Canterbury Tales: The Second Nun’s Tale

Author: Geoffrey Chaucer  | Date: 1380



This maiden bright, Cecilia, her life saith,

Was Roman born and of a noble kind,

And from the cradle tutored in the faith

Of Christ, and bore His gospel in her mind;

She never ceased, as written do I find,

To pray to God, and love Him, and to dread,

Beseeching Him to keep her maidenhead.

And when this maiden must unto a man

Be wedded, who was a young man in age,

And who had to his name Valerian,

And when the day was come for her marriage,

She, meek of heart, devout, and ever sage,

Under her robe of gold, well-made and fair,

Had next her body placed a shirt of hair.

And while the organ made its melody,

To God alone within her heart sang she:

"O Lord, my soul and body guide to The

Unsoiled, lest I in spirit ruined be."

And for His love Who died upon a tree,

Each second or third day she used to fast,

And ever prayed she till the day was past.

The night came, and to bed she must be gone

With her young husband, but she had no fear,

And privately to him she said anon:

"O sweet and well-beloved spouse so dear,

There is a secret, if you will to hear,

Which I am fain enough to you to say,

So that you swear that me you’ll not betray."

Valerian to her his oath did swear

That evermore, whatever thing might be,

He never would betray what she said there

And so beginning straightway thus said she:

"I have an angel lover that loves me,

And with a great love, whether I wake or sleep,

He will my body ever guard and keep.

"And if he feels (and this is truth," she said)

"That you will touch or love me vulgarly,

At once he’ll slay and leave you with the dead,

And in your days of youth thus shall you die;

And if you love me cleanly, so say I,

He’ll love you as now me, for your cleanness,

And show you all his joy and his brightness."

Valerian, checked thus as God would mould,

Replied: "If I’m to trust you, let me see

That angel with my eyes and him behold;

And if that it a very angel be,

Then will I do as you have asked of me;

And if you love another man, forsooth

Right with this sword then will I slay you both."

Cecilia replied right in this wise:

"If you so wish, that angel shall you see,

So you believe in Christ and you baptize.

Go forth to Via Appia," said she,

"That from this town is distant but miles three,

And to the poor folk who in that place dwell

Say to them what I’ll now proceed to tell.

"Tell them that I, Cecilia, have sent

You to the good man Urban, who is old,

For secret need, and with a good intent.

And when this holy Urban you behold,

Tell him the thing that I to you have told;

And when he shall have purged you of your sin,

That angel shall you see ere thence you win."

Valerian to that place got him gone,

And just as he’d been told about the thing,

He found this ancient saint, Urban, anon,

Among the holy catacombs lurking.

And he anon, with never tarrying,

Told him his errand; and when it was told,

Urban for joy his two hands did uphold.

Some teardrops from his two eyes he let fall-

"Almighty Lord, O Jesus Christ," said he,

"Sower of counsel chaste, herd of us all,

The fruit of that same seed of chastity

Which Thou sowed’st in Cecilia, take to Thee!

Lo, like a busy bee, and without guile,

Thy thrall Cecilia serves Thee all the while!

"For that same spouse that lately wedded she,

Who was like lion fierce, she sends him here,

As meek as ever was a lamb, to Thee!"

And with that word anon there did appear

An old, old man, clothed all in white clothes clear,

Who had a golden-lettered book in hand,

And who before Valerian did stand.

Valerian for fear fell down as dead

When him he saw, who raised him from the floor,

And from his book (whereof I told) he read-

"One Lord, one faith, one God with never more,

One Christian Church, One Father of all to adore,

Above all, over all, and everywhere"-

These words in very gold were written there.

When this was read, then said the ancient man:

"Do you believe or not? Say ’Yea’ or ’Nay."’

"I do believe this," said Valerian,

"For truer thing than this, I dare well say,

Under the heavens none can think, nor may."

Then vanished the old man, he knew not where,

And Pope Urban baptized him even there.

Valerian, going home, Cecilia found

In chamber, wherein did an angel stand;

This angel had two coronals, woven round

Of roses and of lilies, in his hand;

And to Cecilia, as I understand,

He gave the one, and gave the other straight

Unto this said Valerian, her mate.

