may blossom

The Second Nun's Tale

Fourteenth century Middle English
Geoffrey Chaucer

Huntington Library, San Marino, California MS EL 26 C 9, the Ellesmere Manuscript
British Library, Harley MS 7334, and many other manuscripts and printed editions

From The Canterbury Tales

This tale of Saint Cecilia is possibly one of the earliest of Geoffrey’s verse narratives to find its way into the Canterbury Tales. It tells of the martyrdom of an early-Christian woman who lived in Rome during the time of the persecution of Christians there, her determination to keep her virginity and the miracle of God’s intervention during her protracted execution. When Chaucer came to reuse it in his Canterbury Tales, he presumably read it over again before writing the Second Nun’s prologue. But given that this must be so, doesn’t it seem curious, given Cecilia’s seemingly leisurely life of prayer, chastity and her complete and pious rejection of the world and of raising a family, that Chaucer should choose to introduce the story of her martyrdom with a tirade against laziness, a shameful ‘lack of increase’, by which he must mean a failure to produce children, and living off other people’s labour?

This tale from the Second Nun follows that of the Nuns’ Priest in the Ellesmere MS and in British Library MS Harley 7334, although Skeat placed it after the Franklin’s tale. It is another of Geoffrey’s Canterbury Tales – a collection of short stories each recounted from the mouth of a pilgrim on the way to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral.

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The Second Nun's Tale

The Second Nun's Preamble

The ministre and the norice un-to vyces, which that men clepe in English ydelnesse, that porter of the gate is of delyces, t'eschue... We ought to do all in our power to turn away from that nurse and guardian of all the vices and doorkeeper to the gate of pleasure, which in English we call idleness, and oppress her by doing the very opposite, that is to say, by busying ourselves with gainful employment, lest the devil should seize us because of it. The devil cunningly waits with a thousand cords to tie us up, and when he sees a man idle he can quickly catch him in his trap and the man may not even be aware that the devil has hold of him until it’s too late. We should therefore work and avoid idleness. Even if a man doesn’t fear death and judgement, reason ought to be enough to persuade him that idleness is nothing but rotten laziness from which nothing useful is created and no increase is engendered. Sloth keeps us in a cage, where there is nothing to do but sleep and eat, drink and consume what other people have worked hard to produce.

So in order to keep us all from idleness, which is a cause of great distraction, confusion and harm, I have worked on the legend, in translation, of your glorious life and death – you, with your garland of rose and lily – I mean you, maiden and martyr, Saint Cecilia!

Invocation to the Virgin Mary

You who are the flower of all virgins, whom Saint Bernard loved so much to write about, I call upon you at the beginning of my tale. You, who are a comfort to all of us wretches – please help me to tell this story of the death of a maiden, of your maiden, who through her merit won eternal life for herself and victory over the devil, as her story shows.

Oh Virgin, maiden and mother, daughter of Your blessed Son, wellhead of all mercy and balm to every sinful soul, in whom God, out of His goodness, chose to be nurtured and born, meek and honoured over every creature; you so ennobled human nature that the Creator could find no objection to clothing and wrapping His son in flesh and blood within you. Within the joyful cloister of your womb, eternal love and peace took on a man’s form, the lord and guide of land, sea and heaven who unceasingly praise him, and the Creator of every creature, you, spotless virgin, bore him from your body, although you were a virgin. You possess magnificence tempered with mercy, goodness and such pity that you, who shine like the sun, not only help those who pray to you but often, through your generosity, act first, before anyone has even asked for your help, in order to soothe and heal a troubled life.

Oh meek and blissful Virgin, please help me, a wretch expelled like phlegm onto this barren pavement of filth that is the world. Remember the woman in Cana who said that puppies are allowed to eat all the crumbs that fall from their lord’s table. So although I am sinful, an unworthy child of Eve, please accept my faith. And because faith is barren without acts that demonstrate it, grant to me the wit and the time to perform these demonstrative acts, so that I may be saved from eternal damnation!

Oh you who are so fair and full of grace, be my advocate in that high place where Hosanna is sung without end. Oh Christ’s dear mother, daughter of Saint Anne, illuminate my soul with your light in this prison, a soul that is so troubled by the contagion of its body and by the weight of earthly lust and misplaced affection. Oh refuge, Oh salvation of those who are in sorrow and distress, help me, please, as I address myself to this work.

