Brother Anthony, An Sonjae
First published in Medieval Studies (The Medieval English Studies
Association of Korea) 4 (1996) pages 175-189
As a writer of narrative, Chaucer is an obvious master. In his earlier works, and in almost all of the Canterbury Tales, the narration of events runs smoothly, the sections are usually clearly distinguished and articulated. What we find in the Nun's Priest's Tale (NPT) is conspicuously different and oddly difficult to categorize or explain. There is certainly a clear enough structure to the basic story; by it we are brought from an introduction through suspense to crisis and resolution. Yet we find a repeated pattern of narrative breakdown: points where the text halts, does an abrupt about-turn, and sets off in another, often almost opposite direction.
This is in addition to the familiar oddness of the Tale: accumulation of material not related to the fundamental structure and the difficulty of pinpointing any clear sense to it all at the end. These "breakdowns" may be considered deliberate fractures in the NPT's discourse, stylistic features specific to this one tale, although reflected elsewhere, part of its challenge to the interpreter intent on locating the strategy they represent.
In order to illustrate what is meant by a "fracture", it seems best to start with the most striking and well-known example, the point where Chauntecleer offers to translate Latin into English for his wife.
For al so siker as In principio,
Mulier est hominis confusio
Madame, the sentence of this Latyn is
Womman is mannes Ioye and al his blis (lines 3163-6)
Just before this passage occurs, Chauntecleer has reached an interpretation of his dream directly contradictory to that proposed by Pertelote. Her opinion was simple: "Nothyng, God woot, but vanitee in sweven is" (line 2922). Chauntecleer's conclusion is quite the opposite: "Shortly I seye, as for conclusion, / That I shal han of this avisioun / Adversitee" (lines 3151-3). To make matters worse, he has gone on to spurn her suggestion about laxatives: "For they ben venymes, I woot it weel; / I hem diffye, I love hem never a deel" (lines 3155-6). It seems certain that Pertelote is not going to be very happy; especially since Chauntecleer has been talking for nearly two hundred lines in response to her sixty-one. By all the laws of conjugal quarrelling, an explosion is imminent.
Readers are hardly prepared for the skill with which Chauntecleer weathers this crisis. After his display of learning, he turns amorous. The reason behind this swerve in his stream of consciousness might possibly be the furious glare he suddenly notices on his beloved's beak, a glare he is eager to erase. "Now let us speke of mirthe" he suggests, using one of the most loaded words in the Canterbury Tales since the Host first used it in the General Prologue, "and stinte al this". He can read the writing on the wall, and passes from sentence to solas in a flash. Such a strategy gives added dimensions to the flattery he begins to lay on in lavish doses: "Ye ben so scarlet reed about your yen" (line 341). This phrase may not after all be intended as merely an amusing detail reminding us that birds have standards of beauty other than ours. Her eyes are perhaps red with choleric anger that needs immediate soothing.
Chauntecleer's desire to please his audience of one transforms the redness into a beauty such that "It maketh al my drede for to dyen". His dread of dreams dies, drowned in an urgent wave of passion prompted by his dread of an early-morning row, but immediately taking over in its own right. Chauntecleer is uxorious, in any case, and many critics have stressed the tale's implied theme of overheated sexual passion as a ground of sin. There are moments, many critics point out, when Chauntecleer seems doomed to be an Adam to Pertelote's Eve (cf. Pearsall p. 236). At least, mirth and sexual pleasure take over from thoughts about the possibility of violent death that have dominated Chauntecleer's exempla about the meaning of dreams.
The sudden need to please and soothe his wife's ruffled feathers prompts Chauntecleer to make a confession. He can no longer think straight, he is "crazy" about her; he expresses this using the first words that come to his educated but shaken mind, a familiar Latin motto: Mulier est hominis confusio. His confession, he says, is utterly true; his experience alone (like the Wife of Bath's) is authority enough for him to affirm that these words are as true as In principio. Which In principio? The Bible starts with those words in Genesis, and so does St John's Gospel. "True as the Bible" and "true as the Gospel" are not very different ways of expression, although given Chauntecleer's and Chaucer's interest in the truthfulness of words, the fact that St John's full phrase is In principio erat verbum may have its significance.
