The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (2)

At this point the Priest enters a passage of descriptio, a rhetorical term for a set piece of elaborate description: it is both a picture of a cockerel and a celebration of the lavish nature of chivalric romance, full of colour and comparisons. Taken along with and juxtaposed to the portrait of the widow, it shows Chaucer the poet at his best as well as being a tribute to the narrative skills of the Priest.  The creature has been associated with music and now he is connected to coral, battlements, a lily, jet, azure  and gold, the last two being heraldic colours. He shines and glows as befits the word “gentile”, a term of strong meaning relating to all the virtues and values of a nobleman or knight in romance.  It may be incongruous but it is magnificent and the narrator follows the advice of Geoffrey de Vinsauf, the writer on rhetoric in his Nova Poetria, to “let the whole description [of the heroine] be polished to the toe-nail” as Chauntecleer’s are “whitter than the lilie flour.” Although it is elevated, it is also an accurate description of a healthy cockerel, who may be well-bred in one sense even if not “gentil”, and it adds an expansiveness and relation to the outside world.

The word “sustres” suggests nuns and these seven hens were specifically there to serve his “plesaunce” [sexual satisfaction].  Since the narrator is Priest to a nun, he is inviting salacious comments and the Host gives them robustly in the Epilogue. They are similar to him in colours (not quite accurate perhaps) but he has a favourite, whose brightest feathers were on her throat, Pertelote. She is given the attributes of the willing but fine courtly lady: courteous, prudent, gracious and friendly who, comically when we pause to think of a seven-day chick, has conducted herself well from an early age. At this point we begin to forget we are reading about hens, so skilful is the attribution of human characteristics. This a part of the technique of telling a fable as the human analogy must be apparent throughout along with the animal behaviour.

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With exaggerated alliteration the Priest makes us have faith in Chauntecleer’s loyal and sensual love for her: “loketh in every lith” [whose every limb was bound for love] as she has his “herte in holde.” He loves her so much that “wel was him therewith” [his happiness was complete] and they sing sweetly together the words of a pop song: “My lief is faren in londe!”  [My love is gone away]. Here they are human as it is only the cock who voices in the animal world but they are now the knight and lady. Suddenly the Priest recollects himself and descends to bathos with the hasty correction that at that period creatures could speak and sing.

The time of year is spring as it is in the frame narrative of the whole work and so the bright mood of the pilgrimage is captured and now the character of Chauntecleer begins to emerge to fit in with the robust joy of the season: he is self-assured, a boaster, proud, sensual, susceptible to flattery, fearful and yet has a sly intelligence. The story proper begins with the words: “And so bifel it” and it is not a flaw in oral narrative to give clear signals to the listeners as to when it will change gear so that they can adjust their expectations and attention. The tone is more conversational as the cockerel wakes up and groans: he and Pertolote now appear as man and wife, the other hens and the widow being relegated to the background, almost completely forgotten for quite a while. Chauntecleer is something of a coward under his bold plumage and Pertelote, though sympathetic, rebukes him with the ironical: “Ye be a verray sleper; fy, for shame.” [What a sound sleeper you are – sarcastically said]    It is Chaucer’s skill that gives us the dual voice of a wifely hen within the Priest’s narration and makes it entirely credible for a concerned but sceptical human female.

There is now a diversio, a digression in which he tells the dream which has disturbed him: such a device needs to be carefully handled so that the narrative does not lose track of its main drive and the Priest has great skill in making this dream both fearful and comical in that the bold knight/cockerel is clearly terrified of a fox that he does not recognise as such. He begs her: “that ye take it nat agrief” [do not be alarmed] thus off-setting his own terror as her response will be far from frightened. The repetition of “God” at the start of sentences is a device known as anaphora and returns later – he wants the dream to be interpreted and brought to a happy ending, much as we would today by using psychological analysis. This dream, in fact, needs no interpretation for a hen but the fox does appear an unknown creature to the cockerel as it tries to snatch at him, its colour being between red and yellow and the tips of its ears and tail being black as in a col-fox: the memory of its “snowte smal” [slim muzzle] and glowing eyes continues to terrify the awakened cockerel. The phrase “of his look” could mean either “the look of him” or “the expression in his eyes.” The colours red and yellow both reflect Chauntecleer’s own glory and suggest to Pertelote an explanation concerned with the humours for the nightmare. The yard now seems a less safe place than it did and the hens are threatened by the new atmosphere.

