The Canterbury Tales

Summary and Analysis of The Nun's Priest's Tale

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The Prologue of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Here the Knight “stynteth” (stops) the Monk’s Tale

“Hoo!” says the Knight, “good sire, namoore of this”. The Knight then praises the Monk, but says that he has heard quite enough about mens' sudden falls from high status and grace, and would far rather hear about men climbing from poverty to prosperity.

The Host steps in to concur, telling the Monk that his tale is boring the company, and that his talk is worth nothing, because there is no fun to be had from it. The Host asks the Monk to tell another tale - and the Monk responds that, having no desire to play and have fun, he has said all he has to say. The Host then turns to the Nun’s Priest, asking him to draw near, and asking him to be merry of heart in his tale. “Yis, sir”, says the Nun’s Priest – and, described as a “sweete preest” by the narrator, the Nun’s Priest begins his tale.

The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

A poor widow, rather advanced in age, had a small cottage beside a grove, standing in a dale. This widow led a very simple life, providing for herself and her daughters from a small farm. In a yard which she kept, enclosed all around with palings and with a ditch outside it, she had a cock called Chaunticleer, who was peerless in his crowing. Chaunticleer was beautifully coloured, with a comb redder than coral, and a beak as black as jet, and he had under his government seven chickens, who were his paramours, of which his favourite was Dame Pertelote.

One morning, Chaunticleer began to groan in his throat, as a man who was troubled in his dreams does, and Pertelote, aghast, asked him what the matter was. Chaunticleer replied that he had had a bad dream, and prayed to God to help him to correctly interpret it. He had dreamt that he, roaming around the yard, saw an animal “lyk an hound” which tried to seize his body and have him dead. The “hound’s” colour was somewhere between yellow and red, and his tail and both his ears were tipped with black.

Pertelote mocked him, telling him that he was a coward. Pertelore then argues that dreams are meaningless visions, caused simply by ill humors (bad substances in the body) – and quotes Cato at length to demonstrate her point. Her solution is that she will pick herbs from the yard in order to bring his humors back to normal.

Chaunticleer disagreed, arguing that while Cato is certainly an authority, there are many more authorities available to be read who argue that dreams are significations – of good things and bad things to come. He stated the example of one man who, lying in his bed, dreamt that his friend was being murdered for his gold in an ox’s stall, and that his body was hidden in a dung cart. Remembering his dream, this man went to a dung cart at the west gate of the town, and found the murdered body of his friend. Chaunticleer then described the story of two men, who were preparing to cross the sea. One of them dreamed that, if he crossed the sea the next day, he would be drowned - he told his companion, who laughed at him, and resolved to go anyway. The ship’s bottom tore, and his companion was drowned. Chaunticleer also cited the examples of Macrobius, Croesus and Andromache, who each had prophecies in their dreams.

Then, however, Chaunticleer praised Pertelote, asking her to speak of “mirth”, and stop all this talk of prophecy - the beauty of her face, he says, makes him feel fearless. He then quoted the proverb “Mulier est hominis confusio”, translating it as “Woman is man’s joy and all his bliss”, when it actually translates “Woman is man’s ruin”. Chaunticleer then flew down from his beam, called all of his hens to him, and revealed that he’d found a grain lying in the yard. He then clasped Pertelote to him with his wings, and copulated with her until morning.

When the month of March was over, Chaunticleer was walking in full pride, all of his wives around him, when a coal fox (a fox with black-tipped feet, ears and tail) broke through the hedges and into the yard. He bode his time for a while. The narrator then goes off into an aside, addressing Chaunticleer, and wishing that he had taken “wommennes conseils” (woman’s counsel) – before he moves back into the tale, reminding us that his tale “is of a cok”.

Chaunticleer sang merrily in the yard, and, casting his eyes among the cabbages, caught sight of the fox – and would have fled, but the fox addressed him, asking where he was going, and claiming to be his friend. The fox claimed to have met Chaunticleer’s mother and father, and talked of his father’s excellent singing voice, and the way his father used to stretch out his neck and stand on his tiptoes before singing. The fox then asked whether Chaunticleer can sing like his father – and Chaunticleer stood on his tiptoes, stretched out his neck, closed his eyes, and, as he began to sing, the fox grabbed him by the throat and ran off to the wood with him.

The poor widow and her two daughters, hearing the cry of the chickens, ran after the fox toward the crove, and many other men and animals ran after them. Chaunticleer managed to speak to the fox, and encouraged him to turn to his pursuers and curse them, telling him that he was going to eat the cock. The fox agreed – but as he opened his mouth to agree, the cock broke from his mouth suddenly and flew high up into a tree. The fox tried to persuade him down, saying that he had been misinterpreted, and that Chaunticleer should fly down in order that he might “seye sooth” (tell the truth) about what he had meant, but Chaunticleer knew better this time. The fox finally cursed all those who “jangleth whan he sholde holde his pees” (chatters when he should hold his peace).

The narrator then addresses everyone who thinks the tale is mere foolery, asking them to take the moral of the tale, rather than the tale itself: taking the fruit, and letting the chaff remain. Thus ends the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.

Epilogue to the Nun's Priest's Tale

The Host, praises the tale as "myrie", and then, as he did with the Monk, suggests that the Nun's Priest would be an excellent breeding man (trede-foul) if only he were allowed to breed - for the Nun's Priest, the Host continues, is brawny, with a great neck and large chest.