And yet, I must ask all of you who will listen: please forgive me if I have made little effort to embellish this story with subtle effects or poetic forms, but I possess both the words and the meaning of the author who first recorded this legend of Saint Cecilia, out of love and reverence, and I follow him faithfully; and I ask that you forgive any errors.

Explanation of the name Cecilia

First I will explain to you the name Cecilia, as it is recorded in her legend; her name means Heavenly Lily, from the Latin word Caelum meaning heaven, and signifies her pure virginity or the whiteness of her honesty and the greenness of her conscience; and for the sweet perfume of her high repute she was called Lily. Or perhaps Cecilia means Path for the Blind, from the Latin word Caecus meaning blind, because her life was an example that we can all learn from. Or else, as I find it written, Cecilia may be formed from a joining of the words ‘heaven’ and ‘Lia’, and in this context, heaven signifies her holy thoughts and ‘Lia’ her holy and active life.

The name Cecilia may also be interpreted to mean Lack of Blindness, because of the great light of her wisdom and the clarity of her habits. Or else, Lo! Her name may even come from ‘heaven’ and ‘leos’, from which folk may well call her a Heaven for the People, for her example to us all of good and wise endeavour; because ‘leos’ means ‘people’ in English.

Just as men may see the sun, moon and stars shining brightly all around them in heaven, so they can see in this generous maiden, spiritually, the magnanimity of faith and the whole clarity of her wise acts shining in their excellence. And just as these philosophers write that heaven is spinning and spherical and dotted with flaming orbs, so fair and white Cecilia was always swift and busy at her good work, round and complete in her perseverance and burning with charity.

So now you know where her name comes from.

Life of Saint Cecilia

This maiden, bright Cecilia, was a Roman and she had been born to noble parents. Since her birth she had been nurtured in the Christian faith and held the Gospels of Jesus in her mind always. She never ceased from prayer, as I find it written, and always held in her mind a love and fear of God, asking constantly, in particular, that he might protect her virginity.

When the time came that she should be married, Cecilia was betrothed to a young man named Valerian and as the day of her wedding unfolded, she very devoutly and courageously wore an undergarment of coarse hair beneath her golden wedding dress. And while the music played and the organ sounded, she sang in her heart to God alone: ‘Oh lord, keep my soul and my body under your protection, unblemished, so that I will not be destroyed.’ For the love of he who died upon a tree, she was accustomed to spending every second or third day fasting and in constant prayer.

Her wedding night quickly arrived, when she had to go to bed with her husband, as was the custom. She said to him softly: ‘Oh my sweet and well-beloved spouse, there is something that I must tell you, if you will listen, something that I have great joy in telling you, but you must promise not to betray this confidence to anybody.’

Valerian swore at once that he wouldn’t divulge a word of what she was going to say to him; not to a living soul. Then she said to her husband: ‘I have an angel who loves me so greatly that, whether I am asleep or awake, he is always ready to protect my body. If he perceives that you have touched me or tried to have sex with me, be in no doubt that he will kill you. You will then die at a tragically young age. But if you can learn to love me in a way that does not involve any sex, then he will love you as much as he loves me, for your cleanness, and he will reveal to you his beauty and his joy.’

Valerian, instructed as God desired, answered: ‘So that I can trust you, let me see this angel. If it is a real angel then I will do as you have asked, but if it is another man whom you love, I will kill you both with this sword that I am carrying.’

‘If this is what you want, you shall see my angel,’ replied Cecilia. ‘But you must first believe in Christ and receive baptism. Go to the Appian Way, which is only three miles from this town, and speak to the poor folk who live there, tell them that I, Cecilia, have sent you to meet the good and aged Urban, with a good will and for a private purpose. When you meet Saint Urban, tell him what I have said to you, and when he has purged you of all your sins, then you will be able to see this angel, before you part from him.’

