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.)