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25. THE SECOND NUN’S TALE

Prologue
That minister and nurse to every vice,
Known in the English tongue as Idleness,
That portress of the gate where sins entice,
We should by her own opposite suppress–
That is to say, by righteous busyness, 5
For thereto our full effort should be brought
Lest by the fiend through Idleness we’re caught.

For he who with his thousand-corded net
Is always waiting for his net to snap
On any idle man whom he can get, 10
Can, having seen, so easily entrap
That till one’s caught right by the coat or flap
He doesn’t know he’s in the devil’s hand.
Well should we work and Idleness withstand.

And even if men didn’t fear to die, 15
All men of reason well could see, no doubt,
That Idleness is rotten sloth whereby
No good or gain can ever come about;
For Idleness, held in sloth’s leash, is out
To sleep and eat and drink and nothing more, 20
Out to consume what others labor for.

And to remove us from such idleness,
The cause by which disorder is so great,
I’ve done my duty, that with busyness
Your saintly legend I may now translate, 25
Your glorious life and passion to relate,
You with your garland rose – and lily-laden:
I mean you, Saint Cecilia, martyred maiden.

Invocacio ad Mariam

To thee, of all virginity the flower,
About whom Saint Bernard so loved to write, 30
I pray here at the start. Grant me the power,
O comfort of us wretches, to indite
Thy maiden’s death, and how she won the fight
Against the fiend, by merit won her glory,
Eternal life, as men read in her story. 35

O maiden Mother, daughter of thy Son,
O mercy’s well, of sinful souls the cure,
In whom God chose to dwell that good be done;
So meek, so high above all creatures, pure,
Ennobling our nature to ensure 40
That no disdain the Maker had to bind
His Son in flesh and blood, clothed as our kind.

Within the blissful cloister of thy womb
Eternal love and peace took shape of man,
Of all this world the Lord and Shepherd, whom 45
Earth, sea, and sky still praise as they began.
And thou, O spotless Virgin, true to plan,
Bore by thy body, still in purest state,
The One who every creature did create.

Within thee is combined magnificence 50
With mercy, goodness, and such sympathy
That thou, who art the sun of excellence,
Will help not only those who pray to thee
But oftentimes, through thy benignity,
Thou freely helpest ere men make petition; 55
Thou goest before them as their lives’ physician.

Help me, O blissful maiden fair and meek,
This banished wretch, in desert full of gall;
Think of that Canaanite, she dared to speak
About how even dogs might eat of all 60
The crumbs that from their master’s table fall;
And although I, unworthy son of Eve,
Be sinful, yet accept that I believe.

And since one’s faith is dead without good works,
To labor now give me the wit and space, 65
Released from where the dark that’s deepest lurks!
O maiden, thou so fair and full of grace,
Be thou my advocate in that high place
Where without end they sing the song “Hosanna,”
Mother of Christ, O daughter dear of Anna! 70

And with thy light my soul imprisoned light
That’s so disturbed by this contamination
That is my flesh; disturbed, too, by the blight
Of earthly lust, of falsehood, affectation.
O haven of our refuge, O salvation 75
Of those who are in sorrow and distress,
Now help me in this work I’m to address.

I pray that you who read now what I write
Forgive me if I show no diligence
To tell with craft or skill what I indite; 80
I use the words and gist in truest sense
Of him who for this saint in reverence
The story wrote; I only follow it.
Amend my work, I pray, where you see fit.

Interpretacio nominis Cecilie quam ponit
Frater Jacobus Januensis in Legenda

Of Saint Cecilia’s name first I will tell; 85
Its meaning men may in her story see.
In English, “heaven’s lily” says it well,
For purity, for her virginity;
Or for the whiteness of her honesty,
Her conscience green, or yet for her good fame, 90
No sweeter savor: “lily” was her name.

It also means “a pathway for the blind,”
Such fine examples her good teaching set;
Or else Cecilia, in one book I find,
Can be a compound, two words having met, 95
“Heaven” and “Leah”–here, then, we may get
The “heaven” from the thought of holiness,
The “Leah” her untiring busyness.

Cecilia can be also said to mean
“One without blindness,” what with her great light 100
Of wisdom and her virtues clearly seen;
Or else, as well, this maiden’s name so bright
Is “heaven” matched with “leos,” for by right
Men well might her the “people’s heaven” call,
Example of fine works to one and all. 105

For “leos” we in English “people” say,
And just as men may in the heavens see
The sun and moon and stars, the whole array,
So in this maiden’s generosity
The people saw faith’s magnanimity, 110
The wholeness, too, of clearest sapience,
And many shining works of excellence.

