The Nun's Priest's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Main Themes and Satire in "The Nun's Priest's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales


The main themes in "The Nun's Priest's Tale" include the dangers of flattery, the unpredictability of fate, and the conflict between dreams and reality. Chaucer uses satire to mock human vanity and foolishness through the anthropomorphized characters of Chanticleer and Pertelote, highlighting how pride and gullibility can lead to one's downfall.

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What is the main theme of 'The Nun's Priest's Tale'?

The Nun's Priest's Tale is both a mock epic and a beast fable, so both genres suggest that satire is a primary purpose behind the tale. The priest seems to reveal a sublimated frustration, reflective of his own position in society: a priest in a convent and thus a man somewhat subordinate in a woman's world. Chanticleer offers an oddly relevant analog to the priest's position in the hen house.

This gentil cok hadde in his governaunce
This gentle cock had in his governance
2866 Sevene hennes for to doon al his plesaunce,
Seven hens to do all his pleasure,
2867 Whiche were his sustres and his paramours,
Which were his sisters and his concubines,
2868 And wonder lyk to hym, as of colours;
And wonderfully like him, in their colors;
2869 Of whiche the faireste hewed on hir throte
Of which the fairest colored on her throat
2870 Was cleped faire damoysele Pertelote.
Was called fair demoiselle Pertelote.
2871 Curteys she was, discreet, and debonaire,
Courteous she was, discreet, and gracious,
2872 And compaignable, and bar hyrself so faire
And companionable, and bore herself so fair
2873 Syn thilke day that she was seven nyght oold
Since that same day that she was seven nights old
2874 That trewely she hath the herte in hoold
That truly she has in possession the heart
2875 Of Chauntecleer, loken in every lith;
Of Chauntecleer, locked in every limb (completely);
2876 He loved hire so that wel was hym therwith.
He loved her so that well was him because of that.
2877 But swich a joye was it to here hem synge,
But such a joy it was to hear them sing,
2878 Whan that the brighte sonne gan to sprynge,
When the bright sun began to spring,
2879 In sweete accord, "My lief is faren in londe!" —
In sweet accord, "My love has gone to the country!" —
2880 For thilke tyme, as I have understonde,
For in that same time, as I have understood,
2881 Beestes and briddes koude speke and synge.
Beasts and birds could speak and sing.

This picks up a theme of gender roles explored in the "marriage group" and especially in "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale." The role of marriage and the power dynamic between men and women recurs in many stories, and this barnyard marriage offers its own wry view of its pleasures and frustrations.

The role of Providence also reappears as a theme. Chanticleer argues for providential dreams, while Pertelote suggests he merely needs a laxative.

2896 Now God," quod he, "my swevene recche aright,
Now God," said he, "interpret my dream correctly,
2897 And kepe my body out of foul prisoun!
And keep my body out of foul prison!
2898 Me mette how that I romed up and doun
I dreamed how I roamed up and down
2899 Withinne our yeerd, wheer as I saugh a beest
Within our yard, where I saw a beast
2900 Was lyk an hound, and wolde han maad areest
Was like a hound, and would have seized
2901 Upon my body, and wolde han had me deed.
Upon my body, and would have had me dead.
2902 His colour was bitwixe yelow and reed,
His color was between yellow and red,
2903 And tipped was his tayl and bothe his eeris
And tipped was his tail and both his ears
2904 With blak, unlyk the remenant of his heeris;
With black, unlike the rest of his hair;
2905 His snowte smal, with glowynge eyen tweye.
His snout small, with two glowing eyes.
2906 Yet of his look for feere almoost I deye;
Yet for fear of his look I almost die;
2907 This caused me my gronyng, doutelees."
This caused my groaning, doubtless."

2908 "Avoy!" quod she, "fy on yow, hertelees!
"Shame!" said she, "fie on you, coward!
2909 Allas," quod she, "for, by that God above,
Alas," said she, "for, by that God above,
2910 Now han ye lost myn herte and al my love!
Now have you lost my heart and all my love!
2911 I kan nat love a coward, by my feith!
I can not love a coward, by my faith!
2912 For certes, what so any womman seith,
For certainly, whatever any woman says,
2913 We alle desiren, if it myghte bee,
We all desire, if it might be,
2914 To han housbondes hardy, wise, and free,
To have husbands hardy, wise, and generous,
2915 And secree—and no nygard, ne no fool,
And secret—and no miser, nor no fool,
2916 Ne hym that is agast of every tool,
Nor him who is afraid of every weapon,
2917 Ne noon avauntour, by that God above!
Nor any boaster, by that God above!