"With body clean and with unsullied thought

Keep well these crowns for ever," then said he;

"To you from Paradise have I them brought,

Nor ever shall they fade or withered be,

Nor lose their perfume sweet, so you trust me;

And never man shall see them with his eye,

Save he be chaste and hate depravity.

"And you, Valerian, since you so soon

Consented to accept the Faith also,

Say what you will and you shall have your boon."

"I have a brother," said Valerian, "Oh,

And in the wide world I love no man so.

I pray you that my brother may have grace

To know the truth, as I do in this place."

The angel answered: "God likes your request,

And both of you, with palm of martyrdom,

Shall come at last unto His blessed rest."

Whereon his brother Tibertius was come.

And when he smelled the sweet perfume that from

The roses and the lilies filled the air,

In heart he wondered much how came it there,

And said: "I wonder much, this time of year,

Whence comes the sweetness that arises so,

Of rose and lily, to my senses here?

For though I held them in my two hands- no

The savour could in me no deeper go.

The gentle scent that in my heart I find

Has changed me to a man of other kind."

Valerian replied: "Two crowns have we,

Snow white and rose red, and they’re bright and fair,

The which your two eyes have no power to see;

And as you smell them, brother, through my prayer,

So shall you see them also, brother dear,

If you but will, without delay forsooth,

Rightly believe and know the very truth."

Tibertius answered: "Say you this to me

In truth? Or do I dream I hear all this?"

"In dreams," replied Valerian, then, "have we

Lived to this time, O brother mine, ywis.

In truth now for the first time our life is."

"How know you?" asked Tibertius: "In what wise?"

Valerian said: "You will I now apprise.

"God’s angel unto me the truth has taught,

Which you shall see, if only you’ll put by

All idols and be clean, else you’ll learn naught."

(And of these crowns miraculous, say I,

Saint Ambrose of the two does testify

In his Preface; this noble doctor dear

Commends the story, making it all clear:

The palm of martyrdom, thus to receive,

This Saint Cecilia, filled with God’s gift,

The world and even her chamber did she leave;

Witness Tibertius’ and Valerian’s shrift,

To whom the good God sent by angel swift

Two crowns of flowers fair and sweet smelling,

And bade the angel take them as fitting.

The maiden brought these men to bliss above;

The world has learned what it is worth, ’tis plain,

Devotion to fair chastity to love.)

Then did Cecilia show him and explain

That every idol is a thing all vain;

For they are dumb, and they are deaf also,

And charged him that his idols he forgo.

"Whoso believes not this, a beast he is,"

Said then Tibertius, "if I shall not lie."

And then she kissed his breast, when she heard this,

And was full glad that truth he could espy.

"This day I take you for my own ally,"

So said this blessed, lovely maiden dear;

And after that said on as you shall hear:

"Lo, even as the love of Christ," said she,

"Made me your brother’s wife, just in that wise

I take you now my close ally to be,

Since you’ll forgo your idols and despise.

Go with your brother, let them you baptize

And make you clean; so that you may behold

The angel’s face whereof your brother told."

Tibertius answered, saying: "Brother dear,

First tell me where to go and to what man."

"To whom?" said he, "Come forth, and with good cheer,

For I will lead you unto Pope Urban."

"To Urban? Brother mine, Valerian,

Tibertius said, "and thither will you lead?

I think this were a wondrous thing indeed.

"Surely you mean not Urban!" he cried out,

"Who’s been so often ordered to be dead,

And lives in corners, dodging ever about,

And dares not once by day to show his head?

Why, men would burn him in a fire right red

If he were found, or any him could spy;

And us, if we should bear him company.

"And while we seek for that Divinity

Who is in Heaven where we may not see,

Burned in this world to ashes shall we be!"

To whom Cecilia answered, and boldly:

"Men might well dread, and very reasonably,

This life on earth to lose, my own dear brother,

If this alone were living, and no other.

"But there’s a better life in other place,

That never shall be lost, nay, fear you naught,

Whereof God’s Son has told us, through His grace;

That Father’s Son all things that He has wrought,

And all that is has made with reasoned thought,

The Spirit which from Father did proceed

Has given a soul to each, fear not indeed.

"By word and miracle God’s only Son,

When He was in this world, declared us here

There was another life that could be won."

To whom replied Tibertius: "Sister dear,

Did you not say, just now, in manner clear,

There’s but one God, the Lord in truth, no less;

And now to three, how can you bear witness?"

"That will I tell," said she, "before I go.

Just as a man has kinds of wisdom three,

Memory, genius, intellect also,

So in one Being of Divinity

three Persons, truly may there right well be."

Then she to him full earnestly did preach

Of Jesus’ coming, and of His pain did teach,

And many points His agony had shown:

How God’s Son in this world a time did hold

To man a full remission to make known,

Who had been bound in sin and care of old:

All these things to Tibertius first she told.

And then Tibertius, with a good intent,

He with Valerian to Pope Urban went,

Who thanked God; and with a glad heart and light

He christened him, and made him in that place

Perfect in knowledge, and God’s very knight.

And after this Tibertius got such grace

That every day he saw, in time and space,

God’s angel; aye, and every kind of boon

He asked of God, the same was granted soon.

’Twere hard in proper order to explain

How many wonders Jesus for them wrought;

But at the last, to tell it short and plain,

They by the sergeants of Rome town were sought,

And to Almachius the prefect brought,

Who questioned them and learned their whole intent,

And unto Jupiter’s image had them sent,

Saying: "Who will not go and sacrifice,

Strike off his head, that is my sentence here."

These martyrs, then, of whom I do apprise,

One Maximus, who was an officer

Of the prefect’s, and his corniculer,

Took them; and when the saints forth he had led,

Himself he wept, for pity that he had.

When Maximus had learned their creed and lore,

Of executioners obtained he leave,

And to his house he led them, without more;

And by their preaching, ere it came to eve,

They from the executioners did reave,

And Maximus and from his folk, each one,

The false faith, to believe in God alone.

Cecilia came, when it was fully night,

With priests, who christened them together there;

And afterward, when day came with its light,

Cecilia them bade, with steadfast cheer:

"Now Christ’s own knights together, lief and dear,

The works of darkness cast you all away,

And arm you in the armour of the day.

"You have indeed fought the good fight- all hail!

Your course is done, your faith you have preserved,

Go to the crown of life that shall not fail;

The Righteous judge, Whom you have so well served,

Will give it to you, since you’ve it deserved."

And when, as I have told this thing was said,

To make the sacrifice they forth were led.

But when before the image they were brought,

Briefly to tell the end as it is known,

They’d not incense, and sacrificed they naught,

But on their knees they reverently knelt down,

With humble heart and firm devotion shown,

And so they lost their heads there in that place.

Their spirits went unto the King of Grace.

This Maximus, who saw this thing betide,

With pitying tears he told folk then, forthright.

That he their souls had seen to Heaven glide

With angels full of glory and of light,

And by his words converted many a wight;

For which Almachius had him beaten so,

With whips of lead, he did his life forgo.

Cecilia him buried with the others,

Valerian and Tibertius, quietly.

Thus in the tomb he rested with the brothers;

And after this Almachius speedily

Ordered his servants fetch him openly

Cecilia, that she might in his presence

Make sacrifice to Jove and burn incense.

But since they were converted by her lore,

They wept, and to a full belief they came

In what she said, and cried out more and more,

"O Christ, God’s Son, Whose substance is the same,

Thou’rt very God, and blessed be Thy name,

Who hast so good a servant Thee to serve;

This with one voice we say, nor will we swerve."

Almachius, who heard of this same thing,

Commanded that they bring her him to see,

And when she came, this was his questioning:

"What manner of woman are you?" then asked he.

"I am a noblewoman born," said she.

"I ask," said he, "though to your harm and grief,

Of your religion and of your belief."

"You have begun your questions foolishly,"

Said she, "who would two answers so include

In one demand; you asked me ignorantly."

Almachius answered that exactitude:

"Whence comes your answering so rough and rude?"

"Whence?" asked she, when that she was thus constrained,

"From conscience and from simple faith unfeigned."

Almachius said: "And do you take no heed

Of power I wield?" And she replied like this:

"Your might," said she, "is scarce a thing to dread;

For power of every mortal man but is

Like to a bladder full of wind, ywis.

For with a needle’s point, when it is blown,

Prick it, and all the pride of it comes down."

"Erroneously have you begun," said he,

"And deep in error do you still remain;

Know you not how our mighty princes free

Have ordered us such error to restrain,

That every Christian man shall suffer pain,

Unless his Christianity he deny?

He shall be free if he’ll do that, say I."

"Your princes err, and your nobility,"

Cecilia said, "and with a mad sentence

Condemn our guilt all guiltless though we be;

And you, who know full well our innocence,

Merely because we do our. reverence

To Christ and bear ourselves the Christian name,

You thus impute to us a crime and blame.

"But we, who know far better than can you

Its virtue, will not once the name gainsay."

Almachius said: "Choose one of these things two:

Deny that faith, or sacrifice today,

That you may now escape from death that way."

Whereat the holy, blessed, lovely maid

Began to laugh, and to the judge she said:

"O judge, convicted by your own folly,

Will you that I deny my innocence

And make myself a criminal?" asked she.

"Lo, he dissimulates in audience,

He glares and rages in his violence!"

To whom Almachius: "O unhappy wretch,

Do you not know how far my might may stretch?

"Did not our mighty princes to me give,

Aye, both the power and authority

To give to people death or make them live?

Why do you speak so proudly then to me?"

"I speak to you but steadfastly," said she,

"Not proudly, for I say, upon my side,

We’ve deadly hatred for the vice of pride.

"And if to hear a truth you do not fear,

Then will I show, all openly, by right,

That you have said a full great falsehood here.

You say, your princes have you given the might

Both to condemn and give life to a wight;

But you can merely him of life bereave,

You have no other power or other leave!

"You may but say, your princes did declare

You were death’s officer; if more you claim,

You lie, for of more power you are bare."

"This bold speech drop!" Almachius did exclaim,

"And do your sacrifice in our gods’ name.

I care not what you wrongfully impute;

Like a philosopher I’ll bear it, mute;

"But those same wrongs which I cannot endure

Are those you speak against our gods," said he.

Cecilia replied: "O vain creature,

You’ve nothing said, since speaking first to me,

That I’ve not learned thereby your great folly,

And that you were and are, in every wise,

An ignorant officer and vain justice.

"There is no proving, by your outward eye,

That you’re not blind; what can be seen by all,

That it is stone- that men see well, say I-

Yet that same stone a god you think and call.

I charge you, let your hand upon it fall,

And test it well, and ’twill be stone, you’ll find,

Since you can see it not with your eyes blind.

"It is a shame that all the people shall

So scorn you, judge, and laugh at your folly;

For commonly men know it above all

That mighty God is in His heaven high,

And idols such as these, they testify,

May bring no profit to themselves or you-

They have no power, nothing can they do."

These words and many other such said she,

And he grew wroth and bade she should be led

Home to her house. "And in her house," said he,

"Boil her in bath heated by great flames red."

And as he bade, so was it done, ’tis said;

For in a bath they locked her and began

(All night and day) a great fire there to fan.

The long night through, and a long day also,

For all the fire and all the bath’s great heat,

She sat there cool and calm and felt no woe,

Nor did it make her any drop to sweat.

But in that bath her life should she lose yet;

For he, Almachius, with bad intent,

To slay her in the bath his headsman sent.

The executioner three times her smote

Upon the neck, and could not strike again,

Although he failed to cut in two her throat,

For at that time the ordinance was plain

That no man might another give the pain

Of striking four blows, whether soft or sore;

This executioner dared do no more.

But half dead, with her neck cut three times there,

He let her lie, and on his way he went.

The Christian folk that all about her were,

With sheets caught up the precious blood she spent;

And three days lived she in this same torment,

But never ceased at all the faith to teach,

That she had fostered; dying did she preach;

To them she gave her goods and everything,

And of Pope Urban put them in the care,

And said: "This much I asked of Heaven’s King,

A respite of three days, that you might share

With me these souls; and too I would prepare

Before I go my house a church to make,

That it be kept forever for my sake."

Saint Urban, with his deacons, privately,

The body took and buried it by night

Among his other saints, right honourably.

Her house is Church of Saint Cecilia hight;

Saint Urban hallowed it, as well he might;

Wherein in noble wise unto this day

To Christ and to His saint men service pay.

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Chicago: Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales: The Second Nun’s Tale Original Sources, accessed May 20, 2024,

MLA: Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales: The Second Nun’s Tale, Original Sources. 20 May. 2024.

Harvard: Chaucer, G, Canterbury Tales: The Second Nun’s Tale. Original Sources, retrieved 20 May 2024, from