Fragment 7, lines 2768–3446
After the Monk has told his tale, the Knight pleads that no more tragedies be told. He asks that someone tell a tale that is the opposite of tragedy, one that narrates the extreme good fortune of someone previously brought low. The Host picks the Nun’s Priest, the priest traveling with the Prioress and her nun, and demands that he tell a tale that will gladden the hearts of the company members. The Nun’s Priest readily agrees, and begins his tale.
A poor, elderly widow lives a simple life in a cottage with her two daughters. Her few possessions include three sows, three cows, a sheep, and some chickens. One chicken, her rooster, is named Chanticleer, which in French means “sings clearly.” True to his name, Chanticleer’s “cock-a-doodle-doo” makes him the master of all roosters. He crows the hour more accurately than any church clock. His crest is redder than fine coral, his beak is black as jet, his nails whiter than lilies, and his feathers shine like burnished gold. Understandably, such an attractive cock would have to be the Don Juan of the barnyard. Chanticleer has many hen-wives, but he loves most truly a hen named Pertelote. She is as lovely as Chanticleer is magnificent.
As Chanticleer, Pertelote, and all of Chanticleer’s ancillary hen-wives are roosting one night, Chanticleer has a terrible nightmare about an orange houndlike beast who threatens to kill him while he is in the yard. Fearless Pertelote berates him for letting a dream get the better of him. She believes the dream to be the result of some physical malady, and she promises him that she will find some purgative herbs. She urges him once more not to dread something as fleeting and illusory as a dream. In order to convince her that his dream was important, he tells the stories of men who dreamed of murder and then discovered it.
His point in telling these stories is to prove to Pertelote that “Mordre will out” (3052)—murder will reveal itself—even and especially in dreams. Chanticleer cites textual examples of famous dream interpretations to further support his thesis that dreams are portentous. He then praises Pertelote’s beauty and grace, and the aroused hero and heroine make love in barnyard fashion: “He fethered Pertelote twenty tyme, / And trad hire eke as ofte, er it was pryme [he clasped Pertelote with his wings twenty times, and copulated with her as often, before it was 6 a.m.” (3177–3178).
One day in May, Chanticleer has just declared his perfect happiness when a wave of sadness passes over him. That very night, a hungry fox stalks Chanticleer and his wives, watching their every move. The next day, Chanticleer notices the fox while watching a butterfly, and the fox confronts him with dissimulating courtesy, telling the rooster not to be afraid. Chanticleer relishes the fox’s flattery of his singing. He beats his wings with pride, stands on his toes, stretches his neck, closes his eyes, and crows loudly. The fox reaches out and grabs Chanticleer by the throat, and then slinks away with him back toward the woods. No one is around to witness what has happened. Once Pertelote finds out what has happened, she burns her feathers with grief, and a great wail arises from the henhouse.
The widow and her daughters hear the screeching and spy the fox running away with the rooster. The dogs follow, and pretty soon the whole barnyard joins in the hullabaloo. Chanticleer very cleverly suggests that the fox turn and boast to his pursuers. The fox opens his mouth to do so, and Chanticleer flies out of the fox’s mouth and into a high tree. The fox tries to flatter the bird into coming down, but Chanticleer has learned his lesson. He tells the fox that flattery will work for him no more. The moral of the story, concludes the Nun’s Priest, is never to trust a flatterer.
The Host tells the Nun’s Priest that he would have been an excellent rooster—for if he has as much courage as he has strength, he would need hens. The Host points out the Nun’s Priest’s strong muscles, his great neck, and his large breast, and compares him to a sparrow-hawk. He merrily wishes the Nun’s Priest good luck.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a fable, a simple tale about animals that concludes with a moral lesson. Stylistically, however, the tale is much more complex than its simple plot would suggest. Into the fable framework, the Nun’s Priest brings parodies of epic poetry, medieval scholarship, and courtly romance. Most critics are divided about whether to interpret this story as a parody or as an allegory. If viewed as a parody, the story is an ironic and humorous retelling of the fable of the fox and the rooster in the guise of, alternately, a courtly romance and a Homeric epic. It is hilariously done, since into the squawkings and struttings of poultry life, Chaucer transposes scenes of a hero’s dreaming of death and courting his lady love, in a manner that imitates the overblown, descriptive style of romances.
For example, the rooster’s plumage is described as shining like burnished gold. He also parodies epic poetry by utilizing apostrophes, or formal, imploring addresses: “O false mordrour, lurkynge in thy den!” (3226), and “O Chauntecleer, acursed be that morwe / That thou into the yerd flaugh fro the bemes!” (3230–3231). If we read the story as an allegory, Chanticleer’s story is a tale of how we are all easily swayed by the smooth, flattering tongue of the devil, represented by the fox. Other scholars have read the tale as the story of Adam and Eve’s (and consequently all humankind’s) fall from grace told through the veil of a fable.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is the only one of all the tales to feature a specific reference to an actual late-fourteenth-century event. This reference occurs when the widow and her daughters begin to chase the fox, and the whole barnyard screeches and bellows, joining in the fray. The narrator notes that not even the crew of Jack Straw, the reputed leader of the English peasants’ rebellion in 1381, made half as much noise as did this barnyard cacophony: “Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee / Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille / Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille, /As thilke day was maad upon the fox” (3394–3397). This first and only contemporary reference in The Canterbury Tales dates at least the completion of the tale of Chanticleer to the 1380s, a time of great civil unrest and class turmoil.