Analysis

The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is one of the best-loved and best-known of all of the Tales, and one whose genre, in Chaucer’s time and now, is instantly recognizable. It is a beast fable, just like Aesop’s fable, and as one of Chaucer’s successors, the medieval Scots poet Robert Henryson, would go on to explore in great detail, its key relationship is that between human and animal. The key question of the genre is addressed at the end by the narrator himself: telling those who find a tale about animals a folly to take the moral from the tale, disregarding the tale itself. But can we take a human moral from a tale about animals? Can an animal represent – even just in a tale – a human in any useful way?

For a start, it is important to notice that the animal-human boundary is blurred even before the tale begins, when the Host mocks the Nun’s Priest (who, being a religious man, would have been celibate) and suggesting that he would have made excellent breeding stock (a “tredefowl”, or breeding-fowl, is the word he uses). The thought is an interesting one – because if we can think of the Nun’s Priest himself as potentially useful in breeding, animalistic terms, then can we think of his tale in potentially useful in human terms?

The question frames the other themes of the tale. The issue of woman’s counsel is raised again (last foregrounded in Chaucer’s tale of Melibee) explicitly – should Chaunticleer take Pertelote’s advice about how to interpret his dreams? Should he disregard his dreams, and get on with his life? He does, of course, looking among the cabbages (perhaps even to find herbs), when he sees the fox – and at that point, the tale seems to suggest, he should never have listened to his wife in the first place: his fears were valid.

That is, until we remember what the narrator tells us anyway at a crucial point, that his tale is “of a cok” – about a chicken. It is hardly as if we need a prophetic dream to tell us that foxes like eating chickens: its what we might call animal instinct. This is doubly highlighted when, after quoting Cato and discussing the various textual politics of dream interpretation, Chaunticleer calls his wives excitedly to him because he has found a grain of corn – and then has uncomplicated animal sex with Pertelote all night. It is a contradiction, Chaucer seems to imply, to expect unchicken-like behavior from a chicken: yet the contradiction is one which fuels the whole genre of beast fable. If the Nun’s Priest had too much human dignity and restraint to be a breeding fowl, Cato-quoting Chaunticleer has animal urges too strong to be a viable auctour.

Except that, of course, with the possible exception of Arviragus and Dorigen in the Franklin's Tale, there is no more stable and robust “marriage” in the Canterbury Tales than Chanticleer and Pertelote’s. The two fowl have a fulfilling sexual relationship - and the sex occurs as a pleasurable, uncomplicated end in itself, a stark contrast with the sexual transactions of the Franklin and the Wife of Bath’s tales. In one sense, then, the animals are not so bestial.

Interpreting dreams, incidentally, is a favorite theme of Middle English literature, and it frames a whole genre of poetry, known as “dream poems”, of which Chaucer himself wrote several (including the Book of the Duchess and the House of Fame). Dreams and text are closely intertwined, and – even in this tale – the way in which a dream poem juxtaposes the text of the dream with the text of the story is clear. Is a dream any more or less real than a tale? If we can take a moral from a tale, can we take one from a dream?

This tale is in many ways a return to the ground, a return to basics. We start with a poor widow, and a dusty yard - a setting far removed from the high-culture classical tragedies of the Monk. Moreover, the tale keeps emphasizing anality and bottoms - in Chaunticleer’s two examples of dreams-coming-true, a dung cart and a breaking ship’s “bottom” are the hinge of the story, and Pertelote’s advice to Chaunticleer is to take some “laxatyf” to clear out his humours. There is a good-natured sense of groundedness about this tale, a return – after the dark run of Monk (interrupted), before him the punishing Melibee (and interrupted Sir Thopas) and bitter Prioress – to the humour and warmth of the early tales. Yet its theme also darkly foreshadows the end of the tale-telling project itself.

If the tale, taken simplistically, does endorse prophetic dreams (though, as mentioned above, a look at the animal nature of its characters might be seen as parodying the whole concept!) then what is the “moral” that the narrator wants us to take away at the end? As ever, this isn’t totally clear. Yet one thing it might be is the importance of speaking or not speaking.

One of the things that makes Chaunticleer the morally-representative chicken a problem is the fact that he can speak and argue with his wife on the one hand, yet cry “cok! Cok!” when he sees a grain on the floor. He is both chicken and human, rather like Chaucer writes as both himself and as Nun’s Priest. The tale, however, is structured by people knowing when to speak and not knowing when to speak: Pertelote speaks out to wake Chaunticleer from his dream, Chaunticleer foolishly opens his mouth to sing for the fox when he is captured, and it is Chaunticleer’s final visitation of the trap that he himself fell into on the fox which causes him in turn to open his mouth – and let Chaunticleer go. Know when you should “jangle” (chatter) and know when to hold your peace.

It is a theme of course which points a sharp finger at the whole idea of a beast fable - the whole genre, we might argue, resting on the writer precisely ignoring the correct moments to have a character speak or not speak; and it also is a dangerous moral for the Tales as a whole. In a work of literature that constantly apes orality, the injunction to shut up is a serious one – and, as a comparison of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale to the Manciple’s Tale reveals – one very much in Chaucer’s mind at the very end of the Canterbury project.