The Second Nun's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

'The Second Nun's Tale' tells the story of Saint Cecilia, including her life of purity and her eventual martyrdom. This lesson will look at various themes throughout the tale as well as analyze the specific writing style for saints.

Plot Summary

'The Second Nun's Tale' of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, focuses on the life of a very holy and devout Christian woman named Cecilia. Having spent her childhood devoted to serving the Christian God, she grows up and marries Valerian, who is a heathen. Cecilia warns him that an angel watches over her and will kill him if he seeks to use her sexually in a way that is unclean. Valerian asks to see the angel, and Cecilia sends him to Pope Urban to be baptized. When he returns from his baptism, he is able to see the angel. Valerian's brother, Tiburce, also ends up being baptized. When the Roman prefect Almachius learns that the brothers have converted to Christianity, he has them executed. One of Almachius's officers, Maximus, ended up converting to Christianity as well, and used the executions of the two brothers to convert many other people, claiming that he saw the brothers' souls being taken into heaven. Consequently, Almachius kills Maximus as well. Finally, Cecilia is brought before Almachius and given the choice to renounce her Christianity or worship Jupiter; if she does neither, she will be killed as well. She refuses, and Almachius attempts to kill her as well: first by having her put into a tub of boiling water, then trying to have her head cut off. Her executioner fails at both, and Cecilia lives for another three days with a gash in her neck before dying, continuing to convert those around her to Christianity.



'The Second Nun's Tale' is written in the genre of a hagiography, which is an account of a saint's life. There are many surviving hagiographies, and it was a popular genre in this period. The standard hagiography describes the person as living a pure life without sin, and then being sentenced to death, which he or she approaches without fear. Usually, some miracle occurs when death is imminent, which underscores God's protection of the saint. All of these elements are present in Cecilia's story.

Feminine Purity in Hagiographies

When a hagiography is written about a female saint, there is often great stress placed on her purity and chastity. Here, Chaucer writes, 'And from her cradle foster'd in the faith Of Christ, and bare his Gospel in her mind: She never ceased, as I written find, Of her prayere, and God to love and dread, Beseeching him to keep her maidenhead.' Her purity is underscored throughout 'The Second Nun's Tale', to the point that an angel is tasked with guarding it.

Converting Powerful Men

Female hagiographies also typically involve the trope of innocent women bringing about conversions of more powerful men, who are moved by their purity and devotion. Here, we see this occur with Cecilia's husband, Valerian, as well as his brother and Maximus. Cecilia's Christianity ends up even spreading among the pagans who are working for Almachius. This element of female hagiographies is meant to promote the ideal of the chaste Christian woman, who finds her strength in God through her virtue.

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