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Chaucer did it all: love triangles, cradle tricks, fabliaus, and now...virgin martyr legend?
"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 comment that storytelling is a good way 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 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. She demonstrates a confident public speaking voice and a desire to speak truthfully to power—all 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.
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.
Jane Zatta's Second Nun Page
Professor Jane Zatta's background on "The Second Nun's Tale" includes portraits of Saint Cecilia, background information on medieval women's freedom of choice in marriage, and the text of Chaucer's source for the tale.
Goucher College Second Nun's Page
This page goes into some interpretive issues for both Prologue and Tale. Of note is an interesting section comparing the Prologue to a medieval triptych, a three-paneled altarpiece meant to juxtapose related religious scenes.
Life of Saint Cecilia from Legenda Aurea
The Life of Cecilia from Jacobus de Voragine's multi-volume Legenda Aurea is likely Chaucer's most immediate source for "The Second Nun's Tale." It's provided here in full by the online Medieval Sourcebook.
Ellesmere Chaucer's Second Nun
Here's a link to the first page of "The Second Nun's Tale" in the Ellesmere Manuscript, along with an illustration of the Second Nun.
Saint Cecilia Altarpiece
An altarpiece dated 1304 from a medieval Italian church. Click on the image to see the scenes from Cecilia's life in more detail.
Teach Yourself to Read Middle English
This page, provided by Harvard, offers ten lessons that start with a general explanation of the principles of Middle English pronunciation and move on to actual practice with the tales themselves.
A Basic Chaucer Glossary
This is a helpful glossary of Middle English terms often used in Chaucer. The 100 most common words are denoted by an asterisk.