The canterbury tales, p.125
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.125

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  52 sonne of excellence: The Virgin was often called ‘sun’ in Latin hymns. See Salzer, Sinnbilder, pp. 394–9).

  53–6 These lines render Dante, Paradiso XXXIII.16–18: ‘La tua benignità non pur soccorre | a chi domanda, ma molte fïate | liberamente al dimandar precorre’ (‘Thy loving-kindness not only succors him who asks, but oftentimes freely foreruns the asking’; tr. Singleton).

  lives leche: medical metaphors, including vitae medica/medicina (‘doctor/medicine of life’) were frequently applied to the Virgin. See Salzer, Sinnbilder, pp. 513–15.

  58 flemed wrecche: See n. to SN 62. The idea that life on earth is an exile from one’s heavenly home is fundamental to Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (see esp. IV m.1), and appears in Chaucer’s ‘Balade de Bon Conseil’ (‘Truth’), 17–19.

  59–61 See Matthew 15:21–8.

  62 sone of Eve: The phrase is obviously unsuited to the female teller of this tale. The phrase ‘exiled sons of Eve’ occurs in the famous Marian anthem ‘Salve regina’ (see SA2 I, 502–3), and also, as F. Tupper (MLN, 30 (1915), 5–12, at pp. 9–11) and C. Brown (ibid., 231–2) pointed out, in the Little Office of the Virgin (see n. to Pri 517), but although this is a likely source of Chaucer’s phrase (and also for ‘flemed wrecche’ at SN 58), the use of the masculine singular still seems incongruous in context. It is likely that the phrase reflects the original composition of the life of St Cecilia as an independent work (see Headnote to SNT), and refers to Chaucer himself. When he inserted the life into CT, he presumably failed to notice the resulting anomaly.

  64 James 2:17.

  70 On Mary’s mother Anne, see n. to ML 641.

  71–3 The notion that the body was the prison of the soul derives from Greek thought, and was widely disseminated in both classical and biblical literature. See, for example, Aeneid VI.734; Prudentius, Psychomachia 904–7; Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos CXLI.18 (CCSL 40, p. 2058), and cf. G. Bauer, Claustrum Animae. Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Metapher vom Herzen als Kloster (Munich, 1973), pp. 66–7. J. L. Lowes (MP, 15 (1917), pp. 196–7) sees the immediate source of these lines in Macrobius’s Commentary on the Dream of Scipio (I.x.6 and I.xi.3, tr. Stahl, pp. 127, 130–31), since Macrobius also speaks of the ‘contagion of the body’ (‘contagio corporis’) in the same section of his commentary (I.xi.11, tr. Stahl, pp. 132–3. See also I.viii.8, tr. Stahl, p. 122). (The Latin passages are also reproduced in SA, pp. 666–7.) However, Servius’s commentary on Aeneid VI also speaks of the body as both prison and contagion (Lowes, pp. 197–8).

  75 havene of refut: See n. to ML 852.

  78 reden that I write: This reference to reading and writing is inconsistent with the fictional supposition that the Prologue is orally delivered by the Second Nun to the listening pilgrims. Presumably it is another survival from the independent composition of this tale (see n. to SN 62).

  85–119 As a marginal gloss in El and Hg makes clear, the etymological explanations in these lines are taken from the Golden Legend (see Headnote to SNPr, and, for a text and translation, SA2 I, 504–5). They are based on Latin phrases approximating to Cecilia’s name: ‘hevenes lilye’ translates caeli lilia; ‘the wey to blinde’ translates caecis via; ‘hevene’ and ‘lia’ represent coelum and lya; ‘Wantinge of blindnesse’ translates caecitate carens; ‘hevene’ and ‘leos’ represent coelum and leos (= Greek laos, ‘people’). Such explanations of the name are more pious than accurate.

  philosophres: The Golden Legend (see SA2 I, 504–5) makes clear that this statement is taken from Isidore’s Etymologies (III.xxxi.1): ‘Caelum philosophi rotundum, volubile atque ardens esse dixerunt.’


