Presentation of Two-fold Worlds in Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale

Basabi Pal

 Assistant Professor, Rabindra Mahavidyalaya, Champadanga

 Volume II, 2016 | Full Text PDF


Chaucer, ‘the man of the world’, shows his brilliance to represent the contradictions in the human world. The ever continuous struggle still exists between the socially created two sections of the people- the rich and the poor. Even in the medieval text, The Nun’s Priest Tale, Chaucer excels others to represent these two contradictory worlds.

Chaucer is prominently the superb literary genius for the enhancement and enrichment of English literature in Medieval England. His immense contribution to the growth of literature can be divided into three categories — French, Italian and English. His English literary phase is the most prosperous stage and the English literature turns over a new leaf specifically with his creation of The Canterbury Tales.

               The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s magnum opus, being an unfinished work, occupies a remarkable literary position because of its collection of twenty four stories told by a group of pilgrims on the way from London to Canterbury in order to visit the sacred tomb of Thomas a Becket at Canterbury. At the suggestion of the host of the Tabard, different typical as well as individual pilgrims tell their stories and their stories are the picturesque detail of Medieval England. After the tragic and melancholic description of the Monk’s tale, at the suggestion of the host in order to remove the tedium of story-telling competition, the Nun’s Priest tells a very beautiful story and it is considered as one of the most important tales of The Canterbury Tales. Stephen Coote’s observation is worth to be noted:

The Nun’s Priest Tale is one of the great comic masterpieces of English literature, a poem that is not simply funny, but learned, serious and very shrewd. Where the Monk bores the company with his dreary recitation of instances exemplifying the fall of Pride, the Nun’s Priest, taking up the same theme, tells a tale which is engaging, stylistically various, and weaves dexterously together some of the most serious intellectual issues of the day.(32-33)

Being a man of wide knowledge and broad learning the Nun’s Priest begins his tale based on the plot of Roman de Renart and the story is very interesting because of the characters like the cock and the fox.

            Like a sylvan medieval craftsman, the Nun’s Priest begins to depict the rural but peaceful, picturesque life-story of a poor widow. The idyllic setting of that rural area is a catchy as well as touchy beginning of a story. The simplicity, poverty is minutely depicted in the opening lines of the poem:

         A povre widwe, somdel stape in age,

        Was whilom dwelling in a narwe cotage(104)

That poor, helpless widow lives with her two daughters in that cottage sited in a valley. Significantly enough, this widow has already spent her so many chapters of life with poverty, patience, simplicity and sincerity. This gentle lady I totally self- controlled and keeps herself totally aloof from any kind of extravagance, luxury and refinement. The following two lines are clearly suggestive of her simple life- style:

In pacience ladde a ful simple lyf

For litel was hir catel and her rente.(104)

This widow thus leads her life peacefully with her two daughters. Her humbleness, poverty prove herself to be a totally religious minded Christian lady.  Stephen Coote rightly observes, “There is a patient, stoic healthiness about the Widow’s ‘ful simple lyf’” (80). Quite poor is she, but there is happiness in her rustic cottage with her little farm house. Her poor, economic status is reflected in the following lines “Three large sowes hadde she, and namo, / Three kyn, and eek a sheep that highte Malle” (104). Her living condition is in proper accordance with her low economic status: “Ful sooty was hir bour, and eek her halle, / In which she eet  ful many a sclendre meel” (104). Oddly and ironically enough the Nun’s Priest use of the term ‘bour and halle’ evokes a kind of aristocratic feeling of medieval castle life and quite inappropriately it never makes a match with the widow’s ‘narwe cotage’.

            Her simple way of life compels her to refrain herself from taking of ‘poynaunt sauce’ and ‘deyntee morsel’. Such a strict, perfect widow of medieval England is not at all stinted with one of the seven deadly sins. Gluttony is never a fitting sin for this poor widow. Her healthy diet, natural living style keeps herself totally perfect. Thus her poverty makes her capable of gladly accepting of any condition in her life. According to Goodman, Chaucer himself likes ‘glad acceptance of life’, and ‘delicate evaluation of life’ (123), so his character like that poor widow is able to lead her life easefully. Her character is reflected in the beginning lines of the poem. Though the description is precise and not logically structured, yet it is simple, clear and purposive.

