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Mary's swollen womb: what it looks like to overcome tyranny in the second nun's prologue and tale.


INAUGURATED at the very start of the first tale, tyranny recurs as a theme throughout The Canterbury Tales, the project that occupied Geoffrey Chaucer for approximately the last fifteen years of his life before his death in 1400. In The Knight's Tale, Theseus vanquishes Creon; but by the end of the tale, he looks like a candidate for tyranny himself, as several critics have noticed. (1) While The Knight's Tale leaves painfully open the deep human question of how tyranny can properly be overcome, in The Second Nun's Prologue and Tale, Chaucer produces a sharp contrast between tyrannical power and the implications of the Incarnation through a deliberate pairing of images that has been unexplored in terms of this theme. In the Prologue, Chaucer introduces the image of Christ in Mary's womb, which strikingly contrasts the picture in the Tale following, and in Chaucer's source, of the tyrant Almachius as a bladder (uter) full of hot air. This opposition draws attention to the difference between a tyrant's rhetoric and the power of the Word issuing in the formation of the Church and sacrificial obedience, with implications for the task of the tale-teller. In The Second Nun's Prologue and Tale, Chaucer associates the overthrow of tyranny and the grounding of hope with Marian-incarnational revelatory presence and self-sacrificial, obediential responsiveness. His approach to the question of tyranny there provides a good example of what it means to do "theology through the arts" (Begbie) and to contribute to "the making of the Christian imagination" (Williams, "Series" vii-ix).

IN The Second Nun's Prologue, Chaucer reminds his audience of the traditional image of Christ in Mary's womb by having the Second Nun invoke the help of the Blessed Virgin as she prepares to tell the life of St. Cecilia. She does so in words that closely resemble the prayer of St. Bernard in the final canto of Dante's Paradiso:
   Withinne the cloistre blisful of thy sydis
   Took mannes shap the eterneel love and pees
   That of the tryne compas lord and gyde is.
   Whom erthe and see and hevene out of relees
   Ay heryen; and thou, virgine wemmelees,
   Baar of thy body--and dweltest mayden pure--
   The creatour of every creature. (2)

Chaucer rearticulates the paradox of the Marian-incarnational Gospel narrative in rhetorical form as well as in content. Gentle inversions of word order--"cloistre blisful," "Took mannes shap the eterneel love and pees" --gesture to the strangeness of this reality and the unexpected conjunction of categories otherwise thought to be tidily separated. The spiritual is now in the material, the material pregnant with the divine. The vastness of what Christ "lord and gyde is"--"erthe and see and hevene"--contrasts with the smallness of what he is "withinne," an opposition reinforced with the double alliteration of Mary bearing in her body the creator of every creature. Chaucer subtly suggests that the paradox of the creator in Mary's womb encompasses all temporality as well as all spatiality, referring back to the historical event of the Incarnation, bringing it into the present in the prayer and praise of the nun and anticipating eschatological completion in the allusion to the climax of Dante's great poem. The form of the stanza itself, the seven-line rhyme royal, discursively embodies the rounded fullness of Mary's womb and encourages contemplative indwelling of the all-encompassing Marian-incarnational reality. (3)

Sherry Reames has observed that several of Chaucer's key innovations in handling his source material depend on which source he used ("Artistry" 193; "Second Nun's" 494-96). Yet also innovative is his introduction of an image in the Prologue that anticipates a contrast with that of Almachius as a bladder or, in the Latin, liter full of wind as a picture of vain, worldly power. In creating this pairing, Chaucer implicitly attests that Christ, the "lord" who is "pees" (45; 44), is the just ruler and complete opposite of a tyrant. At the same time, the picture of him in the womb suggests the importance to Chaucer of a specificially Marian dimension. As John Hirsh notes, Chaucer associates the Virgin Mary with power: "in Chaucer references to the Blessed Virgin supply an image of power and an example of excellence ..." (168). She is also an image of the Church. The Second Nun's Prologue and Tale affirm in the Church a Marian picture of the body that carries Christ within it. So the Marian-incarnational picture of Christ in the womb can be seen to dovetail with Lynn Staley's observation that, in the Second Nun's Tale, "Chaucer depicts a church that, in fact, serves as a new society, the codes and relationships of which reverse those of pagan society" (205). The Church itself, as Christ's body, represents the opposite of tyranny, or to put it another way, the Church is supposed to be the society mystically able to resist collapsing into tyranny. The picture of Christ in the womb represents both the reign of Christ and the reality of the Church in the time between the Incarnation and the eschatological realization of the Kingdom of God, what Stanley Hauerwas has called the "time between the times" ("Peace"; Hauerwas 457).