  The legend of St Cecilia has no historical foundation, as H. Delehaye demonstrated (Étude sur le légendier romain (Brussels, 1936), pp. 73–88). No saint of this name is mentioned before the fifth century (well after the date of the Roman persecutions), when the story of her life was put together by the inventive author of the Passio S. Caeciliae, who drew on a number of conventional hagiographical motifs (the refusal of marriage, the refusal to worship Roman gods, conversion of pagans, the dialogue with a judge, conversion of a house into a church). Inscriptions in the catacombs of Praetextatus and Callixtus (see n. to SN 172) seem to have furnished the names of her martyred companions, Valerian, Tiburtius and Maximus; Caecilia herself, Delehaye suggests (pp. 84–6) may have been a Christian benefactress who founded the church in Trastevere that bears her name, and who thereby earned the honour of burial alongside martyrs and popes in the catacomb of Callixtus. The existence of a Roman bath (calidarium) next to the church seems to have suggested to the ingenious hagiographer the attempt to kill her by its means, and served as a spurious substantiation of the story (Delehaye, p. 84; see also n. to SN 515). The legend that the sixteenth-century statue of St Cecilia which now lies beneath the altar of her church represents the state of her body when her (purported) tomb was opened in 1599 is shown by Delehaye (pp. 88–96) to be equally apocryphal.

  Chaucer’s tale is drawn from two principal sources, both of them ultimately deriving from the Passio S. Caeciliae. The first part, from line 85 up to line 348, corresponds closely to the life of Cecilia in the Golden Legend, a collection of saints’ lives compiled by the Dominican friar Jacopo da Varazze (Jacobus de Voragine), around 1260; this enormously popular work survives in over 1,000 manuscripts. The Latin text of this life is printed from a fourteenth-century English manuscript in SA2 I, 504–17, with accompanying translation; for a critical edition of the whole work, see Legenda Aurea, ed. G. P. Maggioni, 2 vols. (Florence, 1998), II, 1180–87. Chaucer’s source for the second part of the tale (line 349 to the end), as S. L. Reames demonstrated (MP, 87 (1990), 337–61), is an abridgement of the Passio, composed for liturgical use by the Roman curia and borrowed by the Franciscans (SA2 I, 495), which survives in at least 20 manuscripts (text and translation in SA2 I, 516–27). This abridgement is very much closer to the Second Nun’s Tale than the text of the Passio contained in the fifteenth-century edition of Boninus Mombritius which was reproduced in SA, pp. 677–84, and its existence renders untenable the older view that in this part of the tale Chaucer was freely adapting and altering his source. In both parts of the tale, Chaucer follows his originals closely, as he himself indicates at lines 79–83. However, it is still necessary to explain why he should have switched from one source to the other. At the point where the shift is made, the Golden Legend has a long section describing in detail the interrogation of Valerian and Tiburtius by Almachius, and their conversation with Maximus. By following the abridgement at this point, Chaucer reduces this section to a summary (360–78), and so keeps the major focus on Cecilia and her altercation with the Roman prefect. This is in keeping with Chaucer’s preference for female rather than male heroes in CT (see Mann, Feminizing Chaucer, p. 3).

  ‘The lif … of Seint Cecile’ is mentioned in the list of Chaucer’s works given in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women (F 426, G 416), suggesting that he first wrote it as an independent work and later decided to incorporate it into CT. It is perhaps a mere coincidence that the name of the woman of whose ‘raptus’ (rape or abduction?) Chaucer was accused in 1380 was Cecily Champain (see C. Cannon, Speculum, 68 (1993), 74–94). G. H. Cowling (Chaucer (New York, 1927), p. 24) raised in passing the possibility of a connection between this puzzling incident and the Second Nun’s Tale; for a recent reconsideration, see C. Cannon, SAC, 22 (2000), 67–92, at pp. 87–8. Another possibility, proposed by M. Giffin (Studies on Chaucer and his Audience (Hull, Quebec, 1956), pp. 31–40), is that the poem was prompted by the appointment of Adam Easton as Cardinal Priest of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, at a date between December 1381 and December 1384. In 1383, Richard II and Queen Anne visited Norwich Cathedral Priory, where Easton had been a monk. Giffin suggests that Chaucer wrote the life of Cecilia for Richard II to present to the Benedictines of Norwich (p. 31); ‘a poem honoring Easton’s title of Santa Cecilia might have been persuasive toward obt
aining the English cardinal’s assistance in a difficult dispute with the papacy’. (See further J. C. Hirsh, ChauR, 12 (1977), 129–46, at pp. 129–30.)

  129 Valerian: See Headnote.

  134 organs: On the plural form of the word, and the type of organ referred to, see n. to NP 2851. This detail of the life of St Cecilia seems to have been the origin of the tradition that makes her the patron saint of music (see Farmer, Dictionary of Saints).

