A fruitful fruitless search for the One True Meaning
in The Nun's Priest's Tale
It has been suggested that a "Chaucer tale exploits the nature of its genre but also draws attention to the ideological biases and exclusions inherent in the genre"2. In my opinion The Nun's Priest's Tale is a wonderful example of Chaucer testing the bounds of his chosen genre - in this case the beast fable.
What is a beast fable? Obviously a tale about animals, but one where "animals are used as embodiments or caricatures of human virtues, vices, prudences, and follies ... and the other typical qualities of mankind. They are generally brief cautionary anecdotes that use the obvious resemblances between man and animals to point a moral or push a proverb home entertainingly"3.
Chaucer can be seen to exploit the nature of the beast fable fully in The Nunís Priestís Tale. It contains all of the traditional elements mentioned above: the central characters are the chickens Chauntecleer and Pertelote, and Russell the fox; the culpability, gullibility, guile and boastfulness of the characters are examined; the tale is brief, approximately 650 lines; and several morals are offered. The tale is also entertaining, but not only because of its caricatures of human traits. The tale contains numerous sub-genres such as the romance, rhetorical debate, and Christian misogyny, and it is the interplay of these sub-genres with the framing beast fable that creates much of the humour.
In The Nun's Priest's Tale Chaucer shows up some of the worst excesses of these popular medieval traditions by putting them into context with his animal characters. The incongruity of a chicken taking part in a debate on the significance of dreams, for example, is inherently comic, but does not just imply the questioning of the value and rules of such debates. It also reveals the stresses that the beast fable undergoes when complex human ideas are introduced. "Beast fables offer the most closed system of stereotypes available to a storyteller."4 But stereotypes, by their nature, are biased, exclusive, overblown representations of humanity - perhaps not useful for gaining a better understanding of a working system of morality. Certainly once Chaucer has introduced a level of non-stereotypical complexity to the tale, one simple, obvious moral is no longer possible, which raises a significant doubt about how useful it is to try and make moral points through such tales. Life is, after all, never one dimensional.
It is for this reason that I think Chaucer is drawing attention to two types of biases and exclusions in The Nun's Priest's Tale. He examines those within popular medieval traditions through the introduction of sub-genres which conflict with the apparent simplicity of the tale. By doing this he also exposes those of the beast fable form, which are largely made apparent through the multiplicity of (often conflicting) morals that the introduction of the sub-genres create. In this essay I will explore how these two ideas intersect.
The tale begins solemnly enough, with its description of the "povre wydwe" (2821) and her "narwe cotage" (2822). But as soon as we are introduced to her cock Chauntecleer, the fun begins.
We start with the romance, a genre traditionally featuring noble knights and their love ladies, and hardly anyone else at all. The first information we have about Chauntecleer is that "In all the land, of crowyng nas his peer" (4040). This is a perfect opening for a romance in which the heroic central character is usually introduced as the 'best' of all his kind. However, in this context the description pokes fun at the heroic tradition on two counts - 'crowyng' is not heroic, and it is not particularly astonishing that Chauntecleer does it well - it is the natural thing that roosters do. Here we have the first clash of sub-genre and beast fable comically meeting.
The tale moves on to describe Chauntecleer using a classic descriptive technique of a poet lover. The cock is described from head to toe with the gorgeous colours of jewels and flowers. It is absurd when applied to Chauntecleer, because it is usually used to describe a beautiful young woman. Ironically the description fits Chauntecleer perfectly, evoking the vainly strutting beauty of this beast. That this kind of heraldic, reductive description can be used successfully on a rooster highlights its formulaic use in the romance by foregrounding the technique - making the formula seem almost more striking than the description.
Next we meet the other chickens in the run, Chauntecleer's "sustres and his paramours" (2867), particularly Pertelote. Chaucer's invocation of the incestuous nature of the chicken run makes the very idea of courtly love seem ridiculous. And yet we are told of Pertelote that; "Syn thilke day that she was seven nyght oold/ That trewely she hath the herte in hoold/ Of Chauntecleer" (4063-4064, 2875).
