The Second Nun's Prologue
The tale, written in rime royal, begins with an invocation for people to avoid sin and avoid the devil, and then a formal invocation to the Virgin Mary.
There then follows an interpretation of the name of St. Cecilia, the subject of the Second Nun’s Tale: in English, the narrator tells us, her name might be expounded as “heaven’s lily”. The lily might represent the chasteness of Cecilia, or indeed, her white honesty. Or, perhaps her name would be best read as “the way toward understanding”, because she was an excellent teacher, or perhaps a conjoined version of “heaven” and “Lia”. Cecilia, the prologue concludes, was swift and busy forever in doing good works.
The Second Nun's Tale
Saint Cecilia was by birth a Roman and tutored in the ways of Christ. She dreaded the day that she must marry and give up her virginity. However, she came to be engaged to Valerian. On the day of their wedding, underneath her golden robes, she wore a hairshirt, praying to God that she might remain undefiled.
On their wedding night she told a secret to Valerian: she had an angel lover who, if he believed that Valerian touched her vulgarly, would slay him. Valerian said he would believe her if he could see this angel, and she told him to go to the Via Appia and find Pope Urban among the poor people. Once Urban purged him of his sins, Valerian would be able to see the angel. When he reached Via Appia, Urban suddenly appeared to Valerian and read from the Bible. Another old man, clad in bright white clothes, with a gold-lettered book appeared before Valerian, asking him whether he believed what Cecilia had told him. When he said he did, Pope Urban baptized Valerian and sent him back home.
Returning home, he found the angel with Cecilia. This angel had brought two crowns of flowers from Paradise that will never wilt, and gave one to Cecilia and one to Valerian. The angel claimed that only the pure and chaste would be able to see this crown. Valerian then asked for the angel to bless his brother and make him pure.
This brother, Tibertius, came and can smell, but not see the flowers. Valerian explained his new faith, and eventually tried to persuade his brother to be baptized. Tibertius, however, did not like the idea of being baptized by Urban, whom, he said, would be burnt if people ever found him. Valerian told his brother not to fear death, because there was a better life elsewhere. Cecilia explains the Holy Trinity and other key tenets of Christianity to him, and afterwards, Tibertius agrees to accompany the couple to Pope Urban.
Tibertius was baptized and became a perfect Christian – and for some time the three lived happily, God granting their every request. However, the sergeants of the town of Rome sought them, and brought them before Almachius the prefect, who ordered their death. During their execution, one of the sergeants, Maximus, claimed that he saw the spirits of Valerian and Tibertius ascend to heaven. Upon hearing this, many of the witnesses converted to Christianity. For this Almachius had him beaten to death, so Cecilia had him buried alongside Valerian and Tibertius.
Almachius summoned Cecilia, but she refused to appear frightened of him, or bow to his power; and when she was given the choice of forego Christianity or perform a sacrifice, she refused both of her options. She refused to admit any guilt and condemned Almachius for praising false idols. He ordered that she be boiled to death, but she, despite being left all day and night in a bath with fire underneath it, stayed cold – she did not even break a sweat.
Almachius then commanded his servant to slay her in the bath, and, though he struck her three strokes in the neck, he could not decapitate her, and she lay there half-dead. Christians stopped the blood with sheets, and, although she lay there for three days in agony, she never stopped teaching them the Christian faith. She even preached to them, giving them her property and her things, and – after three days – she died, and her body was taken to Pope Urban. He buried her by night among the other saints, and consecrated her church, still worshipped to this day as the church of St. Cecilia.
The Second Nun's Tale is a conventional religious biography, a “saint’s life”, as the medieval genre it belongs to is often called. Written in rime royal, it is very likely that Chaucer composed the tale previous to and separate from the Canterbury project, and only adapted it to fit within the Tales later. The Second Nun tells the story of Saint Cecilia in a dry, sanctimonious fashion that exalts her suffering and patient adherence to her faith, and, in a fashion that might be compared to the Prioress’ and the Clerk’s tales, stresses the patent inhumanity and saintliness of Cecilia from the first moment.
Like the “litel clergeoun” of the Prioress’ tale, Cecilia transcends the horrors of the mortal world: she stands against paganism, against false idols, and even against death, and is rewarded by being translated into a saint at the end of the tale. Some critics have recently begun to compare this tale to the Canon Yeoman’s tale which follows it, wondering whether Cecilia herself might undergo some sort of transformational alchemical process: though she, unlike the false Canon’s trick-coals, is entirely unchanged when heated up.
The tale points to the mythological nature of medieval Christianity. The metaphor of the angelic floral coronets, which only Christians can see, for example, is a physical manifestation of the idea that Christians belong to a City of God, a distinct community with shared values that exists within a secular and often hostile environment. There is perhaps also an interesting thought lurking in the tale about the problematic contradiction (highlighted by the Host in his words to the Monk and the Nun’s Priest) that human ministers of God are not allowed to be sexual beings: Cecilia, of course, sets herself apart from the earthlier women of the Tales (the Wife of Bath is the key example) by, right at the start of the tale, professing her distaste for sex.