The image and the content of the Marian stanzas in The Second Nun's Prologue provide an illuminating contrast to the climax of the encounter between St. Cecilia and the tyrant Almachius in the tale that follows. The picture of Christ in the womb in the former serves to illustrate where true power resides, in contrast to the image of secular power in the latter. In the course of their debate in the tale. Almachius puts the conflict between himself and Cecilia in terms of raw power: "'Ne takestow noon heede / Of my power?'" (8.435-36). The saint's response typically counterposes earthly and spiritual power, but she uses an arresting illustration:
   "Youre myght," quod she, "ful litel is to drede,
   For every mortal mannes power nys
   But lyk a bladdre ful of wynd, ywys.
   For with a nedles poynt, whan it is blowe,
   May al the boost of it be leyd ful lowe." (8.437-41)

Temporal power is like a bladder full of air, easily popped with a needle. In the context in which the lines are spoken by St. Cecilia, the image suggests that Almachius is "full of hot air," that he talks voluminously but lacks real power.

Chaucer's choice of the word "bladdre" masks and reveals a linguistic reverberation between the version of the fifth- or sixth-century source he is following at this point in the saint's life and the narrative of the Annunciation and Mary's visit to her relative Elizabeth afterwards. The Roman curia/Franciscan abridgement of the Passio S. Caeciliae uses the word "uter" to describe the tyrant: '"Omnis potestas hominis sic est, quasi uter vento repletus'" (In festo 525, lines 158-59). (4) The image of an uter full of air (vento) contrasts very specifically with that of the womb of Mary, swollen with the impregnating power of the wind of the Holy Spirit. The Angel Gabriel had announced: "'Ecce concipies in utero'" (Lk 1:31). Luke again uses utero as the narrative continues with Mary's visit to her relative: "exultavit infans in utero eius: et repleta est Spiritu sancto Elisabeth" (Lk 1:41). Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, though not in exactly the same way as Mary, and she too has a baby in her utero. Chaucer brings the image of Mary's womb into close proximity with the somewhat strange simile in the tale of power being like a bladder by placing it in the Prologue.

The word "bladdre" to a certain extent conceals the more obvious echo in "uter"; but as a commonplace thing from everyday life, it also evokes a womb. Evidence from the early modern period suggests that the image of a bladder full of air had such associations. The Netherlandish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) illustrates the use of a filled pig's bladder as a balloon in Kinderspiel. Bruegel depicts a young girl as filling and holding her toy in a way that makes her look pregnant. She has filled her own bladder or uter with her own air. It would appear that the bladder had currency as an imitation womb. This scene is prominent in the painting and near to the play-acting of several sacramental and liturgical activities, including a marriage procession, the reading of a liturgy, and a baptismal procession.

The contrast between the vociferous, tyrannical power of the male who threatens violence and the hidden power of the incarnate Son, the Word cloistered in Mary's womb who overcomes the world, is also verbal. Mary bears the Word of God, the source of genuine power, in her womb, in sharp contrast to Almachius, who boasts and threatens in vain, full of hot air. In the speeches following Cecilia's deployment of this simile, the contrast is sustained in linguistic terms. The saint repeatedly defies Almachius in this way, opposing what he "seyst" (480; cf 484, 485) with words of her own. She further taunts him that his language reveals his corruption as a creature:
   "O nyce creature!
   Thou seydest no word syn thou spak to me
   That I ne knew therwith thy nycetee." (8.493-95)

For her, his words betray the limitation of his power as a creature. By understated contrast, true power and the real Word resides in Mary's womb:
   ... and thou, virgine wemmelees,
   Baar of thy body--and dwellest mayden pure--
   The creatour of every creature. (47-49)

These lines from the Nun's Prologue capture the well-known paradox of the creator's being within the creature and anticipate Cecilia's use of the term--"'O nyce creature!'"--to stress Almachius's true condition and the powerlessness of his language.

