. When he finally succeeds in bringing Cecilia into his court, she quickly rebukes him for his thoughtlessness and ignorance. He asks her if she realizes his power in the court: “Ne takestow noon heede / Of my power?” (435-36). He also threatens punishment unless Cecilia and her followers renounce this new religion:

Wostow nat how oure myghty princes free
Han thus comanded and maad ordinaunce
That every Cristen wight shal han penaunce
But if that he his Cristendom withseye,
And goon al quit, if he wole it reneye? (444-48)
Cecilia clearly has no anxieties that she or her fellow Christians will “withseye” or “reneye” their Christian faith. The only “penaunce” she worries about is the penance involved in contrition and satisfaction, resulting in the tears and sincere dedication of the early Christians to their new religion.

The character of Pope Urban is drawn in such a way as to highlight Cecilia and her efficient “bisynesse” (SNT 5, 24). Like the other Christians in the tale, he is an important part of the close-knit community that worships the Judaeo-Christian God at their peril. Urban, however, is less a religious than a spiritual figure.15 He does not involve himself with politics or challenge Almachius and the Roman state religion but instead ministers to the beleaguered Christian community. He offers no religious program but provides another marker, like the angel, of spiritual truth and the spiritual economy of the city of God. He lurks in and around the catacombs as a spiritual guide for the oppressed; Valerian finds him “Among the seintes buryeles lotynge” (186). When Cecilia sends Valerian to him, he sheds tears of joy, praises God for Valerian’s decision, and then melts away, whereupon the old man appears, seeming to take his place: “And with that word anon ther gan appeere / An oold man, clad in white clothes cleere, / That hadde a book with lettre of gold in honde, / And gan bifore Valerian to stonde” (200-03).

When Valerian suggests to Tiburce that he will take him to Urban, Tiburce responds scornfully, “Ne menestow nat Urban . . . / That is so often dampned to be deed, / And woneth in halkes alwey to and fro, / And dar nat ones putte forth his heed?” (309-12). Urban makes cameo appearances at Tiburce’s conversion and at Cecilia’s death, when she consigns her worldly effects to him. If Urban seems to be a weak (though not ineffective) character, Cecilia is mentally strong, rhetorically efficacious, confident: a custodian of the truth. She possesses, in contrast to the unwise Almachius, “an inner authority” (Ganim 54). John Ganim notes that in Chaucer’s “serious and religious tales,” such as the Man of Law’s Tale and the Second Nun’s Tale, “the ideal, fixed, religious interpretation is represented by the female protagonist” (54; Pearsall, Life 265). Almachius believes he embodies official culture and power, but his world, unbeknownst to him, is fading before the onset of Christianity, spearheaded, so to speak, by the apparently lowly Cecilia. These events—Cecilia’s squaring off against Almachius—constitute history interpreted from the long view.

In the world of St. Cecilia, there is no apostasy. Neither Chaucer as author nor the Second Nun as storyteller show backsliding or wavering in the faith in the way they relate the story. It does not have to be this way in the genre of saint’s life, however. Events are portrayed differently in another Chaucerian rhyme royal saint’s life: the legend of Custance from the Man of Law’s Tale. The Roman emperor determines to wed his daughter, Custance, a secular saint, to the sultan of Syria, who agrees to convert to Christianity for purposes of sealing the marriage. There are considerable difficulties posed by the marriage involving Islam, but the pope and ambassadors find ways around these provided the sultan and his colleagues become Christians. The Man of Law describes the mass conversions in a single stanza (MLT 239-45). In the Man of Law’s Tale the equivalent of Almachius is the sultan’s mother, described in highly rhetorical terms as “welle of vices” (323), “roote of iniquitee” (358), and “Virago . . . Semyrame the secounde” (359). She is implacable in her opposition to Christianity but also steadfast in her devotion to Islam. She gathers around her those especially loyal to her and enlists their aid in a plot to sabotage her son’s marriage to the Christian. Her plan is to feign conversion to Christianity but then rise up and slaughter the Christians. She treacherously appeals to her henchmen:

We shul first feyne us cristendom to take—
Coold water shal nat greve us but a lite!—
And I shal swich a feeste and revel make
That, as I trowe, I shal the Sowdan quite.
For though his wyf be cristned never so white,
She shal have nede to wasshe awey the rede,
Thogh she a font-ful water with hire lede. (351-57)
The mother’s allegiance to Islam overwhelms any maternal feelings she might have for her son, who is at best an afterthought in her deliberations; she will pay back her son for his betrayal of Islamic religion and culture. She slays the newly christened cohort, including the sultan himself, sparing only Custance.