And just as these philosophers declare
That heaven’s swift and round and full of fire,
So Saint Cecilia, she so white and fair, 115
Was swift and busy, good works to inspire,
And round and whole in that she’d never tire,
Her charity burnt ever like a flame.
I now have told you all about her name.

The Second Nun’s Tale
This bright Cecilia, as her story’s told, 120
Was born in Rome from blood of noble kind
And, from the cradle up, raised in the fold
Of Christ, and bore his gospel in her mind.
She never ceased, as in the book I find,
To say her prayers and God to love and dread, 125
Beseeching that he guard her maidenhead.

And when this maiden to a certain man
Had come to be betrothed–he was a lad
Quite young in years, his name Valerian–
So humble and devout a heart she had 130
That on the day of marriage she was clad
(Beneath her golden robe so lovely) in
A shirt of haircloth right next to her skin.

And while the organs played, her heart inside
To God above was singing silently: 135
“Lord, to my soul and body too be guide,
Keep me unstained, lest I confounded be.”
For love of him who died upon a tree,
Each second day and third she spent in fast,
Each day in fervent prayer from first to last. 140

Then came the wedding night, when to the bed
With her new husband she would have to go;
And privately at once to him she said,
“Sweet husband whom I love, and dearly so,
There is a secret I would have you know, 145
And gladly I will tell you here and now
If you will not betray it, by your vow.”

Valerian at once began to swear
That in no case, no matter what it be,
Would he betray what secret she’d declare; 150
And then she told her husband finally,
“I have an angel watching over me
With such great love that, though I sleep or wake,
My body he protects, will not forsake.

“And if he senses, out of doubt or dread, 155
You’d touch me or would love in carnal ways,
At once he’ll leave you numbered with the dead,
He’ll slay you while still in your youthful days.
If in pure love you lead me, though, with praise
He’ll love you, too, for your clean righteousness, 160
And with his joy and brightness he will bless.”

Forewarned as God desired, Valerian
Said, “If I’m to believe you, let me see
With my own eyes this angel if I can;
And if true angel he turns out to be, 165
Then I will do as you have asked of me;
But if you love another, by my oath
This sword of mine I’ll take and slay you both.”

Cecilia then immediately advised,
“If you desire, this angel you will see, 170
That you’ll believe in Christ and be baptized.
Go to the Appian Way, which is,” said she,
“Not far from town, in miles it numbers three;
And to the poor folks who are dwelling there
You’ll speak directly as I’ll now declare. 175

“Tell them that by Cecilia you are sent
To see good Urban, who’s now very old,
In private need and with the best intent.
And when this good Saint Urban you behold,
Tell him the words that by me you’ll be told; 180
And when from sin he’s purged you in your heart,
This angel you will see ere you depart.”

Valerian went straight out to the place
And, just as he’d been told, he met inside
The catacombs Saint Urban face-to-face, 185
Among the tombs where Urban had to hide.
Valerian at once set to confide
His message; and when finished, in reply
For joy Saint Urban raised his hands up high.

As Urban from his eyes the tears let fall, 190
“Almighty God, O Jesus Christ,” said he,
“Who sows chaste counsel, Shepherd of us all,
The fruit of that same seed of chastity
That thou hast sown in her, take unto thee!
Lo, busy as a bee, without a guile, 195
Thy sweet handmaiden serves thee all the while.

“To thee this very spouse she newly took,
One fierce as any lion, she sends here
As meek as any lamb could ever look!”
And with that word there started to appear 200
An aged man, in white clothes bright and clear,
Who with a book gold-lettered in his hand
Came there before Valerian to stand.

Valerian fell down then as if dead,
So fearful at the sight; but by the hand 205
He helped him up, then in his book he read:
“One Lord, one faith, one God, no others stand,
One Christendom, one Father in command,
None else above, he governs everywhere.”
And all in gold these words were written there. 210

And when he’d read, then said this aged man,
“Do you believe or not? Say yea or nay.”
“All I believe,” replied Valerian,
“For nothing truer under heaven’s sway
Might anyone believe, I dare to say.” 215
The old man disappeared, he knew not where,
And then Pope Urban christened him right there.