Speech, and with it the prospect of further speech, marks the existence of the Church. Cecilia has a long and unsatisfying exchange with Almachius: "Thise wordes and swiche othere seyde she" (512). Her argumentation does not rationally convince, strictly speaking, though neither is her claim demonstrably wrong. The usefulness of The Second Nun's Tale for Chaucer does not lie in some supposed efficacy that it has as an argument or in some apparent endorsement of discursive apologetics as an unassailable approach to defending the faith. Rather, on another level. The Second Nun's Tale offers important resonances with the project of The Canterbury Tales as a narrative world that can only propose itself for acceptance, with the Word always hidden in its revealing. (5)

Soon Cecilia will be martyred and bear witness (martyr: witness) to Christ in that way. The final stanzas emphasize speech and the community that takes shape in her words. The cutting of her neck (526) draws attention to the vocal chords and the miraculous nature of her speech. Words in the Word bring the community into being and mark its difference from the power of the hostile tyrant. Almachius's emissary represents the opposing power as a "sonde" (525). The Middle English word ambiguously covers a semantic range including "sound" and "sent one" (MED sond(e (n.)) and hinting at "son." Almachius sends his "sonde" as the power making a non-negotiable demand; the emissary represents this unbending power. This is in contrast to God, who sent his son, as Almachius is sending his "sonde" not as a gift but as a "tormentour" (532). In a further contrast of Almachius's speech and power with the source of her own, this "sonde" cannot cut off Cecilia's power of speech. The law limiting the number of strokes the servant can deliver itself attests the limits of his master's authority (529-32).

In her final state, Cecilia defies Almachius with speech: teaching, preaching, and commending her listeners to the pope. This climactic act establishes an important contrast between things and people, and with it a contrast between language as a tool and language as the formation of a community. As a thing, the bladder full of wind continues to have a presence in the tale, symbolic of language itself as something manipulate, bound up with the willed exercise of power. In contrast, Cecilia gives away things, and ultimately turns her attention from things to people in language that is other-centered:
   And hem she yaf hir moebles and hir thyng,
   And to the Pope Urban bitook hem tho.... (540-41)

It may seem that the tale places emphasis on "hir moebles and hir thyng" (as furnishings for the church) and on the church building itself, physical objects that she would leave as her legacy. Chaucer, however, emphasizes people over things as the Church proper, even more clearly than does his source, through the repetition of "hem":
   Thre dayes lyved she in this torment.
   And nevere cessed hem the ferth to teche
   That she hadde fostred. Hem she gan to preche,
   And hem she yaf hir moebles and hir thyng,
   And to the Pope Urban bitook hem tho.... (537-41)

The fourfold repetition of "hem" puts the stress on the people to be left behind. Them she entrusts to the pope, them she recommends, and of "thise soules" (545) she would build a church when she goes on to say,
   "I axed this at Hevene Kyng.
   To han respit thre dayes and narao,
   To recomende to you er that I go
   Thise soules, lo, and that I myghte do werche
   Heere of myn hous perpetuelly a cherche." (542-46)

Cecilia "axed" God for time and she verbally recommends the people to the pope. The Church takes shape in language. It is the people, a linguistic community, not the things, that become the church in her house. (6)

On the one hand, this emphasis on people rather than things supports Lynn Staley's argument that Chaucer tells the story of St. Cecilia to draw attention to "the radical simplicity of the early church" (208). (7) On the other, I do not think that it is straightforward to say that "Cecilia's 'lineage' is the modern church," as Staley claims (211). by which she means a Church shaped by "countless bequests throughout the centuries separating her world from Chaucer's" (211) and other forms of worldliness. The most significant bequest that Cecilia makes is the people themselves. It is the people who represent the outlasting and the overthrowing of tyranny, a people held together by the Word and in their unity revealing the Word.

