Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales


Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2007, All Rights Reserved.

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The Second Nun’s Prologue

The Prologue of the Second Nun’s Tale

That servant and nurse unto our vices,

Which men call, in English, idleness,

The porter of the gate that men entices,

To eschew, and with its contrary oppress

– That is to say, through lawful business –

Well ought we to do, with true intent,

Lest the fiend through idleness snatch us hence.

For he, who with his thousand cords sly

Constantly waits us on the back to clap,

When a man in idleness he does spy,

Can all so easily catch him in his trap,

That till a man is caught by his coat-flap,

He’s unaware the fiend has him in hand!

We ought to work, and idleness withstand.

And even if men dreaded not to die,

Yet men might know by reason, doubtless,

The idle man’s a sluggard, plain to see,

And no increase comes from idleness,

And vile sloth does our lives compress

To mere sleeping, and to eat and drink,

Devouring all that others do and think.

And so to drive from us all idleness

That is the cause of such great confusion,

I have here wrought, through honest business,

After the legend, in my own translation,

Right of your glorious life and passion –

You with the crown twined of rose and lily all,

You I mean maid and martyr, Saint Cecilia.

And you, who are the flower of virgins all,

Of whom Saint Bernard loves so to indite,

On you too, thus beginning, first I call;

You comfort of us wretches, help me cite

Your maiden’s death, who won through merit bright

Eternal life and, from the demon, victory,

As men may read, by following her story.

You maid and mother, daughter of your son,

You well of mercy, sinful souls’ cure,

In whom God chose to dwell, being one

Humblest yet highest over every creature,

You who thus ennobled so our nature

That He did not disdain, who made mankind,

His son in flesh and blood to clothe and wind.

Within the blissful cloister of your sides

Eternal Love took on man’s shape, that Peace

Who of the Three Worlds lord and guide is,

Whom earth, sea, and heaven, without cease,

Ever worship: and you, virgin stainless,

Bore of your body, and yet still maiden pure,

This Creator of every creature.

Assembled, in you, is magnificence

Mercy and goodness, with such pity

That you, who are the sun of excellence,

Not only help those who pray to thee,

But oftentimes, in your benignity,

Full freely, before men your help beseech,

You go before them, and are their life’s leech.

Now help me, meek and blissful fair maid,

A wretch in exile in this desert of gall!

Think of the Canaanite woman who said

That whelps may eat some of the crumbs all

From their master’s table that do fall.

And though an unworthy scion I, of Eve,

And sinful, accept my faith, for I believe.

And, since faith is dead without works,

That I may work, grant me wit and space,

So I am quit of what in darkness lurks.

Be my advocate in that high place

Where without end is sung ‘Hosanna’,

You, Christ’s mother, daughter of Saint Anna.

And my soul in prison illuminate,

That burdened is by the contagion

Of my body, and also by the weight

Of earthly lust and false affection.

O haven of refuge, O salvation

Of those who are in sorrow and distress,

Now help me my labour to address.

Yet I pray you, who read what I write,

Forgive me my lack of diligence,

Failing this story subtly to indite;

For I have taken all the words and sense,

From one who in holy reverence

Wrote the saint’s story and her legend,

And I pray you will my work amend.

First I would the name of Saint Cecilia

Expound, as men may in her story read.

In English thus it means ‘Heaven’s lily’,

That is, pure chasteness of virginity;

Or, from the whiteness of her purity,

And green of conscience, and her good name

The sweet savour, ‘lily’ denotes the same.

Or Cecilia means ‘path for the blind’,

For she was an example, for our teaching.

Or else Cecilia, as I written find

Is made by a manner of conjoining

From ‘Heaven’ and ‘Leah’; so figuring

‘Heaven’ is there for thoughts of holiness,

And ‘Leah’ for her constant usefulness.

Cecilia may be formed too in this manner:

‘Lacking in blindness’, for her great light

Of sapience, and for her morals clear.

Or else, lo, comes this maiden’s name bright

From ‘Heaven’ and Greek ‘laos’, so might

Men her truly the ‘people’s heaven’ call,

An example of good and wise works all.

For ‘laos’ read ‘people’ I mean to say,

And just as men may in the heavens see

The sun and moon and stars every way,

So men, spiritually, in this maid free

Find of faith the magnanimity,

And the clearness whole of sapience,

And sundry works bright in excellence.

