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The Canaanite woman, the Second Nun, and St. Cecilia.

Abstract: Chaucer's little-noticed allusion to the story of the Canaanite woman in his Prologue to the Second Nun's Tale brings several aspects of his poem into focus. What he gains by alluding to this account can be seen in a comparison of its source text, Matt. 15:21-28, to the very different version of this story in Mark 7:24-30. In particular, the allusion emphasizes the characterization of the Second Nun and St. Cecilia as speakers, underlines the saint's conversions as the radical results of her rhetorical skill, and reinforces a theme of dissolving boundaries.


Several fine studies of the Prologue to Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale, a life of St. Cecilia, have considered its carefully articulated three-part structure (see for instance Benson, Clogan, Collette, and Hirsch). The structure divides easily as, first, the Nun examines "Ydelnesse" (2), ending with a claim to have opposed this vice by translating the legend of "Seint Cecile" (28); in the middle, prays to the Virgin for aid in composing her story; and finally explicates the saint's name. Few scholars however have focused on the Nun's allusion in her middle section prayer in which she compares herself to the Canaanite woman of the New Testament:
   Now help, thow meeke and blisful faire mayde,
   Me, flemed wrecche, in this desert of galle;
   Thynk on the womman Cananee, that sayde
   That whelpes eten somme of the crommes alle
   That from hir lordes table been yfalle;
   And though that I, unworthy sone of Eve,
   Be synful, yet accepte my bileve. (57-63) (1)

The allusion initially appears to have a simple relation to its source text, Matthew's gospel 15:21-28, and to the Prologue's meaning. The woman in Matthew, begging Christ to cure her daughter, spoke the words the Second Nun quotes, and the Nun seems to draw on the most obvious reading of the story--that it exemplifies humility--to call attention to her own humility.

I will argue that this allusion has a more complex function in both the Prologue and the Second Nun's Tale, a function seen in part by asking what Chaucer gains in choosing Matthew's text rather than Mark's version of the same story (7:24-30). (2) The words to which Chaucer alludes are in fact pivotal in Matthew: although Christ had repeatedly rejected the woman's request, he reversed his position immediately after the words the Nun cites and strikingly praised the woman's "great ... faith" ("magna ... tides"). (3) Close reading of Matthew's narrative, and the patristic commentary on it, will make evident the multiple ways the gospel story illuminates Chaucer's poem. The virtues the Church Fathers ascribe to the woman, for instance, are virtues Chaucer emphasizes in the Second Nun and in St. Cecilia; (4) moreover the way Matthew brings these virtues out--Jerome and Augustine connect them to the woman's speaking (St. Jerome 183; St. Augustine, Sermons 76)--parallels the importance of women's speech in the Middle English text. We know that Chaucer only lightly alters his major sources for the Second Nun's Tale and, in the Prologue, combines passages from several fairly well-known works, but by invoking the Canaanite woman, he has made her story a condition of our understanding both tale and prologue. Specifically, the allusion adds greater emphasis to the characterization of the Second Nun and St. Cecilia as speakers, underlines the saint's conversions as the radical results of her rhetorical skill, and focuses our attention on dissolving boundaries in both the Prologue and the Tale.

Matthew's use of speech and his presentation of the Canaanite woman through her speaking are among the most notable aspects of his narrative. Beginning just after Christ's confrontation with the Scribes and Pharisees over the issue of his disciples' behavior, the evangelist describes Christ's withdrawal to Tyre and Sidon at the edge of the Jewish world ("Et egressus inde Jesus secessit in partes Tyri et Sidonis") where he was accosted by a woman of Canaan ("mulier Chananaea"). (5) Although a Gentile, she clearly believed in Christ's ability to cure her daughter and cried out, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, thou son of David: my daughter is grievously troubled by the devil" ("Miserere mei, Domine, fili David; tilia mea male a daemonio vexatur"). He did not respond to her, and Matthew stresses this absence of speech with "Who answered her not a word" ("Qui non respondit ei verbum"). But the disciples, anxious perhaps about what the woman had said or the way she called attention to them, did speak, asking that he "Send her away, for she crieth after us" ("Dimitte eam, quia clamat post nos"). (6) When Christ then replied, he implicitly rejected the woman's prayer by using negation and exclusion to set limits on his mission: "I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel" ("Non sum missus nisi ad oves, quae perierunt domus Israel"). The woman nonetheless persisted and, going forward to adore him, said simply, "Lord, help me" ("Domine, adjuva me"). Christ's response, "It is not good to take the bread of the children, and to cast it to the dogs" ("Non est bonum sumere panem filiorum, et mittere canibus"), (7) again dealt only indirectly with her plea and employed negatives and exclusive categories. Accepting the implied insult that she was like a dog, the Canaanite woman immediately agreed, "Yea, Lord; for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters" ("Etiam, Domine; nam et catelli edunt de micis, quae cadunt de mensa dominorum suorum"). These are the words the Second Nun quotes. In the last verse, Christ finally spoke to the woman in non-figurative language, reversed himself, and acclaimed her faith with "O mulier, magna est fides tua."

