While Chaucer experiments with the nature of fiction in other tales, in The Second Nun’s Tale, he presents a model to be taken seriously. Cecile is a perfect example of this as she argues her faith against a Roman authority, performs miracles, is recognized as a saint in her own time, converts the enemy and is made a martyr. While Custance (in The Man of Law’s Tale) and Grisilde (in The Clerk’s Tale) seem to be saintly role models, Chaucer refines this saintly portrayal with Cecile. Chaucer not only gives her all of the criteria for sainthood but also emphasizes her martyrdom. While critics may argue that Cecile’s behavior is too over the top to be taken seriously, she actually suffers less than can be seen in contemporary saints’ lives. By not experimenting with this tale as fiction, but rather stressing the truth of Cecile’s saintly example, Chaucer implies that we should take the tale of Cecile to heart. The tale is unique in the fact that Chaucer is more concerned with the truth to be gained from the tale than any literary experimentation.
Chaucer has introduced the reader to other exemplars of saintly behavior with Custance (in The Man of Law’s Tale) and Grisilde (in The Clerk’s Tale). In The Man of Law’s Tale Chaucer describes the trials and tribulations of Custance as an exemplar of saintly behavior. She is seen as a Virgin Mary figure as well as a role model of Christian virtue with her suffering at the hands of the heathen Sultaness, her conversion of Northumberland, and her dedication to living her life out in pious acts. Chaucer does not implicitly name Custance as a saint, as he does with Cecile, but it is obvious that he means for her to be seen as a saintly role model. In The Clerk’s Tale, with Grisilde, Chaucer tells a story of a perfect wife, who is in complete obedience to her husband. Grisilde is an example for how women should behave within the confines of marriage. Her absolute faith in following her husband’s word has religious overtones as well as serving as a model for behavior.
The Second Nun’s Tale is the final evolutionary step in how Chaucer portrays the exemplar of a saint. Chaucer has been working out the kinks in these other tales as there are elements of both Custance and Grisilde in Cecile, although her character far surpasses them both. Custance and Grisilde are victims to of their situations, but Cecile is never a victim, not even, of circumstance. Every action she takes is a conscious one and this elevates her out of the realm of pathos. Cecile is in control of the events from the beginning when she explains her vow to remain a virgin to her husband, standing up to the Roman soldiers and authorities, and facing her own burning death. She is not a victim of anything. These acts set Cecile apart from the characters of Grisilde and Custance and place the tale out of the realm of pathos. According to Robert Worth Frank, in pathos the characters must be victims, “that is, they must be passive, not active agents who struggle in some fashion, however futile, against opposing forces and even contribute to their own destruction as in tragedy” (page 179). Cecile is not passive and in fact is the very definition of an active agent in her struggles against the Roman authority. It is this strength of character and belief that sets Cecile above Custance and Grisilde. However, it is because Chaucer treats these other tales and literary forms with such irony, that the reader knows the stories are not concerned with the ultimate truth as The Second Nun’s Tale is.
Chaucer reinforces that Cecile is meant to be seen as a serious saintly figure by his descriptions of how she fits the criteria of sainthood. She performs miracles, is recognized as a saint in her own time (specifically by the converted enemy Maximus), she is martyred by the incident of the boiling in the cauldron and the attempted decapitation. She is also given a miraculous three day reprieve during which she preaches to the villagers. Chaucer describing Cecile as a saint in her own time is important because it illustrates that her goodness and piety is so luminous that it is obvious to everyone around her. The descriptions of Cecile’s conversions of her husband, the village and the enemy are detailed versus the conversions of Custance which are a footnote to the tale. The most important conversion is that of Maximus, the prison guard who hears Cecile speaking to the others who are imprisoned, and he not only has a change of heart but places himself at great risk in order to fully receive the teachings of Cecile and become a good Christian (lines 372-378). Making Maximus and the guards not only Christians but her Christian knights, champions if you will shows that Cecile’s power is not that she simply converts them but that Maximus himself, after witnessing these events goes on to convert others.
Chaucer uses the confrontation between Almachius and Cecile to showcase her intelligence and the strength of her beliefs. Almachius summons Cecile to answer for her actions and to question her about her beliefs, thinking that she will see the errors of her ways and renounce her faith. Cecile argues that Almachius represents the Roman authority and she refuses to recognize this authority and therefore is not subject to its laws (lines 437-441). She unmoved by Almachius’ threats and goes on to condemn him and the princes he receives his authority from. Cecile argues that Almachius is compounding his crime by persecuting Christians he knows are innocent (lines 449-455). By the end of the argument, Cecile refuses to renounce her faith and challenges that Almachius has any power over her. She manages to turn the tables in the dialogue by accusing him of creating a sentence that “makes” the Christians guilty, which he knows is a lie, compounding his own sin. Almachius argues that the authority that has been given to him grants him the power to condemn her and the rest of her group, but Cecile responds by accusing Almachius of being afraid to hear the truth in front of witnesses, daring him to hear it (lines 477-478). Cecile says Almachius only has the power to take away life, “Thou, that ne mayst but oonly lyf bireve” (line 482) not “Bothe for to sleen and for to quyken a wight” (line 481) as he claims and Cecile calls him the Minister of Death, and relegates him only to that role (lines 484-486). Cecile’s argument not only places her on the same level as the Roman authority of Almachius, but it shows his secular power is nothing when compared to her faith and the power of God to take and give life. She refutes his arguments and prophesizes that he will be scorned and laughed at when it is learned how these events unfolded (lines 505-510). Almachius’ defeat represents the strength of Cecile’s faith and beliefs.
