Expose’ and Excess: The Monk Through the Eyes of “Canterbury’s” Nun’s Priest

© Mary Crockford  February 2014

In Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” the Nun’s Priest and the Monk function as two extremes that the Medieval population would have observed in the Church of England’s “holy men.” In a microscopic sense, the two clerics function as an illustration of the failure of the institution’s leadership to guard against worldly distraction and excess. By placing both men as partakers in a conversation, with the Widow representing the Anglo-Saxon Church body as its metaphorical fulcrum, the controversy surrounding the subject could be expounded upon in a way that placed Medieval society in a participatory role in the ongoing discourse.

Samuel Hemingway, in his 1916 article “Chaucer’s Monk and Nun’s Priest,” described The Monk’s Tale as one of “medieval pedantry and of the exemplum type of literature,” one in which the precarious balance of hyperbole, flattery and expose’ necessary to air dirty clerical laundry would have been “made very obvious to even the most dull-witted person of the company” (479). While clearly a self-promoting and lascivious individual, the Monk dons a cloak of false humility and refuses the Host’s invitation to regale the pilgrims with tales of the hunt, claiming against all evidence that he has “no lust to pleye” (Chaucer, 40). The Host then invites the Nun’s Priest, a “dainty priest” and “goodly man” to tell a story instead (Hemingway 479). The younger cleric, whom Hemingway aptly points out “cannot openly display his amusement,” (480) seizes the opportunity to confront his elder colleague’s hypocrisy from behind the shield of literary device:

“Yis,sir,” quod he, “yis, Hoost, so moot I go,/But I be myrie, ywis, I

wol be blamed.”/And right anon, his tale he hath attamed. (50-52)

As Hemingway points out, in regaling the pilgrims with a tale, the Nun’s Priest “can deftly satirize the personal characteristics and the literary style of his predecessor without for a moment arousing the suspicion of his dignified superior” (486). He first takes on the Monk’s “sentientiousness” and “strutting,” characterizing his “ecclesiastical superior” as a “pompous and well-groomed rooster” (480) who presides over a farmyard:

“A yeerd she hadde, encloused al aboute/With stikkes and a drye dych

withoute/ In which she hadde a Cok, hight Chaunticleer,/In al the land

of crowyng nas his peer.” (81-84)

Rather than serving the needs of his lonely matron, the Chanticleer spends all his time enjoying the sound of his own voice, fine appearance, and female companions:

“His voys was murier than the murie orgon/On messe-days, that in the chirche

gon./Well sikerer was his crowyng in his logge,/Than is a clokke, or an abbey

orlogge.” (85-88)

“Sevene hennes, for to doon al his plesaunce,/Whiche were hise sustres and his

paramours…” (100-102)

In “Focus and Moralite’ in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” D.E. Myers analogizes the Chanticleer to “the preacher or prelate of the Church” (210). This melodramatic creature pontificates much on his bad dreams. While claiming concern for the safety of his favorite hen, Pertelote, based on these nightmares, the Chanticleer nonetheless refuses to leave the comforts of his disheveled false Eden, which Myers calls “a humorous inversion of the image of the Church” (210). The Widow, symbolic of the parish-bride of the morally weak and neglectful clergy, is unprotected and Perdelote falls prey to worldly temptation and loses respect for her husband:

Now han ye lost myn herte and al my love!/I kan nat love a coward, by

my feith,/For certes, what so any womman seith,/We alle desiren, if it

myghte bee,/To han housbondes hardy, wise, and free,..” (145-148)

In The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the idle hens lament The Chanticleer falling prey to a flattering fox, leaving them alone to relive his senseless and violent death:

As, whan that Nero brende the Citee/Of Rome, cryden senatoures wyves,/

For that hir husbondes losten alle hir lyves, – /Withouten gilt this Nero hath

them slayn.” (605-607)

The Nun’s Priest decides to revisit his tale, however, with a happier ending for the Chanticleer, offering an alternate ending to his listeners based on the warning through his own words and the fox’s to choose a life of sensibility and piety over one of earthly pleasures:

“Nay,” quod the fox, “but God yeve hym meschaunce,/That is so undiscreet of

governaunce,/That jangleth, whan he sholde holde his pees.” (667-669)

“Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille./Now goode God, if that it be thy

wille,/ As seith my lord, so make us alle goode men,/And brynge us to his

heighe blisse. Amen. (677-780)

Though the Monk as false prophet will not listen, in genuine shepherd fashion the young priest wishes to warn his flock of the perils of compromise with worldly comforts, idleness and immoral influences. The Nun’s Priest provides a counterbalancing example of clerical morality and responsibility that most effectively exposes the failure of the Church of the Middle Ages in a way another character, of another occupation or societal standing, could not.

 

                                                                                                                    Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Nun’s Priest’s Prologue and The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” From Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” Librarius, n.d. Web.

Hemingway, Samuel B. “Chaucer’s Monk and Nun’s Priest.” Modern Language Notes 31.8 (1916): 479-83. JSTOR. Johns Hopkins University Press, Dec. 1916. Web.

Myers, D. E. “Focus and “Moralite'” in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review 7.3 (1973): 210-20. JSTOR. Penn State University Press. Web.

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