That Matthew moves his story forward by means of speech and presents the Canaanite woman primarily as a speaker becomes more apparent if we compare his account to Mark's differently shaped narrative of Christ's encounter with the same woman. As we have just seen, the woman and Christ each spoke three times in Matthew; Mark has the woman speak only once, Christ twice, and unlike Matthew, the disciples not at all. Moreover, rather than quoting the words in the first pleas of the woman, whom he describes as Syrophoenician, (8) Mark instead reports she asked Christ to cure her daughter. Mark's Christ responded immediately, in contrast to his silence in Matthew, with "Suffer first the children to be filled: for it is not good to take the bread of the children, and cast it to the dogs" ("Sine prius saturari filios; non est enim bonum sumere panem filiorum, et mittere canibus"). This elicited the single instance of the woman's direct words in Mark: "Yea, Lord; for the whelps also eat under the table of the crumbs of the children" ("Utique Domine, nam et catelli comedunt sub mensa de micis puerorum"). Christ's reply here is also quite different: "For this saying go thy way, the devil is gone out of thy daughter" ("Propter hunc sermonem vade, exiit daemonium de filia tua"). Beyond these differences in amount of speaking, Matthew also emphasizes the act of speaking by his high number of verbs and verbals denoting that act: relative to Mark, he almost triples the number of individual words for speaking and more than quadruples the pairings of such words. (9) Thus although the Canaanite woman's second plea is introduced with a simple "dicens" and she seized on Christ's second reply with "dixit," she both cried out and was speaking ("clamavit, dicens") as she approached. The disciples' request that she be sent away is also doubly marked ("rogabant ... dicentes"), as are Christ's three responses, each signaled by the combination "respondens" and "ait." Mark, by contrast, doubles a verb denoting speech only once ("respondit ... dixit").

Even more important to Chaucer's text is the skill with which the Canaanite woman used language when, as she accepted Christ's implicitly identifying her as non-human, she manipulated words to reduce herself further. Most obviously she changed Christ's dogs ("canibus") to the diminutive little dogs or puppies ("catelli"). Her other changes of his language deepen our sense of how thoroughly she accepted his description. For instance, she replaced Christ's "bread" with "crumbs," and instead of his strong action verbs in "to take the bread ... and to cast it" ("sumere ... et mittere"), she used the less active "fall" ("cadunt"). Finally, for what must be a children's table in Christ's comment, she substituted the table of the masters or lords ("mensa dominorum suorum"). This ability to use language productively is noteworthy in comparison to Mark's Syrophoenician woman whose sole significant change was the reduction of "canibus."

Because Chaucer knew passages from Scripture well (Besserman, Chaucer and the Bible 40; Biblical Poetics 198) (10) and was aware that evangelists' accounts varied (Biblical Poetics 55-56), his choice of Matthew's text for his allusion in the Second Nun's Prologue suggests he registered the distinctive differences between versions of the story. He clearly does have Matthew in mind because he describes the woman as a Canaanite rather than a Syrophoenician and refers to the "lordes table" rather than implying, as Mark does with "crumbs of the children," that table is the children's. It is likely then that Chaucer would have noted the different extent to which the two evangelists emphasize speech and skilled use of language; these differences may even have motivated his choice. (11) Moreover because he chose the moment in Matthew's account when the woman's word-shifting, the flexibility of her language, is most in evidence, he is able to highlight the skill with which both the Second Nun and St. Cecilia speak.

If we consider the Prologue alone, the Second Nun amply demonstrates her rhetorical abilities as she moves among kinds and levels of language. In the opening stanza of her first part (1-28) for instance, after describing "Ydelnesse" figuratively as "the ministre and the norice unto vices" and "porter" to the garden of "delices," she both explicitly advises us to intend this minister's contrary, "leveful bisynesse," and implicitly controls idleness by twice subordinating it grammatically (1-7, 10). In her own "feithful bisynesse" (24) of translating the legend of St. Cecilia, she has herself opposed vicious inactivity with productive verbal work. She changes her mode to descriptive and lyrical at the beginning of her second part, the Invocacio ad Mariam (29-84), but continues to shape language skillfully as she explores the nature and roles of the Virgin. Weaving together material from St. Bernard's prayer in the Paradiso and from Latin hymns, she produces a beautiful praise of the virgin birth and of Mary's generous aid. She adds her own prayer for this aid with "do me endite / Thy maydens deeth" (32-33). Repeating her prayer with the simple "Now help" (57), the Second Nun develops a three-stanza subsection of pleas, framed with a second "Now help" (77), that the Virgin accept her faith, give her the ability to enliven this faith with "werkis" act as her advocate, and enlighten her soul (57-77). In the first stanza of this subsection, she asks the Virgin to remember the Canaanite woman, and the clever positioning of the allusion, a distinctly non-Dantean one between passages from the Paradiso, (12) calls our attention to it. The Nun closes the central section by broadening her address to include a larger audience and asks that her "werk" be amended (84). Changing mode once more, she turns in the final part of the Prologue from praise and prayer to an explication of the multiple meanings folded into Cecilia's name (85-119). In a word, the Second Nun's speaking and rhetorical skills define her for us.