The final step in Cecile’s journey to sainthood is her physical suffering. It is her extreme suffering that makes her not just a saint, but a martyr. Almachius orders Cecile to be put in a boiling cauldron but his plan misfires when she is untouched by the flames and feels no pain for a day and a night (lines 515-519). Next, Almachius sends his messenger to go and “sleen hire in the bath” (line 525) but when the messenger tries to decapitate her with four strokes and fails, he gives up and leaves her. Her faithful followers come, mop up the blood, and care for her during the next three days. She spends this time preaching to them. When she dies Saint Urban takes her body and buries it with the other saints. Her house where she lived and preached is consecrated and becomes the church of St. Cecile. Cecile’s path to martyrdom proves her earlier point that she recognized no power except God’s. Cecile is willing to face Almachius’ punishment and die as a Christian rather than renounce her faith. Cecile is given three days to minister to her people as a reward for her pious actions.
Critics have argued that the life and trials of Cecile are too overdone, and Chaucer is mocking the saintly life and the tales that reflect them. That Chaucer means for the tale of Cecile to be taken seriously can be seen in how his tale differs, from the source material. Chaucer emphasizes Cecile’s saintly character more than Jacobus de Voragine does in Legenda aurea or Antonio Bosio’s with Pasio S, Caeciliae. By adding to the source material, Chaucer strengthens the idea of Cecile as an exemplar. “Chaucer goes considerably beyond the details preserved in the Legenda aurea” (Reames, 1990). Chaucer’s version differs in several major ways; the trial of Valerian and Tiburce is greatly reduced, the conversion of Maximus is also reduced, the execution of Valerian and Tiburce is shortened, and the dialogue where Almachius’ officers come to arrest her and Cecile converts them. Some would argue that these omissions weaken the tale, that Chaucer is only using the parts that would allow him to ridicule the genre and tale. However, I argue that it is just the opposite. By deleting and editing these scenes Chaucer leaves behind a lean tale that focuses solely on the saintly character of Cecile and her pious actions. By not playing or experimenting with the fiction elements of the tale, Chaucer lets the saintly example of Cecile be the focus for the tale.
Chaucer’s choice of source materials for the prologue and tale, reflect a different side of the author than has been seen previously. Chaucer chooses materials that will help reveal the truth of Cecile’s tale. Further proof of Chaucer’s expectations for the tale can be found when he uses hymns as his source when he invokes the Virgin Mary (Brown, 1911), and his references to Saint Bernard in the prologue (Emerson, 1926) as well as his dedication to showing portraits of noble Christian women throughout The Caunterbury Tales. Also, the recent evidence that Chaucer mainly used a source called the Franciscan abridgment shows the focus on Cecile as a religious text. The fact that he only used Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda aurea and Antonio Bosio’s Pasio S, Caeciliae as a supplement illustrates that Chaucer was less concerned with the literary aspects of the tale. Textual proof shows that the second half of The Second Nun’s Tale is taken almost directly from this text. It is not necessary for the reader to hear long descriptions of Valerian and Tiburce’s trial and executions, their conversion and their faith is what is important. Maximus’ conversion and his actions afterward are likewise all that matters. Cecile’s use of rhetoric in her argument with Almachius takes the place of the dialogue that converts Almachius’ officers when they come to arrest her, and this is stronger than the original to be found in the Passio. By defeating Almachius’ argument she shows more strength than by defeating the argument of the underlings in Passio. These editing choices and the fact that Chaucer chose a manuscript for his source that was one probably frequently used in “lessons read aloud in choral services, especially on solemn occasions” supports the argument that Chaucer meant this tale to be taken seriously (Reames, 1990).
Chaucer uses a different approach to The Second Nun’s Tale than he has in any other tales, including those of saintly characters. He uses a liturgical text for source material rather than a literary one and elevates the character of Cecile by focusing on her actions and experiences. Throughout the tale, Chaucer indicates that he is more interested in the truth of the tale than in exploring the limits of fiction. This makes the tale unusual in The Canterbury Tales. When Chaucer explores character, endings and literary devices throughout the tales, he always seems to be experimenting. In some cases, the experiment becomes more important than the tale being told. It is only in The Second Nun’s Tale that Chaucer is more concerned with the ultimate truth to be learned from Cecile, as can be seen in the seriousness with which he treats the tale.
Brown, Carelton. “The Prologue of Chaucer’s “Lyf of Seint Cecile”.” Modern Philology, Vol. 9, No. 1. (Jul., 1911), pp1-16.
Emerson, Oliver Farrar. “Saint Ambrose and Chaucer’s Life of St. Cecilia.” PMLA, Vol. 41, No. 2. (Jun., 1926), pp. 252-261.
Frank Jr., Robert Worth. “The Canterbury Tales III: pathos.” The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer. Ed. Piero Boitani and Jill Mann. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK, 2003. 178-194
Maxfield, Ezra Kempton. “Chaucer and Religious Reform.” PMLA, Vol. 39, No. 1. (Mar., 1924), pp. 64-74.
Reames, Sherry L. “A Recent Discovery concerning the Sources of Chaucer’s “Second Nun’s Tale.” Modern Philology, Vol. 87, No. 4. (May, 1990), pp. 337-361.