Rowan Williams has explored what such unity or coherence looks like in the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, another Christian artist, and the importance of language to its realization. His analysis can deepen our appreciation of how Christianity, for the Russian novelist and the medieval poet alike, attests the opposite of tyranny through language. Dostoevsky embraces a vision of freedom that depends on otherness. It manifests itself especially well in language: "confronted with what seeks to close down exchange or conflict, we discover we can always say more. This is emphatically and evidently a liberty that depends on otherness" (Williams, Dostoevsky1 11). Being addressed, even in terms that would shut down exchange, creates the possibility for response, for articulating a position, refining one's self-understanding, and even bringing new dimensions of one's own self into being. (8) One can see this liberty to "say more" in Cecilia. Healthy conflict has even richer possibilities for the growth of the self through interaction. (9)

In Dostoevsky's novels, awareness of the image of God in one another, "the consciousness of a solidity or depth in each other which no amount of failure, suffering, or desolation could eradicate" (Dostoevsky 1), takes the form of a dialogism that persists despite extremes of human failure and desolation. In Chaucer's pilgrimage motif, it looks like the ongoing interactions of a band of pilgrims who endure together regardless of what gets said. (10) It is true that most, if not all, of the pilgrims attempt to have the last word, and not only to win the contest. The Second Nun is as guilty of this as any of the others in her overwrought apologetic. (11) (In fact, she is indeed the last female in The Tales to speak. (12)) And yet it is always possible to say more. For Chaucer, no one gets the last word. (13) Rather, the ongoing interactions of the pilgrims attest their being held together in the Word.

Williams traces a nuanced understanding of how, in Dostoevsky's fiction, language helps people to cohere. The stress on a freedom dependent on otherness (as opposed to the seeking of freedom from any sort of other, what Williams refers to as absolute freedom) itself represents an important way of thinking that encourages a break from unreflective individualism. Yet, for Dostoevsky, the relationship between language and freedom involves the need for making oneself recognizable, a nexus that entails reflection on the nature of God's relationship with the world that he has created. Engaging in any kind of conversation, even in response to what is calculated to close off exchange, involves the need to make oneself recognizable in one's speech. For Williams, Dostoevsky evinces an obsessive interest to explore the relationship between the freedom to respond as one wishes, the need to be recognizable, and the resistance to dialogue, both in the refusal to engage in conversation and in speech that strives to be so clear that it obviates the need for response (Dostoevsky 12).

This situation leads Williams to draw the following conclusion about Dostoevsky's attitude towards language as a divine gift. He writes that

Dostoevsky in effect argues that this necessity of saying what is recognizable is finally grounded in the order established by a creator: recognition is possible because we are all at the most basic level of our being made to resonate with the interdependent life of a universe that is addressed and sustained by a Word from God. (Dostoevsky 12) (14)

Dostoevsky has little interest in the question of God's existence, but rather concerns himself with the nature of his relationship with the world. The preservation of creaturely human freedom is paramount, the defining feature of our having been made in the image of the trinitarian God. (15) Yet this freedom in its turn suggests the grace of being "addressed and sustained by a Word from God," of which humans have an intrinsic need in order to realize their freedom. In this way, Dostoevsky holds together freedom and responsiveness as part of a creaturely condition marked by the presence of grace. (16)

Humans are thus essentially capable of self-transcendence. The Church or fellowship of pilgrims, as the first fruit of the restored imago Trinitatis in our one common humanity, enacts trinitarian relationality in acceding to the need to make themselves recognizable to one another. Making oneself recognizable in speech is a form of the self's renouncing its own possession; it is a form of ascesis. And it is a need built into the fabric of a universe addressed and sustained by a Word from God. The reality of freedom, the interdependence of a linguistic community, and the need for self-sacrifice amount to an invitation to recognize or hear the Word.