When he went home, he found inside her room
An angel standing at Cecilia’s side.
Of roses and of lilies in their bloom 220
This angel held two chaplets sanctified;
The angel gave the first crown to the bride,
Then, as I find this legend to relate,
He gave the second chaplet to her mate.

“With body clean and with unblemished thought 225
Keep always these two chaplets,” then said he.
“For to you I from paradise have brought
Them, they shall never withered be
Nor lose their lovely fragrance, trust in me;
And on them not one person will lay eyes 230
Unless he’s chaste, hates wickedness and lies.

“And you, Valerian, who have so soon
Accepted righteous counsel, now you can
Ask what you wish and you will have your boon.”
“I have a brother,” said Valerian, 235
“One whom I cherish as no other man.
I pray you’ll to my brother grant the grace
To know the truth, as I do in this place.”

The angel said, “God’s pleased with your request;
You both, bearing the palm of martyrdom, 240
Shall come into his feast among the blest.”
With that his brother Tiburce there had come,
And when he caught the savor, all and some,
The scent of rose and lily in the air,
Amazement filled his heart right then and there. 245

“From where, I wonder, at this time of year
Could there be coming such sweet scent,” said he,
“Of rose and lily that I’m smelling here.
Though in my own two hands they were to be,
The scent could not go deeper into me; 250
The sweet perfume that in my heart I find
Has changed me all into some other kind.”

Valerian replied, “Two crowns have we,
Snow white and rosy red, both shining clear,
Although these crowns your eyes have yet to see. 255
And now as through my prayers you’ve smelt them here,
You also shall behold them, brother dear,
If only you will now without ado
Believe aright and know the good and true.”

Tiburce replied, “You’re saying this to me 260
In truth, or in a dream I’m hearing this?”
Valerian then answered, “Certainly
We’ve dreamt till now, my brother; now we’ve bliss,
For finally in truth our dwelling is.”
“You know this to be true?” asked Tiburce. “How?” 265
Valerian replied, “I’ll tell you now.

“The angel of the Lord this truth has taught
To me, which you will see if from the spell
Of idols you’ll be cleansed, or else see naught.”
The miracle of these two crowns as well 270
Saint Ambrose in his preface likes to tell;
This dear and noble doctor solemnly
Commends it, as he speaks accordingly:

“That martyr’s palm by her might thus be gained,
Had Saint Cecilia, by God’s gift so blest, 275
From world as well as marriage bed abstained;
Valerian and Tiburce then confessed
Their sins, upon which God, by kind behest,
Two crowns of flowers, sweet as flowers grow,
Sent by his angel to them there below. 280

“This maiden brought these men to highest bliss;
The world now knows it’s worthy to refrain,
Devoted to chaste love, be sure of this.”
And then Cecilia showed him, made it plain
To Tiburce, that all idols are in vain 285
(They cannot speak, nor can they hear a sound),
And from his idols bade him turn around.

“Whoever won’t believe it,” he confessed,
“Is but a beast and that is not a lie.”
And when she heard these words, she kissed his breast, 290
So glad that he the truth could well espy.
“This day I take you as my own ally,”
Then said this blessed maiden, fair and dear;
And after that she spoke as you will hear:

“Behold, just as the love of Christ,” said she, 295
“Made me your brother’s wife, in such a way
I take you now as an ally to me,
Since you despise your idols as you say.
Go with your brother, be baptized today
And so be cleansed, that you may then behold 300
The angel’s face of which your brother told.”

Then Tiburce answered, saying, “Brother dear,
Tell me where I’m to go, and to what man.”
“To whom?” said he. “Now come, be of good cheer,
I’ll lead you to Pope Urban as I can.” 305
“To Urban?” Tiburce asked. “Valerian,
My brother, that’s to whom now you would lead?
I think I’ll have to wonder at the deed.

“That Urban,” then said Tiburce, “can you mean
Who’s been condemned to be among the dead, 310
Who walks about in hiding, can’t be seen,
Into the daylight dares not stick his head?
They’d burn him in a fire, one flaming red,
If he were found, if seen where he may hide;
They’d burn us, too, if found there by his side. 315

“And while we seek that same eternal state
That’s hidden up in heaven secretly,
They’ll burn us up down here at any rate!”
To this Cecilia said courageously,
“It’s well and good that men might fearfully 320
Lose this their earthly life, my own dear brother,
If this were all of life, there were no other.

“But there’s a better life some other place
That never shall be lost–no doubt be brought–
Of which God’s Son has told us through his grace. 325
It’s through the Father’s Son that all is wrought,
And all the creatures blest with gift of thought
The Holy Ghost, which from the Father springs,
Endows with souls. There’s no doubt of these things.