Cecilia's powerful speaking was similarly her outstanding characteristic, so much so that she miraculously continued to speak even after suffering three attempts at beheading. (13) Like Matthew's gospel, the Second Nun's Tale features the speech of multiple characters, but Cecilia is its dominant and most effective speaker; indeed the tale "argues a case" (Ellis 87) primarily through her use of language. Her dominance grows out of Chaucer's choice of sources, the Legenda aurea of Jacobus Voragine and a Roman curia/ Franciscan Matins text for the feast of St. Cecilia, both abridgements of the Passio S. Caeciliae. (14) Sherry L. Reames has shown that his use of the second source considerably diminishes the other characters and "focuses all the later scene on Cecilia" ("Artistry" 193). (15) But even at the beginning of the tale her ability to persuade is manifest. On their wedding night, for instance, her argument to her husband Valerian on the power of her Christian faith (152-61) led to his asking to see her protecting angel and making that request the test of her trustworthiness. In her response she again showed her rhetorical skills by describing the simplest things he needed to know--directions as to where to go and who to seek--and by influencing the outcome of his meeting with Pope Urban through her instructions on what to do and what would result (170-82). Urban's joyful acclamation of Cecilia as "a bisy bee" (195) calls attention to her skill in speaking because of the bee's traditional associations with eloquence. (16) When Valerians brother Tiburce later appeared and, already "chaunged ... al in another kynde" (252) by the unexpected smell of roses and lilies, wondered if he were dreaming, Valerian replied first, explaining the flowers his brother would see if he renounced "ydoles" (269). But it was Cecilia's showing "al open and pleyn" (284) the nature of those idols that persuaded Tiburce to recognize the "trouthe" (291). We don't have Cecilia's words for this showing, but we immediately hear her at length as she acclaimed him her "allye," ordered him to be baptized (292-301), "boldely" (319) met his anxiety about the outlawed Pope with her assertion of a "bettre lif in oother place" (323), and explained the mystery of the Trinity (337-41). Up to this point in the Tale, Chaucer has been closely tracking the speech and action in Voragine's Legenda, but he now summarizes a passage from it and turns to the Matins text (Reames, "Sources" 114).

Changing sources here does mean that Chaucer omits occasions in the Legenda when the saint spoke, but it also means that Cecilia continues to be the main speaker in his Tale. Her ability to use language effectively is most clear in this part during her public examination by Almachius. (17) Her blunt replies to the prefect indicate she had no interest in persuading him; her speech is rather directed at the larger audiences to whom the Second Nun and Chaucer present this example of resistance to wrong and perseverance in faith. She echoed Almachius' "Of whennes comth thyn answeryng so rude?" for instance with her own "Of whennes?" a question found in neither of Chaucer's sources (432-33). Cecilia's strategy of immediately throwing Almachius' comments back at him rolls out as a series of impressive counter-thrusts. She opened with an accusation of his having begun his interrogation "folily" (428) by muddling his opening question and then met his assertion of his own power with the sharp reply that his might "ful litel is to dreede" (437). His judgment that she had begun "wrongfully" (442) meant little to her, nor did she accept his reminding her of the "ordinaunce" (445) that every Christian should be punished, "But if that he his Cristendom withseye" (447); unlike his sources, Chaucer has her label this condemnation of Christians, whose innocence Almachius knew, "a wood sentence" (450). When he ordered her to "Chees oon of thise two: / Do sacrifice, or Cristendom reneye" (458-59), she laughed at his offering a spurious choice between options leading to the same end (466) and flatly accused him of lying in his claim to have power over life and death (479-81). He in turn wondered at what he saw as her arrogance--"Why spekestow so proudly ...?"--but she defined her manner of speaking as rather "noght but stedfastly" (473-74). In her final move, she charged that Almachius could not rely on his sense perceptions in dealing with the world because his complete blindness prevented him from seeing what "we seen alle": his image was only stone (499-501). (18) While the prefect's words revealed his foolishness, because "Thou seydest no word syn thou spak to me / That I ne knew therwith thy nycetee" (494-95), her "wordes" were so powerful that he "weex wroth" (512-13). (19) Cecilia's strong and logical speech in this bold confrontation with authority shows the value placed on a woman's language. Readers of the Second Nun's Tale and Prologue have certainly ranked the Second Nun and Cecilia among Chaucer's powerful women speakers; his allusion to the Canaanite woman adds emphasis to this idea of a woman characterized by her skillful speaking.

