The Canterbury Tales: The Second Nun's Tale
by Geoffrey Chaucer
The heroine of this story, Cecilia is already a Christian when we first meet her, since she's been raised that way since childhood. Now a pious adult, she is determined to remain "unwemmed," or unstained, throughout her life. Cecilia's desire to remain pure both spiritually and physically brings her in conflict not only with the pagan prefect Almachius, but also with the most important values and role-expectations of her society, which dictate that a noblewoman like Cecilia must marry and produce children. Cecilia resists these potential stumbling blocks with great rhetorical eloquence and determination, confirming herself to be "round and hool in good perseverynge" as the narrator claims her name suggests (117).
Because Cecilia is a virgin martyr, her character greatly resembles those of other such saints. Particularly when it comes to their spiritual lives, there is little that's unique about virgin martyrs – they're all cut from the same cloth. Like other virgin martyrs, Cecilia prays continually, always keeps Christ and his gospel in mind, and strives to keep her body undefiled by the touch of a man.
Unlike most of these martyrs, though, Cecilia is forced to marry. This situation makes Cecilia rebellious toward her own society and medieval society's expectations for women. Both societies expected women to marry and make babies. So, Cecilia becomes an important figure supporting women's freedom when it comes to the decision to marry or not. Cecilia might have been a particularly important saint for women who longed to live a religious life in order to rebel against their family's wishes for them – evidence suggests there were many such women in the medieval period.
Another way in which Cecilia stands out among virgin martyrs is that she seems to have a firm grasp of the ins and outs of Christian theology. Her explanation of the Trinity, for example, comparing its three persons in one god to the three powers of one mind, draws on the very complicated theology of a late Roman writer named Augustine. Augustine's works, like Confessions, City of God, and On the Trinity, explored concepts like how we know God exists, and who or what God actually is. (Yeah, heavy, we know!) To be familiar with the work of this late classical thinker, Cecilia has to be extremely well-educated. She draws upon this education in her debate with Almachius, too, critiquing not just the content of his faith, but the ins and outs of his rhetoric when she calls his argument "folily" begun (428).
In her education and outspokenness, Cecilia is a highly unconventional and unique role model for medieval women, who, for the most part, were supposed to remain silent before men and were forbidden to teach theology. Although it's debatable to what extent medieval women were actually expected to follow Cecilia's example, the existence among the saints of a woman like her, who uses her education to publicly criticize the Man – the guy in charge – could have inspired medieval women to speak publicly too.