In this long quotation, we see both the marital discord and the debate over Providence versus chance or natural causes. The role of Providence is a significant theme in "The Knight's Tale" as well, though this tale places it in the lower setting of a barnyard and seems to mock the discussion of philosophy and divinely given dreams. In "The Miller's Tale," prophetic insight is also lampooned, and this Tale brings the folly of humanity's faith in Providence even further down the hierarchy of beings.

The theme of language's and of fiction's shaping power is also a recurrent theme in The Canterbury Tales. Here, both Chanticleer and daun Russell the Fox are adept in using rhetoric to achieve their ends (avoiding the laxative, capturing one's dinner, or escaping being dinner). The Wife's use of rhetoric also wins her the right to tell a tale or to speak, and her Tale, following her brow-beating Prologue, offers a comparable discussion of erudite philosophy in service to a fairly common objective. The entire frame narrative of the Tales as well is a cleverly orchestrated use of rhetoric and storytelling to win favor and a free meal as well.

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What is the main theme of "The Nun's Priest's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales?

Chaucer's "Nun's Priest's Tale" relates the adventures (and misadventures) of the proud rooster Chanticleer. The key word here is “proud,” for the main theme of the tale is pride. Chanticleer is a fine rooster, and he knows it well. His crowing is inferior to none, and he is always right on time. “His coomb was redder than the fyn coral,” and his beak is a shiny black. The noble bird struts through the barnyard like he owns the place, basking in the attention of his seven wives, including the beautiful Pertelote. Life is good for this proud rooster ... until one night, he has a dream.

It is a horrible dream, for in it, a red, dog-like creature stalks Chanticleer. He wakes with a yelp, and Pertelote asks him what is the matter. He describes the dream to her, and he is clearly shaken with fear. Chanticleer's pride takes its first hit, for Pertelote (with a good bit of pride of her own) scolds him roundly for being afraid of a mere dream. They engage in a long conversation in which Pertelote asserts that Chanticleer must have some physical illness that is causing such nightmares, and the rooster in turn relates several stories in which dreams of murder actually come true. Pride reigns on both sides as Chanticleer and Pertelote seek to out-argue each other, but the two soon make up and life returns to normal. But something is lurking nearby—something that will threaten the pride and the life of the magnificent Chanticleer.

That something is a fox, and he knows all about Chanticleer's pride. In fact, it becomes the fox's tool in his plan to catch the fine rooster. The fox approaches Chanticleer and tells him courteously that he has come to hear him sing, for the rooster has a voice "As any aungel hath that is in heven." This, of course, touches just the right spot in the bird's proud heart, and he stands up tall, stretches out his neck, closes his eyes, and lets out a crow. The fox seizes both the opportunity and the rooster.

But the fox has his own good share of pride. As he runs away with Chanticleer in his mouth and the farm dogs in hot pursuit, Chanticleer suggests to this clever fox that he boast of his victory to the silly dogs. The fox cannot resist, and he does so, but the moment he opens his mouth to boast, Chanticleer flies away and out of the fox's reach. Pride has cost the fox his dinner just like it almost cost the rooster his life.

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What is the main theme of "The Nun's Priest's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales?

The main theme of the Nun's Priest's Tale, I would argue, is vanity, especially as it is related to the dangers of flattery. Chauntecleer, a large rooster, has a terrible dream one night in which he's threatened in the farmyard by a strange orange beast. One of this many hen-wives, Pertelote, implores him not to worry about it. It was just a dream, most probably brought on by something he ate. What he needs is some good, strong laxative.

But Chauntecleer's not interested. Dreams always have some meaning or other; he has this on the authority of none other than the great Cato, the famed Roman statesman and philosopher:

"Madame," quod he, "graunt mercy of youre loore. But nathelees, as touchyng daun Catoun, That hath of wysdom swich a greet renoun, Though that he bad no dremes for to drede, By God, men may in olde bookes rede Of many a man moore of auctorite Than evere Caton was, so moot I thee, That al the revers seyn of this sentence, And han wel founden by experience That dremes been significaciouns/As wel of joye as of tribulaciouns That folk enduren in this lif present.

In modern English, what Chauntecleer's saying is that according to Cato dreams always signify something, even though we shouldn't be frightened of them. Although he says he's grateful for Pertelote's offer to help him with medicine, he rather patronizingly dismisses her homespun remedies. Here, Chauntecleer is displaying intellectual vanity, privileging ancient book-learning over traditional folk medicine.

