The Second Nun's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

Instructor: Celeste Bright

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

Like 'The Physician's Tale,' 'The Second Nun's Tale' involves respected virgins facing unwanted sex, as well as (unsuccessful) beheading. In this lesson, we'll summarize the Second Nun's prologue and tale, which tell us about the legend of St. Cecilia.

The Second Nun's Prologue

The Second Nun begins her prologue by warning her audience against the dangers of idleness and explaining how she's used her time to translate the legend of St. Cecilia. Because St. Cecilia was a virgin martyr, the Second Nun prays to the Virgin Mary before beginning her tale.

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

The Second Nun's Tale

Like ''The Physician's Tale,'' ''The Second Nun's Tale'' praises the virtue of virginity and purity. She explains that Cecilia's name is associated with heaven, work ethic, and clear-sightedness. Like Virginia, Cecilia is a hard-working virgin of noble birth and excellent reputation. She marries a man named Valerian, but asks God to preserve her virginity even in marriage.

Oil painting of Saint Cecilia by Giambattista Tiepolo
Oil painting of Saint Cecilia by Giambattista Tiepolo

On their wedding night, Cecilia tells Valerian there's an angel guarding her virginity who will kill him if he touches her with lustful intent. If he loves her ''cleanly,'' the angel will reveal himself to Valerian. Valerian replies that if the angel appears to him, he'll believe her, and if she loves another man, he'll kill them both. Cecilia tells him to travel to the Via Appia (an ancient road in Rome) to be baptized, saying the angel will appear to him there.

Valerian agrees and meets St. Urban at the Via Appia. Cecilia's angel also appears to him as an ancient man in white clothing holding a ''golden-lettered'' book. Valerian reads that there is only one God, one faith, and one Church. The angel asks him if he believes this, and he does. The angel disappears, and St. Urban baptizes him.

When he gets home, Valerian finds the angel standing with Cecilia. The angel gives each of them a crown of roses and lilies, explaining that the flowers will never die and can only be seen by chaste men. The angel also offers Valerian anything he desires, and Valerian asks that his brother Tibertius share in their revelation.

Angel placing flower wreaths on Cecilia and Valerian (fresco by Francesco Francia)
Angel placing flower wreaths on Cecilia and Valerian (fresco by Francesco Francia)

The angel approves, and Tibertius arrives. Valerian explains about the crowns, his experience, and the importance of purity. He asks Tibertius to be baptized by St. Urban. The Second Nun doesn't explain this, but when St. Cecilia lived (during the 2nd century A.D.), Rome was still a pagan city. Christians were persecuted or killed. St. Urban, as Tibertius points out, is in hiding and wanted dead; he says the task is too dangerous. However, Cecilia explains the importance of the Christian faith. Tibertius goes with Valerian to St. Urban, who baptizes him as well. Afterward, Tibertius is able to see the angel every day, and all his prayers are answered.

Eventually, the city prefect, Almachius (Roman official somewhat like a Chief of Police) hears about the three heretics and orders them to make a sacrifice to the god Jupiter or be killed. They're brought to Jupiter's temple by his officer Maximus, who pities them and takes them to his house. Maximus and his family are converted to Christianity. For unclear reasons, Cecilia, Valerian, and Tibertius are still brought to the temple the next day. When they refuse to make a sacrifice to Jupiter, the two brothers are beheaded by other officials. Maximus witnesses their souls ascending to heaven and converts many more people. However, Almachius has him whipped to death. Cecilia buries him with Valerian and Tibertius.

Almachius orders his servants to bring Cecilia to him so that he can personally force her to make a sacrifice to Jupiter. She converts the servants and appears before Almachius. He asks her about her lineage and religion, and she is offended by his questions. He reminds her of his authority over her, which she mocks. Angered, he offers her the choice of conversion to the pagan religion or execution. She says he's ignorant for believing that pagan statues are gods.

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