The “Second Nun’s Tale” begins with a warning about the vice of idleness (“English idleness”). Her tale is about “Seint Cecilie” (Saint Cecilia) and it is intended to cure the problem of idleness. A tale of martyrdom is intended not simply to be entertaining, but to inspire a call to life. The prologue to her tale continues with an extended praise of Mary, Mother of Jesus, and an ordered account of Saint Cecilia, or “heaven’s lily,” including the origins of her name as an introduction to the tale’s subject matter.
We are not given any information about the second nun in the “General Prologue,” which highlights our mind’s demand for information about the author. As Aristotle mentions in the Rhetoric, we look to the character of an author to assess the quality of a speech, story, or poem.
Chaucer’s source for the tale was apparently the “Golden Legend” -a written collection of the lives of Christian saints and martyrs scribed by Jacobus de Varagine, a 13th century compiler. It was a highly popular book in medieval Europe.
The “Second Nun’s Tale” is a mere biography, or hagiography, of Saint Cecilia -a chaste and virtuous woman, descended from noble Roman birth and who marries a man named Valerian. On the their wedding night Cecilia claims she has an angel who watched over her and protects her body from lechery. Valerian is skeptical so they travel to Saint Urban to allow Valerian to see the angel (he relies on his eyesight, not unlike Doubting Thomas). The trip works as Valerian sees the angel, who then offers him one wish, which Valerian uses to offer the bliss of Christianity to his brother, Tiberuce. Both brothers die in martyrdom, and then Cecilia is condemned to death in a boiling bathtub, but she does not die, so she is condemned to beheading but after three blows, her head does not fall off. She continues preaching in her partially decapitated state until her death and burial among the martyrs by Saint Urban.
This is the second mostly forgettable tale of martyrdom featured in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (following from “The Prioress’s Tale”).