Chaucer and the Early Church
Kaiser, Melanie L. and Dean, James M.
Medieval Forum, vol. 5 (2006)
Although some Chaucerians have questioned the place and integrity of Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale, we believe it has an important use in the Canterbury book. Few of the other tales address spiritual issues relevant to the pilgrimage, but the Second Nun’s Tale directly addresses the religious purpose of the Canterbury journey. The tale presents the early church as unified and dedicated to conversion, unlike the divided papacy of Chaucer’s day. The portrayal of the unified church was perhaps why Chaucer thought to include the previously written Lyf of Seint Cecile in his Canterbury Tales.
The status of Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale in the Canterbury Tales is often considered ambiguous or tenuous. Most readers have received it as the finest example of a saint’s life in Middle English, but some regard the story, which pre-dates the Canterbury Tales, as ill-suited to the Canterbury collection. Derek Brewer, for example, has characterized the tale as “indeed not subtly composed” and observes, “The reference in the Retraction at the end of The Canterbury Tales to his writing of the lives of saints as being to his credit makes one suspect that he wrote this poem for the good of his soul. So we must forgive the lack of artistry and pass on” (Introduction 234).1 Readers have commented that the tale of St. Cecilia differs from most other stories in the Canterbury Tales, although in other respects it is a conventional—and successful—example of the saint’s life genre.