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The Canterbury Tales | The Second Nun's Prologue and Tale | Summary

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Summary

The Second Nun explains that she will tell a tale of Saint Cecilia. She prays to the Virgin Mary to "amend" her tale if she makes any mistakes. Then she explains that the name Cecilia means "Lily of Heaven" and that the white lily is a symbol of Cecilia's chastity. She says that Cecilia also means "sight" and gives a few other interpretations of Cecilia's name before beginning her story.

Young Cecilia prays often to God to allow her to remain a virgin. When she is given in marriage to a man named Valerian, she tells him that she has a guardian angel that will surely kill him if he touches her "either in love or lust." He asks to see the angel. She agrees but says he must first be baptized by Pope Urban. When Valerian visits Urban, a mysterious old man appears in a vision and proclaims, "One Lord, one Faith, one God above us all"; then Urban baptizes Valerian. Returning home, he finds Cecilia with her guardian angel. The angel gives them both flowers from Paradise, and Valerian asks the angel to grant that his brother, Tiburce, could also find God's grace. Tiburce arrives, is converted, and is taken to Pope Urban to be baptized.

Later the two brothers are taken prisoner as part of a law forcing Christians to renounce their religion or be killed. Even though Almachius, the prefect of Rome, has them executed, the brothers' faith is so powerful that some of their captors convert to Christianity, including Maximus, whom Almachius also condemns to death. Almachius has Cecilia brought before him. She answers his questions rudely yet intelligently and will not renounce her faith. Almachius instructs his men to place her in a tub of water heated by a fire. After several days she is not dead, so Almachius sends a man to cut off her head. He fails to kill her but injures her grievously. For three days she teaches the people around her, then dies. Pope Urban builds a church at her grave site.

Analysis

The Second Nun's tale contains a unique twist on elements found in other tales. The initial "rivalry" for the young woman is not between two men but between a guardian angel and a man. The two brothers, unlike other men who are either brothers-in-arms or friends who are "like brothers," do not break their bond of brotherhood but go together to a martyr's death. In addition, the storyteller tells her tale less for the company of pilgrims and more because as a nun she finds it personally inspiring. This familiar story of a martyred virgin saint connects to her vow of chastity and devotion to the church.

There are important contrasts between this tale and the Pardoner's tale. The three male martyrs of this tale (Valerian, Tiburce, and Maximus), who die and go on to eternal life, contrast with the three young men who seek to vanquish Death but are conquered by their own sins. Both tales involve a mysterious old man, but, in the Pardoner's Tale, he sends the young men toward Death, while the old man in this story, who appears in Valerian's vision, prepares him for his baptism, a kind of rebirth.

Spiritual themes and symbolism are crucial to this story. The flowers given to Valerian and Cecilia are from Paradise. Unlike natural spring flowers—which are found throughout the tales—these undying flowers are visible only to those who are baptized into the church; they symbolize the eternal life baptism promises. The spiritual transition from blindness to vision manifests itself in the baptized, who see flowers and angels; as Valerian tells his brother, "Your eyes/Shall also see if you renounce the power/Of idols and be clean." The martyrdom of the three men may symbolize the Christian Trinity.

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