The Second Nun's Tale
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"The Second Nun's Tale" (Middle English: Þe Seconde Nonnes Tale) is part of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Told by a nun concerned only with spiritual matters, this tale tells the story of Saint Cecilia. The hagiography (saint's life) was a popular story format during the life of Chaucer. Like many of the tales told by the pilgrims, "The Second Nun's Tale" incorporates elements from Dante.
The lack of portrait for the second nun in the General Prologue has led some scholars to speculate that the tale is merely the second tale of the single nun or Prioress but this idea is not widely held. Its relationship to the subsequent Canon's Yeoman's tale is to offer a serious and worthy religious-themed story before a much more irreverent view of contemporary religious behaviour of foolish alchemists.
Having lived a life filled with extreme piety and a strong desire for eternal chastity, Cecilia's marriage to Valerian causes problems from the outset. Aside from her prayers for chastity, Valerian is unbaptized and heathen. According to Cecilia's confession to Valerian, the angel that acts as both her lover and protector is ready to end her husband's life if he loves her uncleanly or vulgarly. In an effort to prove his love and to gain the ability to see the angel, Valerian embarks on a voyage to see Urban, who would become Pope Urban I. After convincing Urban of his pure intentions, Valerian converts to Christianity and is baptized. His conversion leads to the conversion of his brother Tiburce. Once he is baptized, Valerian is able to see Cecelia's guardian angel and love her in a fitting manner.
A Roman prefect, Almachius, learns that Valerian and Tiburce are practicing Christianity, and has them summoned, telling them that they must make sacrifices to an idol of Jupiter or be put to death. They refuse and are killed, but not before they convert Almachius's officer, Maximus, and several executioners. Upon learning of Maximus's conversion, Almachius has him beaten to death with a lead-tipped whip.
Almachius then calls for Cecilia to be summoned to him. At first, his ministers refuse, having been converted to Christianity. However, he is ultimately successful in bringing her before him. He demands that she make sacrifices to the idol of Jupiter, and she refuses, calling him foolish.
Angry, Almachius sentences her to be boiled alive, but miraculously, the cauldron of boiling water does her no harm, and she sits quite comfortably in it for an entire day. At the end of the day, Almachius orders her executed by other means, and an executioner tries to behead her, but is not able to cut completely through her neck in three strokes, and is bound by law not to attempt a fourth. Miraculously, despite having her throat cut, Cecilia continues to live, preaching Christianity, for three more days.
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- Modern Translation of the Second Nun's Tale and Other Resources at eChaucer
- The Second Nun's Tale study guide & teaching guide with analysis of plot, characters, themes, quotes, literary devices
- "The Second Nun's Tale" – a plain-English retelling for non-scholars.