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Free Study Guide-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free BookNotes
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THE TALES: SUMMARIES AND NOTES

The Second Nun’s Tale: Prologue

Summary

The Second Nun begins by saying that idleness nourishes vice. Idleness is ever vigilant and rapidly springs a trap to ensnare people. The only antidote to this vice is industriousness. With the aim of countering idleness the Second Nun proposes to tell the story of St. Cecilia’s life.

The Second Nun then invokes the Virgin Mary to help her relate St. Cecilia’s tale - the maiden who overcame Satan and won eternal life through her good deeds. She then praises the Virgin for her goodness, mercy and pity. She also apologizes for the bare simplicity of her tale and asserts that she isn’t making any attempt at ornamentation.

The Second Nun also furnishes an interpretation of the name of Cecilia as expounded in the "Legenda Aurea". The name Cecilia connotes many things: it signifies heaven’s lily for her purity, freshness of conscience and virginity. It may also mean path for the blind since her good teachings set an example for others to emulate. Cecilia is made up of two words - "Heaven" and "Leah" - thus it means holiness and unceasing activity. It means a lack of blindness because of the brightness created by her virtues and wisdom. Her name could also mean heaven of the people, because of the radiance of her wisdom and the perfection in her perseverance and good works.


Notes

The Second Nun’s Tale relates the story of St. Cecilia from the ‘Legenda Aurea’, which was later translated by Caxton as ‘The Golden Legend’. The Second Nun begins by condemning idleness because idleness lead to sin. The Prologue also has an invocation to the Virgin Mary based on lines from Dante’s ‘Paradiso’. The invocation to the Virgin was a familiar device but is particularly appropriate here because the tale is about the martyrdom of a virgin maiden Cecilia. Thus the invocation stresses on virginity and good works. The Second Nun’s interpretation of the name ‘Cecilia’ also focuses on the virtues of chastity, virginity, and good works. Thus the Second Nun accentuates the highest Christian standards of conduct. It has been noted that the Second Nun improperly refers to herself as a ‘son of Eve’. This has led critics to speculate that the tale was written much earlier and allotted to the Second Nun for lack of anything better.

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