            Albert’s opinion about Chaucer is worth to be pointed out-“he was a man of the world, mixing freely with all types of mankind …” (36). Hence after this analysis this paper conceptualizes Chaucer’s attitude to the so-called aristocracy. The peaceful, hygienic, natural set up of that poor widow is contrasted with the rich colouring, aristocratic picturization, and majestic presentation of a magnificent cock named Chauntecleer. The hyperbolic beginning of the description of Chauntecleer is just contradictory to the simple life style of that poor widow. His instinctual power and intellect is keen enough and his physical beauty is too much attractive and splendid. “His comb was redder than the fyn coral / And betailed, as it were a castel-wal”(106). His attractive look, super intuitive power, marvellous voice makes him an aristocratic figure. Some funny and comic descriptions are there, but all over he attracts the readers’ attention for his elegance. Chaucer’s description of Chauntecleer’s beauty is reflected in the following lines:

      This gentil cok hadde in his governaunce

      Sevene hennes, for to doon al his plesaunce

      Whiche were his susters and his paramours,

      And wonder lyk to him, as of colours. (106)

But of all the hens, Pertelote is the most attractive female companion of the elegant, majestic Chauntecleer. His noble attitude, humanly pride makes him too much aristocratic in his look. The cottage of the poor lady opposes the aristocracy of Chauntecleer’s aristocracy. The hyperbolic description of Chauntecleer’s majestic attitude is reflected through the following lines:

              As Chauntecleer among his wyves alle

              Sat on his perche, that was in the halle,

             And next him sat this faire Pertelote (108)

His fair living condition may be comically described, but it is worthy enough to suggest the contradiction between the world of the rich and the world of the poor.  Regarding their debate on the dream seen by Chauntecleer , both the cock and the hen are contradictory in their viewpoint. Stephen Coote observes: “Pertelote is a medieval example of an abiding type, so Chauntecleer appears by contrast as one of those who think that dreams are the royal road to understanding deep-seated, even cosmic powers” (61).

            As a learned fellow, drawing examples from different classical and religious scriptures, Chauntecleer egoistically neglects his wife’s point of view and then boasts of his own storage of knowledge. The proud cock rather involves himself in the sensuous and pleasure loving world.

                Madame Pertelote, so have I blis,

               Of o thing god hath sent me large grace

               For whan I see the beautee of your face,

               Ye ben so scarlet-reed about your yen,

               It maketh al my drede for to dyen (124)

His passionate sexual urge towards, and attraction for his female companion shows that he has a tremendous sensuous appeal and his wife is a subordinate, passive responder to the active desire of that spirited male companion. His royal look, pride and pomp, his desire for ‘ryde’ over Pertelote, his activity of feathering Pertelote for ‘twenty tyme’ are the incidental proofs for his extravagant, luxurious life style.

            He is in a happy mood and the readers are in a delightful world. His world of revelry and merriment turns a turtle and morally teaches us that human happiness is transient in this earthly life. Due to his pride and arrogance, he welcomes a dangerous episode in his life. Being influenced by the flattery and treachery of the fox, the cock becomes a blind follower of the fox’s advice. Because of his extravagant life-style, lack of seriousness, he faces the impending danger in his life. He is in the dangerous world, even there is no chance of escape from the cunning world of the treacherous fox. In that situation he tries his best to recover himself from the clutches of death. As a witty and wise fellow, he uses flattery as a strong weapon of revenge, and he attempts to deceive the fox by the trap of his intelligence.  Being impressed and enchanted, the fox commits the mistake and Chauntecleer gets a golden opportunity to recover him from his inevitable end of life.

            Thus along with Chuauntecleer, all the readers should be morally aware of their position. Like Chauntecleer , all of us must avoid flattery, desperateness and extravagances. Chauntecleer, the rich, aristocratic representative of the elegant world, gets an appropriate lesson for his fault. Rather, the poor widow is living piously with peace and ease with her poor daughters. To conclude, it can be said that this tale is full of contradictions. We find tremendous opposition between the male and the female, the rich and the poor. The opposition between the aristocracy and simplicity is clear, but somehow at last this distinction is wiped out and all the human beings irrespective of gender, wealth get a good moral suggestion for their pavement of smooth way of life.

Works Cited

Albert, Edward. History of English Literature. Britain: Oxford University Press, 1923. Print.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Nun’s Priest Tale. Ed. by Coote, Stephen. Britain: Penguin Books, 1985. Print.

Goodman, W.R. A History of English Literature (Vol.I) Delhi: Doaba House, 1988. Print.

Basabi Pal is an Assistant Professor of Rabindra Mahavidyalaya, Champadanga, Hooghly, 712401, W.B. India.

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