The truthfulness of words is immediately put to the test. Chauntecleer clearly means his little motto to affirm the power of female beauty over male powers of thought, the confusio caused by the triumph in men of passion over reason, beauty over strength, that Hesiod already knew about and all the romances portray. He is granting her the soveraynetee over his proud male person. The words are certainly meant to be positive, part of the flattery.
Unfortunately, he has chosen a catch-phrase heavily loaded with anti-feminist associations; the notes in the Riverside Chaucer say originally tell us it originally occurred in a work called Altercatio Hadriani Augusti et Secundi but was quoted "verbatim by many later compilers". Confusio in the original, anti-feminist context naturally did not mean the rather pleasant confusion provoked by desire, but utter destruction and damnation. Then which truth is the "Bible truth" we are meant to hear? That women drive men crazy? Or that women bring men to damnation? For Chauntecleer, presumably the first; for Pertelote, surely the second.
We have seen that Pertelote is well-educated; she has read Cato. She knows the meaning of the Latin only too well. Chauntecleer's offer to translate his Latin into English for her is therefore an unnecessarily patronizing gesture towards the ignorant little woman, a gratuitous insult, like the start of his speech where he bluntly dismisses her beloved Cato in favour of other authorities.
The translation should rather be seen as a new strategy on Chauntecleer's part, a desperate attempt to salvage the situation before it is too late. The words have started to go in the wrong direction. Chauntecleer realizes he has slipped up, does a double take after confusio, and quickly makes it clear that he is not at all intending to be an anti-feminist in using that quotation.
Sentence is another central word in the Canterbury Tales, in contrast to solas of course, but equally in the underlying debate about the meaning of words and the possibility of communication. Some of our students happily affirm that Chauntecleer "mistranslates" the Latin confusio as Ioye and all his blis because of ignorance, but that is surely not correct. He paraphrases his usage of the word to make it clear that he does not intend the other meaning; it is a good translation - rephrasing. His intended sentence, he insists, is not anti-feminist, his paraphrase is correct from his point of view, and Pertelote obviously agrees; the feared explosion never comes and sexual union follows soon after.
Only words refuse to mean only what their users want them to mean. Wise readers will see beyond the confines of Chauntecleer's fallen intentions. In his use of the Latin phrase, as in his translation of it, Chauntecleer is moved by passion, he hopes to pave the way towards pleasure. He therefore fails to see just what he is saying. "Womman is mannes Ioye and al his blis" is certainly a "romantic" statement: it recalls some of the things Dante said about Beatrice and beatitude. Or as Helen Cooper suggests: "if 'womman' had not been so wholly man's 'blis', perhaps she might never have been his confusion" (p. 351). But from the point of view represented by the Parson in the Canterbury Tales, the thought is clearly blasphemous. From a Christian point of view, only God deserves to be called "mannes Ioye and al his blis". Chauntecleer at this moment is on the way to becoming an exemplum of a man blinded by sin; his words in English illustrate just why the Latin says that Woman is man's confusio: because she usurps the place and value of God. But there is no sign that Chauntecleer or the narrator of the Tale perceives this.
Of particular interest is the way the flow of discourse is marked by a break in the course of Chauntecleer's attempt to rescue the situation. If what was said previously is correct, he suddenly realizes that his audience (Pertelote) can see an open manhole of anti-feminism gaping at his feet and is waiting for him to fall in. Or at least he senses that his words have left the track he originally intended to follow and are leading him in a potentially disastrous wrong direction. Sudden back- pedalling ensues; she is preparing to fall on him when he reaches the equivalent to confusio in his translation. Pertelote is all the more delighted by his unexpected retraction; he is worthy of her love after all.
