Secularism v. Spirituality in the Second Nun's Tale
In the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes the men and women of the Church in extreme forms; most of these holy pilgrims, such as the Monk, the Friar, and Pardoner, are caricatures of objectionable parts of Catholic society. At a time when the power-hungry Catholic Church used the misery of peasants in order to obtain wealth, it is no wonder that one of the greatest writers of the Middle Ages used his works to comment on the religious politics of the day.
Yet not all of Chaucer's religious characters are failures in spirituality. His description of the Second Nun is of a truly pious ...view middle of the document...
Chaucer does not only the tale to show off his writing abilities -- it is not simply a display of his incredible versatility as an author. Chaucer uses this tale to contrast his anti-church sentiments within the Canterbury Tales; it shows his great respect for spiritual beliefs and benefits him in making his argument against the Church. In essence, Chaucer is clearly defending his anti-secular position by showing his reverence and devotion to spirituality; his problems lie with the Church, not the faith. While very well known for his sardonic criticism of the Church, he is less often acknowledged for his appreciation and respect for the religion itself.
Judith A. Weise puts forth one of the more shocking theories concerning the Second Nun's Tale in her essay Chaucer's Tell-Tale Lexicon: Romancing Seinte Cecyle. Weise argues that Chaucer's purpose for writing the saint's tale as a self-imposed literary penance for the "raptus" of Cecilia Chaumpaigne. She posits:
Chaucer began translating the lyf in the wake of Cecilia's release to deflect negative reactions by his family... Is it just a stunning coincidence that the one saint's life Chaucer writes concerns a virgin martyr with the same name? (1)
Why not? Perhaps Chaucer, like many other writers, uses his writing as some form of psychological and spiritual cleansing; writing can certainly be a form of emotional release. But perhaps Chaucer genuinely enjoys this particular saint's tale, for it certainly contrasts his other religious characters and shows the rewards of living a virtuous life. While Weise puts forth an interesting argument, she completely misses the true message of the tale. Her argument seems more biased and less rational, using inconclusive historical notes and "statistics" to guess at coincidences.
By simply looking at the big picture of the tale, it becomes clear that Chaucer chose it for the love of the tale itself, and not for some kind of self-sacrificing punishment. Most scholars agree that the Second Nun's Tale was finished in the latter part of Chaucer's life, a time when people typically begin to reflect and look for more meaning, more substance to their lives and faiths. The great author could very well have wanted nothing more than to grow closer to his god and show his devotion and respect; perhaps he simply wanted to let god know that he did not necessarily view all clergy in the same light as the grotesque Summoner.
Weise also pointedly states that "the one and only time Chaucer writes a saint's life, he chooses one about a celibate martyr with erotic associations, St. Cecilia" (1). These allegedly erotic associations come from forms of art and iconography of St. Cecilia in "works of art dating to Chaucer's day" (1). Yet nothing in Chaucer's tale comes through as erotic - in fact, it stresses continuously the celibacy of not only St. Cecilia, but also of her followers that commit to...