Valerian went to this place, just as Cecilia had instructed, and there he found this holy old man Urban, lurking in the hollows and amongst the graves of the saints. Without any delay, Valerian related his message. The old man delightedly held up his hands and wept tears of joy:

‘Almighty Lord!' he exclaimed. 'Jesus Christ, broadcaster of chaste counsel [sower of chaast conseil - broadcaster of unfruitful advice?] and shepherd to us all! The fruit from the seed of chastity that you have sown in Cecilia, receive unto yourself! Lo! Christ, like a busy bee, you forever serve your own servant, Cecilia; for that husband she recently married, who was like a fierce lion, has been sent here to you now as meek as a lamb.’

At once, there appeared an old man in shining white clothes holding a book with gold lettering. He went and stood directly before Valerian. Valerian dropped to the ground as though he was dead, he was so startled, but the figure raised him up again and began to read from the book: ‘One Lord, one faith, one God and no more, one Christendom, father to us all, above all and over everything, everywhere.’ These words were all written in gold. Then the old man said: ‘Do you believe this or not? Yes or no?’

‘I believe it,’ replied Valerian. ‘Nobody could ever believe a truer thing than this, I dare say.’

The old man vanished, Valerian had no idea where to, and Pope Urban christened him there and then.

Valerian went home and found Cecilia in their bedchamber with an angel. This angel was holding two coronals in his hand, one of roses and the other of lilies. One he gave to Cecilia and the other he gave to her husband Valerian.

‘You must preserve these coronals with a clean body and unblemished thoughts,’ said the angel. ‘I have brought them to you from Paradise. They will never rot, they will never lose their sweet perfume, trust me, and nobody will ever see them unless these people are chaste and hate all villainy. And you, Valerian, because you have so recently agreed to abide by good counsel, choose whatever you want and you shall have your wish.’

‘I have a brother and there is no man I love more in this whole world,’ replied Valerian at once. ‘I ask that my brother may come to know the truth as I have done.’

‘God likes what you ask,’ said the angel. ‘You shall both be admitted to his joyous feast, clutching the palm of martyrdom.’

Valerian’s brother Tiburce appeared immediately. When he smelt the sweet perfume of the roses and the lilies, he was full of curiosity and said: ‘I wonder where this smell of roses and lilies can be coming from at this time of year? The perfume wouldn’t be as strong as this if I was holding bunches of these flowers close to my face! This sweet perfume seeps into my very soul and I can feel myself changed.’

‘We are wearing coronals.’ explained Valerian. ‘One as white as snow and the other as red as a rose. They are both shining clearly but your eyes have no power to see them. Through the intercession of my prayers, however, you can smell them and if you wish, dear brother, you will be able to see them as well if you are willing to believe what is real and to know the truth.’

‘Are you really saying this or am I dreaming?’ asked Tiburce.

‘We have all been in a dream up until now, my brother,’ replied Valerian. ‘But now, at last, we dwell in truth.’

‘How do you know this?’ asked Tiburce.

‘The angel of God has taught me the truth,’ answered Valerian. ‘You will see it as well if you renounce all the Roman gods and idols and cleanse yourself of their filth.’

And regarding this miracle of the two coronals, Saint Ambrose has endorsed it and written in his Preface: ‘In order to receive the palm of martyrdom, Saint Cecilia, filled with the glory of God, rejected her marriage chamber and indeed the world; witness Valerian’s and Tiburce’s conversion, which prompted God to bring two coronals of sweet-smelling flowers in the hands of an angel. This maiden brought these men to heavenly bliss, and the world has been shown the value of a devotion to the love of God through chastity.'

Cecilia helped her husband to explain to his brother Tiburce how meaningless and futile all the Roman gods and idols were, for they couldn’t see anything and they couldn’t hear anything and she urged him to reject them all.

‘Whoever cannot believe what you have just said is surely nothing but an animal,’ replied Tiburce with conviction.

When she heard him say this, Cecilia kissed his chest, so delighted was she that he could see the truth. ‘You are now my ally,’ she said, joyously. ‘Lo! Just as the love of Christ has made me your brother’s wife, so in the same way I take you as my ally as well, since you've agreed to despise all your gods and idols. Go with your brother now, receive baptism and cleanse yourself of your sins, so that you may see the face of the angel that your brother has spoken about.’

‘My dear brother,’ replied Tiburce. ‘Tell me where I should go, and whom I should see?’