Words always have a power of their own and oral narratives are inclined to take off in directions not according to the narrator's intentions or desires. The fracture in Chauntecleer's speech represents a moment where the speaker's will reasserts itself over the waywardness of words. Fractured discourse seems to be one of the stylistic peculiarities of the NPT as a whole. It suggests a new level of experimentation in Chaucer's art of narrative.
There are several other fractures of a similar kind in the NPT. The first comes early in the tale, as we start to wonder just why there is that long introduction about the widow and her lifestyle and the courtly elegance of the henly couple. Every thing gets thrown at us, culminating in the pedantic and superfluous explanation: "For thilke tyme, as I have understonde, / Beestes and briddes koude speke and synge" (lines 2880-1) After all, the convention of talking beasts is part and parcel of the beast-fable as such, it surely needs no explanation.
The narrator has been going on for over sixty lines now, when all he had to say according to fable conventions was "Once there was a cock living in a farmyard." It may be felt that the sudden "And so bifel that in a dawenynge" of the next line (line 2882) corresponds to a sudden realization of this; it has finally dawned on the narrator that his audience is getting impatient. "And so" implies a logical sequence of events that is hard to discover here; it is a formulaic link that Chauntecleer uses at line 3001, to connect the introductory and central parts of the story about the dream of the murdered friend.
The next examples of fracture come in Chauntecleer's inset discourse. There is a famous passage at the end of the first dream story, a series of exclamations beginning "O blisful God, that art so Iust and trewe!" (line 3050) that culminates in the line "Mordre wol out, this is my conclusioun" (line 3057). This passage is so completely unsuited to an argument designed to prove that dreams come true, that the Ellesmere Ms and others have marked it in the margin with the word auctor. The earliest readers of Chaucer noticed that something very odd was going on here, and distinguished another voice. The conclusioun we expect about the credibility of dreams is not forthcoming, Chauntecleer has lost his way and has misread his own Tale to produce another sentence altogether, the wrong one.
Chauntecleer's control of the situation is so skillfully regained that the mend is almost invisible. He merely resumes the narrative, that in fact needed nothing beyond the discovery of the dead body in line 3048, goes on to report the punishment of the malefactors, then calmly introduces the correct conclusion: "Heere may men seen that dremes been to drede" (line 3063). Quod erat demonstrandum.
After Chauntecleer has completed his argument, the overall narratorial voice, that we presumably have to call The Nun's Priest, resumes direct narration. A new structural fracture comes after line 3185-7: "Thus roial, as a prince is in his halle, / Leve I this Chauntecleer in his pasture / And after wol I telle his aventure." The narrator stops and proceeds to make a completely new beginning with the famous chronological passage situating the events of the Tale on May 3. Here there seems in part to be a concern to give a clear structural break at work. At the same time we have an implicit acknowledgement that with all this, the Tale itself has yet to begin.
From this point on, the fractures become more frequent. After showing Chauntecleer in lyrical vein, full of contentment, the narrator introduces a Boethian commentary on the irony of fate at line 3204, "But sodeynly hym fil a sorweful cas; / For evere the latter ende of Ioye is wo." A marginal note in Ellesmere refers us to Solomon, the idea is obviously a common place. What follows is unexpected: "And if a rethor koude faire endite, / He in a cronycle saufly myghte it write, / As for a sovereyn notabilitee." Well, perhaps so, and there is a note "Petrus Comestor" in the margin of the Ellesmere and Hengwrt Mss., referring to a well-known chronicler who presumably failed to do just that, since commentators cannot find any relationship at all between Petrus Comestor and the NPT.
Some commentators suggest that there is parody here. Stephen Coote is representative of a popular approach when he says: "Surely we are meant to smile at this self-conscious banality. (...) The Nun's Priest has here both set up the mechanism of the 'Fall of Princes' genre and mocked it at the same time" (p. 91). He also says: "The idea, needless to say, is ironic" (p. 129). The Riverside note likewise refers to critics who suggest parody. That, however, is surely a misreading. The narratorial voice in the Tale betrays not a trace of a sense of humour or of the ironic detachment essential for parody.
