Chaucer: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE NUN’S PRIEST’S TALE
The Monk has been interminably listing miserable ends to famous biblical and historical figures. This time it is the Knight who mercifully interrupts instead of the Host. It would start growing tiresome for the Host to keep doing so, and the Knight’s rank allows him this liberty with the Monk. But the Knight might also be made more uncomfortable about this notion of “tragedy” than most of the other pilgrims.
The Host does avail himself of the opportunity to second the Knight’s decision, acknowledging that there is “no remedie” (2784), so hearing about these endless cases is just “a peyne” (2786). The Host grows increasingly emboldened again, insisting next that the Monk’s narration is annoying everyone; “is nat worth a boterflye” (2790); and is putting him to sleep, which renders the morality useless. He asks for a more roisterous story, perhaps one about hunting. The Monk, sulkily perhaps, says he has “no lust to pleye” (2806) any more; let someone else tell a tale.
The Host targets the Nun’s Priest, “Sir John” (2810).
Be blithe, though thou ryde upon a jade.
What thogh thyn hors be bothe foul and lene?
If he wol serve thee, rekke nat a bene.
We know nothing about this fellow, so the Host seems to be antagonizing him in the only way possible: pointing out the crappy heap he’s driving. The last line of the Prologue is Chaucer calling him “This sweete preest, this goodly man sir John” (2820).
The get a comedy after the sequence of tragedies, and this time the genre is beast fable (like Aesop, La Fontaine, Uncle Remus). These are popular on the continent (Renart the fox, Isingrim the wolf). Cartoons took over this genre in our culture. The tale might also be considered a mock heroic in its parody of rhetorical elaboration and fads of the intellectual life.
The pilgrim we know next to nothing about. Donaldson says his having a personality, even of a satirist, would provide grounds for rebutting, so Chaucer is careful to give us nothing and no portrait. But his personality inhabits the tale. What do we know? (That he is probably subsumed by the domineering Prioress? That whatever his worth or talents, he rides a crummy horse. He’s brilliant but lets Chaunticleer show off the knowledge.)
The tale starts off pretty grim, with a poor widow and “eek hir doghtren two. / Thre large sowes” (2829-2830) they owned and not much more. This simple, down-to-earth life may be functioning to counter the Prioress’ pretentions. In any case, we hear about the bleak “whit and blak” (2843) existence until, like Dorothy emerging into a technicolor Oz, we zero in on the barnyard and the tale transforms into a glorious colorful wonderland. Chauntecleer “hadde in his governaunce / Seven hennes for to doon al his plesaunce, / Whiche were his sustres and his paramours” (2865-2867). Where is the teller in this tale and how do you know?
Focus turns to “damoysele Pertelote” (2870), the “faireste hewed on hir throte” (2869). Rather a courtly title for a chicken; but then who else inappropriately adopts such a title? And the focus on the throat? Note soon how we hear a lot from Pertelote tastelessly regarding purging with laxatives.
“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is full of what seem to be backward references to the preceding tales, so that it is sometimes taken as a parody-summary of all that has gone before” (Donaldson 1107). What echoes can you find that show the Nun’s Priest masterfully outdoing the other pilgrims and their tales?
There is a verve here for the topics of love, dreams, experience/authority, predestination/free will, pharmacopoeia, exempla, etc. The Nun’s Priest is a creator loving and amused with his creation. He’s got an ironical skeptical clearheadedness. But he’s so good at rhetoric and narration that the tale might best be seen as a warning to himself about too much pride in “crowing.”
Indeed, the “moralitee” seems to amount to keeping your eyes open and your mouth shut. The Nun’s Priest has seen that people don’t think much nor very carefully about what they say. He’s interested in the ways people fail to think. (And the joke continues working with dozens of scholars seeking meaning and coming up with three or four heraldic political allegories.) May 3rd and Friday (3190, 3341) have been explained tentatively and absurdly as signifying everything from the date of the Expulsion to the Flood to the Betrayal to the Crucifixion to the fatal wound of Richard I.
The high-flown rhetoric goes one way, the morality another. Despite the simple plot underneath all the other “matere,” the ending holds several morals, depending on whether you’re a fox, or a chicken, or a pilgrim, or a narrator.
The Host too heartily compliments the Nun’s Priest’s manliness and potential virility in an Epilogue that was cancelled probably when Chaucer decided to apply these ideas from the Host to the Monk instead.]