And just as the philosophers do write

That heaven is swift, and round too, and burning,

So was fair Cecilia the white

Full swift and busy, ever the good working,

Rounded and whole in her persevering,

And burning ever in charity full bright.

Now have I told you all her name aright.

The Second Nun’s Tale

Here begins the Second Nun’s Tale of the life of Saint Cecilia

This maiden bright, Cecilia, as her life says,

Was of Roman stock, and of noble kind;

And from her cradle fostered in the faith

Of Christ, and bore His gospel in her mind.

She never ceased, as it is writ I find,

To pray, and her true God to love and dread,

Beseeching Him to guard her maidenhead.

And when this maid was given to a man

In wedlock, who was full young in age,

One who bore the name Valerian,

And the day was come for her marriage,

She, all devout and humble, in her courage,

Under her robe of gold that was full fair,

Had next her flesh a garment all of hair.

And while the church organ made melody,

Thus to God alone in her heart sang she:

‘O Lord, my soul and my body keep

Undefiled, lest I confounded be!’

And for His love that died upon a tree,

Every second and third day did she fast,

Saying her prayers while the day did last.

Night came, and to bed must she be gone,

With her husband, as is oft the manner;

And privately she said to him anon:

‘O sweet and well beloved spouse, my dear,

There is a thing, if you will only hear,

That to you I would dearly love to say,

If you will swear never this to betray.’

Valerian solemnly to her did swear

That at no time, whatever it might be,

Would he ever, wantonly, betray her.

And then at first to him thus said she:

‘I have an angel then, one that loves me,

Who with great love, whether I wake or sleep,

Is always there my body for to keep.

And if he were to know, now take heed,

That you touched me in love or shamefully,

He right anon would take you in the deed,

And in your youth thus slain shall you be.

But if you, as you should, love me chastely,

He will love you too, for your chasteness,

And show to you all his joy and brightness.’

Valerian, disciplined to God’s fold,

Answered again: ‘So I may trust thee,

Let me see the angel, and him behold,

And if then it is an angel indeed,

Then will I do as you have asked me.

And if you love another, by my oath,

Right with this sword I will slay you both.’

Cecilia answered swiftly, in this wise:

‘If it’s your wish, the angel shall you see,

If you’ll believe in Christ, and be baptised.

Go forth on the Appian Way,’ quoth she,

‘And from this town walk but miles three,

And to the poor folk that do there dwell

Speak to them the words that I shall tell.

Tell them I, Cecilia, you to them sent,

For them to show you good Urban the old,

On secret business, and with good intent.

And when you Saint Urban do behold,

Tell him the words that I to you have told.

And when he has purged away your sin,

Then you will see the angel: go, begin.’

Valerian is to the place swiftly gone,

And as he was told, by her discerning,

He finds this holy old Urban anon,

There, among the saint’s burials lurking.

And he anon, without tarrying,

Gives his message, and when he has it told,

Urban, for joy, his hands does uphold.

The tears from his eyes he then let fall.

‘Almighty Lord, O Jesus Christ,’ quoth he,

‘Sower of chaste intent, shepherd of us all,

The fruit of this seed of chastity

You have sown in Cecilia, take to thee!

Lo, like a busy bee, that knows no guile,

Your thrall Cecilia serves you all the while!

For the spouse whom she wed but now

Full like a fierce lion, she sends him here

As meek as ever was any lamb, to Thou.’

And at his words anon there did appear

An old man, clad in white clothes clear,

With a gold-lettered book in his hand,

And before Valerian he took his stand.

Valerian, as if dead, fell down from dread,

On seeing him: the old man raised him though,

And then from his book right thus he read:

‘One Lord, One Faith, one God alone;

One Christendom, and father of all also,

Above all, and over all, everywhere.’

These words all in gold written were.

When he had read this, then, said the old man:

‘Believe you this thing or no? – Say yea or nay!’

‘I believe all this thing,’ quoth Valerian,

‘For a truer thing than this, I dare well say,

Under the heavens, none believe or may.’

Then the old man vanished – he knew not where –

And Pope Urban baptised him then and there.

Valerian went home and found Cecilia

Who in his room with an angel did stand.

This angel had of roses and of lilies

Two coronals which he bore in hand.

And first to Cecilia, as I understand,

He gave the one, and after I may state

The other gave to Valerian, her mate.

