21: The Second Nun's Tale Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 813

Summary
The Nun tells the company that idleness leads to sinfulness while lawful industry is an aid to the avoidance of sin. The sister then tells the company that she will tell the life of St. Cecelia to give them an example of a good woman. She says she will tell them the version she has translated from The Legend of Good Women.

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The tale is preceded by an Invocation to Mary in which the nun prays to be inspired to tell the story to the profit of her listeners. The Invocation is followed by a lengthy explanation of the name "Cecelia," which may be translated "lily of heaven," "the way for the blind," or "lack of blindness." If one stretches a point, it may be read "way for the people," the point being that St. Cecelia's name implies all for which she is revered.

Cecelia belonged to a noble Roman family who were Christians at a time when the Christian faith was forbidden. Nevertheless, the devout girl had promised to remain a virgin in observance of her faith. Her holiness was so sincere that an angel guarded her chastity.

On their wedding night, Cecelia persuaded her husband, Valerian, that he could see her angel if he, too, would agree to remain chaste. When Valerian agreed, Cecelia sent him to the outlawed Pope Urban who thanked God for Valerian's newfound faith. The angel of God then appeared and Valerian was instantly converted.

When Valerian returned home he found Cecelia awaiting him with the angel. The angel held crowns of lilies and roses. Giving them to the young couple, the angel promised that the crowns would never wither as long as the two remained chaste. He further assured them that the fragrant crowns would be seen only by the good and pure. As a reward for his faithfulness, Valerian was permitted one wish by the angel. Valerian requests that his brother, Tiburtius, might be converted.

When Valerian invited Tiburtius to embrace the true faith and showed him the crowns, Tiburtius, too, wanted to become a Christian. Cecelia explained to him about the mysteries of the faith and sent Tiburtius to Pope Urban to be baptized. After baptism, Tiburtius was filled with holiness and joined Cecelia and Valerian in a holy life.

The three made many converts and performed many miracles. This brought them to the attention of the Prefect who had them brought before him for interrogation. When they testified to their faith, the Prefect commanded them to make sacrifice to Jupiter on pain of death, but the Christian young people refused.

Maximus, the guard who had taken them into custody, found the young people's witness so convincing that he and his household also became Christians that same day. On the morrow, Valerian and Tiburtius were executed. When Maximus proclaimed that he could see their souls being borne to heaven by bright, shining angels, the infuriated Prefect whipped him so severely that Maximus, too, died.

Cecelia was next led to make sacrifice to Jupiter; but she, too, refused. All those around her were converted by her shining holiness. The Prefect then had Cecelia brought into his presence. Infuriated that his power and the fear of death did not intimidate the girl, the Prefect ordered a terrible death for the maiden.

Guards took her to her own home and locked her in the bath and set a roaring fire so that she would be killed by the heat. Yet after three days, Cecelia was still alive and unharmed. The Prefect then had a soldier smote her three times on the neck which left the maiden only half dead. Attended by loving Christian friends, Cecelia suffered for three more days and then died.

Upon her death, Pope Urban secretly buried Cecelia amongst other Christian martyrs. He consecrated her house the Church of Saint Cecelia, knowing her already to be in Paradise and beloved of Christ.

Discussion and Analysis
There are no conversational links either before or after The Second Nun's Tale, a possible indication that this narrative is intended to be taken with complete seriousness. The tale itself is exactly what it appears to be, the life of a saint. It is taken directly from a former work by Chaucer, The Legend of Good Women. The listeners are getting the straight "facts" as they are related by an anonymous sister whose reverence for St. Cecelia is completely appropriate to one of her station.

In this life of St. Cecelia, Chaucer presents the contemporary Christian ideal of womanhood. Chaste, devout, strong, and intellectual, St. Cecelia is completely indomitable. Through her influence, many are converted and even more come to Christ through her death. She is womanly but not weak; indeed, she has none of the shortcomings of any of the other women characters in the tales. There is no question that she is presented to be imitated.

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