The skilled use of language by the Second Nun, the Canaanite woman, and St. Cecilia also entails radical change. For the Nun, her translating Cecilia's legend wrests words from one language into those of another. Moreover when she and, behind her, Chaucer specifically connect her translation to "spiritual illumination" to being "quit fro thennes that most derk is" (66), her words become even more radical because of their potential association with Wycliffite positions (Staley 201). For the Canaanite woman, the connection between her language and transformation particularly catches our attention. At first, Christ's reversal of his position surely appears to be the obvious complete change in the account. After all when he has so clearly rejected the woman, why does he answer her plea and perform a cure for her daughter? While the Church Fathers might say that the final cause here is God's love, the Canaanite woman's use of language hints at a proximate cause for the reversal. For example, although she addressed Christ three times as "Domine" probably only expected in a request of a more powerful person, she also added "fili David" to her first acclamation and therefore joined herself to Christ and the Jews with a phrase usually designating the Messiah (Luz 72). Her words suggest a converting, a turning toward this Jewish Messiah. Perhaps then the most significant change connected to speaking in this story is not Christ's reversal, but rather the radical transformation of the Canaanite woman's heart. Chrysostom thinks so and mentions it in several homilies. In Homily 12, speaking of Christ's miracles that involve a fundamental "refashioning of the soul" he turns to the Canaanite woman (114-15). Augustine also reads hers as a story of conversion and thinks changes in her language indicate her change of heart. When arguing about the need to combine faith with works, he asserts that although the woman appears to get what she wanted without work, her work was the turning of her heart in response Christ's implicit condemnation, "It is not good to take the bread of the children, and cast it to the dogs." The proof of this turning is her praise, the words she used: Christ "saw that the woman had changed when she praised Him, and so He did not say: 'O dog, great is thy faith" but: 'O woman, great is thy faith.' He changed the name because he saw the changed love" (Dulcitius 437). In Mark's version of the story, the meaning of this moment is more limited. Although the woman's words had an effect--Christ said her daughter had been freed of the demon ("Propter hunc sermonem vade, exiit daemonium de filia tua")--Mark does not have Christ point to the faith manifested in what the woman had said. But for Matthew, the Canaanite woman's words, the specific ones Chaucer quotes, become the evidence of what has happened to and in her, her own turning to faith.

Before we move to the way Cecilia's words produce radical change, we should consider the virtues made evident by the Canaanite woman's use of language. Although her humility is most noteworthy for the Church Fathers, they find other virtues in her story, and they relate these particularly to her speaking. Reading the woman as a figure for the Church, Jerome mentions the humility of her final reply to Christ, but also argues for her "faith, by which she believed that her daughter could be healed; [and] patience, by which she perseveres in prayer, after having been so often scorned" (183). Chrysostom also points to her faith and perseverance and describes these virtues almost as causes of her daughter's healing: the Canaanite woman, he says, "contrived by her faith and perseverance to drive out an evil spirit from the soul of her daughter" (Homily 12, 115). Her faith allowed her to continue speaking even as she faced resistance from Christ and the disciples, lacked power as a woman, and accepted a humiliating description. (20) Christ's praise of her faith, moreover, noticeably contrasts with his statement about faith in a slightly earlier story, Matt. 14:22-33, which is tied to hers by a shared motif of withdrawal. In that episode Christ withdrew to a mountain after sending his disciples off in a boat, but when they ran into difficulties, he walked toward them over the water and calmed the fear they were seeing "an apparition" by reassuring them, "it is I." A question of faith became prominent in the account when Peter demanded, "Lord, if it be thou, bid me come to thee upon the waters." Christ gave that command; although the disciple set out, his fear caused him to begin to sink. Christ rescued him, but also chided Peter for having "little faith" ("modicae fidei"), a sharp contrast to his shortly later praising the Canaanite woman's "great ... faith."

Humility, faith, and perseverance are also virtues the Second Nun makes manifest in her use of language. Comparing herself to the Canaanite woman obviously suggests her own humility, and she immediately intensifies the suggestion by referring to her unworthiness and sinfulness (62-63). She offers her faith, her "bileve" (63), in return for Mary's help and notes that "feith is deed withouten werkis" (64) by which it is made manifest and kept alive. In describing her work of translation as her "feithful bisynesse" (24), she implies it not only signals her faith, but also requires her perseverance, "bisynesse," because she must respond to the fiend who "Continuelly" (9) tries to trap us. Her humility again comes to the fore when, in the third part of her prologue, she asks "yow that reden that I write, / Foryeve me" for the absence of subtlety in the construction of "This ilke storie" (78-80) and then reinforces this humble estimate of her abilities by praying that readers "wole my werk amende" (84). In another context such requests might only be evidence of the modesty topos, but here the Nun's insistence on humility lends conviction to her words. She does however combine this humility, as did the Canaanite woman, with a confident perseverance when she points not to lack of ability for her doing "no diligence ... / ... subtilly to endite" but rather to her close adherence to sources. She claims indeed to have taken "bothe ... the wordes and sentence" of those sources (79-83), which would have struck Chaucer's audience as unusual because "many medieval English translators," following Jerome, gave "priority" to "a sense-for-sense correspondence between translation and source" rather than to a focus on individual words (Machan 56; see also Cooper 359). The Nun's assertion that she has captured word and sense thus indicates great confidence in her linguistic abilities.

These same three virtues are associated with Cecilia. Although humility is not much in evidence in her confrontation with Almachius, its lack is appropriate at that moment as she forcefully provokes her own martyrdom. But Chaucer wants us to think of her as possessing this virtue because, in a description found in neither of his sources, he tells us she was "ful devout and humble in hir corage" (131). (21) We know the saint possessed faith and perseverance even before we read the Nun's translation of Cecilia's life because the final meaning in her explication of the saint's name shows Cecilia to have "of feith the magnanymytee" and "good perseverynge" (110, 117). Cecilia herself laid a claim to perseverance--which Almachius condemned (443)--when she asserted she acted "stedfastly" (474). The power of her virtues is apparent in her conversions because the firmness of her "feith unfeyned" (434) and its constancy, which Almachius could no more move than he could raise the dead to life, contribute to producing this radical change in others and encouraging them in the "greet bataille" to conserve their faith (386-87).

