The Second Nun in The Canterbury Tales: Description & Character Analysis

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

The Second Nun in 'The Canterbury Tales' is a somewhat cryptic character who denounces laziness and praises virginity. In this lesson, we'll learn about her description and discuss clues to her character.

Description of the Second Nun

For reasons that are unclear, there is no physical description of the Second Nun in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. It tells us only that the Second Nun and three priests are traveling with the Prioress. There is, however, a portrait of her in the Ellesmere manuscript, which is an illustrated medieval manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In it, she is depicted much as you might expect: She wears a black veil, a wimple (white garment covering the chin and neck) and a long black tunic.

The Second Nun in The Canterbury Tales, from the Ellesmere manuscript
The Second Nun in The Canterbury Tales, from the Ellesmere manuscript

Notice that she rides her horse in a style called sidesaddle, which means that she rides sideways with both legs hanging down on one side. From the medieval period right up until the early 20th century, this method was considered the only modest, ladylike way for women to ride horses.

Character Analysis

Praise of Virginity

It's especially appropriate that the Second Nun rides sidesaddle, not simply because she is a modest lady and a nun, but also because her tale praises purity and virginity more than most. It was perfectly acceptable (and expected) for a maiden to lose her virginity when she was married. However, the Second Nun chooses to tell a tale about St. Cecilia, whose devotion to God inspired her to remain a virgin throughout her entire marriage. In fact, according to legend, her maidenhood was guarded by an angel. Further, the Second Nun prefaces her tale by invoking the Virgin Mary, who is the greatest of all virgins in the Catholic faith.

Saint Cecilia and an Angel by Orazio Gentileschi and Giovanni Lanfranco
Saint Cecilia and an Angel by Orazio Gentileschi and Giovanni Lanfranco

Veneration of St. Cecilia

St. Cecilia is certainly pure, but she's definitely not boring. She is bold and courageous, converting her husband, brother-in-law, and even her would-be adversaries (Almachius's servants and his officer Maximus) to Christianity. She argues fearlessly with the powerful prefect Almachius, and he is later unable either to sever her head or to boil her alive. Although the Second Nun doesn't say so directly, it's very possible that she admires St. Cecilia's daring. Otherwise, she could have told a story about a meek, passive virgin, like the one in the Physician's tale. Remember, too, that the Second Nun is traveling with the Prioress, who is one of the highest-ranking characters in The Canterbury Tales. In the medieval period, a prioress was the head of a religious order or dwelling. She may have a special appreciation of and respect for female leaders and authority figures.

Saint Cecilia commanding a religious audience as she plays music
Saint Cecilia commanding a religious audience as she plays music

Education and Understanding of Languages

In her prologue, the Second Nun explains several possible meanings of the name ''Cecilia,'' some of which are based on Latin root words, such as Caelum, or ''heaven.'' She also briefly mentions the writings of philosophers. Finally, she explains that she has spent some time translating the legend of St. Cecilia (most likely from Latin to English). All of these facts tell us that the Second Nun is a fairly well-educated woman. Further, since she has chosen to complete the translation of a religious work rather than do needlework or another ''feminine'' hobby, she presents herself as an intellectual.

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