For Chaucer, I am suggesting that the image of Mary's womb, with Christ within, is both a literal contrast to the image of Almachius as a bladder (since the Incarnation of Christ in the womb of Mary announces the overthrow of all worldly rulers and the inauguration of the reign of Christ) and also a picture of the Church, united dialogically, instantiating freedom through its interdependency. Through its interactions, the Church attests and generates a freedom that cannot be destroyed by any tyrant. At the same time, both in the freedom to which it gives expression and in the consciousness of those who belong to it of their need to be recognizable to one another, it reveals Christ within it. It does not do this directly, not like the Second Nun who, as Staley writes, is "clearly arguing the truth of Christ" (210); rather it does so obliquely, as part of its ongoing life.

In the Middle Ages, Mary is an image of the Church. Kimberley Vrudny has written recently that, "As the one through whom redemption passes --in senses both literal and figural--Mary was celebrated as the one who gave birth both to Christ and the church" (42). (17) Like the Virgin, the Church as a whole bears Christ within it, an existential condition depicted iconographically in the "Orans" or "Panaghia," an icon of the Virgin Mary with Jesus in her body, and her hands lifted up in prayer. For Raniero Cantalamessa, Mary is the "mirror of the Church" and the "Panaghia" the sign of thanksgiving for what God initiates internally in it (22). For Rowan Williams, the "Orans" shows a Church able to "cope" with the hidden life of Christ within (Ponder 54).

In Chaucer, the image of Mary is bound up with obedience as the action of the Church. The content of revelation shines forth in interpretive and obediential application as an invitation to enter into the logic of the Gospel story. It issues in self-giving in imitation of Christ and of Mary's unreserved response to the news of the Annunciation (Lk 1:38). (18) Revelation as the making manifest of the Word urges for Chaucer the participation of the reader or auditor in responsive, obedient action. The same image points to the fundamental importance of unity itself, too. In Chaucer's Second Nun's Prologue and Tale, the image of Mary as the bearer of Christ within has unmistakeable associations with a particular vision of the Church as offering an alternative vision of politics as obediential self-sacrifice, dialogical unity, and hope.

In The Second Nun's Prologue and Tale, as the pilgrimage nears its destination, Chaucer puts the emphasis on people and their interactions in counterpoint to the theme of tyranny. They contain within them the possibility, as a community of language, of revealing Christ, of figuratively giving birth to him. However overblown the Second Nun's ambitions may be, Cecilia's speech primarily represents an enactment of that society that truly does contain power in its womb. If pierced, as in her own martyrdom, that windbag that is the Church full of the Holy Spirit is not destroyed but enlarged through a witness that irreducibly fuses word and suffering action. It is the true antithesis of tyranny, not simply a rival power, but one that redefines its nature. It is born of a general Marian-incarnational orientation in Christianity towards this world as the theatre of God's action, bodied forth in dialogical interaction.

THIS braided theme of sacrifice, freedom, and language naturally has implications for story-telling. The Second Nun invokes Mary in her Prologue for help with story-telling. In the course of doing so, she indicates the need for obedience with a reference to the book of James:
   And for that feith is deed withouten werkis,
   So for to werken yif me wit and space,
   That I be quit fro thennes that most derk is. (8.64-66)

The opening line of this stanza repeats the idea of marrying hearing and doing from the Epistle of James, which the Clerk referred to (4.1149-62) in another tale concerned about tyranny. Here, it is transposed into the stark announcement that faith without works is dead (Jms 2:17). The work that the Nun would undertake is the telling of a story. For it, she requires "wit" and "space." The latter term can mean "time," as Allen and Fisher gloss it, but it can also mean literal "space." She needs a Marian space, a space in the womb, in the Word, to tell a story that on multiple levels resists tyranny. If Christ is within her, as a member of the Church and. in a special way, as a woman imitating the example of Mary, at the same time she needs to be within what Christ builds and to be in Christ.