‘With body chaste, and with unblemished thought,

Cherish these crowns forever, ‘quoth he.

‘From Paradise to you I have them brought;

Nevermore shall they fade, as you shall see,

Nor lose their sweet savour, trust in me,

Nor will any see them with their eyes

Unless chaste and shameful acts they despise.

And you, Valerian, since you so soon

Assented to good counsel also,

Say what you wish, and you shall have it too.’

‘I have a brother,’ quoth Valerian ‘know,

That in this world I love no man so.

I pray you that my brother may have grace

To know the truth, as I do in this place.’

The angel said: ‘God favours such request,

And thus with the palm of martyrdom,

Both of you shall reach his blissful rest.’

And Tiburce his brother he bade come,

And when he the fragrance in the room

Perceived, that the roses and lilies cast,

He felt the heart within his breast beat fast,

And said: ‘I wonder, at this time of year,

Whence that sweet fragrance issues so

Of roses and lilies that I smell here!

Though I had them in my hands I know

The fragrance in me might no deeper go.

The sweet smell that in myself I find

Has changed me all in another kind.’

Valerian said: ‘Two coronals have we,

Snow white and rose red, shining clear,

Which no eyesight has the power to see;

And as you smell them, through prayer, here,

So shall you see them, my brother dear,

If you’ll believe, without delay, this proof

Aright, and acknowledge the very truth.’

Tiburce answered: ‘Say you this to me,

In reality, or do I dream all this?

‘In dreams, ‘quoth Valerian,’ have we

Been until now, brother mine, now is

Our dwelling place in truth and in bliss.’

‘How know you this?’ quoth Tiburce, ‘in what wise?’

Quoth Valerian: ‘Of that I shall advise.

The angel of God has the truth so taught,

Which you shall see, if you will forsake

The idols and be chaste, or else see naught.’

– And of the miracle of these crowns you may

Hear in Saint Ambrose’ Preface, I say;

Solemnly that noble Doctor dear

Commends it, and speaks in this manner here:

‘The palm of martyrdom for to receive,

Saint Cecilia, filled full of God’s grace,

Her chamber and the world itself did leave.

Witness Tiburce and Valerian’s faith,

To whom God in his bounty, gave apace,

Twin coronals of flowers sweet smelling,

And had to them his angel the crowns bring.

The maid had brought these men to bliss above;

The world has learnt the worth, for certain,

Of devotion to chastity in love.’

This Cecilia showed, openly and plain

And that all idols are but things in vain,

For they are dumb, and deaf, to deceive,

And she charged men idols for to leave.’

‘Whoever knows not this, a beast he is’

Quoth Tiburce, ‘and let me tell no lie.’

And Cecilia kissed him hearing this,

And was full glad he could the truth espy.

‘This day are we as kinfolk now allied,’

Said then the blissful fair maiden dear,

And after that she spoke as you shall hear:

‘Lo, just as the love of Christ,’ quoth she,

‘Made me your brother’s wife, in that same wise

Anon for my kinsman here take I thee,

Since idolatry you do despise.

Go with your brother now and be baptised,

And make yourself chaste, that you may behold

The angel’s face of which your brother told.’

Tiburce answered and said: ‘Brother dear,

First tell me where to go, and to what man.’

‘To whom?’ quoth he, ‘Come, with right good cheer;

And I will lead you there, to Pope Urban’

‘To Urban, brother mine, Valerian?’

Quoth Tiburce: ‘Will you thither lead?

That would be a wondrous thing indeed!

‘You cannot mean Urban, he who has so

Often been condemned, he should be dead,

Who lives in hiding, wandering to and fro,

And from hiding dare not put out his head?

For men would burn him in a fire so red

If he were found, or men might him spy,

And we too, in his company, would die!

And while we seek for that divinity

That is concealed in heaven secretly,

We shall be burnt in this world, I see.’

To which Cecilia said courageously:

‘Men would fear rightly, indeed, and wisely,

To lose this life, my own dear brother,

If this were the only life, and no other.

But there’s a better life in another place,

That never shall be lost, fear you naught,

Which God’s Son told us of, in His grace.

The Father’s Son has all things wrought,

And all that’s wrought with rational thought

The Holy Ghost, from the Father proceeding,

Has endowed with souls: this we believe in.

