The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 569 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 576 words.)