“By miracle and word the Father’s Son, 330
When he was in the world, informed us here
That there’s another life that’s to be won.”
And Tiburce then replied, “O sister dear,
Did you not just advise and make it clear
That there is but one God, and truthfully? 335
How, then, can you bear witness now to three?”

“That I shall tell,” said she, “before I go.
The mind of man is threefold: memory,
Imagination, intellect. Just so,
Within one Being of divinity 340
Three personages very well may be.”
And of Christ’s birth she then began to preach
To him with vigor, all his pains to teach,

With much about his passion; how God’s Son
Was in this world below, in flesh’s hold, 345
To grant full pardon for what man had done
While bound in sin and care so dark and cold;
These are the things that she to Tiburce told.
And Tiburce, after this, in good intent
With his dear brother to Pope Urban went, 350

Who, thanking God and with heart glad and light,
Then baptized him and made him in that place
One perfect in his learning, heaven’s knight.
And Tiburce after this was blest with grace
Till every day he saw in time and space 355
The angel of the Lord; and every boon
He asked of God was granted to him soon.

It would be very hard here to explain
How many wonders Jesus for them wrought;
But finally, to tell it short and plain, 360
By officers of Rome they soon were caught
And to the prefect Almachius brought,
Who questioned them and, knowing their intent,
Before the Jovian image had them sent.

“Chop off the heads of those,” was his command, 365
“Who will not sacrifice to Jupiter.”
At once these martyrs then were in the hand
Of Maximus, the prefect’s officer;
But when these saints to whom I here refer
Were being led away in summary fashion, 370
This Maximus shed tears in his compassion.

When he had heard what these saints had to say,
He asked the executioners for leave
To take them to his home by straightest way;
And there with preaching, before it was eve, 375
They made the executioners believe;
And Maximus and his whole family, too,
From false faith turned to that one God who’s true.

Cecilia came, when it was fall of night,
With priests, and all were baptized without fear; 380
And afterward, when broke the morning light,
Cecilia said with her unfailing cheer,
“You now are knights of Christ, you’re loved and dear;
Cast off the works of darkness, all their harm,
In armor of God’s brightness now to arm. 385

“The good fight you have fought, your race is through,
And truthfully your faith you have preserved.
So claim the crown of life laid up for you;
The Judge of righteousness whom you have served
Will give it as reward, as you’ve deserved.” 390
And when these words as I relate were said,
Toward the shrine these two by men were led.

But when they had been brought before the thing,
To tell you briefly how it all turned out,
They burnt no incense, made no offering, 395
But down upon their knees they knelt about
With humble hearts, each to the last devout,
For which they were beheaded in that place.
Their souls departed to the King of grace.

This Maximus, when he had witnessed this, 400
At once with tears described what had occurred:
He’d seen their souls ascend to heaven’s bliss,
With angels full of clearest light. So heard,
He soon converted many with his word,
For which the prefect then by thongs with lead 405
Had him so whipped that soon the man was dead.

Cecilia took his corpse and, quickly gone,
By Tiburce and Valerian would she
Inter him gently underneath the stone.
Then Almachius ordered hastily 410
His officers to go fetch openly
Cecilia, that he then might witness her
Make proper sacrifice to Jupiter.

But they, too, were converted by her lore
And sorely wept, for they with faithfulness 415
Believed her word, and cried out all the more,
“Christ Jesus, Son of God, is nothing less
Than truly God–and that’s what we profess–
And has so good a servant, one to cherish.
We say this in one voice, though we perish!” 420

The prefect heard of this, and to his hall
Bade she be brought, this creature he would see;
And here is what he asked her first of all:
“What kind of woman are you?” To which she
Then answered, “One born of nobility.” 425
“I ask,” said he, “though it cause you to grieve,
What is your faith and what do you believe?”

“You have begun your questions foolishly,”
She said, “for you expect two answers by
One question asked; you question stupidly.” 430
To such a comment he responded, “Why,
From where could come so churlish a reply?”
“From where?” she answered, and then she explained,
“From conscience and good faith that is unfeigned.”

“You pay no heed,” then Almachius said, 435
“To all my might?” She answered in this way:
“Your power’s such a little thing to dread.
For every mortal’s power, all his sway,
Is like a wind-filled bladder, safe to say.
For all its pride, when it’s blown up and thick, 440
Can be laid low with just a needle’s prick.”