‘Come with me,’ said Valerian. ‘I will lead you to Pope Urban.’

‘Pope Urban?’ replied his brother. ‘Do you mean that Urban who is constantly sentenced to death and has to skulk around from hideout to hideout and dares not let anyone know where he is? Men will burn him in a great fire if they find him – and you want us to go and be with him? By seeking that God who hides in an exclusive heaven we’ll receive the flames of hell in this world for our trouble!’

‘Men might more understandably fear death in this world,’ replied Cecilia, bravely, ‘if this life was all there is. But there is a better life in another place, one that lasts forever. Have no fear, God’s son, through his grace, has told us all about it. This father’s son has made all things, by the power of his divine will. The Holy Spirit emanating from the Father has provided everything that a soul needs to reason with. God’s son, through his miracles and his words when he was in this world, revealed that there is another life that men may live.’

‘My dear sister-in-law,’ replied Tiburce. ‘You cannot be right. If you say that there is only one God, how in all truth can you now say that there is a father, son and Holy Spirit – three?’

‘Let me explain,’ she said. ‘Just as a man has three cognitive powers, memory, intuition and reasoning, so, in one divine being, three people can exist.’ Then she began to preach to him of Christ’s coming and taught him about Christ’s Passion and how God’s son was made manifest in this world in order to save mankind, who was bound up in sin and sorrow. She explained all this to Tiburce and afterwards he went eagerly off, with his brother Valerian, to find Pope Urban.

Urban thanked God, baptised Tiburce and delightedly instructed him so perfectly in the faith, that he became God’s knight. After this, Tiburce received such divine grace that every day he saw, in plain view, the angel of God that his brother could see. Everything he prayed for swiftly came about. It would be difficult to number the many miracles that Jesus performed for them, but at last, to move the story on, the Roman authorities were alerted and the two brothers were hauled before the Prefect of Rome, a man named Almachius, who questioned them, discovered their faith and instructed that they be sent to the temple of Jupiter to renounce it.

‘If anyone refuses to perform a sacrifice to Jupiter there,’ he said to his sergeants, ‘cut off his head. This is my order.’

A man named Maximus, an officer of the Prefect and also his registrar, seized the two of them and led them off. But as he marched them towards the temple, he began to weep for pity when he heard them expounding their faith. He received permission from the executioners to take them to his own house and before the day was done, through their preaching, they got the executioners and Maximus and all those who were there to renounce their false faith and to believe in the one God.

When night fell, Cecilia came with some priests who christened them all together. Then, when morning came, Cecilia said to the brothers in a serious tone: ‘Now, my dearest, Christ’s own knights, cast away the works of darkness and clothe yourselves in armour of light. Truly, you have fought a great battle, but your war is over; you have kept your faith and now it is time for you to go to the crowning of life’s glory that shall not fail. The Rightful Judge, whom you have so diligently served, shall give you this crown, for you have deserved it.’

When she had said this, men came to lead them off to the temple of Jupiter. They were brought into the temple, and to come to the point quickly, they offered no incense, made no sacrifice but instead went down upon their knees with humility and determination and both their heads were cut off at once. Their souls went to God.

Maximus, who witnessed this, said afterwards, with tears streaming down his face, that he saw their souls glide up to heaven, accompanied by clear, white angels. Because of this account, he was able to convert many people. Almachius had him beaten with leaden whips for it, until he was dead. Cecilia took his body and buried him next to Valerian and Tiburce, in the same tomb.

Almachius then ordered his officers to seize Cecilia, in full view of everyone, and to take her to the temple of Jupiter so that she could offer incense and perform a sacrifice. But her captors were converted as they went along with her; they believed all that she told them and weeping, cried out: ‘Christ, who is both God and God’s son, is the true God; this is what we believe, since you have such a fine servant to serve you we shout this out with one voice, although we may die because of it!’

Almachius, when he became aware of what was going on, sent for Cecilia. She was brought before him and he asked her: ‘What kind of woman are you?’

‘I am a gentlewoman by birth,’ she answered.

‘I am asking you, although it may cause you grief, about your religion and your beliefs.’

‘Then you have begun your questioning rather foolishly,’ she replied, ‘if you require two answers from one question. It shows a lack of intelligence.’

