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Hengwrt and the Ellesmere manuscript traditions have The Nun’s Priest’s Tale accompany The Monk’s Tale, allowing liberty to contrast the pair. The
Nun’s Priest’s Tale is generically complex, weaving epic, romance,
allegory, tragedy, dream vision, etcetera into its tale. It is a beast fable in
regard to its form and moral quality, allowing the ability to draw conclusions
from the narrative, unlike The Monk’s Tale which drove its audience away, thus giving
little meaning to the tales to begin with, as harshly pointed out by the Host:
“Then had your tale been told all in vain.” (2799) Critics such as Samuel B.

Hemingway, Charles S. Watson, Nancy Dean, and Derek Pearsall have all pointed
out tragic modes incorporated in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, undoubtedly prompted
by The Monk’s Tale. The Monk’s Tale has been noted as lacking artistically due
to a refusal to commit to a fictional openness of his tale, which may be characteristic
of his reluctance to assert himself in or out of the monastery. Douglas Lepley
has defended the Boethian reading of the Monk’s Tale, stressing the fickle
nature of Fortune, which the Nun’s Priest uses in his own mock epic tale to
reference foreknowledge. Despite the parodic purpose of “tragedie” within the
Nun’s Priest’s Tale, its audience should not dismiss its heaviness, even with the
presence of comic silliness.

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The Monk takes on the role of the detached
scholar in response to the Host’s taunting speech from lines 1924 to 1964, as
well as the Shipman’s depiction of a coquettish monk. In his telling of high-class
tragic tales, his aim was to refute the criticism of not being “like a penitent
or a ghost,” by providing stock morals that support unworldly values. It is
somewhat counterproductive then, for The Monk to choose de casibus narratives
of “popes, emperours, or kynges,” because these tragedies possess worldly
qualities. Furthermore, there are no popes in his tale (though perhaps he was
interrupted before he could include them), all three potentates are present in
the Dante’s Infero, which is expressly
focused with those who attempted to control the world around them.

The Nun’s Priest took this definition of
“tragedie” and incorporated it into the figure of the regal cock. Chaucer’s
physical description of this beast is fitting for those of noble status: a
“grym leoun” who roams his barnyard “on his toos”, for he is so proud that “hym
deigned nat to sette his foot to grounde.” Chauntecleer is termed “real,” while
the narrator notes he is “thus roial, as a prince in his halle.” In comparison,
the widow and her two daughters live a humble, Christian life in the “sooty”
farmhouse. The inflated language and elongated amplifications of the beast’s
fable form could be affiliated with more courtly literature; nonetheless, it is
interrupted by a reminder that the genteel hero is also just a farmyard cock. In
a similar manner, philosophical debates about predestination, dream visions,
and necessity are whittled down by comic worries, for example Chauntecleer’s abhorrence for laxatives, which his
wife insisted he take. Chauntecleer is learned, able to cite authorities and academic
models at length in his stance that dreams have importance to Pertelote. Unfortunately,
her beauty causes him to forget his anxieties, effectively devaluing any dream visions
upon her insistence that they were not presages but merely caused by a bad case
of indigestion. Later, Chauntecleer is abruptly overcome with
the sudden thought that “evere the latter end of joye is wo.” (3205) Here, he has
swiftly taken to mimicking a formal tragic voice, impersonating the procedure originally
found in Troilus and Criseyde (“fro wo to wele, and after out of joie”) and The
Monk’s Tale:

“Tragedie is to seyn a certeyn storie./ As
olde bookes maken us memorie,/ Of hym that stood in greet prosperitee,/ And is
yfallen out of heigh degree/ Into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly.” (1973-77)

tragic tone is unable to make a full impression as it is disrupted by
prevarication when the Nun’s Priest states that “if a rhetorician could fairly
compose/ He in a chronicle confidently could write it.” (3207 – 3208)