The comedy of people falling in love at the age of seven days ... pokes fun not so much at Chauntecleer and his dame as at the whole convention of love at first sight.6The use of romance conventions is comic in this tale because they 'break the rules'. It is this incongruity, the breaking of expectation, that creates an awareness of the usually exclusive nature of romance conventions. "The courtly behaviour and refined pretensions of Chauntecleer are constantly betrayed by the ludicrous activities and ignoble motives contingent upon chicken nature."7 Chaucer never lets us forget that these chickens really are chickens - they peck, they are incestuous, they are not nobly born, knights or ladies, as we would expect romance characters to be. Of course the opposite is also true: we also discover exclusion in the beast fable. When the narrator "fails to regard the animals' rights to a human role and consistently turns them back into animals"8, it becomes apparent that those usually excluded from a beast fable are animals!
Having set the tone of ironic rule breaking, the tale moves on to a more serious satire. Rhetorical debate is the target. It is deeply ironic that Chaucer can successfully enclose "so much of the syllabus of a fourteenth-century university ... within the narrow and humble compass of the chicken run"9.
The satire begins when a debate on the topic of the significance of dreams is sparked by Chauntecleer's fright at a dream. Pertelote begins by claiming dreams are meaningless: "Nothyng, God woot, but vanitee in sweven is" (4112). This, she says, is according to the authority of Catoun (4130), and hence Chauntecleer shouldn't be so cowardly about his dream. Chauntecleer responds with the contrary view that dreams can be a "warnynge of thynges that shul after falle" (4322). He argues this at great length, out classing Pertelote's single "auctorite" (2g75) by naming authorities ranging from saints to great philosophers, to the bible, and the classics. He also quotes two lengthy supporting exempla and makes passing reference to several more. Through the sheer mass of his evidence he wins his argument. However, "he uses his precedents only to prove the contrary of what someone else has argued rather than to master his primary experience in order to interpret it"10.
Having argued that his dream presages "adversitee" (4343), Chauntecleer blithely ignores his own conclusion. Why is this? What was the point of the debate if not to discover whether Chauntecleer was in genuine danger?
The arguments used by Chauntecleer and Pertelote, irrelevant as they turn out to be, are not in themselves invalid; they are merely inapplicable to a situation which involves a natural predator and his prey.11The debate amusingly illustrates that learned rhetorical debate is not self justified, but is powerful. It requires proper application to be useful, but improperly applied it can be a bully's tool. Again the inadequacies of using animals to discuss certain human issues is revealed, along with a bias inherent in the beast fable genre: reason is useless, by its very nature, to beasts.
Despite having all the correct logic at his wingtips, Chauntecleer fails to interpret his dream correctly, and flies down from the safety of his beam. It is this action that makes the confrontation with the fox possible. "The decent from the beam is represented by Chaucer as the fatal, pivotal action"12 in the tale, and raises the question: Why did this fateful moment occur? In an attempt at explication, the Nun's Priest makes a series of rhetorical comments on the popular medieval debate of free will versus predestination.
The entire range of the debate is condensed into two contradictory homilies: that Chauntecleer was "ful wel ywarned" (4422) of danger by his dream, implying that he could have changed his fate; and that either simple or conditional necessity meant Chauntecleer couldn't have avoided his fate anyway - "what that God forwoot moot nedes bee" (4424). But, alluding to St Augustine, Boethius and Bishop Bradwardyn is not the end of it. As if enough confusion had not already been cast as to the cause of the meeting between Chauntecleer and the fox, the Nun's Priest offers up further explanations: "I conseil of wommen wolde blame" (4451), he says, implying that it was not destiny, but Chauntecleer's wife's fault; that Venus was responsible; that it was all due to being a Friday.