By word and by miracle, He, God’s Son,

When He was in the world, declared here

That there was another life yet to be won.’

To which answered Tiburce: ‘Sister dear,

Did you not speak just now, in this manner:

There is but one God, Lord, in truthfulness?

How then to three may you bear witness?’

‘This I’ll explain, ‘quoth she, ‘ere I go.

Just as men have intelligences three –

Memory, invention, reason also –

So in one being, one divinity,

Three persons there may easily be.’

Then she began busily to preach

Of Christ’s coming, and His Pains did teach,

And many details too of His Passion –

How God’s Son this world in bonds did hold

To win Mankind complete remission,

That was bound in sin and cares cold –

All these things, to Tiburce she told.

And after this, Tiburce, with good intent,

With Valerian, he to Pope Urban went,

Urban thanked God; and with glad heart and light

Baptised him, and made him in that place

Perfect in his knowledge, God’s own knight.

And after this, Tiburce knew such grace

That every day he saw, in time and space,

The angel of God; and every kind of boon

He asked of God was granted him full soon.

It would be hard in sequence to relate

How many wonders Jesus for them wrought.

But at the last, brief and plain to state,

The sergeant of the town of Rome them sought,

And him to Almachius, the Prefect, brought,

Who questioned them and knew all their intent,

And to the statue of Jupiter them sent,

And said: ‘Whoever will not sacrifice,

Cut off his head! This is my sentence here.’

Anon these martyrs of whom I advise,

One Maximus, who was an officer

And an adjutant in the Prefecture,

Took them, and when he forth the saints led,

He himself wept for pity, it is said.

When Maximus had heard the saints’ lore,

Of the executioners he sought leave,

To lead them to his house, and before

Night fell, their preaching he did believe,

And the executioners also they freed,

And Maximus, and his household each one,

From the false faith, to trust in God alone.

Cecilia, when it was almost night,

With priests, to baptise them, did appear;

And afterwards, when it was almost light,

Cecilia said to them with steadfast cheer:

‘Now, Christ’s own knights, beloved and dear,

Cast away all the works of darkness,

And clad yourselves in armour of brightness.

You did, in truth, in mighty battle prevail.

Your course is run; your faith you have preserved.

Go to the crown of life that shall not fail!

The righteous Judge whom you have truly served

Shall grant it you, for you have so deserved.’

And when all this was said, as I advise,

Men led them forth, to make their sacrifice.

But when they were to the temple brought,

To tell you, all briefly, the conclusion,

Of sacrifice and incense they’d have naught,

But, praying, the bare ground they knelt upon,

With humble hearts and with sad devotion,

And both their heads were severed in that place,

Their souls departing to the King of Grace.

Then Maximus, who saw it, testified

With piteous tears of what he’d seen aright,

That their souls did into heaven glide

With angels full of chastity and light;

And with his words converted men outright,

For which Almachius with whips did beat

Him, leaded thongs, till he with death did meet.

Cecilia took and buried him anon,

Near Tiburce and Valerian, gently,

Within her burial-place beneath a stone.

And after this Almachius swiftly

Bade his officers fetch openly

Cecilia, so that in his presence

She might sacrifice to Jove, with incense.

But they, converted by her wise lore,

Wept full sore, and gave full credence

To her words, and cried out more and more,

‘Christ, God’s Son, between them no difference

Is God indeed – this is the thought and sense

Of the good servant, she who Him does serve!

This with one voice we swear, and will not swerve.’

Almachius, who heard of all this doing,

Bade them bring Cecilia, that he might see;

And first of all, lo, this was his questioning:

‘What manner of woman are you?’ quoth he.

‘I am a gentlewoman born,’ quoth she.

‘I ask,’ quoth he, ‘though it may bring you grief,

You of your religion, and your belief.’

‘You have begun to question foolishly,’

Quoth she, ‘who would two points include

In one demand; you have asked stupidly.’

Almachius his questioning pursued:

‘Whence comes this reply, which is so rude?’

‘Whence?’ quoth she, her answer unrestrained,

‘From conscience and from a faith unfeigned.’

Almachius said: ‘Do you then take no heed

Of my power?’ And she answered like this:

‘Your might,’ quoth she, ‘is naught for me to dread,

For every mortal man’s power is

But like a bladder full of wind, but kiss

It with a needle’s point, as you well know,

And all its greatness will be laid full low.’