In contrast to Chauntecleer’s noble
characterisation, daun Russell’s cunning nature is underlined in the
scene where “bed of wortes stille he lay,” hiding and waiting patiently for the
heroic cockerel to “falle.” This theme of a royal assassination is further strengthened by the narrator’s claim that the
fox resembles all murderers: “that in await liggen to mordre men.” Some of The Monk’s own tragic heroes consist
of: Zenobia, Pedro of Spain, Pierre of Cyprus, Barnabo Visconti, and Ugolino of
Pisa, all of whom make no errors or commit any sins, and each one’s downfall is
due to the deceit of others and the fickle turning of Fortune’s wheel. Barnabo
is imprisoned, Ugolino perishes in prison, and the other three are murdered. Although,
Dante’s hellish depiction of Ugolino gnawing at the back of Ruggieri’s head is
completely ignored in Chaucer’s version, with Ugolino’s tale concluding with
his death by involuntary starvation. Ugolino’s crime of political treachery is
given no attention, depriving the story of its horror and leaving only its
pathos. Furthermore, the Monk himself cites Dante, as if to accentuate the
inconsistency between the Monk’s reading of Ugolino and Dante’s. Nevertheless,
the Nun’s Priest borrows this theme of treachery and magnifies it by using
apostrophes to condemn the fox from lines 3226 to 3229, referring to him as
Judas Iscation, Genylon the betrayer to the Knight Roland, and the deceiver
Synon noted for causing the fall of Troy. The recurrence of “O” builds tension right
up to the climactic violence, and although the event was prophesised, its result
is one of pathos designed to create terror for Chauntecleer.

Fortune plays a key role in the “falle” of
the epic hero, who is often shown breaking certain habits of a lifetime,
despite foreknowledge being placed to deter them from doing so; or perhaps if free
will had been applied, then a prescient fate could have been avoided. This manifests with Chauntecleer
who ought to have stayed on the beams well out of reach: “O Chauntecleer,
accursed be that morwe/That thou flew from the beams into that yard!” (3230 –
3233) Chanticleer’s dream vision cautions that this specific day is “perilous
to thee.” The narrator posits how clerks theorise that God’s plan cannot be
changed because it remains a “necessity.” (3234 – 5). Opinions differ on this
matter and have been disputed by “an hundred thousand men,” including scholarly
authority figures such as St Augustine, Boethius, and Bishop Bradwardyn. Chaucer
takes to satirising the approaches people had while debating contemporary
scholarly subjects. What he criticises is the conceited frame of mind with which
people approached these serious arguments, as well as the careless rhetorical
forms that shaped their discourse. Chaucer’s “crowyng,” pun containing double
meaning, may be mocking the Monk’s aristocratic bearing and weighty choice of
genre, which failed to provide a unifying principle. A cock’s crow is not the
equivalent to a song bird, yet it is described in the tale as “murier than the
murie orgon,” something which Chauntecleer takes great pride in. It is vanity
which blinds the cockerel, allowing the fox to open his mouth, ready to kill
him. The remedy to both of these problems is to shut one’s mouth and keep both
eyes open. The Nun’s Priest points out the severity of this moral with some
exegetical conjecturing, although his attempts may be interpreted as ironically
humorous. (3438 – 3443)

The Monk’s own version of the tragic genre
remains inadequate to a certain extent as the tales lack a “remedie” to the
human condition, perhaps until the question of “how shal the world be served?”
is answered. (General Prologue: The Monk, 187) His tales might be better
approached as an intellectual experiment where he considers human tragedy as an
absolute, purely secular and impartial to Christ’s passion. The Host is
outspoken in his dislike of the Monk’s tragic tales, including the general
futility of bewailing; that it is a “peyne” and extremely dull to listen to,
and because the purpose of literary activity placed great importance on its impact
on the audience, it is therefore useless if their attention is completely lost.1 (2794 – 2797)
Helen Cooper posits that the Monk’s language is habitually simple and direct
except in those occasions of moralising, whether discoursing God or Fortune the
vocabulary becomes graver. Verse tales, even the moral ones, offer uncertainty
of having solid “doctrine.” The monk offers a definition of tragedy which might
make his audience suppose he misinterprets de casibus tragedy or comprehends it
in the wrong spirit. However, Helen Cooper emphasises that this was “necessary
because tragedy of any kind was not at this date a familiar form: there was
scarcely any examples known of works that called themselves tragedies.” Still,
we may question the Monk for his supposed misguided moralism. His telling of
these tragic tales is somewhat chaotic: there are inconsistencies in the length
of each tale, he does not deem it critical enough to narrate in a chronological
order, and he draws a specific moral in only four cases: Samson, Hercules, Balthazar,
and King Antiochus.