This is rather an amazing array of words, energy and theory to expend on the fact of one fox lurking in a cabbage patch! What is the point of it all? Is there a point to it? After all, this meeting between Chauntecleer and the fox is not even fatal! I think perhaps the crux of the Nun's Priest's rhetorical display is to point up the uselessness of theoretical abstraction in the face of sudden natural danger.
The Nun's Priest hints that what human beings live with on the one hand is a continual stream of chaotic facts and incidents, and on the other, that impulse which so delights the heart, the impulse to organise and explain. By means of his satire, he tells us further that the chaos provides delightful opportunities for freedom totally lacking in the pedantry of theories.l3The bias of explanative philosophies thus becomes clear. They assume explanation is possible, and relevant. But even if it is possible, is it really relevant to try and explain a cock's free will or lack of it, when cocks are creatures of instinct rather than reason? The problem of conflating humans with animals arises again. But Chauntecleer is so much his own 'person' within the tale, that whether or not his representativeness is problematical is no hindrance to our enjoyment.
Another trope that appears throughout the text is misogyny, and as is usual in medieval literature it is strongly linked to Christian beliefs. It begins with Chauntecleer's belittling of his wife's opinion about dreams, which he concludes with a veiled insult containing a reference to Genesis. Chauntecleer tells Pertelote "In principio/Mulier est hominis confusio" (4353-4354), and mistranslates it to her as the exact opposite of its real meaning: "Womman is mannes joye and al his blis" (3166). His use of a flattering, malicious mistranslation is quite ironic, as flattery is his own undoing when he meets the fox.
The height of Christian misogyny in the text is, however, given through the words of the Nun's Priest, which is ironically appropriate as he is a 'henpecked' cleric with a female superior. He tells us:
My tale is of a cok, as ye may heere,"It is," as Anne Payne comments, "useless to beat around the bush with polite mutterings about inconsistency; the whole statement is a lie"14. Firstly Pertelote's "conseil" was to take "digestyves/ Of wormes" (4151-4152), and "som laxatyf" (4133) - council Chauntecleer most certainly did not take! Secondly, "Eve did not give Adam any counsel; she gave him an apple"15.
That tok his conseil of his wyf, with sorwe,
To walken in the yerd upon that morwe
That he hadde met that dreem that I yow tolde.
Wommenes conseils been ful oft colde;
Wommenes conseils brought us first to wo
And made Adam fro Paradys to go (4442-3258)
This extreme anti-feminist statement is made in the tense middle section of the tale, after the character development and satire of the opening section, and before the climax of the fox chase and escape. Because of its central placement, it could be read as the moral lynch pin of the tale. Why is this misogynist statement given such emphasis? I think it is to do with the fact that there are only two main human characters featured in this tale: the widow who owns the chickens, and the Nun's Priest himself. The widow, who is fully part of the story, is a perfect exemplum of noble poverty and non-threatening sexuality - a stereotype. But the Nun's Priest, a 'real' person, has his own agendas, biases, and learned responses, and his tale reflects these. At this point in the tale:
The inner conflict of the misogynist employed by a woman has come for a moment to the surface; then it is pushed back behind the artifice of the story, where it has been operating secretly all along.16Chaucer is using metafiction to expose another bias in the beast fable genre - the moral of the tale can be subsumed, either consciously or unconsciously, by the teller. It is how the form of the fable is used, as much as its traditional component parts, that defines its usefulness and its morality. The Nun's Priest's personal bias presents us with the image of a sinful female chicken, who causes the fall of the noble cock. But chickens, surely, cannot be sinful! "One can" for example, "imagine the widow's reaction if her cock suddenly began to practice a chaste and abstemious monogamy"17.