But in a tale that stresses statements of faith made in words, as much as ones implied by acts, it is Cecilia's skilled speaking about the faith that most immediately causes these conversions. Thus, while the golden letters written in the book (22) the old man held out to Valerian defined the basics of believing in one God, an omnipotent Father of all (207-09), Cecilia's earlier wedding night speech to her husband had begun the definition. She more fully taught individual items of the faith as she spoke to Tiburce of the three persons of God, creating and animating all, and of the Son's coming into this world (326-32). We don't hear her response to her brother-in-law's puzzlement about the Trinity; however we know she "gan ... bisily to preche" (342) about Christ's Incarnation and Passion. So, although conversion occurs in fact in an instant of time, Valerians and Tiburce's turnings to faith are presented as unfolding gradually as the effects of Cecilia's persuasive speech. (23) For instance when the old man asked Valerian if he believed what he had just read, he replied with an immediate "I leeve al this thyng" (213), but the ground of this response had been prepared by Cecilia's words which had already transformed her husband from "a fiers leoun" into a "meke ... lomb" (198-99). Her speaking to Tiburce similarly moved him to seek Urban, who quickly "cristned hym" (352). As Cecilia spoke, she also precipitated a series of following changes: once she converted others, her power transferred to them, and they in their turn spoke and brought about conversions. Thus, with their "loore" (372) Valerian and Tiburce began "to reve" Maximus and the "tormentours" from the "false feith" (376-78); Maximus, seeing the angels accompanying the souls of the martyred brothers, testified to others and "with his word converted many a wight" (404). Following his martyrdom, Cecilia again became the tales chief agent of conversion and used her "wise loore" (414) to convert Almachius' ministers, who "yaven ful credence / Unto hire word" (415-16). Finally, even single pieces of language can be powerful. Just as in the prologue the name Cecilia by itself defines the saint's essence, so in the tale the name Cecilia produced in those who accepted her teaching defined them. This becomes clear when her argument with Almachius in part circled around the "Christen name" (454) which identified both their faith and them. No matter the consequence, Christians could "nat withseye" (457) the name they had acquired and by which they now knew themselves. Although conversion and the tenets of faith are set out with greater complexity in the Second Nun's Tale than in Matthew's story, both are nonetheless in evidence in the brief time the Canaanite woman spoke to Christ. She recognized he was the Son of David, his was the table of the masters, and she needed nourishment from that table. Indeed, the very brevity of Matthew's story and Chaucer's focus on the woman's crucial words in it clarify the connection between language and change.

Alluding to the story of the Canaanite woman also allows Chaucer to emphasize the breaking of boundaries in his prologue and tale. In Matthew, Christ's second and third replies to the woman establish categories exclusive of one another: only the lost sheep of the house of Israel and the children as opposed to the dogs. But while Matthew's account does insist on difference, it also insists on setting aside difference, and this dual stress can be seen in comparison to Mark's gospel. For instance, although Matthew doesn't explicitly identify the woman as Gentile, while Mark does ("mulier gentilis"), he does immediately signal that the woman is different ("mulier Chananaea") and makes Tyre and Sidon seem more distant by doubling the description of Jesus' movement, "egressus ... secessit," which contrasts with Mark's simple "abiit." Matthew hints at borders and perhaps distance when he describes the woman as coming out from those boundaries ("a finibus illis egressa"). His setting for the encounter between this woman and Christ also implies difference. In Mark the setting is domestic and interior: the woman, hearing about Christ ("audivit de eo"), simply entered ("intravit") the house in which he rested, an action suggesting she was not regarded as sufficiently different to require being kept to a separate space. But Matthew seems to place the scene in public, and almost everything about the woman's interaction with Christ and his disciples indicates she was not accepted. At the same time however Matthew uses language, not found in Mark, which points to connections between Christ and the woman and hints that difference and boundaries can be broken. Most noticeably, he quickly repeats the verbal he used for Christ's withdrawal to Tyre and Sidon ("egressus") in his description of the woman's coming forth from the territory ("egressa"). As we saw earlier, the woman joined herself to Christ and to Jews by addressing him as "fili David," but her parallel word order also links this Son of David with her daughter: "fili David; filia mea." Thus, while Matthew insistently presents the woman as different, his language also intimates that boundaries between groups can cease to exist. That this motif of inclusion is central to the meaning here becomes clear if we consider the Canaanite woman's story in the context of Matthew's immediately preceding account of Christ's confrontation with the Scribes and the Pharisees (15:1-20). There, in reply to objections about his disciples' transgressions against traditional eating practices, Christ asserted that what comes out of a man's mouth, rather than what goes into it, contaminates him. His comment effectively claims that traditions of ritual behavior among the Jews, by which they distinguished themselves from non-Jews, were to be set aside. This "principle" is then worked out in the story of the Canaanite woman (Clogan 229). Specifically, when Christ enlarged the category of "lost sheep" to include a Gentile, he showed that traditional boundaries between peoples would no longer apply. Chrysostom presents Christ as a model of such inclusiveness with his comment that "your Master ... did not speak only to the just and flee from the impure. On the contrary, He received even the Canaanite woman with much kindness" (Homily 60, 147).