‘Full wrongfully have you begun,’ quoth he,

‘And still in wrong show your perseverance!

Do you not know our mighty princes free

Have thus commanded, and made ordinance,

That every Christian shall do penance,

Unless his Christianity he gainsay,

But go scot free yet, if he will renege?’

‘Your princes err, as your great nobles do,’

Quoth Cecilia, ‘for with foolish sentence

You call us guilty, yet it is not true;

For you, who know well our innocence,

Inasmuch as we show our reverence

For Christ, and bear a Christian name,

You charge us with a crime, us seek to blame.

But we who understand that name as though

It were all virtue, may not it gainsay.’

Almachius answered her: ‘Choose so:

Make the sacrifice, or renege, I say,

You may yet escape death in that way.’

At which the holy blissful fair maid

Began to laugh, and to the judge she said:

‘O Judge, confused you are, in your folly!

Do you think I would deny my innocence,

And render myself thus wicked?’ quoth she.

‘Lo, he dissimulates before an audience!

He restrains himself yet rages lost to sense,

Inwardly.’ Almachius answered: ‘Wretch,

Do you not know how far my powers stretch?

Did not to me our mighty princes give,

Yea, both the power and authority

To sentence folk to die or to live?

Why speak so proudly then to me?’

‘I only spoke steadfastly,’ quoth she,

‘Not proudly; for I say, those on our side,

All hate in truth the deadly vice of pride.

And if you dread not the truth to hear,

Then will I show all openly, by right,

That you have made a false error here.

You say the princes granted you your might

Both to slay men or grant them life outright.

You may only men of life bereave,

You have no other powers, nor no leave.

Thus you may say the princes have so made

You minister of death; but if you speak also

Of life, you lie, such power’s nowhere displayed.’

‘Quench your boldness,’ said Almachius, ‘Go,

Sacrifice to our gods, I order so.

I care not what insults to me you offer,

For I can suffer them, as a philosopher:

But this foul insult I may not endure

That you level at our gods,’ quoth he.

Cecilia answered: ‘Foolish creature,

Not a single word have you said to me,

That did not betray your rank folly,

And that you are in every way there is

An ignorant official, a vain justice.

There is every sign in your outer eye

Of blindness; for a dumb thing, that all

Can see is stone – and you as well as I –

That same stone a deity you would call.

I counsel you, there let your own hand fall,

And feel it well, mere stone there will you find,

Since you cannot see it’s so, with eyes all blind.

Shameful for you that the people shall

So scorn you, and laugh at your folly, ay,

For men know here, as truly as do all,

That mighty God is in the heavens high,

And these statues, if you had the eyes,

To you, as to themselves, bring no profit,

Not worth a groat, they show no benefit.’

These words, and others like them, said she;

And he was angered, and bade her be lead

Home to her house, ‘and in her house,’ quoth he,

‘Burn her outright in a bath of flames red.’

And it was done, precisely as he said,

For in a bath they shut her, and the glow

Of a great fire burned night and day below.

All a long night, and for a day also,

Despite the fire, and the bath’s great heat,

She sat all cold, and felt no touch of woe,

Nor one drop of sweat, from head to feet.

Yet in that bath her death she must meet,

For he Almachius, with base intent,

His man, to slay her in the bath, he sent.

Three strokes in the neck he smote her so,

Her executioner; yet by no chance

Could he smite her neck in two, all know.

And as at that time there was an ordinance

That no man should a further stroke advance

Whether to smite a fourth time, soft or sore,

The executioner dared do no more,

But half dead, with her neck carven there,

Left her lying, and on his way he went.

The Christian folk, who about her were,

With sheets the flow of blood did quench.

Three days she lived on, in this torment,

And never ceased them the faith to teach

That she had fostered; and so did preach,

And entrusted them with all her things,

And to the Pope Urban bequeathed them so,

And said: ‘I ask this of Heaven’s King,

Respite for three days, ere I go,

To commend them to you, these souls, lo,

And that I might begin a holy work

Making my house a perpetual church.’

Saint Urban, and his deacons, secretly,

Took up her body, buried it by night

Among the other saints, all reverently.

Her house, the Church of Saint Cecilia bright,

Saint Urban consecrated, as was his right;

In which, unto this day, in noble wise,

Men still do service to the saint and Christ.

Here is ended the Second Nun’s Tale