Authorship in the Second Nun’s Tale

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 –it is a prescriptive tale. 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 which serves as an introduction to the tale’s subject matter.

We are not given any information about the second nun in the “General Prologue,” and htis deprivation highlights our mind’s demand for information about an author. Who is she? As Aristotle mentions in the Rhetoric, we often 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 collection of the lives of Christian saints and martyrs scribed by Jacobus de Varagine in the 13th century. It was an immensely popular book in medieval Europe.

The “Second Nun’s Tale” is a mere biography, or hagiography, of Saint Cecilia -a chaste and virtuous woman who descends from noble Roman birth and who marries a man named Valerian. On the their wedding night Cecilia claims an angel watches 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”). It is a boring tale fit for people who are easily drawn to tales of martyrdom and supernatural claims (of the kind of rumors circulated in early Christianity).

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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