  172 Via Apia: The Appian Way was (and is) a major Roman road, built in the fourth–third centuries BC, running from the city to Capua, Benevento and Brindisi. The section nearest Rome was lined on each side by the tombs of noble families. Underground are the catacombs, subterranean labyrinths hollowed out of the soft tufa rock, in which the early Christians buried their dead, and, according to legend, hid from their persecutors (see n. to SN 311–12). Cecilia is sending Valerian to make contact with the Christian community.

  173 but miles thre: The Appian Way is not three miles away from Rome; it runs out of the city. Chaucer is apparently mistranslating the Golden Legend, which reads ‘in tertium miliarium ab urbe’ – that is, ‘to the third milestone from the city’. The catacombs lie between the second and the third milestones.

  177 Urban is later (SN 217) called a pope, and is thus presumably meant to be identified as Urban I (ad 222–30). However, Urban’s pontificate ‘fell wholly in the reign of Emperor Alexander Severus (222–35), which was free from persecution’ (J. N. D. Kelly, TheOxford Dictionary of Popes (Oxford and New York, 1986), p. 15). His association with the catacombs was perhaps suggested to the author of the Passio S. Caeciliae by a fragmentary epitaph to a ‘bishop Urbanus’ in the catacomb of Callixtus; an alternative tradition located the pope’s burial-place in the catacomb of Praetextatus (Delehaye, pp. 80–81).

  195 bisy bee: The phrase translates the Golden Legend’s ‘apis argumentosa’, but it is also proverbial in English; see Whiting B165, and cf. Mch 2422.

  201 An old man: Probably St Paul, since the inscription he carries is close to Ephesians 4:5–6, but medieval liturgical texts suggest that he was also interpreted as ‘a second angelic manifestation of Pope Urban’ (SA2 I, 499, 507 n.).

  207–9 Cf. Ephesians 4:5–6.

  220–21 See n. to SN 27.

  242 Tiburce: See Headnote.

  271–83 Chaucer is still translating the Golden Legend, which is quoting the Preface (a prayer introducing the central part of the mass) for St Cecilia’s day according to the Ambrosian rite, so called because it was supposedly composed by St Ambrose, bishop of Milan (d. 347). See M. Henshaw, MP, 26 (1928), 15–16.

  277 Valerians*] Cecilies El Hg. The emendation is supported by Ambrose’s Preface (see preceding n.).

  311–12 Legend has it that the early Christians used the catacombs to hide from their persecutors, but there is no historical evidence that this was in fact the case (J. Stevenson, The Catacombs: Rediscovered Monuments of Early Christianity (London, 1978), p. 24).

  326–9 Riverside places a semi-colon at the end of line 327, but the Latin source shows that this line belongs syntactically with 328–9 (SA2 I, 509:104, 511:105).

  330 he goddes sone Hg] goddes sone El. Manly and Rickert and Riverside adopt the reading ‘heigh’, which has manuscript support, but ‘he’ is a ‘harder’ reading (on which see n. to Cl 508) and also closer to the Latin source, which reads ‘Hic igitur filius Dei … ’ (SA2 I, 511:105). For the construction, see Mustanoja, pp. 135–6.

  337–41 The notion that the brain consisted of three separate cells, each with its own special function, was a common one (see n. to Kn 1376). V. A. Kolve argues that here ‘engin’ (‘ingenium’ in the source) represents the ‘imaginative’ or image-making faculty (‘ymaginativa’), while ‘intellect’ represents the ‘estimative’ or judging faculty (‘aestimativa’ or ‘logica’); see Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative (Stanford, CA, 1984), pp. 380–81, n. 24. Memory stores the information derived from these two faculties. St Augustine compares the tripartite nature of the brain to the Trinity (The Trinity X.11–XII.4, tr. S. McKenna (Washington, DC, 1963), pp. 310–46).

  362 Almache: The city prefect (praefectus urbi) of Rome was responsible for law and order in the city, and was directly answerable to the emperor (Der Kleine Pauly. Lexikon der Antike, 5 vols. (Stuttgart, 1964–75), s.v.). No prefect named Almachius is to be found in historical records (Delehaye, pp. 81–2).

  369 Corniculars were subordinate officers who performed both clerical and military functions (Der Kleine Pauly, s.v. corniculum, cornicularii).

  384–5 An echo of Romans 13:12.

  386–8 An echo of 2 Timothy 4:7–8.

  421–2 Almachius has already commanded Cecilia to be brought before him (see SN 410–13); S. L. Reames explains the duplication as a result of Chaucer switching back from his main source at this point, the Roman/Franciscan abridgement, to the Golden Legend (MP, 87 (1990), 346).