Pertelote’s lengthy riposte gives her a dual persona: scornful courtly lady and bustling housewife. With repeated exclamations and questions, it is full of female excitability and concern, whilst arguing that there is nothing important to make a fuss about. She calls on the same God to witness that Chauntecleer has lost her love because of cowardice and enters the debate on what women desire which, in her case is:
housbandes hardy [brave], wise, and free [generous]
And secree [discreet] and no nigard, ne no fool,
Ne him that is agast of every tool [afraid of every weapon]
Ne noon avauntour [braggart]

This is a serious rebuke, even if it includes characteristics hardly relevant to the moment: rather like the Wife of Bath, she is taking her opportunity to draw up a list of requirements yet she would like a masterful husband, not one whom she can control – but that is what she now tries to do in contradictory fashion.  She applies human standards to him, particularly when she mentions his beard, which should indicate a “mannes herte.” Her view is somatic: dreams are the product of “replecciouns” [over-eating] and here we recall the poor widow who has no such luck. They also arise from “fume” [vapour] and of “complecciouns” [mingling or too much of a bodily humour]. Her belief is the contemporary one: that there are four humours or liquids in the body’s make-up and, if any one of them is in excess, it affects the balance of the constitution and temperament.

They are blood, phlegm, choler and black bile all connected to colours; as he has dreamed of black and red, those must be the dominant and superfluous humours in his body. Although choler was sometimes seen as yellow, she associates it with the red elements in the dream and other items such as arrows and fire: this was standard wisdom about dreams and so she is demeaning him by claiming that he is the conventional victim of over-indulgence. As she derides him, she also builds up a frightening sense of the power of nightmares with biting beasts, “contek” [strife] and large or small “whelpes” [dogs]. The black humour of melancholy is equally productive of terrifying dreams featuring bears, bulls or devils. She is self-contradictory is despising his fear whilst augmenting her own by detailed imaginings. She then uses the rhetorical device of occupatio whereby the speaker mentions a topic only to say that he/she will not describe or discuss it: “of othere humours koude I telle also …/ But I wol passes as lightly as I kan.” The hen has now comically shown herself a virtuoso of rhetoric before moving on to proving she is a Classical scholar – though with severe limitations. The skill here is, as we must keep reminding ourselves, that Chaucer is putting words into the mouth of the Priest, who transfers them to the hen with many levels of irony incorporated. It is the Priest showing off his knowledge through the fowl.
“Lo” is a recognised formula or oral signal for introducing an authority with an exemplum and we now have yet another voice within the Russian dolls structure of multiple narrators: Cato, but his words are kept laughably brief. It is a waste of the use of an opportunity for quotation to restrict it to so few homely words; “Ne do no fors [pay no heed to] of dremes?” and it is phrased as a question, thus destroying its impact. She now recommends the debasing remedy of laxatives, reducing the bold cockerel to a clownish figure: wisely she advises leaving the perch before medication! The tone changes as she says “up peril of my soule and of my lyf” as she has not fully made up her mind what attitude to take. Certainly she does want influence over him or even “maistrie” [dominance] and she repeats herself for emphasis. She is bossy, loving, concerned and fussy all at the same time and is also knowedgeable about which herbal remedies will help: “That shul be for your hele and fo your prow” [which shall be for your greatest benefit or advantage].

We and the listeners might guess that she will concoct a strong dose as she is determined to cure him and prove herself wise and efficient: the medicine will purge him both ends and it is small wonder he is reluctant – this is no way to treat a proud cockerel or a romance knight. It is not only mock-heroic; it even debunks the fowl as a fowl. She feels he is choleric by normal disposition and so her dose will cure that for good measure. It would be damaging if the sun, at his zenith, should find him full of hot humours and so the remedy must be taken soon to prevent a fever which increases every other day or an acute ailment that could kill him.  Her anxieties have become as threatening as the dream and she keeps her advice down to earth and realistic with homely touches: “I dare wel leye a grote” [bet fourpence]. Worms, an appropriate intake for a hen, were also prescribed by Diosorides for tertian fevers in humans and, after he has taken digestives for a couple of days, he can have the laxatives proper. Most of the ingredients in her list were common remedies but the recipe grows increasingly off-putting and distasteful; even though she praises their yard as pleasant, it has come to seem a dangerous and threatening enclosure. There is now a hilarious long line with an extra foot to ensure that he will eat with vigour: “Pekke hem up right as they growe and ete hem in”, imperatives which we now fear – or hope – he will not heed. He is now firmly a cockerel in eating habits but the human equivalent might also refuse comparable medication with its humiliating effects. Calling on his father is an ironic touch as it is he whose evocation leads to near-disaster later.

There is a Garden of Eden element here as the two discuss eating the products of nature in their idyllic environment but also a reference to the topic of “maistrie” as he embarks on a long speech as part of a formal debate about Cato and other matters in order to regain dominance. We can imagine the other pilgrims, particularly the Wife of Bath, waiting to see who wins: it is not only the several narrative levels we must bear in mind but the two contemporary audiences, pilgrims and Chaucer’s own: the latter may have read the work or had it read to them as books were rare and expensive. We, in modern times, form yet another audience which Chaucer could not have foreseen in detail though he must have been aware that his work could live on for future generations, being written with some boldness in English rather than the expected Latin or French. It is appropriate the the cockerel is given such a lengthy and somewhat disorganised discourse as it is over-confidence in opening his beak that is his downfall later: he may well wear his lover down with garrulousness as well as reasoned argument.