Through exploring the sub-genres of the romance, rhetorical debate, and Christian misogyny, Chaucer has thrown new light on the biases and exclusions inherent in each of the sub-genres he uses in The Nun's Priest's Tale. But he does more than this. The conflict between the sub-genres and the beast fable results in a multiplicity of possible morals, none of which is obviously 'the' moral of the tale. This makes a traditional reading of the tale as a beast fable, with one explicit moral upon which the whole tale is built, problematic.
We become aware of the problem when we are told to "Taketh the moralite" (4630), without being given any solid evidence as to which moral we should take. The traditional form of the beast fable has only one, very obvious, moral. In The Nun's Priest's Tale we have about ten to choose from, many of them contradictory! This is not atypical of Chaucer, his "technique as represented by the tales as a whole is essentially comic; he counters authority with the fracturing and multiple perspective of comedy" 19.
The notion that any action, however simple, can lead to one and only one moral judgement is effectively exploded by the ingenious expedient of describing just such an action and then drawing several contradictory morals from it.20The list of possible morals is quite impressive: "Nothying, God woot, but vanitee in sweven is" (4112); "Mordre wol out" (4242); "Many a dreem ful soore is for to drede" (3109); "In principio/ Mulier est hominis confusio" (4353-4354); "Womman is mannes joye and al his blis" (3166); "For evere the latter ende of joye is wo" (3205); "Wommenes conseils been ful oft colde/ Wommenes conseils brought us first to wo" (3256-3257); "For he that wynketh, whan he sholde see/ Al wilfully, God lat him nevere thee!" (4621-4622); "... God yeve hym meschaunce/ That is so undiscreet of governaunce/ That jangleth whan he shoulde holde his pees" (4623-4625); "Lo, swich it is for to be recchelees/ And necligent, and trust on flaterye" (3436-3437).
None of these morals is necessarily true when taken out of context, "but they are offered as truth for the case to which they are attached, and offer man the hope of a freedom which by-passes the tautology of logic"21.
But does Chaucer's revelation of this inability of beast fable to deal with complexity - and its usual exclusion of such complexity - while keeping its usual form intact mean that he thinks fable should be abandoned altogether, or that there is some other value to be taken from such tales?
Perhaps we should take a closer look at what the Nun's Priest says in his conclusion. It would seem that he is not actually addressing all good men with his advice about taking the morality of the tale, "But ye that holden this tale a folye/ Taketh the moralite" (3428-3439). What of those who do not think the tale a "folye"?
It is possible that Chaucer is subtly suggesting that readers should be able to choose what is valuable in a tale, rather than be herded into accepting the univocal, potentially inapplicable moral of a standard beast fable. Perhaps this is taking modern supposition a little too far. However, I would argue that The Nunís Priestís Tale is too accomplished, polished and entertaining a tale for it to be making entirely negative points about the beast fable genre - Chaucer is not only making the limits of the genre apparent, he is exploiting the potential of the genre to its full.
In my opinion The Nun's Priest Tale "exploits the nature of its genre but also draws attention to the ideological biases and exclusions inherent in the genre". The popular medieval traditions of the romance, rhetorical debate, and Christian misogyny are examined in relation to the beast fable, and are found to have comic excesses, exclusions that are usually silently expected, and biases in their method of telling. The use of these sub-genres also throws new light on the beast fable form. It usually excludes complexity, with the result that the moral is artificially simple and univocal, while being susceptible to subversion through the biases of the narrator.
The ultimate meaning of The Nun's Priest's Tale is debatable for these reasons, which casts doubt on the beast fable's usefulness as a tool for teaching moral truths. However, even without a fixed moral we do gain some insight into the complexity of human nature. This beast fable does not:
... ask us to consider men as animals in the moralising sense which sees the "animal" in men as their degradation, what is to be rejected; what it stands for ... is rather the basic intractability of human nature and human experience, its resistance to organisation in terms of intellectual and moral analysis, and its awful tendency to suggest a commonsense moral ... just as often as a more elevated one.22
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Last Updated 10-Aug-2001.
Copyright © 1998 by Cathy Cupitt.