‘Where does all this rudeness come from?’

‘It comes from honest good faith.’

‘Have you no respect for my authority?’

‘No, I have nothing to fear from you. A mortal man’s power is like a balloon filled with hot air and the point of a needle can easily deflate all the pomposity that it contains.’

‘You have made a very ill-advised start to our conversation,’ said Almachius. ‘Are you not aware that the mighty Roman princes have decreed and passed ordinance to the effect that every Christian shall receive punishment for his faith and will only walk free if he renounces it? Do you still want to persist in this folly?’

‘Your princes are in error then, as is your nobility, if they have passed such a stupid decree. It makes us guilty when we are not. You well understand our innocence, since we are only revering Christ and calling ourselves Christians, yet you still want to charge us with a crime. But we, who know the word Christian to mean "virtuous", cannot renounce it.’

‘Choose one of these two things: either perform a sacrifice at the Temple of Jupiter or renounce Christianity, so that I may set you free.’

Cecilia began to laugh. ‘Oh judge,’ she said. ‘Do you really expect me to deny the truth and embrace wickedness? Look! Perplexed by your own foolishness, you act against your own instincts as you stare and get angry with me.’

‘You miserable wretch, don’t you understand that I have the authority to kill you? Haven’t the Roman princes given me the power and the means by which to choose who lives and who dies? Why do you speak so proudly to me?’

‘I am simply being resolute,’ she said. ‘I am not being proud, since pride is one of the deadly sins and we hate it. And if you are not frightened to have a truth revealed to you then I will show you one openly and prove that you are making a great mistake. You say that your princes have given you the authority to give life or death, but you cannot give a life you can only take it, you have no other power! Your princes have made you the Administer of Death, and if you claim more than this, you are lying, for your limitations are plain for all to see.’

‘Away with this boldness!’ exclaimed Almachius. ‘Sacrifice to our gods before you go. I don’t give a damn what you say about me, I can take it all philosophically, but I object to you insulting our gods.’

‘Oh you are a naive creature! You haven’t said a word to me yet that hasn’t had foolishness written all over it. They mark you out in every way as an ignorant buffoon and a conceited judge. Is there nothing in this world that you are not blind to? A thing that is just a stone – and this is plain for all to see – you tell me that it is a god. Well, I urge you, touch it with your hands, put your lips to it since you cannot see it with your eyes, and you will find that it is a stone. It is a shame, but folk will ridicule you and laugh at your foolishness, because people generally acknowledge that Almighty God sits in the high heavens; these sculpted images, it should be obvious, can bring no benefit to you, nor to themselves. They are not worth a speck of dust!’

Cecilia said this, and a lot more, and Almachius grew so angry with her that he commanded that she be led back to her house and put to death in a bath of scalding water, amidst roaring flames. His orders were quickly carried out. They secured her in a bath and spent all that night, and all the next day, stoking and fanning a great fire beneath it. But all this time, despite the heat of the flames and the bath, she sat in cold water and felt no discomfort. She produced not a drop of sweat! But she had to die in that bath, because Almachius had given strict and wicked orders to that effect, so her executioner gave her three sharp blows to the neck with his sword, but he did not cut it in two. And because there was at that time a law which decreed that nobody should have to suffer more than three attempts at beheading, he dared not make a fourth attempt, either vindictively or to lessen her suffering. So he left her lying there, half dead, with her neck partially severed, and went on his way.

All the Christian folk who were there with her tried to soak up the blood with sheets. Cecilia lived for three days like this, in great pain but continually preaching to those around her and teaching them the faith that she had nurtured. She bequeathed to them all her worldly possessions and instructed them to go to Pope Urban. ‘I have asked the King of Heaven if I might have three days grace in order to prepare your souls for his blessing, and that I might strive to make this house of mine a church before I go.’

When she died, Saint Urban, with all his deacons, secretly fetched her body and buried it at night where all the other Christian saints had been laid to rest. Her house became the Church of Saint Cecilia. Pope Urban himself consecrated it, and to this day it is used to perform services in honour of Christ and his saints.

Translation and retelling of Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale copyright © Richard Scott-Robinson, 2017