The historical period of these dark deeds is the time shortly after the Anglo-Saxon invasions, when many Britons, along with their “Cristyanytee” (MLT 544), fled to Wales; somewhat anachronistically, the era of the tale is also well after the establishment of Islam. In another sense, it seems utterly distinct from the time of the early church in the Second Nun’s Tale. It is true that the sultan’s mother and her adherents never sincerely convert to Christianity; they take up superficial practices of Christianity, aspects that the mother scornfully alludes to when she says, referring to baptism, “Coold water shal nat greve us but a lite!” These new Christians adopt the guise of Christianity only as cover for their revenge on the Syrian Christians in their midst, including the sultan. The mother indicates that part of her motivation for feigned conversion concerns her desire to rule. So although the mother’s apostasy is not a true relapse, this kind of complexity and problems for Christianity does not intrude into the fiction of the Second Nun’s Tale, whose underlying narrative highlights the triumph of Christian martyrs and the inexorable progress of the church from its humble, unified beginnings. Cecilia and her martyrs present the second or third generation of those engaged in the apostolic life, when the Christian mission’s arena shifted from the near east to Rome and western Europe.

We need to return to an important point about the “history” depicted in the Second Nun’s Tale and the Man of Law’s Tale. Chaucer relied on the historical details presented in his sources (the Legenda aurea for the Second Nun’s Tale and Nicholas Trivet’s Anglo-Norman Chronicle for the Man of Law’s Tale). He probably knew little about the details of Rome of late antiquity or Damascus of the Umayyad caliphate. But Chaucer the storyteller would doubtless have appreciated the opportunity afforded by these tales to diversify his collection while relating tales of “storial thyng16 that toucheth gentilesse, / And eek moralitee and hoolynesse” (MilT 3179-80), as the pilgrim Chaucer says in his apology for the “churlish” narrator of the Miller’s Tale. The Second Nun’s Tale offers a late medieval impression of the early church, rather than an accurate portrayal of the actions and events of the time. Nor is the represented action possible as a blueprint for modern conduct, any more than the legend of Grisilde offers a pattern for modern wives; it is instead a statement about unwavering faith in an era of martyrs, an account that constitutes a tacit rebuke to Chaucer’s own time.

The inclusion of the Second Nun’s Tale into the Canterbury anthology subtly influences what David Raybin has usefully called “the profane context” (196). This context emphasizes the storytelling contest, the “roadside realism” of one pilgrim “quiting” another, the leadership of Harry Bailly, who usually advocates “mirth” over “morality,” and the romances and fables of the Knight, Miller, Reeve, Cook, Wife, Friar, Summoner, Merchant, Squire, Franklin, Physician, Shipman, Monk, Chaucer (Thopas), Nun’s Priest, Canon’s Yeoman, and Manciple. If that is an accurate gauge of the “mirthful” tale-tellers, then there remain only the Man of Law, Clerk, Pardoner, Prioress, Chaucer (Melibee), Second Nun, and Parson to carry the burden of “hoolynesse,” and it could be argued that the Clerk’s Tale is not a moral tale while the Parson’s Tale is a treatise and not a Canterbury story at all. The Pardoner, who tells a moral story, is, as he says of himself, “a ful vicious man” (PardT 459). The Second Nun’s Tale is, in this company, one of the most “spiritual” or “religious” tales, along with the controversial Parson’s Tale or prose treatise. The Man of Law’s Tale and the Clerk’s Tale concern “secular saints” and married women, although both protagonists act in exemplary manners; and the Prioress’s Tale raises ethical issues of Christian revenge against Jews for the murder of the “litel clergeon.” So the Second Nun’s Tale, which does not present these problems or issues, is distinguished even from its closest counterparts in the Canterbury book.

