“The latter ende of joye is wo” On The Dangerous Significance of Poetry in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale

The Knight interrupts the “Monk’s Tale” under the accusation that it is far too depressing – no more of this!- he says. The Knight prefers the opposite of endless pitiful tragedies, the Knight desires a tale of “joye and greet solas” (2774). The Host agrees with the Knight: a good tale must include some form of redemption. The Host says the Monk (named Don Piers) is not worth a butterfly. Notably, the “Monk’s Tale” is not entirely different from a medieval book detailing the deaths of the Christian martyrs.

Curiously, the Host offers the Monk another chance to tell a better tale, but unlike Chaucer, the Monk declines to offer a second tale. He does not want to play. Now, in a rude manner, the Host calls upon “Sir John,” the Nun’s Priest, to tell a tale that will make their “hertes glade” (2811). The Nun’s Priest is not described in the “General Prologue” -we know nothing about him other than that he is a companion of the nun, or the “prioress” (recall her antisemitic tale of Christian martyrdom several tales prior).

The “Nun’ s Priest Tale” is an Aesopean fable based on an old French story (from the Romance of Renard) about a simple elderly widow with two daughters, a little farm, and a rooster named Chauntecleer (meaning “clear singer”). Sir John notes that animals can speak and sing in this fabled time. He lives with seven wives, but his favorite is Pertelote. One morning, he awakens with a groan. He asks Pertelote to interpret a dream: he dreams of a beast who tramps through their yard. Chauntecleer fears for his life.

Instead, Pertelote chastises Chauntecleer for being a coward because dreams are nothing more than biological phenomena: such as the result of overeating. Dreams have no implicit meaning. Pertelote echoes the conviction of modern science.

In response, Chauntecleer defends the inherent meaning of dreams by citing a variety of ancient books –

“That dremes been significaciouns
That dreams are significations
As wel of joye as of tribulaciouns
As well of joy as of tribulations
That folk enduren in this lif present.
That folk endure in this present life.
Ther nedeth make of this noon argument;
There need be no argument about this;
The verray preeve sheweth it in dede.
The proof itself shows it in the deed” (2979-2983)

Dreams are significant simply by reason of deed. Dreams require no ‘burden of proof.’ Like poetics, dreams suspend the human will for a moment until a sobering sense of awakening once again returns. Chauntecleer justifies his claim repeating a dream (or a framed story) written by one of the “gretteste auctour that men rede” (2984). It is about two men on pilgrimage. One has a dream that he will be killed so he screams, but the other thinks he is merely dreaming at first until his own dream describes in detail how and where he would be killed. Lo and behold the next day he discovers the body and justice is served to the perpetrators. Even though dreams may either bring “joye or blis,” they nevertheless have significance.

Next, Chauntecleer cites another tale from the book (the following chapter, in fact) wherein two sailors lay down for the night. One has a dream that he will drown. When he awakens and tells his companion about the dream, his friend laughs at the thought of dreams being significant but then he drowns in the end. Next, Chauntecleer echoes a story about Saint Kenelm who has a vision of his own murder, and then he tells of Macrobius scribing the vision of Scipio in Africa. Then he tells of Daniel, Joseph, and Pharaoh; along with Croesus of Lydia, and Andromache and her dream of Hector’s death from Homer’s Iliad.

Chaunctecleer is a clever liar, not unlike the clerks in other tales thus far. In order to end his series of framed tales on a note of mirth, he praises his wife by quoting a Latin script, Mulier est hominis confusio (which truly means “woman is the confusion/ruin of man”) but then to his wife he claims the phrase means “Womman is mannes joye and al his blis.” Why does Chauntecleer lie? He recognizes the necessity of keeping his household happy and whole, in continuing the theme of marriage that has been discussed throughout The Canterbury Tales. In addition, the continuing satire of philosophy and Oxford clerks returns once again. Chauntecleer is a clerk-poet, with a pleasant and proud croon, who can carefully assess the time of day by looking up the sky, however he is both a clerk and a poet, and is therefore deceitful. He lies to his wife, however heeding her advice proves fatal to Chauntecleer. The “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is a cautionary fable about the pitfalls of poetry and the vanity of intellectuals. Nevertheless, the vain Chauntecleer renounces his initial dream to Pertelote until the arrival of March, when his forgetful bliss turns to woe -this story is as true as the tale of Lancelot and the Lake!

Chauntecleer is tricked into the near deadly jaws of the sly fox, but then Chauntecleer cleverly persuades the fox to taunt the widow chasing them, and this allows Chauntecleer to escape. Chauntecleer is persuaded only by flattery; the fox (or ‘Don John’) is outdone by his own arrogance. Neither the fox nor Chauntecleer are persuaded by logos (see Aristotle’s Rhetoric). How quickly fortune favors the cunning! The Nun’s Priest highlights the significance, as well as the dangers of poetry, especially when the Aristotelian ethos (or “character”) of the poet is either a vain rooster or a prideful fox. Hence, why the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is among the best of the pilgrims.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

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