The tragic climax of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale
occurs when Chauntecleer is “ravysshed with his flaterie,” (3324), but before the
fox can trap him in his jaws and make for the woods, the narrator digresses
with a critical apostrophe meant to be heeded by the nobility, cautioning them
against sycophants and urging that they read “Eccliaste of flaterye.” (3329) His
candour is further strengthened when daun Russel finally seizes Chauntecleer when flattery blinds
him. The narrator intervenes with three
anaphoric apostrophes to destiny, Venus, and Gaufred, whose lament for King
Richard’s death was so great, that it makes the Nun’s Priest scarce because he
will not be able to contest with such grandiose expression for Chauntecleer’s
demise: “… wolde I shewe yow how that I koude pleyne/ For Chauntecleres drede
and for his peyne.” (3353-3354) The Nun’s Priest’s attention to divine
foreknowledge and Venus are meant for parodic purposes, appropriate to a tragic
misfortune, in this instance, deflate the gravity with its language, placing
the cockerel in the centre of the tragic catalogue. The cries of Chaunticleer’s
seven wives are compared to the lamentations of those ladies of Troy when the
city collapsed and Pyrrhus slayed Priam, citing the “Eneydos” as his source, as
though Dante himself had written this. Pertelote is so distraught “That
wilfully into the fyr she sterte/ And brende hirselven with a stedefast herte.”
Her shrieks were louder than King Hasdrubales’ wife when the Romans slew him
during the capture of Carthage, and the remaining hens cry like the Roman
senators’ wives after Nero murdered their husbands and burned their city. (3355
– 3374) These courtly inflations draw the widow and daughter to the scene, inciting
the climax of the chase involving every barnyard animal within the vicinity, yelling “as feendes doon in helle”
(3389). Chaucer likens the climactic battle among all the farm creatures to the
1381 peasant revolt “led by Jakke Straw and his meynee.” (3394)

Both daun Russel and
Chauntecleer are included within the framework of the generic patterns of
tragedy and romance: at his moment of triumphal arrogance, the fox becomes the victim of the descending
turn of Fortune’s wheel (3403-4), whereas Chauntecleer evades the jaws of death
during the reversal of fortune, evolving into a comic hero instead. The Tale’s
events heavily imply the cockerel being the tragic victim: the prophetic dream,
his downfall at the apex of hubris (vanity), and his lamentations for his descent
are all tragic motifs, emphasised further by the references to The Monk’s Tale
(3205-9). The elements of “tragedie” and romance remain one of parodic nature,
although the Nun’s Priest includes the Aristotlean ‘anagnorisis’ (realisation
of the flaw) which occurs during Chauntecleer’s escape from the fox by climbing
up a tree, where he rejects being tricked by flattery again. Christianity stressed
the hope of resurrection and salvation from the Fall, which the Monk neglected to
include in his tales. Chauntecleer attains salvation, whereas every figure in
the Monk’s rhetoric collection of tragic tales are abandoned to death and gloom.

