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.
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...
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