The Canterbury Tales: The Second Nun's Tale
"The Second Nun's Tale," found in Geoffrey Chaucer 's The Canterbury Tales, is the story of how a holy maiden named Cecilia converts her husband and brother-in-law to Christianity, then defends her faith before a pagan oppressor before submitting to a gruesome martyrdom. In the Prologue to the tale, the Second Nun offers the story up as a defense against idleness, echoing the Host's assertion that the composition and telling of a tale is an effective and virtuous way in which to pass the time.
The genre of the tale the Second Nun chooses is a virgin martyr legend – the story of the life, but most importantly the martyrdom, of a (usually) female saint. These tales were meant to inspire their audience with the holy woman's steadfast faith in the face of persecution. The legend of St. Cecilia was one of the most famous of these virgin martyr legends. Chaucer's specific source for this version is probably Jacobus de Voragine's tale of Cecilia from his multi-volume collection of saints' lives the Legenda Aurea, but Chaucer probably would have heard many other versions of the legend in his lifetime. The tale of Cecilia was unusual among the virgin martyr legends because Cecilia was married, whereas most of the other virgin martyrs remained single "brides of Christ" until their deaths. Cecilia's use of her marriage to spread Christianity is thus one of the ways she is unique in her sanctity.
St. Cecilia is also known for her rhetorical eloquence, an attribute "The Second Nun's Tale" chooses to highlight. In her teaching of Tiburtius she demonstrates a firm grasp of Christian theology culled from theological writings. Before her pagan oppressor Almachius, she demonstrates a confident public speaking voice and a desire to speak truthfully to power. Although in the end it is the circumstances of Cecilia's death that most fully puncture Almachius's claims to power, throughout that death Cecilia preaches and teaches while her head is (literally) hanging by a thread.
Another way in which the legend of Cecilia departs from other virgin martyr legends is its relative lack of eroticism. Unlike her "peers," Cecilia's physical beauty is not much of a focus, nor does she become an object of sexual desire for a pagan oppressor. The effect of this lack of eroticism is that other aspects of Cecilia's legend, like her rhetorical eloquence and learnedness, and her ability to inspire chains of converts, are able to take center stage.
Why Should I Care?
Early in the history of the Christian religion, Paul, organizer of the Corinthian church decreed:
"As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should speak to their husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church." (1 Corinthians 14:33-35)
And so began ten centuries of debate about what, exactly, Paul meant when he said this. Over time, people have extended the reach of this Bible verse to exclude women from public spheres in general. They said: a woman's place is in the home, not in leadership positions, or politics, or the workplace, etc. You've heard it all before.
What you might be surprised to learn, however, is that when Paul made this statement, lots of other people disagreed with it. And one of the figures they turned to for backup was Saint Cecilia, whose story is retold in "The Second Nun's Tale." Cecilia not only converted her husband, but she also preached Christianity in a very public arena before the Roman prefect Almachius. She turned her house into a church, thus troubling the neat distinction Paul's statement seems to make between the two. Here was an educated woman who spoke publicly and she became a saint. So how could it be wrong for women to teach and yes, even speak in church?
Opponents of women's preaching claimed that Cecilia was a "special" case. Times were different back when she was alive, they said. The Church was young, and needed all the voices it could get. Now is a completely different time, as the argument goes.
We're not going to comment on this debate one way or the other. Instead, we'll let Cecilia speak for herself in "The Second Nun's Tale." After all, she's good at it.