She also needs Mary's help to "be quit fro thennes that most derk is." She needs help to externalize the reality of her life of faith. In the context, this phrase has an ambiguous, twofold meaning. It suggests being saved from hell as the place of punishment for failing to embody one's faith in good works. But in the context of the Marian hymn that she has just sung, the phrase has a less ominous implied meaning as well. "Thennes that most derk is" recalls Mary's womb, the space from which she herself needs to emerge with good works that manifest Christ. While "quit fro thennes" can mean "saved from the place," as Allen and Fisher gloss it, "quit" also denotes "leave" or "out," so that the phrase conveys the sense "That I might be out from that place that most dark is." To give birth to Christ, to show Christ, is paradoxically to come forth oneself, to give birth to oneself. One prays that participation in the utter mystery of divinity might become the plain simplicity of ordinary good deeds, which in its turn is participation in divinity.

The prayer of the Second Nun is to be able to tell the tale of a woman whose whole life is a bearing forth of the Gospel:
   And from hir cradel up fostred in the feith
   Of Crist, and bar his gospel in hir mynde. (8.122-23)

Cecilia's own infancy stands as another completion of the Nativity story. No sooner is the child Cecilia born than she becomes the bearer of the Gospel in her mind, an infant pregnant with Christ, like the woman who "Baar" (8.48) of her body the creator of every creature.

Mary's fullness is the plenitude of the Word. Most tellers seek to have the last word, to reveal something, and finally some thing, according to their own limited perspective and (usually) their even more limited agenda as well. The Second Nun's effort does not escape criticism on this count, as has been seen. Chaucer hints that such a desire tends in the direction of triumphalism and tyranny. But within the ambit of the Church, it is sheltered by the grace that restores the possibility of fellowship, defines its being, and models what it ought to look like. No one gets the last word. The full reappearance of Christ is assured; but for the time of the pilgrimage, the fullness of Mary's womb is a picture of tyranny-resistant hope.

These reflections also have relevance to Chaucer as a writer who would imitate God's relationship to his creation as a writer. I return to Williams's analysis of Dostoevsky's understanding of God's relationship to the world for one further insight. For the Russian novelist, the Christian author who would imitate the God of freedom like the creator cannot coerce the reader or listener with attempts to proffer an utterly clear representation of the reality into which his or her fiction would invite them:

[The Dostoevskian novel] enacts the freedom it discusses.... to represent the ways in which the world's creator exercises "authorship," generates dependence without control. The twist in the apologetic is that it is precisely the possibility of refusing to acknowledge that representation, or to acknowledge that something real is being represented, that constitutes it as a veridical representation. The fiction is like the world itself--proposed for acceptance and understanding but unable to compel them, since compulsion would make it impossible for the creator to appear as the creator of freedom. (Dostoevsky 12)

Veridicality entails the re-creation of freedom, dependency without control --the plausibility of refusing the very idea that the author may be attempting an apologetic.

This insight is eminently applicable to Chaucer. As an author working with an understanding similar to Dostoevsky's--of God's relationship to the world--and seeking to imitate the God of freedom, Chaucer refers to the presence of the Word as the ground that makes definitive sense of the created order only obliquely. For him that attestation means, especially, the overcoming of tyranny and the affirmation of hope. Performatively gesturing to Marian-incarnationalism for an answering of the question of tyranny suggests the source of the dialogical life of the fellowship, while at the same time denying that anyone apart from Christ could have the last word. It also amounts to a poetics that enacts human freedom and God's relationship to the world.

David Aers has rightly drawn attention to the supreme importance of the Church in a credible medieval poetics that would distance itself from "any secular humanism" ("Whose Virtues" 75). He has cast serious doubt on Chaucer's formulation of such a poetic, given the perceived general absence of reference to the Church and the sacraments within Chaucer's work ("Whose Virtues" 81). However, Chaucer's Marian-incarnationalism not only profoundly shelters the orthodoxy of his poetic, but also it gives it its dialogical shape and orientation to the Word, off of which humanism feeds. One can see in the contrast between tyranny and Marian-incarnationalism a vision of the Church that attests freedom and obedience, as well as Chaucer's embracing the task of the Christian artist who would imitate a creator who generates dependence without control. The image of Mary bearing and revealing Christ within gives a fructuous picture of the impossibility of the members of the fellowship, Chaucer included, to claim the last word, dependent as they are on one another for the capacity to speak and on the Word within that gives them all speech.


