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The Nun's Priest's Tale: The Beast Fable of the Canterbury Tales

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  • 0:11 The Beast Fable
  • 1:38 The Nun's Priest's Tale
  • 5:06 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Zach Pino
In this lesson, we'll go over the medieval beast fable genre and take a look at the Nun's Priest's Tale, one of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales that is illustrative of the genre.

The Beast Fable

The Nun's Priest's Tale is told by the nun's priest, who is traveling with another pilgrim, the Prioress. He's kind of in her non-entourage, basically. It's a beast fable, which is a medieval genre that's basically responsible for the talking animal films that plague us today. So, every time you cringe at a Madagascar 3 poster, you can blame Chaucer and his buddies, because they were doing this a long time ago.

People in the middle ages were into these things called bestiaries, which shouldn't be confused with bestiality, although it is a similar root word - bestiaries means animal, beast. Bestiaries described animals and assigned particular traits and symbolism to them. Like a lot of things in medieval life, a lot of it had to do with God and religion. As an example, bees were described as the smallest of birds that lived in communities ruled by a king… but he doesn't need to enforce laws, because the bees will sting each other to death for breaking them. They enjoyed making up kind of human-like descriptions and traits for all these animals.

In a similar vein, they had these things called beast fables, of which the Nun's Priest's Tale is one. It takes these anthropomorphized animals, these human-like animals, and has them act out a story.

The Nun's Priest's Tale

In the Canterbury Tales, the Nun's Priest is called upon to tell a fun story, because the Monk has just told a real downer. So, he tells a beast fable. What happens is that there's this rooster named Chauntecleer, which is French for clear singer.

(There actually is an animated movie featuring a talking rooster named Chauntecleer. It's called Rock-A-Doodle. I've never seen it, but I watched the preview a million times because it was on one of my favorite VHS tapes.)

Anyway, Chauntecleer is like the most awesome rooster ever. He's better at crowing than everyone else, he looks great, and he's got seven wives (chickens wives - they're all animals). His favorite wife's name is Pertelote. Interestingly, Chaucer describes her as a faire damoysele even though she's a chicken. She's very anthropomorphized.

One night, Chauntecleer wakes up, and he's had a bad dream that he's going to be eaten by a fox. Pertelote is unfazed, but Chauntecleer gets very upset. He starts telling her about all sorts of people who dreamed of their deaths and in general about dreams that come true. He's referencing human sources like the Roman, Cicero. Chaucer doesn't establish a whole separate Chicken Lore, like Redwall. So, Pertelote calms him down, and then we get some kind of disturbing chicken sex, which is typically left out of the Disney movies:

Real he was, he was namoore aferd;

He fethered Pertelote twenty tyme,

And trad as ofte, er that it was pryme.

Basically, Pryme means morning, trad means had sex with. So, he had sex with her 20 times before morning. Which is kind of a lot; maybe that's not exactly anthropomorphized.

Now that we've got the image of chicken sex out of our heads... inevitably, his dream comes true. A fox saunters into the farm and starts chatting up Chauntecleer. He's praising Chauntecleer's singing, and asks him to sing for him. Of course, Chauntecleer cannot sing without puffing up his chest and closing his eyes. So he closes his eyes, and the fox takes the opportunity to snatch him up. They're climbing in your windows, snatching your chickens up.

Pertolote freaks out when she realizes he's gone - chaos ensues - there's lots of running around, fox has Chauntecleer in his mouth. Chauntecleer is a clever chicken, and he tells the fox that he should stop and brag that he caught him. So the fox does that, opens his mouth, and Chauntecleer flies into a tree.

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