Chaucer's allusion to Matthew's story therefore makes us aware of the many boundaries set aside in the Second Nun's Tale. If we consider for instance the issue of space, we notice that Cecilia, like the Canaanite woman, spoke in public. But, as Catherine Sanok reminds us in examining the ways the life of St. Cecilia might be exemplary for a late medieval woman reader, the more acceptable arena for female action was private and domestic (6-7). By acting in public, Cecilia thus moved into a space usually reserved for male action. Specifically, although she spoke to Valerian in the privacy of their bedchamber and to Maximus and the tormenters in "his hous" (374), she went to what must have been understood as a public "place" (393) of execution to collect Maximus' body for burial. Her confrontational speech to Almachius, after being ordered to "in his presence / Doon sacrifice and Juppiter encense" (412-13), would probably also have been understood by Chaucer's contemporary audience as set in a religious or legal public space, one Cecilia could describe as "heere in audience" (466). Much of her speaking crossed another border when she assumed a male role--as a "rule ... only men could preach" (Reames, "Artistry" 179)--and began to preach to Tiburce and later also "to preche" to her converts (539). On a more fundamental level, she simply put aside male authority: "Cecilia will define her own spirituality ... by her words and her actions, and not by the authority which tradition attaches to male power" (Hirsch 163). Finally, when she asked that her house be made "perpetuelly a cherche" (546), her request disrupted expected uses of space. Houses were indeed converted into places of worship in the early Church (Delehaye 79; Connolly, Mourning 39), but Cecilia here conflated what were distinct spaces for Chaucer's audience. In sum, the dedication of Cecilia's private house as a place of public worship merged secular and sacred space, while her taking on the male role of preaching and her speaking in public spaces broke down cultural differences separating women's roles from men's roles.

In her Prologue, the Second Nun also violates bounded categories. Although she speaks in public, as she and the other Canterbury pilgrims have been challenged to do, she crosses some of the same boundaries Cecilia does because of what she says. When she for instance brings together her "werk" of translation (84) and Cecilia's "good werkynge" (116), she "aligns her own homiletic prologue and exemplary tale with the saint's public preaching" (Sanok 169). The Nun's citation of the Canaanite woman can likewise be read as dissolving the separation between male and female roles, because she here "wield[s] ... biblical authority-the primary tool for enforcing male hierarchy" (Besserman, Biblical Poetics 200). Perhaps, in fact, the ambiguity about the gender of the speaker in the Prologue, rather than indicating incomplete revision, might have been purposefully left by Chaucer because it sets aside gender boundaries that create exclusive categories.

In the Tale, overcoming boundaries relates directly or indirectly to the religion Cecilia professed. Indeed for that religion life and death cease to be separated in any important way because, as Cecilia explained, better than the "lyvynge" (322) we now know, after death there is a "lif that may nat faille" (388). The boundaries separating social classes were also set aside when Cecilia converted not only the nobles Valerian and Tiburce, but also Maximus the executioner, Almachius' government ministers, and the lowly torturers from the prison. By the end of the tale, moreover, those who were at the beginning hidden "Among the seintes buryeles" (186) on the outskirts of Rome, and who in the middle continued to dwell "in halkes [hiding places]" (311), have moved into the open as part of a community in which "thilke divinitee / That is yhid in hevene" (316-17) can be worshiped in a place within the city where to "this day, ... / Men doon to Crist and to his seint servyse" (552-53).

The allusion has a final function in relation to boundaries in Chaucer's prologue and tale. In the world of the Second Nun's Tale, even the boundary between the earthly and the supernatural was set aside when Cecilia, Valerian, Tiburce, and Maximus were each able to see angels. This visible evidence of the supernatural confirmed for them the "trouthe" in which they had faith. By contrast, in the world of the Second Nun no such explicit evidence is found nor is the boundary between belief and knowledge crossed. In this absence, the Nun's, or indeed Chaucer's, situation is like that of the Canaanite woman at the close of her story, as becomes clear if we compare Matthew's and Mark's endings. Repeating the woman's movement into a house at the beginning of his story, Mark has her return home to find her daughter healed, proof of Christ's miraculous power ("Cum abiisset domum suam, invenit puellam ... et daemonium exiisse"). But in Matthew, the Canaanite woman did not make it home, and the story ends when Christ granted her desire ("fiat tibi sicut vis") and asserted her daughter was cured ("sanata est filia ejus ex illa hora"). The miraculous cure, physical witness of the truth of Christ's words and of his divinity, was left elsewhere in time and space than the present place of Matthew's ending. For us as audience to her story, therefore, the Canaanite woman lives on in a state of faith rather than of knowledge, believing without proof of the miracle, just as also for us, Chaucer's Second Nun continues to pray that her faith be accepted.