Nevertheless, Chauntecleer becomes reconciled to Pertelote and agrees to renounce the vision contained in his dream. However, one form of vanity is replaced by another. For later on, Chauntecleer is approached by a wily old fox who's been observing him and his hens, lurking among the cabbages ready to make his move. No prizes for guessing what the fox has in mind. Chauntecleer has a beautiful voice which he loves to show off by singing. The fox sees his chance and after emerging from the cabbage patch starts shamelessly flattering the proud cockerel and asking to hear his singing voice:

For trewely, ye have as myrie a stevene As any aungel hath that is in hevene.

(You really do have as merry a voice as any angel in heaven).

And on it goes until Chauntecleer, so ravished by the fox's flattery, and beating his wings with pride, stands on his toes, stretches his neck, closes his eyes, and begins to crow loudly. The fox sees his chance and pounces immediately. He grabs the poor rooster by the neck and runs away, carrying the hapless Chauntecleer on his back.

But Chauntecleer has the last laugh. He takes a leaf out of the fox's book and starts to play on his vanity. He advises the fox to brag about his taking of Chauntecleer to his pursuers, the farmyard animals and dogs who've given chase. And for good measure, he might like to curse them:

Turneth agayn, ye proude cherles alle! A verray pestilence upon yow falle! Now I am come unto the wodes syde; Maugree youre heed, the cok shal heere abyde. I wol hym ete, in feith, and that anon!

(Get lost, you peasants! A plague upon you all! Now I've reached the woods the cockerel's going to stay right here despite all your best efforts. And I'm going to eat him right away!)

The fox foolishly agrees, and opens his mouth, ready to let rip with some medieval smack-talk. Suddenly, Chauntecleer flies out of the fox's greedy mouth to the safety of a tall tree. The rooster's learned his lesson as he tells the now hungry, frustrated fox:

Thou shalt namoore thurgh thy flaterye/ Do me to synge and wynke with myn ye; For he that wynketh, whan he sholde see, Al wilfully, God lat him nevere thee!

(You won't get me to sing again through flattery. For if you close your eyes when you really should be seeing, then God will never let you prosper).

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Discuss the main theme of "The Nun's Priest's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales.

The famous story of Chanticleer and Pertelote has a clear message to it, which is particularly heightened when we remember the person who is telling the tale. Chanticleer is shown to be a creature that is easily beguiled by the words of Pertelote, and in particular her rebuke about the seriousness with which he takes his dream:

"Alas!" cried she. "For, by the Lord above,

Now you have lost my heart, lost all my love.

I cannot love a coward, that I swear!"

It is his love for her that causes Chanticleer to go against his better judgement and leads to his near escape with the fox. Thus the message of this tale, apart from the danger of succumbing to flattery, perhaps can be said to concern the dangers of heeding the advice of women. This is not particularly politically correct in today's world, but we need to remember that this was an immensely popular medieval theme, focusing on Eve as the archetype of the woman as temptress. Women were viewed as "the weaker sex" and thus offered foolish and dangerous advice.

Let us think about why it is that the Nun's Priest tells the tale. His role is a servant to the Prioress. From what we have seen of her, she is depicted as rather foolish and overly sentimental. His work dictates that he must live surrounded by women who are working under her, and thus perhaps share her failings. Thus we can see this tale as a barbed attack against his mistress and also against the women by which he is surrounded.

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What idea is Chaucer conveying in "The Nun's Priest's Tale" and its relation to The Canterbury Tales?

In Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Nun's Priest's Tale," a story in The Canterbury Tales, the priest tells of a rooster, Chanticleer, who has beautiful plumage and a wonderful voice. He lives on a farm (owned by a widow and her kids) along with his seven hens (wives and sisters), and he crows to begin each day.

One day Chanticleer has a terrible dream that portends disaster for him as a monster grabs and eats him, and he tells Demoiselle Partlet, the hen he loves the most, of his dream and his fears. She scoffs at his tale and tells him that there is no danger, but that indigestion must have caused the dream. She suggests medication, but Chanticleer chooses does not agree; however, talking to Partlet has made him feel better. He forgets about the dream and goes about showing his love for Partlet.

In truth, a fox matching the "monster's" description is waiting for his chance to capture and devour the rooster. Chanticleer sees him and is at first frightened, but the fox (Sir Russell) calms the fowl's fears, charming Chanticleer with empty praise regarding his voice. Chanticleer is so taken by the fox's words, that he starts to crow and immediately the fox makes off with him, intending to feed himself at Chanticleer's expense. When the rest of the barnyard realizes what has happened (Partlet and the other hens shriek wildly), the animals, and the household members and neighbors give chase. Chanticleer, rather clever himself, tells the fox to inform those chasing him that they will never catch the fox for he is much too fast. Falling for the same ruse Sir Russell has used on Chanticleer (appealing to the fox's vanity), the fox opens his mouth to talk and drops Chanticleer—who flies into a tree to safety. The fox tries to flatter Chanticleer again, but the rooster knows better, so the fox must go without his supper.