We have a growing sense that something is going wrong. More precisely, the narrator is being waylaid by traces of possible meaning that he is unable to resist or control. After all, the Tale being told is not a chronicle and no one in the audience seems likely to be a rethor capable of writing a cronycle. The evolution of the story is beginning to look like one of those sketches of plot structure in Tristram Shandy, full of bumps and knots. The chronicle-writing idea has to be rejected, since this beast-fable is going to have to serve instead. If only it can be accepted as serious writing. The Nun's Priest feels unsure about the degree of truth his audience are ready to recognize in his lowly and pedantic genre and tries to bolster its authority: "Now every wys man, lat him herkne me; / This storie is al so trewe, I undertake, / As is the book of Launcelote de Lake, / That wommen holde in ful greet reverence" (lines 3210-3).
We are suddenly invited to reflect on the truth of it all, a truth not now that of In principio but of Launcelote as it is read by women. The commentators are perplexed. Stephen Coote insists: "In other words the Nun's Priest declares the narrative content of his Tale to be nothing more than a frivolous fiction" (p. 91). Really? The Riverside has a note on these lines reminding us of Dante's Paolo and Francesca, who also read about Lancelot: "Noi leggiavamo un giorno per diletto / di Lanialotto come amor lo strinse" (Inferno, Canto V 127-8). Only they found the tale of Lancelot's adultery so true that they fell into each other's arms on the spot, though both were married. Francesca's husband found them and killed them in the very act of adultery. They are in Dante's Hell with Helen, Achilles, and Tristan, because "they subjected reason to desire".
No one suggests that Chaucer was thinking of Dante at this point, but the parallel does serve to challenge Coote's "frivo lous fiction" idea and shed interesting light on why Chaucer wrote the line. The Lancelot story is one of the great tragic heroic romances, after all, an extension of epic, and capable of carrying a high degree of metaphysical truth.
How true is a romance for this narrator, though? and what is being suggested by the mention of the admiration of women for such works? Are they better judges of romances than of dreams? There seem to be so many things going on at once at different levels that it is very difficult to keep any order or determine any meaning. Meanwhile the narrator has grown desperate; there seems no smooth way out; he admits that he is lost: "Now wol I torne agayn to my sentence" (line 3214).
After scarcely ten lines, though, the tale is sinking in a new rhetorical swamp, this time the great exclamation on the themes of betrayal (Judas and Ganelon) and then of fortune, predestination, and free will, lasting for more than twenty lines. This is dealt with in a similar way; there is an abrupt stop-and-about-face while the narrator reasserts his control over what is rapidly becoming very wayward material: "I wol not han to do of swich mateere; / My tale is of a cok" (lines 3251-2). This rather suggests a confusion at the level of narratorial intentions; previous reference to chronicles and to Lancelot had suggested that a lot of deeper messages were being implied.
The narrator tries to take a new step in his narrative by offering a summary of what has happened so far, mistakenly blaming Pertelote's conseil for Chauntecleer's decision to walk in the yard. He has obviously forgotten what happened at the end of the debate. This leads him straight into an attack on 'wommennes conseils' in traditional anti-feminist terms and tone, which is at once retracted in obvious panic fear at possible audience reactions: "passe over, for I seyde it in my game" (line 3262). Yet what follows is no skillful reversal; instead we are given a less confident repetition of the same idea: "Rede auctors... what thay seyn of wommen...".
Again the confusion is interrupted in panic, with a very strange narratorial assertion: "Thise been the cokkes wordes, and nat myne" (line 3265). We are reminded of the distancing of narratorial responsibility found in Troilus and Criseyde or the General Prologue, but no one has yet explained what can be the justification of the claim "these are the cock's words" (because they are not) other than a complete failure on the part of the panic-stricken narrator to find any other tree to hide behind. Perhaps the Wife of Bath is to be imagined as being on the point of screaming at the Nun's Priest or of attacking him physically? This in turn leads to complete surrender: "I kan noon harm of no womman divyne," (line 3266) which is the perfect denial of what was being said less than ten lines earlier by the same narrator about women's counsels. Women, it seems, are devils but divine.