Grinnell College


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(1) Quotations of Chaucer come from The Riverside Chaucer. "I, unworthy sone of Eve" suggests Chaucer may at one time have intended a male speaker for this text (see Riverside Chaucer 943, n. 62). But his allusion and the language around it put the speaker in the company of multiple women--the Canaanite woman, the Virgin, and St. Anne--and strongly point to the voice in the Prologue being embodied in a female character. Specifically, language shortly before and immediately after the allusion juxtaposes "mother" and "daughter." First, using Paradiso XXXIII 1, the speaker describes Mary as the "Mooder" who is paradoxically also the "doghter" of her child (36); then the allusion stresses the maternal relation as a mother seeks a cure for her daughter. Several lines later, probably picking up on the Paradiso canto just before the one used earlier, the speaker again defines the Virgin as both "mooder" and daughter: "Thow Cristes mooder, doghter deere of Anne!" (70; Par. XXXII 133-34; Brown 8). Whatever Chaucer's original plan, this focus on the mother-daughter relation suggests that in the end, he meant the speaker to be understood as a woman. Hirsch notes that by "sounding the mother-daughter theme" in her prologue, the Nun is "insisting on the relevance of her own gender" (169). Nonetheless, as we shall see in the final section of this argument, ambiguity about the gender of the speaker in the Prologue does fit the pattern of broken boundaries in the Tale.

(2) Only Matthew and Mark include this incident. Although Matthew used Mark, the earliest of the three synoptic gospels (Wansbrough 4), as a base text and "follows his Markan source closely[,] ... [he] composes a gospel which is distinctively his own" (Barton 122).

(3) All Latin quotations come from the Vulgate Biblia Sacra. All quoted English translations of New Testament passages come from the Douay-Rheims translation of the Bible.

(4) I am not assuming Chaucer would have read the commentaries on the story. He might however have known them simply because they came up in homilies; as Robertson notes, the commentaries would have been used "by preachers in the composition of sermons" (25-26). Schildgen points out that "even the most cursory readings of The Canterbury Tales shows that the author was deeply influenced by exegetical traditions" (125).

(5) On the possibility that "Canaanite" is a "derogatory term" see Leske 1301.

(6) Leske describes the disciples as "embarrassed" (1301). Their anxiety here repeats their reaction in the immediately previous story of the Scribes and Pharisees (15:1-20), and both instances stress the great potential power of words.

(7) "Dogs" is usually read as a "common Jewish term of abuse for the Gentiles" (Green 147). See also Argyle 120. Luz, however, thinks Matthew's use of "little dogs" refers to "not the despised stray mongrels but domesticated housedogs" and thus lessens the terms harshness (72, n. 12).

(8) Luz, noting Matthew's gospel was "put in writing ... in Syria," suggests that referring "to the Syro-Phoenician woman as Chananaia" was most likely "the self-designation of the local Phoenician population" (18).

(9) Matthew has "clamavit, dicens," "non respondit," "rogabant ... dicentes," "respondens ait," "dicens" "respondens ait," "dixit," and "respondens ... ait" to Mark's "rogabat," "dixit," and "respondit ... dixit."

(10) Chaucer could also expect members of his audience to recognize Scriptural allusions (Besserman, Chaucer and the Bible 8). Besserman in fact thinks Chaucer "must have owned" a Vulgate ("Glosynge" 71), although Landrum speculates rather he "could have borrowed a Vulgate from some London ecclesiastical library, or could at least have secured permission to use it under a monastery roof" (76-77). The poet's use of Scripture is, in any event, distinctive: beyond citing the Bible for authority, Chaucer uses "scriptural figures and details ... in bringing out special qualities in his characters, and in giving additional significances to his episodes" (Reiss 48); Besserman refers to Chaucer's "most unconventional" exegesis in which he "uses the Bible as a kind of gloss on his own fictional creations" ("Glosynge" 71).

(11) Of the gospel writers, Chaucer regularly favored Matthew (Thompson 190; Reiss 48). The poet may have found this evangelist attractive because Matthew's use of speech is characteristic of his narrative: he "thinks and writes in the form of conversations" (Held 236).

(12) See note 2.

(13) Instances of the miraculous in the tale might appear to diminish human agency. Although the picture is mixed, I think Chaucer finally places greater weight on human action, more particularly on the action of believing. Specifically, characters' turning to belief and their "greet bataille" (386) of perseverance in that belief seem causally connected to the miraculous. Cecilia for instance, already "in the feith" (122), prayed that God "kepe hir maydenhede" (126), and the appearance of her protecting angel suggests her prayerful faith was sufficient to draw a supernatural being. The connection between belief and the supernatural becomes especially clear when Valerian and Tiburce were able to see the angel only after they believed. Valerian initially thought simply seeing the angel was the key event--it would confirm Cecilia's trustworthiness (163-64)--but the more significant act, which Cecilia defined as prerequisite for this seeing, was that he "trowe on Crist" (171). She likewise told Tiburce he would only see the angel once he was baptized (299-301). That the action of believing opens the door to the supernatural is also evident in the "myracle" (270) of the crowns which Tiburce could see only if he would "Bileve aright" (259). Moreover as compared to his sources, Chaucer's tale stresses the act of believing when the old man questioned Valerian. In the Legenda and the Matins text, Valerian responded to him with a passive construction: "There is nothing under the sky that can more truly be believed" ("Non est aliud quod verius credi possit sub celo," Reames, Sources 506-507 and 518-19). But the Second Nun's Valerian uses the active voice in his statement: "I leeve al this thyng .... / For sother thyng than this, I dar wel say, / Under the hevene no wight thynke may" (213-15). On the other hand, Cecilia's remaining cold and experiencing no pain during a night and a day shut in a flame-red and fiery hot bath was much beyond human agency. Cecilia herself did however give an explanation for her being able to speak after three strokes to her neck: she had "axed this of hevene kyng" (542). This supernatural gift is thus the reaction to her prayer. The miraculous is, of course, miraculous whether in response to something else or not, but miracles in the tale are almost always presented as attendant on belief. This presentation aligns with Augustine's reading of the Canaanite woman; as we shall later see, he thinks it was to her belief that Christ responded with the miraculous cure of her daughter.