Having failed to trick Chauntecleer into his
mouth for the second time, daun Rusell agrees with the cock in that such “men”
as themselves never deserve to prosper. The fox departs with a moralistic
proverb that “That jangleth whan he sholde holde his pees,” (3433-35) and
wishes God gave them “meschaunce” for allowing themselves to be flattered and
deceived. These morals are meant to be taken in by men not animals. The diction itself is courteous, for example the
usage of “Sire” and “O Chauntecleer, allas!” strongly indicates that beasts can
represent humankind. In addition, we have seen the reversal can be true in The
Canterbury Tales, as with the primal description of Alisoun in the Miller’s Tale,
demonstrating that humans too can behave like beasts, or at least physically resemble
them in some ways. The narrator of
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale urges his audience to listen carefully once more, and kindles
their attention by sketching out the culmination of the tale by reiterating the
end of the passage to illustrate the fable’s lesson: “Lo swich it is for to be rechelees/And necligent, and truste on
flaterye.” (3436 – 3437) These final words come from the Nun’s Priest himself,
as he warns those that read this tale as nothing more than a silly story about
a cock and a fox, a “folye” which should carefully examine the surface
narrative for its actual “doctrine.” He recaps this, urging to “taketh the
moralite,” (3340) and repeats his guideline by referencing the authority of St
Paul, insisting “Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille.” (3443) It is
worth noting that The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is the only tale whose ending
includes a quotation from Scripture, “all that written is, / To our doctrine it
is ywrite, ywis.” (3442) It is very apparent to the reader that this tale has a
moral centre, intended to amuse as well as teach those who come across it, just
as the Host and Knight requested it be so from the start. It has a moral nucelus
underlined by a narrator who coaxes us to search for its moral lesson. Despite
the Nun’s Priest’s perseverance on the hidden connotation implied in the “fruit,”
(the moral instruction), rather than the “chaff (surface humour of his
narrative), the meaning of this remains somewhat inconclusive. Chaucer’s Retraction
quotes this back when he wrote “al that is writen is writen for our doctrine,
and that is myn entente.” Perhaps he is allowing his reader the liberty to
philosophise how we may approach his written works. In the same way, we should
not dismiss the heaviness of such a tale as the Nun’s Priest’s, despite its
mocking, comic qualities because its meaning beneath the external would be
entirely dismissed. Furthermore, Chaucer may be directing our attention to
works such as the Miller’s Tale to find deeper meaning beneath its worldly
appearance, all while offering his apologies for having utilised certain means
to fulfil his artistic intention, “the chaff.”

            The Nun’s Priest’s Tale was requested by the host after the Monk refused to recite a
merry tale, most likely put off by the Host’s impudent denunciations. The Nun’s Priest needed to comply with the injunctions of both the Host and
Knight “Telle us swich thyng as may oure hertes glade,” and turned to a
kaleidoscopic genre: the tragicomedy. However, there is cause for critical restlessness
over whether the tale is a game or told in earnest, because it comprises two dissimilar
voices for two types of fable. The inappropriateness of the intricate rhetoric
provides the fundamental irony of The
Nun’s Priest’s Tale, although our amusement is directed at the follies of the
cock and of the “rethor,” who is a caricature created by the Nun’s Priest. Paradoxically,
his wit establishes him as a refined fabulist, who ironically invited the
reader to consider alternatives to the rethor’s basic moral about the dangers
of flattery and self-congratulatory vanity.2 The
Nun’s Priest’s Tale realises it is a story and provides a happy ending to
satisfy readers, and although it is not purely built on the foundation of
tragic genre, it nevertheless is able to leave the doctrine of Fortune unbroken:
“Lo, how Fortune turneth sodeynly/ The hope and pryde eek of hir enemy!”
(3403-3404) Although the Nun’s Priest Tale may seem to leave many questions unanswered,
its intricacy of the genres within the beast fable is Chaucer’s main involvement
to its tradition. Half bestiary, and half fable, the tale’s dense interaction
of plot, characterisation, and narrator also situates it within the beast-epic convention.

1 Judith Fester. Chaucer on Interpretation. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

2 R.T. Lenaghan. The Nun’s Priest’s Fable. PMLA 78 (1963) p. 300 – 307.

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