If the Second Nun’s Tale differs from most stories in the Canterbury Tales, it also manages to engage significant themes central to the book. We do not allege that Chaucer composed the story of Cecilia for this purpose or that the tale formally raises and answers topics in the Canterbury anthology, a claim that has sometimes been made for the Parson’s Tale; our point is that it makes sense that Chaucer would have included his previously translated Lyf of Seint Cecile in the Canterbury Tales because of its themes and characters. Howard long ago noted the relevance of Cecilia’s chaste marriage with Valerian to the so-called “debate on marriage” (“Conclusion”). But the tale of St. Cecilia also raises issues of the fourteenth-century church versus the ancient church. The primitive church, as presented in the Second Nun’s Tale, was unified and simple in its religious dedication. The speaker of the Second Nun’s Prologue, who presents herself as the “unworthy sone of Eve” (62),17 explains her relation to the Christian faith as devout, pious, and uncomplicated because of her fervent commitment to Mary and Mary’s son. The Second Nun, who is nowhere described or individuated in the General Prologue, in her own Prologue, or in linking material, manifests that simplicity of outlook and attitude characteristic of saints in hagiographical literature. Indeed, she resembles Custance, Grisilde, Prudence, the “litel clergeon” of the Prioress’s Tale, or Cecilia herself from Chaucer’s story collection, although the resemblance is only in how they speak, since the only thing we know about the Second Nun is that she is chaplain to the Prioress and that she accompanies the Prioress and the Nun’s Priest on the pilgrimage. But the Canterbury pilgrims, including the Second Nun, exist in a less devout, less unified age than that of Cecilia. The pilgrims may be on their own spiritual paths—their journeys to the “Jerusalem celestial” (ParsT 51)—but some of them know perhaps too much about “wandrynge by the weye” (GP 467) or about vending false relics.

The fourteenth-century church wrestled with problems unimagined in earlier times, when so many people were pagans or followers of other religions. The chief problems of the fourteenth-century church were, first, the removal of the papacy to Avignon, France, and its close association with the French crown (1309-1377); second, the dual papacy of the “western” or “Great Schism” (from 1378-1417).18 In the early 1390s when Chaucer might have been pondering the inclusion of the Lyf of Seint Cecile in the Canterbury Tales, there were two popes: Boniface IX in Rome (reigned 1389-1404), and the antipope in Avignon, Clement VII (Robert of Geneva, reigned 1378-1394).19 Those two popes, Boniface and Clement, excommunicated one another. According to the continuation of Ranulph Higden’s Polychronicon, they impeached one another as “schismatici ac excommunicati et haeretici, cum quibus participare et tractare non licet” (schismatics and excommunicants and heretics, with whom it is illegal to deal or to negotiate).20 Adam Usk, the Welsh priest who continued Higden’s Polychronicon, deplores the divided papacy in his Latin chronicle:

Two popes for twenty-two years. Something which it pains me to relate is that these days, and for twenty-two years now, two popes, like a monstrosity of nature, have most horribly rent in two the seamless robe of Christ, contrary to the book of Wisdom, which says, “My dove is but one,” and thereby throwing the world into an utter confusion of souls led astray and bodies racked with all sorts of torment. (117)21

Chaucer never addresses these clerical issues directly in any of his writings, but his fellow author and friend, John Gower, constructed his Prologue to Confessio amantis (1390-93) around the concept of division and how divisiveness has wreaked havoc on the church and Christians generally. Gower traces divisiveness to an in-dwelling condition of man after the fall from paradise, but he finds disunity especially in the divided papacy:

At Avynoun (Avignon) th’ experience
Therof hath gove an evidence
Of that men sen hem so divided.
And yit the cause is noght decided.
Bot it is seid and evere schal,
Betwen tuo stoles lyth the fal
Whan that men wenen best to sitte.
In holy cherche of such a slitte (schism)
Is for to rewe unto ous alle;
God grante it mote wel befalle
Towardes him whiche hath the trowthe. (Prologue 331-41)
Gower does not identify which pope should be obeyed—which one “has the truth”—stating only that everyone must regret the divided papacy. He speaks of how Christ himself said that people should not draw the papacy into the realm of politics, “after th’ affeccioun / Of sondry londes al aboute” (366-67), because the result is turmoil and corruption, which is what Gower claims to see all around in England and the wider world. Gower interprets the great schism as symptomatic of the human condition but nonetheless a hindrance to man’s chances for salvation. The Lollards condemn the power of the institution they call “the bishope of Rome.” They contrast “simple” and “poor” men—the Lollards—to the great churchmen, whom they regard as arrogant and illegitimate. The document known as Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards (1395), for example, begins: “We pore men, tresoreris of Cryst and his apostlis, denuncyn to the lordis and the comunys of the parlement certeyn conclusionis and treuthis for the reformaciun of holy chirche of Yngelond” (24). The second conclusion states that the current priesthood is not the institution that Christ originally established with the apostles. With this document, which they allegedly nailed to the doors of Westminster Hall and St. Paul’s cathedral, the Lollards claim that the “bisschopis pleye with the Holi Gost in makyng of here ordris, for thei yeuen crownis in caracteris in stede of whyte hartys, and that is the leueree of antecryst brout into holy chirche to colour [disguise] ydilnesse” (25).