(14) Sherry L. Reames identified Chaucer's probable second source in "A Recent Discovery." Although she raised the slight possibility that Chaucer had a source in which the Legenda and the Matins text were already combined (347), she argued in a later analysis against that possibility by pointing to "a change in versification and style which coincides almost exactly with the change from one source to the other" (Sources 496). Moreover, the poet's deciding the "sources to use and how to combine them" makes this "not so unoriginal a work as Chaucer would have it appear" ("Artistry" 193).

(15) Speeches were certainly a part of the Legenda--Cooper describes it as "packed with direct speech" (366)--but Chaucer's choice to use his second source reduces the importance of speakers other than Cecilia (Reames, "Recent" 339-42).

(16) In the Legenda and the Matins text, Urban's "bee" was described as "argumentosa," "capable in argument" (Reames, Sources 507, 519), and it looks at first as if Chaucer missed an opportunity here to direct attention to Cecilia's rhetorical abilities. But citing Connolly, Reames also points to a traditional association of the bee, unmodified, with "eloquence" (Sources 507). Thus, even without "argumentosa," the reference to Cecilia as a bee makes clear the particular way she was busy.

(17) Here the Matins text relies on dialogue more than the Legenda does (Sources 495). Reames notes "most English secular breviaries go to some lengths to get around" this scene ("Office" 239).

(18) Connolly points to "a syncretistic confusion" between the cult of St. Cecilia that grew up in Trastevere and "the cult of Bona Dea Oclata, who was there appealed to for the cure of caecitas," so that "from an association with blindness ... the saint's name derived" ("Legend" 6). He suggests that the "Christians of Trastevere who nurtured a belief in a Christian female heroine may have done so while the pagan goddess was still revered, and thus may have set up the kind of opposition implied by Cecilia's attack on the blindness of the idolatrous judge" ("Legend" 30).

(19) Ellis calculates that "Cecilie has twice as many lines to speak as the Prefect, and her final speech ... is three times as long as the Prefect's longest" (90).

(20) That some of the resistance she faced had to do with her being a woman is made clear by the different treatment of the centurion, also a Gentile, in Matt. 8:5-13. The centurion, approaching Christ, asked for the healing of his sick male servant, and Christ immediately offered to come to his house to cure the servant. The centurion's response reveals a sense of himself that contrasts with the Canaanite woman's humility: he professed his unworthiness that Christ should "enter under ... [his] roof," but also his belief Christ need "only say the word" for the servant to be healed. To explain this belief, he compared himself to Christ in terms of their power to command: just as he could cause a soldier to go, simply by saying to him "Go," so could Christ effect the cure with his word alone. Thus, although the centurion did note a difference between himself and Christ, his pointing to a similarity shows his sense of his own status.

(21) Humility is in fact not mentioned anywhere in either of Chaucer's Latin sources.

(22) Although my argument has focused on speaking, written texts do have an important place in the prologue and tale. Someone "wroot" (83) the legend the Nun has translated, and she begins her translation with a reminder her source is "writen" (124). She implies she has also written when she prays for help in composing a story "man may after reden" (35) and addresses "yow that reden that I write" (78). In the tale, attention is given to physical details of the old man's book by twice mentioning its golden letters (202, 210) and to Valerians reading that text by framing his act with "gan to rede" (206) and "rad" (211).

I would argue nonetheless that the prologue and especially the tale place greater emphasis on speaking than writing. It is worth insisting that in the framework of the tale we are asked to imagine the Second Nun speaking her prologue to the Canterbury pilgrims. The tale itself moreover is preoccupied with acts of speaking which, although sometimes only reported, are more often given directly. Prayer is one form of direct speech, but most frequently we hear characters speaking to one another. Indeed almost half of the first part of the tale (120-357) is taken up with instances of conversation, while more than half of the second part (358-553) is quoted speech. The greater stress on speech is most obvious at the moment of Valerians conversion, just as we are particularly aware of the materiality of the old man's book, because Valerians reading that text was by itself not sufficient to effect his conversion: the old man also demanded he "sey ye or nay" whether he believed what he had read (212). His saying "I leeve al this thyng" (213) then triggers the old man's vanishing and his own christening (216-17). This emphasis on speaking aligns tale and prologue with the story of the Canaanite woman in which, as we have seen, her use of language as she speaks in the moment, her verbal dexterity in responding to the language she hears, is her outstanding trait.

(23) Contrasting the Second Nun's presentation of faith with that of the Prioress, Ellis suggests the tale presents faith "as a process in time" and "as an intelligible system" that can be "defended" (85). In a similar contrast, Cooper describes the Second Nun's as "a much more intellectual story ... It is about the rational case for Christianity" (361).
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Date:Jan 1, 2013
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