The Nun’s Priest is barely mentioned in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, his own Prologue is more concerned with the Knight, the Host and the Monk – and his Tale is about hens. It therefore seems perverse to try to establish a connection or otherwise between the teller and the tale, although the Host does so in his own bawdy way in the Epilogue. Neither does it appear profitable to pursue topical references to real people in the names of the fox as such intentions are difficult to prove. The important aspects of the work are: the narrative mode, the mock-heroic, in which barnyard fowl and their doings are portrayed as epic or romantic; the use and misuse of rhetorical devices, in particular digressions; the skill of story-telling in the fable itself; humour; philosophising in this context; multiple narrators, (Chaucer, the Nun’s Priest, the hens, and voices within their discourses) and dual audience (pilgrims and readers or the read-to); and the Priest’s purpose and awareness of his effects. The Priest certainly needs to convince his audience of pilgrims (and Chaucer his readers) that he will engage in a very different story from that (or those) of the Monk and that his will have human interest under the fable form and recognisable shape in its construction. The Monk has just partially delivered many exempla of tragic downfalls before he is interrupted by the Knight, with the Host’s backing, and the Priest must regain audience confidence and approval, possibly satirising the high and elevated style as a side-swipe at the unpopular and shapeless narration of the Monk.
The Nun’s Priest’s Prologue
The Knight, under cover of an apparent polite and courteous manner, rudely stops the Monk in mid-flow. He probably speaks for all the pilgrims (though it is a part of the non-realism of the frame of the whole work that no one pilgrim could possible speak to all the others or even hear everything that is happening) and definitely has the support of the Host, whose idea it was to provide entertainment through stories. The Knight briefly defines tragedy as the “sodeyn fall” of those who once had wealth and an easy life and would prefer its opposite, a story of someone who moves up from poverty and stays in prosperity. The Monk has described tragedy in similar terms as a story:
Of him that stood in greet prosperitee,
And is yfallen out of high degree
Into miseries, and endeth wrecchedly
The Priest must therefore tell a story with a happy ending, though he risks a temporary and exciting fall for the cockerel from which the bird recovers and learns a lesson. The Host pretends not to understand “Fortune covered with a clowde” which means “how fortune suddenly changes.” His use of the double negative: “I noot nevere what” emphasises his reluctance to comprehend the point of this gloom as two negatives do not cancel themselves out in Chaucer’s English. The Knight clearly does know what is meant by tragedy as he is able to paraphrase its definition even if the Host is genuinely or falsely bewildered. The Host is more blunt commenting that: “this Monk he clappeth lowde” [he babbles too loudly] and that his offering “is nat worth a boterflye”, claiming harshly that he would have fallen asleep were it not for the sound of the Monk’s bells jingling. (It was a fashionable and therefore inappropriate accessory for a monk to have bells on his horse’s bridle although pilgrims also affected this, hence the flower name Canterbury bells). He points out that, however worthy the moral or “sentence” [sententia] of the exemplum, it will lose everything if no-one listens. He is probably not aware of these terms of rhetoric but his advice would strike home to both the learned and ignorant and some would be familiar with notions of rhetoric.
The Host does not blame himself as he feels he has the “substance” [making of] a good listener of he were given the chance with an interesting story and begs the Monk to speak of hunting, although this is another sly dig as monks were not supposed to engage in this pastime. The Monk had probably been trying to save his reputation by seriousness and will not descend to level of playfulness. The Host “with rude speche and boold” [tactless and blunt] calls upon Sir John, one of the Nun’s three priests, to liven them all up even though he is riding on a “jade”, a “foul and lene” horse. It is not clear why the man should have such an unworthy mount but it is to the detriment of his image as the horse is, by metonymy, indicative of the status of the rider just as a car might be today. He is told to have a “murie” heart and that is does not matter a bean if his horse is wretched provided it carries him but the Priest is stung and speaks of the necessity of having the use of his legs and being jolly in his narration, [however I transport myself I must be amusing]. It is possible that he resents this slight and wants to repair his image by telling a tale with some elevated language and pretensions to grandeur. He may also want to cloak a sermon suitable for a priest in comedy but nevertheless adds the trappings of a sermon in examples and amoral.
The widow acts as a frame for the central narrative of the hens, reappearing near the end when the dramatic climax needs her. She is depicted as poor and somewhat “stape” [advanced, possibly stooping] in age with impoverished surroundings evoked by negatives and words of privation to contrast with the portrait to come of the rich and luxuriant cockerel. Vocabulary such as “narwe”, “litel”, “pacience” build up a picture of a mean and difficult life: “cartel” [capital] and “rente” [income] are grandiose words for such small sums which she must manage with “housbandrie”. Her wealth amounts to three sows, three cows and a sheep whose name, Malle, we are given, as though animals have more personality than people. Her life is austere and pedestrian and her “bour” [bower/bedroom] and “halle” [living-room], though given romantic terms, could not be those of a heroine as they are “sooty.” Her meals are “sklendre” [scanty], she never had a flavoured sauce (a dig, perhaps, at both the Cook and the Prioress) and the account following includes many negatives such as “No”, “N’ “, “Neither”, “nothing”, “ne” and “nat.” By understatement we realise how plain her food was just as is her cottage: “Repleccioun [over-eating] ne made hire nevere sik” but she triumphs over her financial situation by economising and, at least, she does not have apoplexy since her temperate diet acts like medicine, along with exercise and “hertes suffisaunce” [contentment].
Neither does she have gout as she drinks no wine, either red or white, and her table is laid with white milk and brown rye bread. Here we have the start of a preoccupation with color which runs through the Tale, though, since there is no wine, dull shades and foodstuffs predominate, enlivened by broiled bacon and an occasional egg. She is the epitome of economy, moderation, contentment, self-restraint, sobriety, patience and reasonable discretion – an example and rebuke to many of the rich-living pilgrims.
Just as this mean, meagre and narrow setting is becoming claustrophobic, however worthy morally, the scene moves outside to the enclosed and therefore apparently safe world of the yard. In it lives our main character, Chauntecleer, whose name means “clear singer” and his hens. He must appear regal and grand so that his fall has significance and so he contrasts in every way with the poor widow. His majesty must be sufficient to sustain digressions on moral philosophy and ruminations on Fate and free will and the narration of his mishap will involve elevated language with many rhetorical flourishes, the mode being mock-heroic when a lowly topic is treated as though romantic or epic. His crowing befits his name, being “murier” [more pleasant] than the church organ and he has an instinctive knowledge of astronomy so that he knows by observing the heavens when it is time to give voice – his crowing is therefore more reliable than clocks. Religious institutions are suffering by contrast with the cockerel and we wonder if the Priest realizes what impression he is creating here in his determination to show off his own detailed understanding of science.