“How wrongfully have you begun,” said he,
“And still persist in wrong, will not refrain.
Our mighty princes, have they generously
By order and by law not made it plain 445
That every Christian shall be brought to pain
Who won’t renounce his Christian faith, but he,
If only he’ll repent, may then go free?”

“Your princes err just as your nobles do,”
She said, “for by some crazy ordinance 450
You make us guilty when it isn’t true.
For even though you know our innocence,
Because we Christians offer reverence
To Christ, and as we bear the Christian name,
Of crime we are accused, we get the blame. 455

“But as we know that name so virtuous,
That we should then renounce it cannot be.”
“Choose one of two,” the prefect said, “show us
A sacrifice or spurn Christianity,
For that way you’ll escape and now be free.” 460
This holy blessed maiden laughed instead,
And to this prefect here is what she said:

“O judge confused in folly, you would now
Have me renounce, deny my innocence,
And make myself a sinner? Look, see how 465
This man dissembles while in audience!
He stares and rages, hardly making sense.”
Then Almachius said, “Unhappy wretch,
Do you not know how far my might can stretch?

“Did not our mighty princes to me give 470
The power, yea, and the authority
To say which folk shall die and which shall live?
Why do you speak so proudly, then, to me?”
“I only spoke steadfastly,” answered she,
“Not proudly, for, in speaking for my side, 475
We Christians hate that deadly sin of pride.

“And if to hear the truth you do not fear,
By right I’ll show now in an open way
How great a lie it is you’ve uttered here.
Your princes gave to you the might to slay 480
Or give a person life, that’s what you say;
But you can only take life and destroy,
You have no other power to enjoy.

“Though you indeed may say your princes made
You minister of death (that’s not a lie), 485
Your lack of other power bare is laid.”
“Now quit your brazenness,” was his reply,
“To our gods sacrifice before you die!
Insult me, I don’t care what you infer,
That I can bear like a philsopher; 490

“But those same insults I will not abide
Against our gods, you’ve spoken blasphemy.”
“You foolish thing!” Cecilia then replied,
“So far you haven’t said one word to me
That hasn’t shown me your stupidity 495
And that in every way you are and were
A worthless judge, an ignorant officer.

“You’re blind to everything that meets your eye;
For something that is seen here by us all
To be a stone–as men may well espy– 500
That very stone a god you choose to call.
I tell you, let your hand upon it fall
And test it well and stone is what you’ll find,
Since you can’t see it with your eyes so blind.

“The people will so scorn you, what a shame, 505
They’ll laugh at all your folly, for well nigh
Among all men the knowledge is the same,
That mighty God is in his heavens high;
These images, as you should well espy,
Can’t help you or themselves, however slight, 510
For in effect they are not worth a mite.”

Those words she said, and more of like degree,
And he, enraged, then ordered men to lead
Her to her house, and “Burn her there,” said he,
“Inside a flaming bath.” As he decreed, 515
So right away these men performed the deed;
They put her in a bath and shut it tight,
And built great fire beneath it day and night.

But all that night, and through the day that sprang,
For all the fire, the heat that was so rife, 520
She coolly sat and never felt a pang
Nor shed one drop of sweat, had not a strife.
But in that bath she was to lose her life,
For Almachius, wicked his intent,
To slay her in the bath his lackey sent. 525

Three strokes into her neck he was to hew,
This executioner, but in no way
Did he succeed in chopping it in two;
And as there was a law back in that day
That no one such a penalty should pay 530
As to receive a fourth blow, hard or light,
He didn’t dare another blow to smite.

And so half dead he left her lying there,
Her neck cut open; on his way he went.
The Christians there around her then took care 535
To stop her bleeding using sheets. She spent
Her final three days then in much torment,
But never ceased the Christian faith to teach
To those she had converted; she would preach,

And gave them all her goods, each little thing, 540
To take to Urban, with this word also:
“This one request I made of heaven’s King,
That I might have three days, no more, just so
To recommend to you, before I go,
These souls, and that my house I might commence 545
To build into a church of permanence.”

Saint Urban with his deacons secretly
The body fetched, and buried it by night
Among his other saints, and fittingly.
As Saint Cecilia’s Church her house by right 550
Is known (Saint Urban blest it, well he might),
In which today men give in noblest ways
To Jesus and his saints their servants’ praise.

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25. THE SECOND NUN’S TALE - GEOFFREY CHAUCER