(1) Aers, "Imagination"; Fowler; Stein; Mitchell-Smith. Robert Stein summarizes these insights well when he writes that the events at the start of the tale "form in the Knight's Tale not a closure but an opening for violence that finds its real resolution in yet another funeral and a dynastic marriage and complex set of alliances that both neutralize a potential enemy after military devastation and rearticulate the power of the prince at home and abroad" (201).

(2) Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, in The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. Mark Allen and John H. Fisher (Boston: Wadsworth, 2012) 8.43-49. Subsequent references to fragment and line numbers are given in the text. References to editorial glosses and notes are cited as Allen and Fisher.

(3) Barbara Nolan helpfully draws attention to the implication of "completion" and "finality" in the stanza form (23). However, "completion" and "finality" need to be sheltered by reference to the Incarnation, which radically challenges disembodied ideas of spirituality or closure.

(4) The In festo is a copy of a liturgical version, one of two abridgements that Chaucer used, of the Passio S. Caeciliae. Sherry Reames provides evidence that Chaucer relied on the abridgement in the Legenda aurea up to line 348, and a Roman curia/Franciscan version for the rest of the tale ("Second Nun's" 494). However, she does note that Chaucer may have consulted the version provided by Jacobus de Voragine in writing the second half of the tale ("Second Nun's" 494). She includes both texts in their entirety among the sources and analogues for The Second Nun's Tale because "the differences between the Legenda aurea and Roman curia/Franciscan abridgements of the legend are potentially important for understanding the implications of Chaucer's decision to begin with one and then switch to the other" ("Second Nun's" 496). There is indeed a difference between the two versions in the way that Cecilia responds to Almachius at this point, and it suggests that Chaucer may have, in this instance, incorporated both of them. In the Legenda aurea version, she retorts, "'Potestas vestra est quasi uter vento repletus ...'" (515 (line 197)). The two different responses--"'Omnis potestas hominis'" (All human power) and "'Potestas vestra'" (Your power)--become in Chaucer's version Youre myght,' quod she, 'ful litel is to dreede, / For every mortal mannes power nys / But lyk a bladdre ful of wynd, ywys'" (8.437-39. my emphasis). Chaucer preserves both Cecilia's specifying Almachius's power and her generalization about the nature of all men's power. For my purposes in this context, the more important point is that both versions use the terms uter and vento.

(5) In this vein. I would suggest that readings that emphasize the sharp contrast between The Second Nun's Tale and The Canon Yeoman's Tale as offering opposed veins of the world in "spiritual" and "materialist" terms respectively, while helpful, need to be resisted as totalizing explanations of the fragment. They encourage a dualism at odds with the implications of the Incarnation, but helpfully draw attention to the limited ability of all the pilgrims individually to inhabit and invite others into its reality.

(6) Allen and Fisher's correct glossing of "bitook" as "entrusted" might suggest "things" rather than people as the syntactic direct object. While we trust people, we tend to speak of entrusting things to people. Yet people can be a "thing" entrusted or given too, as in a marriage service. Cecilia is entrusting the people to the Pope.

(7) For a similar emphasis, one influenced by Staley's reading, see Kaiser and Dean; see also Robertson 112. Joseph Grossi likewise speaks of the "true spiritual mission beneath the layers of secular acculturation" (299).

(8) Cf. the following statement in his chapter "The Last Word? Dialogue and Recognition," in which Williams develops this theme in Dostoevsky's novels in dialogue with Bakhtin: "... that uncontrolled territory where dialogue and interaction bring to light, not to say bring into being, hidden dimensions in a speaker" (132).

