Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Chaucer: The Second Nun’s Tale

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


A reference to the Life of St. Cecile in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women suggests that this tale may have been written during Chaucer’s Italian period and not completely revised for inclusion in the Canterbury Tales (62, 78, 139). It’s a close translation and we have no portrait for the pilgrim narrator again. Perhaps, though, she is intentionally faceless since that is what she is all about — a neutral frame of mind when reading and a self-effacing reporter of old authorities.


It seems drawn from a bit for the Prioress’ Prologue. The Second Nun’s Prologue comes in rime royal stanzas. It concerns “Ydelnesse” (2) and its supposed cure: “bisynesse” (24). The Second Nun portrays herself as a busywork workaholic, self-effacingly translating the story as her devotional “werk” (64, 65, 77, 84, 105, 112, 116, etc.). Since the etymologies are all false and entirely contrived (85ff), it seems that this nun pushes the idea of work for work’s sake, without consideration of its use or purpose. She also seems quite into the idea of martyrdom.


The genre here is the saint’s legend, a harrowing, often masochistic, tale with a sort of happy ending (often mass conversions). The reasoning behind this genre is that the Devil should not get all the good stories. Yet, “Complexity naturally disappears when everything is represented as either hell-doomed or heaven-directed, and the reader is left to admire only the technical proficiency with which the tale is told” (Donaldson 1108-1109). These are often bare-bones stories or translations and all skill goes into the versification of the story. There is no scrutiny of motivations. Indeed, conversion is almost a flow-chart process (212f).

The only possible irony (142) characterizes the innocence of the Second Nun: “as ofte is the manere.”

Does the tale reflect back on the Marriage Group? It’s another wife, after all. Does it provide a closure to the love and marriage themes?

There is a division at the halfway point in the tale, reflecting difference sources (or a longer source that already combined two others). As assigned to the anonymous nun, is there nevertheless a psychology or psychological plan operating here? The halfway mark denotes a shift from passive submissiveness to a more active engagement. Hostility towards authority is where all the glamour is located. Interestingly, Cecilia does not imitate Christ in any excessively submissive trial, suffering, and martyrdom process. What does this say about our “mere translator” Second Nun?

The G-group construction is interesting though. Chaucer has intentionally joined this tale, often involved with demands for sensory proof and certainly involved with martyrdom, with The Canon Yeoman’s Tale….