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.