Chaucer does not write about history or historical events in the broad-brush way that Gower or the chronicle writers employ. He depicts history through individuals and individual actions: through legends of good women in history, through an idealistic young Trojan whose love turns to personal tragedy, through a young Roman maiden who refuses to give in to a corrupt magistrate, or through a virgin who maintains her virginity and triumphs over the Roman prefect. Chaucer represents the modern church through the Summoner’s quarrels with the Friar or through the Pardoner’s demonstration of his greed, a greed that achieves a climax when he calls upon Harry Bailly to be the first to offer a groat to “kisse the relikes everychon” (PardT 944). He does share with Gower the concern over “an increasingly secularized and impersonal church” that is preoccupied with political matters (Johnson 319).

Through presenting a saint’s life story, told by an essentially faceless narrator, Chaucer offers religion at its purest, independent of modern politics as well as of gender stereotypes, which Cecilia’s story and what she represents simply transcend. One way in which Cecilia professes sainthood is through disregarding or renouncing her feminine qualities: wearing a hair shirt under her bridal gown and avoiding motherhood (Cox 64). Cecilia possesses an “inner piety” (Grossi 10) that seeks transcendence. She looks to realms beyond the material world. In this she bears a certain resemblance to the pilgrim Parson, who is not described as a saint but as a selfless toiler for his destitute, far-flung congregation. In his General Prologue portrait of the Parson, Chaucer describes the parish priest as beyond reproach and the opposite of the greedy Pardoner.22 Like Cecilia, the Parson is too good to be true: a pattern of idealism, a model to ponder and admire, in a certain sense, but not exactly of this world.23 An important consideration when we compare these two is that they inhabit somewhat different narrative fiction realms. Cecilia, in the more formal rhyme royal stanzas, speaks with angels, Urban, and the Roman prefect, whereas the Parson debates storytelling with Harry Bailly. There is a significant function for the Parson in the scheme of pilgrims: a description that helps us sort out ideal from venal character qualities, especially in the clergy; there is perhaps a similar function for the Second Nun’s Tale in the scheme of storytelling.

There is a larger issue in considering the place of the Second Nun’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales, and this is Chaucer’s stance on religious or spiritual tales generally. Derek Pearsall characterizes this tale as “un-Chaucerian and maybe even uncongenial” to Chaucer’s narrative art (Canterbury Tales 256).24 Most who have commented on the tale of Cecilia (including Pearsall) acknowledge its worth as a saint’s life (Cooper 359; Gray 432). We believe Linda Georgianna has summed up the case best when she says,

The highest values evident in the religious tales . . . are precisely the mystery and power of simple faith, on the one hand, variously probed in the poetic tales of Custance, Griselde, St. Cecilia, and the child-martyr, and, on the other hand, the Parson’s call to repentance for ordinary mortals who continually fail to respond to faith’s demands. (67)

The religious tales and, we would add, the Tale of Melibee and the Parson’s Tale, help round out the thematic diversity of the Canterbury collection and provide an element of seriousness to the pilgrimage storytelling that otherwise would be lacking. The Second Nun’s Tale has a special use in its presentation of the early church and those early Christians whose simple faith discredits the hypocrisies and unprincipled behaviors of the lukewarm Prioress, the pampered Monk, the avaricious Friar, and the corrupt Summoner and Pardoner.


1Brewer is silent about the value of the Second Nun’s Tale in his New Introduction, where he emphasizes the placement of manuscript fragment VIII (Second Nun-Canon’s Yeoman); see 377-78. Cooper, in her earlier study of the Canterbury Tales, has faint praise for this tale and its manuscript companion, the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale: “It must be admitted that poetically neither piece is Chaucer’s best” (Structure 189). See also Donaldson 1108-09 and Davenport 184-85. We wish to thank Kevin Burke for his careful reading of the essay in draft and his valuable comments. Return.

2On the sources, see especially Reames, “The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale.” Reames has been instrumental in correcting and explaining the sources for this tale. See her articles in Modern Philology and Speculum. Return.

