“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is an early example in English literature of the personification of domestic animals in order to reflect upon human behaviour. This takes the form of an animal fable, reminiscent of the ancient Greek Aesopica. The protagonist is the rooster Chanticleer, described as a fine specimen who is “great at crowing”, has a comb “redder than fine coral”, with gold feathers “flaming bright” and is the proud master “of seven hens, all there to do his pleasure” (215). These vivid and overtly sexual descriptions seem to parody the extravagant style found in courtly romantic poetry.
Chanticleer dreams of a yellow and red beast who tries to kill him, but is chastised by his favoured hen Pertelote who labels him a coward, advising that “dreams are a vanity” (217). He is pursued by a fox, showing that dreams can be portentous and implying that a man should not yield to his wife. The chosen passage begins after the fox has entered the yard unnoticed and the Nun’s Priest has digressed into a discussion on the nature of free will and divine foreknowledge. The passage opens with him declining further “discussion of the matter” (226), which may be a way for Chaucer to satirise the tendency of Priests to gloss over such religious paradoxes. The Nun’s Priest shifts focus to the issue of gender and power dynamics between man and wife.
This animal fable is applied to humanity when the Nun’s Priest vows firstly that this is just a tale “of a cock and the clatter that came from following his wife’s advice” (226), but then moves directly into the human realm of Adam and Eve. The Nun’s Priest suggests that “women are to blame”, yet awkwardly backs away from his didacticism by stating that “I only speak in game”, referring the reader to other “authorities” (226). The use of animals, parody, humour and narration by the Nun’s Priest mean that it is difficult to ascertain whether Chaucer is making this misogynist commentary himself, commenting upon the clergy’s misogyny via the Nun’s Priest, or simply raising a controversial issue and deferring judgement to the reader.
The passage uses dramatic irony, with the reader already aware of the fox’s presence while the Nun’s Priest makes his digressions and continues on to describe Pertelote laying “merrily in her dust-bath” and Chanticleer singing “more merrily than a mermaid in the sea” (226), oblivious to danger. This dramatic irony hints at another parody, this time targeting the genre of epic poetry. Following this passage, the tale continues on with Chanticleer escaping a near-miss with the fox after succumbing to a flattering description of his singing. The overall moral of the tale comes with Chanticleer overcoming danger like an epic hero by refusing to be flattered a second time.
This tale is narrated by the Nun’s Priest after the Host requests something cheerful, yet he is a flat character who is not described in “The General Prologue”. After the tale, the host congratulates him and briefly describes him as a well-built and virile man, unlike a stereotypical priest, continuing the generally humorous tone and perhaps further satirising the clergy. Chaucer uses animal characters, wild humour, parody and layers of stories within stories to engage in social commentary in this passage, while maintaining a level of authorial distance that allows readers to draw their own conclusions.