Second Nun’s Tale, The

Second Nun’s Tale, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1380)
   CHAUCER’s “Legend of Saint Cecilia,” attributed to the Second Nun in Fragment 8 of The CANTERBURY TALES, is a saint’s life that Chaucer is known to have written before the Canterbury Tales project was begun, and incorporated into the Tales later. Chaucer refers to the story as a separate text in a catalogue of his works included in the prologue to The LEGEND OF GOOD WOMEN (ca. 1386). The fact that the pilgrim narrator refers to herself at one point as an “unworthy son of Eve” suggests that Chaucer had not completely revised the tale for inclusion in the later work. The Second Nun’s Tale has, however, been praised recently as an example of an intellectual and tough Christianity within the Tales, as contrasted with the emotional, even sentimental, “affective piety” of The PRIORESS’S TALE. The tale begins with a prologue in three parts. The first part is a condemnation of idleness, a sin for which Cecilia, constantly working to convert souls to Christianity, provides a clear contrast. The second part of the invocation is a prayer in praise of the Virgin Mary, which Chaucer based on a passage in the final canto of the Paradiso section of DANTE’s DIVINE COMEDY, where it is put into the mouth of St. BERNARD. The third part of the prologue, taken like the rest of the tale from the GOLDEN LEGEND, a widely read collection of saints’ lives, gives a long etymology of the name Cecilia. In the tale proper, Cecilia, a well-born Roman woman, marries another noble Roman, Valerian. She informs Valerian on their wedding night, however, that she is defended by a guardian angel who protects her virginity and will destroy Valerian if he touches her. The skeptical Valerian demands to see this angel, but Cecilia says he must first be baptized. Valerian consents to this, is baptized by Urban (anachronistically called “Pope”), who, like the other Christians in Rome, leads a clandestine existence. Once Valerian is baptized, he can see the angel as well as the flowered crown of martyrdom prepared for him. He eagerly embraces the new religion, and, with the help of Cecilia’s theological arguments about such things as the Trinity, convinces his brother Tiburce to join him in his newfound faith.
   The crisis of the story occurs when the Roman prefect Almachius orders all citizens to sacrifice to an image of the god Jupiter, condemning to death any who will not do so.Valerian and Tiburce refuse, and when Almachius sends the officer Maximus to seize them, they eventually convert him as well. Ultimately Valerian and Tiburce are beheaded for refusing to worship the idol, and are followed in their martyrdom by Maximus. Finally Cecilia is brought before Almachius, and in a climactic debate demonstrates the foolishness of Almachius’s religion and of his belief in his own power. She is condemned to be boiled in a “bath of flames” in her own house, but she survives for a day, and is further condemned to beheading. But when her executioner strikes her neck three times and is unable to behead her completely, she continues for three days to preach before she dies of her wounds. The narrator ends by declaring that the Church of St. Cecilia in Rome is on the site of the house wherein she was martyred, and that pilgrims may visit it even to this day. Scholars have noted how faithful Chaucer remains to his source, following the popular saint’s life much more closely than was his general practice. Some have considered this a result of the tale’s being an early work, though it may simply be a sign of how much respect Chaucer had for the legend. In any case the tale is probably not particularly early, since its borrowing from Dante and its composition in RHYME ROYAL stanzas (a form Chaucer probably developed after reading BOCCACCIO) makes it likely to have been written in the middle of his career, after he had begun to feel the influence of the great Italian writers. In addition to comparing this with the more emotional Prioress’s Tale, recent critics have also discussed the relationship of The Second Nun’s Tale to The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, its companion in Fragment 8, comparing Cecilia’s busy labors for God and burning in God’s holy fire with the alchemists’ fruitless work of false creation and the hellish fires of their experiments.
   ■ Benson, C. David. Chaucer’s Drama of Style: Poetic Variety and Contrast in The Canterbury Tales. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
   ■ Grennen, Joseph E. “Saint Cecilia’s ‘Chemical Wedding’: The Unity of the Canterbury Tales, Fragment VIII,” JEGP 65 (1966): 466–481.
   ■ Kolve, V. A. “Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale and the Iconography of Saint Cecilia,” in New Perspectives on Chaucer Criticism, edited by Donald M. Rose. Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1981, 137–174.
   ■ Reames, Sherry L. “The Cecilia Legend as Chaucer Inherited It and Retold It: The Disappearance of an Augustinian Ideal,” Speculum 55 (1980): 38–57.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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