(9) This is a point that Williams makes elsewhere as well. In Lost Icons, he similarly develops the theme of a "human conversation" and writes approvingly: "One recent writer has spoken of the self as what emerges in the process of 'defining conflicts'--that is, conflicts that provoke sufficient interrogation to generate a new way of speaking, of articulating a position" (6-7).

(10) John Ganim sees The Miller's Tale as the beginning of a dialogical process that endures throughout The Tales, with only the first and last tales aspiring to Foucauldian panoptic control (77-78). I think he is absolutely right to see the dialogism beginning (more or less) where he does, though too harsh on the first and last speakers, and rather too generous with the others.

(11) Hence those readers who see the Second Nun's Tale as focusing on "privileged knowledge" (Longsworth), an "impossible model" (Kais and Dean n.p.), a clear example of one of the "extremities of faith" (Kooper), "the most absolute of the Canterbury narratives" (Kolve 221), "perhaps the most perfectly realized Christian ideal created by Chaucer" (Hilmo 131), or the suggestion that the tale calls into question all previous discussion of values (Jankowski 144).

(12) Although 1 draw my own inferences from the positioning, I agree with those who, like James Dean, include The Second Nun's Tale in a compelling "closure sequence" in the Ellesmere order (746). See also Jankowski 129.

(13) Even Staley's suggestion that Cecilia is "clearly arguing the truth of Christ" (210) slightly diminishes the importance of the picture of the Church as the interdependent whole of the fellowship, of which the Second Nun and her tale of Cecilia are a part. However, she importantly goes on to emphasize "Chaucer's indirect strategy" (213). That Chaucer brings the tale-telling contest to a close after only twenty-four have been told (10.16), when one hundred and twenty were ostensibly in the offing, indicates that he has moved on to the question of closure in the Christian economy, which is as mysterious as the doctrine of creation, and which he will couch ultimately in the language of the Word and processual Trinitarianism (10.61-74; 1081-92).

(14) Williams later writes that language points (obliquely) to "a background of depth and surplus in reality which holds and makes sense of all these dialogical processes" (Dostoevsky 134).

(15) Rowan Williams has tracked the theme of freedom in relation to the imago Dei or imago Trinitatis since his doctoral work (Lossky, esp. 122-28, but also, for the nature of ek-stasis and what it means to be a person, 81-89). Vladimir Lossky writes that "Freedom is, so to speak, the 'formal' image, the necessary condition for the attainment of perfect assimilation to God. Because created in the image of God, man is to be seen as a personal being, a person who is not to be controlled by nature, but who can himself control nature in assimilating it to its divine Archetype" (119-20). Chaucer, like Dostoevsky, asks the reader or audience if they can imagine "living in the consciousness of a solidity or depth in each other which no amount of failure, suffering, or desolation could eradicate" (Williams. Dostoevsky 1). This knowledge derives from awareness of the imago Dei in them, a recognition vouchsafed by the lengths God was willing to go to repair it.

(16) This paradox is central to Williams's short but bracing exploration of incarnational aesthetics in Grace and Necessity. There he writes, "created processes have their own integrity, so that they do not need God's constant direct intervention to be themselves. At a deeper level, ... the integrity of a created process will, if pursued honestly and systematically, be open to God's purposes" (9).

(17) Donna Spivey Ellington similarly says, "Throughout the Middle Ages the Virgin Mary, mother of Christ, was the most powerful symbol of the Church, mother of Christians" (208). She reminds readers of the general context: "In the early centuries of the Church, there was such a close link between Christology and doctrines concerning Mary that councils called to deal with Christ inevitably issued official statements about Mary as well" (37). Vrudny observes that the first reference to Mater Ecclesiae occurred in the twelfth century (42n29). However, the idea of Mary as a type of the Church can be traced back at least as far as St. Ambrose, if not to Irenaeus (O'Carroll 346; Semmelroth 16-24).

(18) Jaroslav Pelikan writes that "these words ['Be it unto me according to thy word'] put into action the identification of faith with obedience, and by describing her obedience to the word of God made of her the model of faith" (20).


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Author:Klassen, Norm
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 22, 2016
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