Chaucer's Tale: The Nun's Priest's


The last three lines of the Nun's Priest's Tale contain an interpretative crux. (1) The Nun's Priest says that even those who do not like his tale can benefit from it, because, as St Paul says, everything that is written is written for our doctrine (Romans xv.4). That formula had achieved proverbial status in Chaucer's time because of the strength of the contemporary sense that the world was intelligibly analogical.

Events on earth had parallels in the heavens, prophetic events in the Old Testament could be retrospectively understood from the New, and St Paul had said (or could be taken as saying) that divine providence had seen to it that moral good could be derived, not only from writings that were manifestly sacred or inspired, but from every text without exception. For Chaucer, the importance of the `everything that is written' formula clearly went well beyond the characterization of the Nun's Priest: it is central to the Retractions with which he ended the Canterbury Tales.

When the Nun's Priest has said this, he, like most of the Canterbury pilgrims, closes his tale with a prayer. His prayer runs:

Now, goode god, if that it be thy wille,
As seith my lord, so make us alle good men;
And bring us to his heighe blisse! Amen.
The problem is the referent of `my lord'. (2) In Chaucer's time, my lord could be used as a vocative of courtesy to an interlocutor, or qualified by a further phrase (my lord of Norfolk, my lord of Canterbury); otherwise, in Chaucer's writing and generally, it normally implied a relationship with a superior that is immediate, personal, and in some way exclusive. (3) The only relationship of that kind that the Canterbury Tales show the Nun's Priest having is with the Prioress.

As a result, readers since Chaucer's time have looked for a suitable my lord among Chaucer's historical male contemporaries. Several early scribes glossed the phrase as referring to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who at the time of the composition of the Nun's Priest's Tale would have been William Courteney. (4) In the early twentieth century, Manly suggested that the phrase referred to the bishop of London of the time, Robert Braybrooke, on the grounds that one of the nuns in the Prioress's convent at Stratford-at-Bow had her will proved in that bishop's commissary court. (5) Relationships like these, however, would have been indirect (through the Prioress), official, and far from exclusive.

Related Essays Book Reviews