The Nun’s Priest’s Tale Moves On The Levels, The Animal and The human

The story of The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is throughout played out on two levels: the animal level of cock, favourite hen and invading fox, and the human level of husband and wife and treacherous, flattering Intruder. A brief and rapid survey of the development of the story will show how and why this has been done.”

In the beginning the widow and her little household are described to give a human frame to the story. The frame is completed at the end when the widow and her enter again to take part in the attempt to save Chanticleer. This introduction of realistic humanity at the opening and close gives us the sense of a connection between human affairs and the animal fable which is the main concern of this poem. After this introduction, a splendid description of Chanticleer and Pertelote is given and, although Chanticleer remains very much a cock here and Pertelote a hen, certain human features are introduced in the description. For instance. Pertelote is courtly, discreet, debonair, and companionable, and Chanticleer loves her so that all is well with him. The human level of the story receives emphasis soon afterwards when Chanticleer begins to groan and Pertelote asks him the reason for his distress. Chanticleer’s reply is couched in terms which, in similar circumstances, would be used by any man to his wife. The scolding of the husband done by Pertelote is quite human. The portion of the poem makes us completely forget that we are reading about a cock and a hen, and we get the feeling that we are reading about a man and his wife. However, we are reminded of the actual identity of the hero and the heroine when Pertelote speaks of “flying down from the rafters” and when she suggests a number of herbs for Chanticleer to peck at and eat.

The description of dreams also speaks of the human element. And so does the  conversation between the cock and the hen.

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When we turn to the animal world we find it first in thy sly fox. Here the human level and the animal level mingle together when the fox is addressed as “new Iscariot, new Ganelon, Greek Simon, who brought Troy utterly to grief.” when references are made to Augustine, Boethius, and Bradwardine, when there is a brief discussion on pre-destination and free choice, and when we are told that women’s counsels are “often enough fatal,” The speculations regarding pre-destination and free choice carry us to the higher reaches of human thought to which cocks and hens cannot soar. The observation regarding women’s counsels with the Biblical illustration tends to make us sceptical about women’s wisdom. In the midst of these human references, however, we do get such reminders as “my tale is of cock, as you may hear.” and “these are the cock’s words not mine” so that at this point of the story we find  ourselves rubbing shoulders, so to speak, with poultry in a barnyard.

In the fox’s posing as the well-wisher of the cock. there is a human touch and so do we find human element in the cock’s praise of fox’s musical genius.  The human level and the animal level merge when the poet describes the clamour made by the hens in terms of the outcry and lamentations made by the Trojan ladies at the fall of Troy and at the murder of King Priam, and also in terms of lamentations of Hasdrubal’s wife when her husband was killed and Carthage was burned by the Romans. The hen’s outcry is also compared to the groaning and weeping of the senator’s wives when Nero burned the city of Rome and slew the senators. The chase of the fox, which follows the description of the clamour of hens, is described at the animal level though, even here. a comparison is made with the slaughter of the Flemings by Jack Straw and his followers, which is a well-known historical episode. The story closes with a battle of wits between the cock and the fox, with the cock coming out of the contest with flying colours, though the moral of the story is offered to human beings: “Taketh the moralitee, goode men.”  Thus, we find that at certain points in the poem the story is narrated on the animal level. at other stages on the human level and at certain places on both the human and the animal levels simultaneously so that the two levels merge with each other Chanticleer and Pertelote sing and flirt together like any pair of lovers: they argue. quarrel. and make it up again like many a human husband and wife. It is against this background that the discussions on dreams take place until we almost forget that the speakers are merely a pair of barn-yard animals; almost because, whenever we are about to forget this fact, the narrator reminds us of it by some deft touch Pertelote’s opening speech, for example with her shocked reaction to Chanticleer’s flight. her concern for his health, and her practical common sense, is a thoroughly human speech such as any wife might utter in a similar situation. Chanticleer is a delightful creation with his absurd vanity and his cowardliness.

Above all, in dressing up the animals in human guise was to bring home to the audience the application of the fable to human life and behaviour. That is why that the poet is able to moralise. The contrast between the animal truth of the polygamous cock and the human truth of Chanticleer and Pertelote as husband and wife deliberately focusses our attention on the relationship between the two speakers.

The generalisation found in the poem from place to place have a human relevance,


  1. O blisful God, that art so just and trewe.

Lo. how that thou biwreyest mordre alway!

Mordre wol out, that se we day by day.

  1. For evere the latter ende of joye is wo.

God woot that worldly joye is soone ago.

  1. As gladly doon thise homycides alle

That in await liggen to mordre men.

O destinee. that mayst nat been eschewed !



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