The Nun's Priest in The Canterbury Tales

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

For a tale in which the main characters are farm animals, 'The Nun's Priest's Tale' from Geoffrey Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales'' offers up opinions on a variety of topics including economic status, dream analysis, and moral behavior, all thrown together to create an entertaining story. In this lesson, we will discuss some of this.

The Nun's Priest

The expectations on the Priest to tell a good story are high, especially since the previous story-teller did not do well. The host of the group, marching toward Canterbury, remarks that he was 'boring all of us to death'. On the bright side, things can't go much lower. The priest has an opportunity to lift everyone's spirits by simply providing a more entertaining tale. 'The Nun's Priest's Tale' is a success, and receives some unusual praise.

The priest is praised not only for his ability to spin a yarn, but for his physique as well. The host notes, at the end of the priest's tale, 'the muscles on this splendid priest', and he goes on to talk about his eyes, his complexion, and other physical attributes. 'The Nun's Priest's Tale' did much to lift everyone's spirits. The excitement over this tale leads the host to give some unusual and odd praise. He asks that the priest's 'breeches and your very balls be blessed'. To garner such praise, it must have been a rousing tale indeed, even if, by today's standards, the tale might not seem as stimulating as the host indicated!

A Rooster Does Rule the Roost

In a nutshell, an old woman lives on a plot of land and leads a simple life. Her 'bed- and living-room was thick with soot'. She also doesn't eat much. In essence, she appears to be on the edge of the poverty level. Yet, when it comes to the rooster, Chanticleer, he lives the life. Everything about the rooster is clean, neat, and of the highest quality, especially his voice. All the hens are in love with him, but only Pertelote has his heart. She is the love of his life.

The initial descriptions in this tale provide a contrast, perhaps even hinting at the disparity between the rich and the poor. The old woman lives frugally with rarely anything to eat, and her home is dirty and run-down. She is 'a hard-up widow, getting on in age'. The rooster, a bird no less, lives better than she does. His crown, beak, and nails are all radiant. He has seven hens 'for his delight and delectation'. He has everything a person, or rooster, could want. Because the rooster is younger than the widow, this could be a remark by Chaucer on the rise of the younger generation and their economic success. The disparity in quality of life between the two is important to keep in mind.

Dream Analysis

'The Nun's Priest's Tale' actually develops when Chanticleer tells Pertelote about a dream he has. In the dream he sees a dog-like creature stalking him in the yard and in the end, Chanticleer sees his lifeless body in the mouth of the creature. Pertelote thinks this is nonsense, and actually looks down on Chanticleer for being afraid of a dream. She tells him that Cato, a Roman historian and orator, mentions that dreams mean nothing, and that this is all the result of Chanticleer being constipated.

Chanticleer disagrees, and uses the writings of Cicero, a notable Roman orator, to counter her argument. He provides several stories in which a dream actually foretold the future. It is interesting to note how well read and literate these birds are! To discuss works written in Latin, and also the theories regarding dream analysis and premonitions emphasizes the human characteristics of these mammals. Even though they are roosters and hens having this discussion, they are anthropomorphic representations, that is behaving as humans, a most common feature of fables. Another aspect of fables appears at the conclusion of this tale.

Shenanigans Lead to a Moral

As it so happens, Chanticleer and Pertelote take a brief break from one another due to their differing viewpoints. Another creature appears in the yard, silently stalking Chanticleer. Chanticleer notices the animal, and fears his dream is about to come true. The fox approaches Chanticleer and tells him not to worry. He is only there in honor of his voice. The fox asks if he could just 'sing for sweet saint charity'. Unfortunately, Chanticleer does so and the fox grabs him with his mouth. As the fox runs off with Chanticleer, the rooster makes a ruckus that raises the entire yard, including the old widow and her sons.

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