There are thought to be two morals in this story, one more obvious than the other. The first is that one needs to be careful not to be tricked by empty flattery. The second, however, may be directed toward men to avoid the advice of women. In Chaucer's day, society gave no credence to the words of women: had Chanticleer ignored Partlet's words, he would have been better off. In fact, it is his love for her that makes him ignore the "warning signs" he has received in his dream. The eNotes source on this tale suggests that the Nun is not really an admirable woman; in fact, the Priest is the servant to a seemingly silly woman and her silly nuns: there can be little doubt that the Priest has little respect for the Nun.

In terms of The Canterbury Tales in general, this tale points out wisdom that should be heeded (a moral), but it also provides the glimpse of a cross-section of members of medieval society from all walks of life. While the Church is powerful at the time, we find most of the servants of the Church (in the tale) thinking more about themselves and less about God: in fact, it is only the Parson who presented as a truly admirable member of the cloth.

One of the major themes of Chaucer's tales is that you shouldn't judge a person by looks or profession, but by his or her actions. This is also the Wife of Bath's message: though people are quick to tell you "who" they are, watching them gives one a better sense as to what is really important to a person.

In "The Nun's Priest's Tale," Partlet may not be very wise, but Chanticleer is devoted to her, and is to be admired for his love and dedication.

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In The Canterbury Tales, what is being satirized in "The Nun's Priest's Tale"?

I think that with this excellent example of an animal fable we need to be aware of the danger of being distracted by the conflict between Chanticleer and the fox and pay more attention to the role of Pertelote. Note her role in bringing about Chanticleer's near-death experience: she deliberately berates Chanticleer about his dream and the fear that he suffers as a result, shaming him into carrying on as normal, whereas if he had paid attention to his dream and the message it was giving him, he would not have met the fox:

"Get along with you! Shame on you, faintheart!

Alas!" cried she, "For, by the Lord above,

Bow you have lost my heart, lost all my love.

I cannot love a coward, that I swear!"

Remembering that the teller of this tale was the Priest in a convent of nuns, surrounded by women every day, we can therefore perhaps see this tale as a subtle satire on women and how dangerous it can be to pay attention to their advice. Note that, although not acceptable today, in the past the woman was portrayed as the cause of man's fall in the Garden of Eden and therefore was considered as an unreliable counsellor.

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What is the summary of "The Nun's Priest's Tale" from The Canterbury Tales?

This tale seems to be a version of one of the fables of Aesop. The tale begins with a poor widow who possesses a rooster called Chanticleer. He is remarkable because he crows precisely on the hour and he is splendid in his appearance. Chanticleer, we are told, has seven hens, but the one he loves most is known as Demoiselle Partlet.

One morning, Partlet hears Chanticleer making strange noises as if her were in pain. Chanticleer tells her that he has suffered a nightmare where a strange red-coloured beast with a tail grabbed him and was about to kill him. Partlet makes fun of Chanticleer, saying that dreams are not reality and we should not be afraid of dreams. She tells Chanticleer to find some herbs to ingest, thinking that nightmares are the result of indigestion.

Chanticleer, taking umbrage against Partlet, defends his dream by talking about the way that many people in history have been warned about an upcoming disaster through dreams. Those who listened to their dreams did not perish, but those who ignored them died. Because of this he says he is not "stupid" to take the dream seriously, but actually very wise. Then Chanticleer seems to forget about the dream again and becomes his normal loving self with Partlet.

However, we are told that whilst Chanticleer had his nightmare, a fox entered the yard and is now hiding amongst the herbs waiting for a chance to snatch Chanticleer. As Chanticleer walks in the yard and notices the fox, becoming paralysed with fear. The fox tells Chanticleer not to be afraid, because he wants to listen to Chanticleer sing his great songs. He flatters Chanticleer unceasingly until Chanticleer is no longer afraid and begins to crow for the fox. Having distracted Chanticleer, he snatches him and runs away with him, intending to eat him later. Partlet and the other hens make so much noise that the entire neighbourhood begins to chase the fox, making a lot of noise.

When the fox reaches the forest he rests for a moment. Chanticleer reverses the situation, flattering the fox by saying that he should tell the crowd to desist from following, as the fox is so much quicker than they are. The fox, proud of his speed, opens his mouth to utter this boast to the crowd following him, and Chanticleer escapes up into a tree where the fox cannot reach him. The fox again tries to capture Chanticleer through flattery, but Chanticleer has learnt his lesson and does not listen to the fox's blandishments. The fox leaves and Chanticleer lives to see another day.

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