The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales circulated in manuscripts from shortly after his death in 1400 but did not reach print until several decades after the invention of the printing press. The work is an unfinished, but more or less unified, collection of tales as related by the characters of a...

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Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales circulated in manuscripts from shortly after his death in 1400 but did not reach print until several decades after the invention of the printing press. The work is an unfinished, but more or less unified, collection of tales as related by the characters of a fictionalized April pilgrimage from Southwark, a borough south of London, to Canterbury Cathedral, where Saint Thomas Becket was martyred in 1170. “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is found in a part of the work usually designated as “Fragment VII.”

The teller of this tale is a priest who serves the prioress of a Benedictine convent and another nun as chaplain on the pilgrimage. He is a man who takes his vocation seriously. Although he displays a wry sense of humor and a relish in describing the action of a barnyard chase, there is no reason to doubt his assertion that his tale exists to support “our doctrine.” The tale is a fable of a type often used by medieval preachers to exemplify the topic of a homily, but because of the way the tale is framed, it is also a mock epic incorporating various satirical thrusts.

The pilgrims have just listened to “The Monk’s Tale,” actually a series of short de casibus tragedies, which medieval critical theory defined simply as the accounts of the fall of persons from high places. Harry Bailly, the self-appointed host of the pilgrimage, then asks the priest, Sir John, for a change of pace, a “merry” tale. The priest obliges, but in a way that comically echoes the monk’s tale, for Chanticleer is a proud rooster who falls from dignity and barely escapes becoming a fox’s meal. The first character in the tale, however, is a “poor widow,” a plain working woman who with the help of two daughters and a dog, maintains a modest farm.

On the farm lives Chanticleer, with seven hens as consorts. His favorite is Pertelote, whom the rooster describes in a manner that imitates the descriptions of fair ladies in the courtly verse of the day. Chanticleer tells her of a bad dream in which he was menaced by “a beast like a hound.” When he insists that this is an omen of danger, Pertelote claims that something he ate caused the dream and that he should “take some laxative.” Both defend their positions by the standard medieval method of citing the texts of literary experts.

Later, as Chanticleer struts proudly around the little barnyard, a black fox named Russell intrudes, but instead of attacking, he flatters the rooster by praising his singing. Russell even claims to have known Chanticleer’s father, who had once been “in my house to my great ease,” adding that the father had a way of closing his eyes that made his crowing particularly effective. Chanticleer does the same, at which point the fox seizes him by the neck and runs off. Alerted, the widow, along with the daughters and the dog, chases after the fox, but just as it appears that he will escape, Chanticleer urges the fox to turn and taunt the pursuers. When he loosens his grip on the rooster to do so, the latter flies safely up into a tree. Thus, the priest implies, humans are beguiled and will fall victim to the evil forces unless they eschew sin and make appropriate use of their God-given faculties.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 576

Considered as a reflection of its teller—one popular way of reading The Canterbury Tales—“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” exemplifies a pattern of medieval homiletics. Although the poem is not arranged like a sermon, the teller’s insistence on its moral significance places it in a tradition of popular preaching that strove to emphasize a moral message by means of fable. As such it reflects medieval Christianity’s genius for appropriating and adapting secular subject material for instructional purposes. In its most common form, the ancient “beast fable,” animals speak and act like human beings and thus call attention to human failings, such as destructive pride. Although Chanticleer is foolishly vain, his pride runs much deeper and is more serious. He is “puffed up” to an extent that endangers his very life. The priest does not feel the need to discourse on pride as the first and foremost of the seven deadly sins (something that another pilgrim, the parson, or parish priest, does at excruciating length later in The Canterbury Tales), but his audience knows that in the tale’s most general allegorical reference, Chanticleer represents humankind and Russell the devil.

The “cock and fox” story is much older than Chaucer, but he characteristically reshapes his source material in a highly original way. By setting his fable into the frame of a widow’s small farm he fashions it also into the literary form that has come to be called the mock epic. Chanticleer regards himself as preeminent in various ways, but the setting and the opposition prove his smallness and insignificance. He is a mighty ruler, but his rule extends only over seven hens in a small barnyard. He is a scholar who can cite a host of learned authorities on the subject of dreams, but it is all he can do to best Pertelote, a mere chattel, in argument. He regards himself as a great singer and a physical force to be reckoned with (a “grim lion”), but Russell proves him only a vain crooner like his father and no match at all for his foxy opponent.

Like all of Chaucer’s most successful works, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is a poem composed, like the majority of his tales, in iambic pentameter couplets. The effect of his couplets is far different from that of the “heroic” couplets that became the fashion in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Understanding the importance of swift movement in narrative, Chaucer produced an effective blend of end-stopped lines, partial stops, and enjambments.

The tale is 313 couplets, or 626 lines long, but the fox does not appear until line 395, and Chaucer devotes only about a quarter of these lines to the action of the tale. The first three quarters of the poem are given over mainly to the description of the setting and the establishment of the characters, primarily Chanticleer. The rooster himself expends sixty-six lines telling a story designed to justify his conviction that his dream portends coming danger—but then becomes so entranced by a subsidiary theme—“Murder will out!”—that he almost forgets to conclude with the proper emphasis on his main point. Chaucer loved to both explore and exploit rhetoric. Not only does he tangle Chanticleer in his own rhetoric, but he also has his priest, Sir John, slip into similar rhetorical excesses, including at one point a diatribe against “women’s counsels” of the sort that “made Adam from Paradise to go.”

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