ENGL 330 / ENGL 512: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

The Canterbury Tales VI: 
The Nun's Priest's Tale (NPT)
[page numbers in NA refer to 8th ed., 2006]

You are responsible for the following Middle English passages: NPT 27-123, 150-165, 188-204, 230-243, 266-289, 302-358, 431-517, 535-626.  (Click here for instructions on preparing an ENGL 330 ORAL PRESENTATION.)

Don't forget to look for and NOTE references to gentilesse (gentil) and trouthe (trewe) as you read.

The Nun's Priest's Tale is a "Beast Fable" (see NA 299), a genre in which personified animals act like human beings. (Recall that personification in and of itself does NOT constitute allegory!)  The best known medieval examples of this genre are the Fables of Marie de France (recall that her Lais are the model for the Franklin's Tale).  If you have access to the 7th edition of the Norton Anthology, two of Marie de France's Fables are found pp. 140-14; see also the headnote to Marie de France in the NA 7th ed., pp. 126-7).  Chaucer's sources and models for this genre also include various Latin translations of the Fables of Aesop, but not the Greek originals. 

In the Nun's Priest's Tale, the denizens of the widow's barnyard, in particular Chauntecleer and Pertelote, are used to poke fun at very human sorts of behavior. Note the Nun's Priest's various statements about the tale he is telling. How does he use the genre to excuse himself for statements that might otherwise offend certain pilgrims (see NPT 431-46)? Who within the group are the most likely "targets" of his tale?

Note the gentle satire of courtly love. Chauntecleer and Pertelote are described like the heros and heroines of medieval romances: each is accorded a set portrait that describes his/her physical beauty and magnificent "clothing" as is customary when heros and heroines are introduced in courtly romance -- except that here, hero and heroine are a rooster and a hen! Note Pertelote's indignation at the thought that Chauntecleer might be a coward (and thus unworthy of her love); Chauntecleer's gallant compliments to his "lady" and statements concerning the effect of her beauty upon him; his references to the physical side of their passion. How do these and similar statements both follow and poke fun at the conventions of courtly love? What does the Nun's Priest Tale add to our understanding of Chaucer's attitude toward marriage or the relationship between the sexes?

In particular, consider both the explicit and implicit statements concerning women. Chauntecleer quotes a Latin proverb to Pertelote, "Mulier est hominis confusio," which he tells her means "Woman is man's joy and all his bliss" rather than "Woman is man's ruination," a more accurate translation (NPT 344-6). Note that even if a courtly gentleman -- or a rooster such as Chauntecleer -- may not have understood Latin, the Nun's Priest himself certainly did! (For whom, then, does he mistranslate this line?) To what extent does the Nun's Priest's Tale bear out the truth of either the original Latin proverb, or Chauntecleer's mistranslation? (or perhaps of both?) Chauntecleer himself musters a long list of "authorities" to argue against Pertelote's contention that dreams are without significance -- and yet no sooner does he finish "proving" that dreams are indeed portents of the future than he forgets to heed his own, with ruinous results. What distracts him from following his own advice? Whose fault is it that Chauntecleer ignores his dream's warning? (On the medieval notions of scriptural "authority," auctoritas, and the Latin-language auctores, "authors," whose works were considered authoritative, see translatio.)

Consider the relationship of the tale to the teller. The Nun's Priest accompanies the Prioress and is presumably the priest attached to her convent:  a religious community of women would need a priest to hold Mass, hear confession, give communion, etc., since women were not allowed to perform the Sacraments (a privilege of the -- exclusively male -- priesthood). Note that Chaucer apparently changed his mind and had the Prioress be accompanied by only one priest rather than three as suggested at GP 164 (presumably this discrepancy would have been corrected had Chaucer had time to revise the GP before his death). In the General Prologue, the Prioress is described as a somewhat reluctant nun who takes great pains to imitate courtly behavior -- something of a Cinderella "wannabe"; compare the depiction of Lady Pertelote as a distinctly courtly hen. There are also similarities between the Nun's Priest and Chauntecleer, each of whom is the sole male living within a community of women (the nuns of the convent; the hens in the barnyard). To what extent does the tale offer an ironic commentary on (or wishful rethinking of) the Nun's Priest's situation? 

Read carefully the portrait of the Nun's Priest which is found in the epilogue to the tale (in the translation only; it is not printed in Norton -- recall that no individual portrait of the Nun's Priest was provided in the General Prologue). Note the Host's comments on what the Nun's Priest would do were he not a priest; compare to Chauntecleer's statements concerning what he does do as sole rooster amongst a harem of hens. A Prioress's status within the Church hierarchy is greater than that of her priest: she is the head of the convent, and thus the equivalent of an Abbot, whereas he is on a par with a parish priest like the Parson. Could resentment of his subordinate role contribute to the Nun's Priest's depiction of or statements concerning women?

Note attitudes toward literature in general:  the citing of various auctoritas in the arguments for and against the validity of dreams; the comments concerning women's taste in literature (NPT 391-3); the parody of classical works recounting tragic events applied to the depiction of a relatively banal event: a fox trying to steal a rooster from a barnyard (e.g. the hens' clucking compared to the lamentations of the Trojan women in Virgil's Aeneid). What do you make of this literary merriment?

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2007

Click here to review Chaucer's poems "Gentilesse" and "Truth"

Click here for Background to the Canterbury Tales

Click here for Study Questions for the General Prologue

Click here for Study Questions for the Knight's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Miller's Tale

Click here for the ENGL 252 guide to The Miller's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Franklin's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale

Click here for Instructions on Preparing the ENGL 330 ORAL PRESENTATION

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