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Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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ONLINE STUDY GUIDE FOR THE CANTERBURY TALES

The Second Nun’s Tale: Prologue

The Second Nun begins by saying that idleness nourishes vice. Idleness is ever vigilant and rapidly springs a trap to ensnare people. The only antidote to this vice is industriousness. With the aim of countering idleness the Second Nun proposes to tell the story of St. Cecilia’s life.

The Second Nun then invokes the Virgin Mary to help her relate St. Cecilia’s tale - the maiden who overcame Satan and won eternal life through her good deeds. She then praises the Virgin for her goodness, mercy and pity. She also apologizes for the bare simplicity of her tale and asserts that she isn’t making any attempt at ornamentation.

The Second Nun also furnishes an interpretation of the name of Cecilia as expounded in the "Legenda Aurea". The name Cecilia connotes many things: it signifies heaven’s lily for her purity, freshness of conscience and virginity. It may also mean path for the blind since her good teachings set an example for others to emulate. Cecilia is made up of two words - "Heaven" and "Leah" - thus it means holiness and unceasing activity. It means a lack of blindness because of the brightness created by her virtues and wisdom. Her name could also mean heaven of the people, because of the radiance of her wisdom and the perfection in her perseverance and good works.


Notes


The Second Nun’s Tale relates the story of St. Cecilia from the ‘Legenda Aurea’, which was later translated by Caxton as ‘The Golden Legend’. The Second Nun begins by condemning idleness because idleness lead to sin. The Prologue also has an invocation to the Virgin Mary based on lines from Dante’s ‘Paradiso’. The invocation to the Virgin was a familiar device but is particularly appropriate here because the tale is about the martyrdom of a virgin maiden Cecilia. Thus the invocation stresses on virginity and good works. The Second Nun’s interpretation of the name ‘Cecilia’ also focuses on the virtues of chastity, virginity, and good works. Thus the Second Nun accentuates the highest Christian standards of conduct. It has been noted that the Second Nun improperly refers to herself as a ‘son of Eve’. This has led critics to speculate that the tale was written much earlier and allotted to the Second Nun for lack of anything better.


The Second Nun’s Tale

Summary

There was a young noble Roman woman named Cecilia who unceasingly prayed to Christ to guard her virginity. When she came of age she was married to a young man named Valerian. However on her wedding day she earnestly prayed to God to protect her chastity. On her first night with her husband she told him that a guardian angel protected her body at all times and if he touched her or made carnal love to her the angel would kill him in the act. Valerian asked to see the angel with his own eyes, and agreed to do as she wished, if the angel were real. However he warned that if he found that Cecilia loved another man he would kill both of them. Cecilia told him that he must first convert to Christianity. She directed him to go to the Appian Way and get baptized by St. Urban.

When Valerian arrived at the designated spot and told St. Urban the purpose of his visit, the saint raised his hands in joy and marveled at Cecilia’s power to induce her husband to convert to Christianity. At this moment an old man wearing white clothes appeared in a vision and read out from a golden book that there is one omnipotent God and one faith alone. The man in the vision then asked Valerian whether he believed in this and when Valerian answered in the affirmative the vision disappeared into thin air and St. Urban baptized Valerian.

On his return home Valerian found Cecilia standing beside her angel in his room. The angel carried two crowns of roses and lilies and gave them to Cecilia and Valerian. The garlands had come from Paradise and would never decay. Moreover only the chaste, that do not harbor any unclean thoughts, would be able to see them. The angel then granted Valerian a boon. Valerian wished that his brother whom he loved very much should also be converted to the great faith of Christianity.

However Valerian’s brother - Tiburce - objected to being baptized by Pope Urban since he did not wish to be involved with an outlaw and risk being burnt at the stake. Cecilia convinced Tiburce that this earthly life is only a prelude to the next life of the soul entrusted by the Holy Ghost. Tiburce questioned Cecilia about the validity of her assertion that only one God exists when she believes in three gods embodied in the Holy Ghost. Cecilia explained that just as man had the three faculties of imagination, memory and reason, similarly three persons could be incorporated into the one Being of the Deity. Tiburce was finally convinced and allowed himself to be baptized by Pope Urban. Thereafter Tiburce could also see the angel and was blessed with boons.

The Roman legal officers soon arrested them and produced them before Almachius, the magistrate. When Almachius found out that they believed in Christianity, he ordered them to perform sacrifice to Jupiter or risk being beheaded. However Valerian and Tiburce refused to do so and were sentenced to death. Maximus, the magistrate’s clerk was so moved by their staunch refusal that he too converted to Christianity. Maximus helped to convert many others and was mercilessly flogged to death by Almachius.

Almachius lost no time in ordering Cecilia to honor the pagan gods. When Cecilia was brought before him in court he questioned her about her faith and religion. Cecilia answered him rudely and denounced him as an ignorant official and worthless judge. She ridicules his belief in the pagan idols. Infuriated, Almachius ordered that Cecilia be burnt to death by being sealed in a boiling hot bath. However the intense heat of the fire had no effect upon her. Then the evil Almachius sent an executioner to murder Cecilia in the bath. This killer struck three times on Cecilia’s neck but failed to behead her. He left her half dead with a slit neck in the bath. Cecilia continued to live for three days and her preaching succeeded in winning more converts to Christianity. She then entrusted the Christians to Pope Urban and died after expressing the wish that her house be turned into a church. Pope Urban secretly buried her corpse at night and named her house St. Cecilia’s Church.

Notes

The Second Nun’s Tale is an adaptation of an earlier Latin version. It is believed that Cecilia was martyred in the reign of Severus who ruled from AD 222 - 235. The Second Nun’s Tale is the only saint’s legend in the entire book. It is also the final story dealing with the themes of love and marriage. Cecilia submits to marriage but attains ‘maistrie’ by her husband’s consent. But Cecilia’s marriage is on a higher plane of existence. Neither she nor her husband achieves sovereignty over each other. Rather both subjugate themselves to the will of God. She converts him to Christianity. They remain chaste and dedicate their lives to the cause of the Church. Eventually they become martyrs and Cecilia is rewarded with sainthood.


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