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Second Nun's Tale, The

The Oxford Companion to Chaucer
Douglas Gray

Second Nun's Tale, The, 

with the Canon Yeoman's Tale, to which it is explicitly linked, makes up Fragment VIII of The Canterbury Tales. Its Prologue (written, like the tale itself, in rhyme royal) contains an invocation to the Virgin Mary (based on Dante's Paradiso 33.1–51) and some pious etymologies of the name of the heroine, Cecilie (Cecilia). The brief Tale (of just over 400 lines) relates how this ‘mayden bright’, a nobly born Roman Christian devoted to virginity, is married to Valerian, and tells him that her angel will not suffer him to touch her. Valerian says that he will believe her if he can see the angel. He is sent out to the Via Appia to the aged Urban, and is converted. When he returns, he finds Cecilia with an angel, who gives them garlands of roses and lilies brought from Paradise, and promises that they will die martyrs. Valerian's brother Tiburce is also converted. But this is the period of the persecutions: Urban has often been condemned to death, and has to live in hiding in the catacombs. At last Valerian and Tiburce are brought before the prefect, Almache (Almachius), who sends them to do sacrifice before the statue of Jupiter. Supported by Cecilia, they steadfastly refuse and are both beheaded. Maximus, one of the prefect's officers, is moved by ‘pite’, and converts others by his account of how he saw their souls glide to heaven ‘with aungels ful of cleernesse and of light’. He too is killed, and is buried beside them by Cecilia. She is now summoned by Almachius and (having converted some of his ministers on the way) questioned. She answers bravely and firmly, and is cruelly put to death. Urban and his deacons bury her in what is now called the church of St Cecilia (in Trastevere) in Rome, where she is still venerated.

The tale, based on the Golden Legend, is a fine example of the saint's life, and is obviously appropriate to a nun. A reference to the ‘lyf of Seynt Cecile’ in the list of Chaucer's works in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women indicates that it existed in some form before 1386–7; it was presumably adapted for The Canterbury Tales (although there is no portrait of its teller in the General Prologue). It has rarely been a favourite with modern readers (although there have recently been some sympathetic studies). It deserves attention for the powerful lyrical writing in the Invocation (one of Chaucer's best versions of Dante), and for the simple strong lines of Cecilia (who, like other saintly women in Chaucer, is a figure of considerable strength of spirit) when she refutes Almachius, or when she heartens the martyrs to be ‘Cristes owene knyghtes leeve and deere’, to cast away ‘the werkes of derknesse’, and to arm themselves in ‘armure of brightnesse’. (See religion; saints.)


Rv, see Benson, Larry D. (ed.) 262–9, 942–6;Find this resource:

S&A, see Bryan and Dempster (1958), Correale and Hamel (2002) 664–84 [491–527];Find this resource:

Cooper, Helen (1989), The Canterbury Tales (Oxford Guides to Chaucer, Oxford), 358–67;Find this resource:

Clogan, Paul M. (1972), ‘The Figural Style and Meaning of The Second Nun's Prologue and Tale’, Medievalia et Humanistica ns 3:213–40;Find this resource:

Collette, Carolyn P. (1975–6), ‘A Closer Look at Seinte Cecile's Special Vision’, ChR 10:337–49;Find this resource:

Collette, Carolyn P. (2001), Species and Images: Vision and Medieval Psychology in The Canterbury Tales (Ann Arbor, Mich.);Find this resource:

Hirsh John C. (1977–8), ‘The Politics of Spirituality: The Second Nun and the Manciple’, ChR 12:129–46;Find this resource:

Kolve, V. A. (1981), ‘Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale and the Iconography of St Cecilia’, in Donald M. Rose (ed.), New Perspectives in Chaucer Criticism (Norman, Okla.), 137–58.Find this resource: