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Tales from Chaucer, by Charles Cowden Clarke, [1833], at

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The Nun's Priest's Tale

OUR host next called out, with a rough familiarity, to the Nun's Priest, "Now, Parson! draw near, Sir John, * and tell us something to gladden our hearts. Although you do still ride upon a jade, man, and your beast is poor and lean; so long as he serves your turn, no matter. See that you keep a merry heart, that is the chief care of this life."

"Yes, host," said he, "riding or walking, blame me if I be not merry withal." And straightway this goodly Priest opened upon his tale.


LONG ago, a poor widow, somewhat stooping with the weight of years, dwelt in a little cottage beside a grove which stood in a dale. Ever since she had ceased to be a wife, she earned her bread in patience and simplicity: slender was her stock, and slender was her rent. With careful husbandry she supported herself and two daughters. She had three hogs, three cows, and a ewe. Smoky was her cabin in which she ate many a frugal

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meal: no pungent sauce to whet her appetite, or dainty morsel entered her lips: her diet accorded with her apparel, and both were humble. She never ailed through repletion, and temperance was her only medicine. Activity and exercise were all her heart's delight; no gout prevented her from dancing, and apoplexy made not her head to tremble. Wine formed no part of her household store, but milk was her beverage; and her meals consisted of brown bread, singed bacon, and an egg or two.

She had a little yard enclosed with sticks, and on the outside a dry ditch. In this yard she kept a cock called Chanticleer—a merrier crow than his was not to be heard in all the country round. He was as true to his matin hour as the abbey clock. He could tell by instinct the ascension of the equinox, and when it had risen fifteen degrees, then would he crow so that it was a joy to hear him. His comb was ruddier than the finest coral, and embattled like a castle-tower. His bill was black, and shone like jet; his legs and toes were azure, his nails were whiter than the lily-flower, and his neck and back were burnished gold.

This gentle cock had seven hens in his train—his wives; all of various colours, of which the fairest about the throat and breast was Dame Partlet. She was a most courteous, discreet, debonair, and companionable lady; conducting herself withal so fairly that since the day she was a week old she had held fast imprisoned the heart of Sir Chanticleer. What a pleasure it was to hear them singing, in sweet accord, as the bright sun began to arise: "My love, my joy, is far in land." * For, in those days, I

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have heard that birds and beasts could both speak and sing as we do.

It happened one day, just before the dawn, as Chanticleer sat upon his perch among his wives, and next to him fair Partlet, he began to groan in his throat like one sore troubled in a dream. And when she so heard him roar, she became alarmed, and said, "My own dear heart! what makes you groan in this manner? truly you are a fine sleeper! fie, for shame!" And he answering her said, "Madam, I entreat you not to be uneasy; but, upon my truth, I had just now fallen into such mischief that my heart still quakes with fear at the thought of it. Heaven send me a clean quittance of my dream, and keep me safe and sound in body. Methought that I was walking up and down our yard, when I saw a beast like a hound, who would have seized upon me and put me to death. His colour was a light tawny, betwixt yellow and red, and both his ears and tail were tipped with black; his snout was sharp, and he had two sparkling eyes. The look of him still makes me ready to die. This, most likely, occasioned my groaning."

"Away!" said she, "fie on your faint heart! Alas! by Heaven! you have forfeited all my affection. In faith, I cannot love a coward; for be sure that, whatever a woman may say, we all desire our husbands to be bold, wise, and free; neither a fool nor a niggard; and, above all, no braggart. How durst you for shame say to your love that anything could make you afraid? Have you a man's beard and not his heart? To be frightened at a dream! which, Heaven knows, is all vanity. Dreams frequently arise from fume and repletion, when the humours increase;

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and, no doubt, this dream which you have had to-night came from the great over-flowing of your red choler, which makes people dream of arrows, and of fire with ruddy flames, of red beasts that try to bite them, of contentions and strifes, and great and small red wasps: as the humour of melancholy will cause a man to cry out in his sleep for fear of black bulls and bears, and black devils ready to snap them up. I could tell you too of other humours, that cause one much trouble in his sleep but let them pass. Does not Cato, that wise man, say, 'Pay no regard to dreams'?"

"Now, sir," said she, "when you fly down from the beam, let me urge you, for the love of Heaven, to take some cooling herbs. Depend upon it I give you good advice in recommending you to clear away both choler and melancholy; and that you may lose no time, as there is not an apothecary in the town, I will inform you of a few simples that I shall find in our yard, which have the property of thoroughly purifying your blood. You are of a very choleric complexion, and must take great care when the sun comes out in his strength that you do not become full of hot humours; else I lay a wager that you will be laid up with an ague or tertian fever. For a day or two, I would recommend your eating some worms by way of digestive before you take your alteratives * of laureola, centaury, or fumetery, of hellebore, spurge, or dog-wood berries, or ground-ivy, that is growing in the yard. Pick them where they grow, and eat them. Come, be merry, my dear husband! for the sake of your father's kindred do not be afraid of dreams."

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"Madam," said he, "gramercy of your great learning; but, nevertheless, touching that same Cato, who had such a reputation for wisdom, although he told us to 'take no heed of dreams,' I assure you that you may read in old books of a higher authority than ever Cato possessed, that the very reverse of his opinion is a matter of well founded experience; for that dreams are warnings both of the joys and tribulations that people are to endure in this life. The thing needs no argument; indeed the proof of it carries conviction. One of the greatest authors * we read of relates that formerly two men went forth upon a pilgrimage, and it happened that they came into a town where there was such a congregation of people, and the lodging so scanty, that they could not find so much as a cottage in which they could remain together; they were, therefore, compelled to part company for that night, and each of them to go to his inn, and put up with such entertainment as he might find. One of them was lodged in an ox-stall, and the other, by that good luck which at times attends every one, was comfortably provided. Now it happened that during the night he who was well-housed dreamed that the other cried out to him for help, for that he was being murdered in an ox's-stall, where he was lodged for the night. 'Hasten to help me, dear brother,' said he, 'or I shall die.' The man started from his sleep, but thinking it only a dream he took no heed of it; so, turning round, went off again. Twice, however, he dreamed the same; and the third time, his companion, as

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he thought, came to him and said, 'I am now slain, behold my deep and wide gashes; arise up early on the morrow and go to the west gate of the town, where you shall see a cart full of dung; in this my body is privately concealed. Boldly arrest that cart. My gold was the cause of my being murdered'; and so he told him, with a pale and piteous face, every point how he was slain. And be sure that he found his dream all true, for in the morning, as soon as it was day, he went to his companion's inn, and when he came to the ox-stall he inquired after him. The ostler told him that his fellow-traveller had left the town at day-break. The survivor, bearing his dream in mind, began to suspect, and immediately went to the west gate, where he found a dung-cart exactly as the dead man had described, when he began to cry out lustily for help and vengeance, saying that his companion lay murdered in that cart. What more need I say? The people rushed out and overturned the cart, where, in the midst of the dung, they found the dead man newly murdered.

"O good, true, and blessed God! behold how thou dost always cause murder to betray itself! Every day do we find the saying true that 'murder will out'; so loathsome and abominable to a just God is this crime that he will not suffer it to be hidden, though it remain concealed for years. Straightway the magistrates of that town having seized the carter and ostler, and put them to the rack, they confessed their wickedness, and were both hanged.

"Thus you may see that dreams are to be feared. And in the very next chapter of the same book you may read of two who were about to take a voyage to a far country, but were detained by reason of contrary winds. One day,

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however, at eventide, the wind began to change; and gladly they retired to rest, thinking to set sail early on the morrow. But a strange event happened to one of the two. As he lay asleep he dreamed that a man stood by his bedside and ordered him to abide behind; 'for if,' said he, 'you go to-morrow you will be drowned.' He awoke, and told his companion what had happened to him, and entreated that he would put off his voyage for that day. The other, who lay by his bed-side, began to laugh and scoff at him. 'No dream,' said he, 'can deter my heart from attending to my concerns. I value not your dreams a straw, they are all vanity. Men dream of things that never did or will come to pass. But since I see you are inclined to lose your tide, fare you well.' And so he took his leave and went away. But, before he had gone half his course, I know not by what chance it came about, the ship split, and both vessel and man went to the bottom in the sight of others sailing in company. Therefore, dear Partlet, by these old examples you may see that no one should be reckless of dreams, for many a one is to be sorely dreaded.