3The issue of tale order is controversial. The Second Nun’s Tale appears essentially in two different places in the manuscripts: in the middle of the tale sequence or near the end. Some argue that any assertions or speculation about tale order is unproductive. See Pearsall, Canterbury Tales 22-23, Life 233-36; Blake. For the argument that the Ellesmere a order represents the most sensible ordering of the tales, see Benson, “Order.” Benson reproduces charts of the manuscript orders in the manuscript groupings (taken from Manly and Rickert). See “Order” 118-20. For the argument that the Second Nun’s Tale is part of a closure sequence (with the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, Manciple’s Tale, and Parson’s Tale), see especially Howard, Idea 288-306. Return.

4Correale and Hamel 507 and 519, respectively, for the Legenda aurea version and the Franciscan abridgement. Return.

5See the charts for the manuscript groups from Manly and Rickert reproduced in Benson, “Order,” 118-20. For strong arguments against any sort of tale order, see Blake and Pearsall, Canterbury Tales, esp. 22-23, Life, 233-36. For an updated discussion on the manuscripts (including tale order), see Robinson. Return.

6We derive this idea from Raybin 198, although his uses of the passage are quite different from ours. Return.

7See Pearsall, Canterbury Tales 254. Return.

8 The language of Chaucer’s sources is slightly different, highlighting the necessity of Cecilia’s confronting her bridegroom in the silence of the bedchamber (Reames 505) or the bed (517). Hypermnestra’s story has some superficial similarities to the story of Cecilia, since Hypermnestra refuses to kill her husband as her father demands. Her husband rewards her by honoring her wish that she remain a virgin. Return.

9Cecilia’s demand for virginity goes beyond the Parson’s call for “chastitee” and “continence” in marriage, in the Remedium contra peccatum Luxurie (ParsT 915-57). Pearsall contrasts the marriage situations of Cecilia and Custance of the Man of Law’s Tale (Life 254). Return.

10The language of the Franciscan abridgement is similar; see Reames, “The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale” (519). Return.

11Besserman, Chaucer’s Biblical Poetics, 9 identifies the text as an illuminated Bible. Return.

12We phrase it this way because Christians can understand the forces as planetary influences. Return.

13See Florence Ridley’s note to SNT 384-85 in the Riverside Chaucer 946. Earlier, at line 353 (“Goddes knyght”), she directs to 2 Timothy 2.3 and Piers Plowman. Return.

14We quote from the revised version of the Wycliffite Bible in the outdated but still useful edition of Forshall and Madden. Return.

15 We have profited from Nolan’s distinction between “religious” and “spiritual” in her discussion of “tales of transcendence,” which include the Second Nun’s Tale. See especially 21-23. Return.

16 MED s.v. storial: “(a) Historically true, belonging to history; (b) of a book: dealing with history.” With the word “storial,” Chaucer would especially refer to the historical lives in the Legend of Good Women, but he also must refer to “lives” such as those portrayed in the Man of Law’s Tale and the Second Nun’s Tale. Return.

17This reference has been best explained as an unrevised reference to a male storyteller or to Chaucer himself speaking as narrator of the Lyf of Seint Cecile. Some have argued that a nun could so refer to herself. See the ingenious explanation of Cox 64. Whatever the gender, the phrase represents a gesture of humility. Return.

18See Johnson 316-20 on these issues. Return.

19Though there were two popes during the late fourteenth century, a second antipope was elected in Avignon in 1409, which resulted in three concurrent popes. During the Council of Constance (1414-18), which ended the Schism, all three current popes (Gregory XII, Benedict XIII and John XXIII) were replaced with Martin V and the papacy returned to Rome. Return.

20Higden 253 (Appendix to the Polychronicon); McKisack 146 (our translation). Return.

21See also Knighton’s Chronicle 206 and Walsingham 393-95. The author of the Westminster Chronicle tells an elaborate story of the perfidy of the queen of Naples, who switches allegiance from Urban to Clement (106-10). He also describes how the English visited special harm on the Scots for their allegiance to the antipope: “These evils they inflicted upon the enemy because they were schismatics and supported the Genevan antipope” (128). Return.

22See Howard, Idea 333-87. Return.

23See Grossi 9-10; Raybin 209. Return.

24Elsewhere Pearsall describes the story as “perhaps the finest poem in the genre of the saint’s life in English” (Life 152), but that may be faint praise since elsewhere he expresses unhappiness with the genre. See especially The Canterbury Tales (256). Return.


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