This clears the air; the story suddenly takes off with no more interruptions except for a little exordium on flattery (lines 3325-30) until Chauntecleer is on the way to the wood on the fox's back. Line 3338 sees the beginning of the great exclamation which lasts until Nero has slain the senators' wives in line 3373. Helen Cooper suggests that we are confronted with "the undercutting of high style with a reminder that it is empty noise. The manner may be right, but the substance is not there" (p. 355) and certainly no text that includes the words "O woeful hennes" (line 3369) can be read quite simply.
The remaining part of the Tale is equally troubling; it all the time proves to be on the point of crumbling under our fingers wherever we probe it in quest of something firm. Why is there the long enumeration of the figures in the chase, for example? The discussion of the ways in which the NPT fails to determine its own meaning is a familiar one from Roger Ellis and other critics, centering on the question as to which elements in it constitute the chaff and which the fruit (line 3443).
It is perhaps significant that the narrative experiences particular trouble at points where anti-feminist sentiments are being expressed: "Mulier est hominis confusio", the reverence felt by women for stories of Lancelot, and the evil effects of women's counsels. At each point it is as if there is an invisible wall that blocks the continued affirmation of conventional anti- feminism and demands a break in the continuity of the discourse.
It seems likely that Chaucer wrote the NPT as one of his last contributions to the Canterbury Tales. He is at a point where he wants to express in condensed form all that he has discovered about the way narrative is affected by a narrator's attempt adapt his message to please an audience. In particular, these fractures recall the end of the Clerk's Tale, where the question of what the real meaning of the Tale of poor Griselde can be leads to immense confusion in the narrator as well as the audience. Here too, the challenge of evaluating the true value of women is the main obstacle.
In the NPT the fable, the romance, the tragedy, and the anti-feminist exemplum combine fruitfully in what might have been a sermon but clearly is not, and the outcome is brilliantly chaotic; Helen Cooper suggests that "most genres of the Canterbury Tales come in for parodic treatment at some point." Only we may want to ask if "parody" is an adequate word for what happens? The NPT may be the last of the Tales to have been written; it is among the most audaciously experimental. The experiment would seem to be one that started in the extended Prologues of the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath, and expanded in the closing section of the Clerk's Tale. It involves the breakdowns in coherence that narrative codes of significance undergo in the face of intervention from narrators who become conscious of, and try to respond to, audience expectations or multiple possibilities of interpretation.
If this is true, what Chaucer is doing in the NPT is not so much write a parody as oblige a narrative to test its own limits. The cracks and fractures we have detected come at moments when the whole structure is about to collapse under the weight of its contradicting meanings.
This may at least be a better way of looking at what happens in the course of the NPT than the more familiar one which describes it as an overloaded beast-fable creaking under immense comic digressions. The sections of narrative that do not tell the beast-fable should not be considered "digressions" at all; they are integral to the Tale as explorations of possibilities that the narrator's literary imagination hopes may be present; only often it turns out that they are not there after all.
As Ellis suggests, the conclusion of the NPT supports the stance of the Parson and his Tale: that fictional narratives are by nature indeterminate in meaning, exempla of the multiple ways in which sentence is betrayed by a concern for solas. The only ideal solution is to refuse the temptation entirely: "Thow getest fable noon ytoold for me" (Parson's Prologue line 31). Then we may hope for some straight truth, but nothing very enjoyable. Pure sentence, and no solas at all, is the only ultimate solution; not very good for writers of literature and lovers of tales, though; rather like Gulliver ending up happier in the company of horses.
The Riverside Chaucer. Oxford University Press. 1988
Helen Cooper. The Canterbury Tales. Oxford Guides to Chaucer. Oxford University Press, 1989.
Chaucer: The Nun's Priest's Tale, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Stephen Coote. Penguin Books. 1985.
Roger Ellis. Patterns of Religious Narrative in the Canterbury Tales. Croom Helm, 1986.
Derek Pearsall. The Canterbury Tales. George Allen and Unwin, 1985.