  425 a gentil womman born: Cecilia’s name would have been interpreted as an indication of her high social rank, since the gens Caecilia was one of the oldest families of Rome.

  467 spareth] stareth El Hg. The Latin source at this point (SA2 I, 525:171–2) reads ‘Parcit et sevit, dissimulat et advertit’ (‘He [alternately] spares and rages, dissimulates and threatens’) – presumably referring to Almachius’s self-contradictory shift from aggressiveness to an attempt to persuade Cecilia to be reasonable and save herself. The Latin ‘Parcit’ supports the supposition that Chaucer wrote ‘spareth’ rather than ‘stareth’ (which is easily explicable as a variation to an easier reading), though Chaucer’s rearrangement of the sentence alters the meaning slightly: ‘Lo, he dissembles … he restrains himself [outwardly] and mentally rages.’

  515 a bath: The author of the Passio S. Caeciliae probably conceived this as a Roman bath or hypocaust (a room with a space beneath the floor that was heated from conduits). As mentioned earlier (see Headnote), the building that became the Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere was adjacent to a bath of this type. Medieval illustrations of Cecilia’s martyrdom showing her in a tub full of hot water reinterpret the bath in more familiar terms; see V. A. Kolve, in New Perspectives in Chaucer Criticism, ed. D. M. Rose (Norman, OK, 1981), pp. 137–74.

  545–6 The Roman/Franciscan abridgement here reads ‘ut … hanc domum meam in eternum ecclesie nomini consecrarem’ (‘so that I might … dedicate this house of mine in perpetuity to the ownership of the church’; SA2 I, 527:208–9). This detail was used by John Wyclif as evidence that lay persons could licitly perform minor sacraments, such as consecrations (Reames, MP, 87 (1990), 344). The Golden Legend, and many versions of the liturgy for St Cecilia’s feast day, avoid the problem by reading ‘consecrares’ (‘that you should consecrate … ’; ibid., p. 344, nn. 20–22). Chaucer’s use of the causative construction ‘do werche’ (‘have made’) ‘can be understood as a very careful solution to the sticky problem’, as Reames points out (ibid.).

  550–53 The Church of St Cecilia in the district of Rome known as Trastevere (‘across the Tiber’) survives to the present day.


  Possibly because Chaucer was working on this tale shortly before his death, the Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale are absent from Hg; the text given here is based on El.

  The Canon and his Yeoman were evidently not part of Chaucer’s original plan for CT, and their sudden intrusion on the pilgrim company, and on the by now settled pattern of tale-telling, is not easy to account for. Since there still remain a number of pilgrims who have not told a tale (such as the Yeoman, the Guildsmen and the Plowman), and in any case the plan outlined in the General Prologue is that each pilgrim should tell not one but four tales, Chaucer cannot have needed extra tellers. Chaucer’s eighteenth-century editor Thomas Tyrwhitt supposed that ‘some sudden resentment had determined Chaucer to interrupt the regular course of his work, in order to insert a satire against the alchemists’ (quoted in Skeat, III, 493), but this is mere speculation, and there
is in any case no reason why a tale about alchemy could not have been told by one of the existing pilgrims. Conversely, there is no obvious reason why Chaucer could not have revised the General Prologue to include another pilgrim, particularly in view of the fact that the total number he gives for the pilgrim company does not correspond with the number he names and describes (see n. to GP 24).

  It is possible, as A. E. Hartung argued (ChauR, 12 (1977), 111–28) that the second part of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, the story of the swindling alchemist-canon, was composed independently of CT, and that the first, ‘autobiographical’, part of the tale, along with the Prologue, was written later. The theory that the tale began life as a work independent of CT finds support in the fact that at lines 1409–25, the narrator consistently addresses alchemists as ‘ye’, suggesting that he does not consider himself as one of their number. The comparable use of the pre-existing ‘lif … of Seint Cecile’ as the Second Nun’s Tale (see Headnote to SNT) suggests that at this stage of CT Chaucer might have been trying to save time by incorporating into the Canterbury collection works he had written earlier. Less likely is the suggestion made by P. Brown (English Studies, 64 (1983), 481–90), as a possible explanation for the ‘gradual deterioration of literary quality from the Prologue through prima pars [= Part One] to pars secunda [= Part Two]’, that Part Two may be by an imitator of Chaucer, or may be a story he had intended to rework but had not yet got around to. Despite the inferiority of Part Two to what precedes it, it seems unlikely to have been written by anyone but Chaucer, and the ending (CY 1453 ff.) is inspired.

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