"But let us drop all this, and think only of mirth and jollity. Madam Partlet, so happy am I when I look upon the beauty of your face—you have so fine a scarlet round your eyes, that it banishes all my fear, for truly may we say, In principio mulier est hominis confusio (madam, the meaning of this Latin is, 'Woman is man's joy and delight,' *), for when I feel by night your soft side, as we are seated upon our narrow perch, I am so full of comfort and happiness that I defy all dreams and augury."

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[paragraph continues] And with that word he and all his hens flew down from the beam, for it was day: then with a chuck he began to call them round him, for he had found some corn in the yard. Right royal he was, and had lost all his fear. He looked about him as grimly as a lion, and roamed up and down upon his toes, disdaining to set his feet upon the ground. And when he had discovered a grain of corn, he chucked, and all his wives ran to him.

And so I leave our Chanticleer at his pasture, like a royal prince in his banqueting hall, and turn to relate his adventures. In the opening of the month of May it happened that, as Chanticleer, in all the pride of his seven wives, who were walking by his side, cast up his eyes to the bright sun, who had made somewhat more than twenty degrees in the sign of Taurus, he knew by instinct that it was six o'clock, and then he sounded the hour with his merry note. "Madam Partlet," said he, "my world's bliss, only hearken how those happy birds are singing, and see the fresh flowers how they grow! all these things fill my heart with such joy and comfort!" But suddenly a sorrowful mishap befell him (for grief ever follows upon the heels of joy), and heaven knows that worldly joy has soon fled—a chronicler may safely note this down for a sovereign truth. Now, hearken to me, gentles all, and wise: the story I am now telling is as true as that book of Sir Launcelot du Lake, which all the women hold in so great reverence.

A fox, full of sly iniquity, who for three years had dwelt in the grove hard by, that same night broke through the hedge into the yard where fair Chanticleer, with his wives, was accustomed to repair, and in a bed of

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cabbages he lay quietly till about nine o'clock, watching his opportunity to fall upon him. O Chanticleer! evil befall the morning on which you flew from your perch into that yard. Full well had you been warned in your dream that this day was unpropitious to you—but what has been ordained needs must come to pass. You took counsel of your wife, and the advice of women is apt to be lukewarm or cold. Woman's advice first "brought us all our woe, with loss of paradise" to Adam, where he led a merry life and at his ease. As I may offend many, however, by my disparagement of women's discretion in giving advice, I pass the matter over—these are the cock's words, not my own: I can divine no harm in woman.

Dame Partlet and all her sisters were bathing themselves in the dust against the sun, and Chanticleer singing as merrily as a mermaid, when happening to cast his eye upon a butterfly among the cabbages, he was aware of this fox crouching upon his belly. He had no idea then of crowing; but up he started and cried out, "Cok! cok! cok!" like one heart-stricken with fright: for it is natural in a beast to flee from his enemy, although he had never before set eyes on him. So Chanticleer would have made off, but that the fox said quickly, "Gentle sir, what are you going to do? Are you afraid of me, who am your friend? Worse than a fiend were I if I should offer you any harm or villainy. I come not to pry into your counsel, but only for the purpose of hearing you sing; for by my faith you have as merry a note as any angel in heaven; and withal you have a finer feeling for music than Boethius himself, or any songster. My lord, your father (heaven rest his soul!) and your mother too, in her gentility, have both

The Nun's Priest
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The Nun's Priest

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been at my house, to my great delight, and most happy, sir, should I be to please you. But speaking of singing, I will say, that, excepting yourself, I never heard any one like your father in a morning: he put his heart into everything he sang; and to give his voice the more strength he would strive so that it made him wink his eyes with the loudness of his note, standing too upon tiptoe and stretching forth his long small neck. And then he had such judgment that no man anywhere could surpass him either in song or wisdom. I have read in the verses of Dan * Burnel the ass, of a cock that, because a priest's son gave him a knock upon his leg, he contrived to make him lose his benefice: but certainly there is no comparison betwixt the wisdom and discretion of your father and his subtlety. Now then, sir, for charity's sake be pleased to sing, and let us see if you can counterfeit your father."

This Chanticleer, like a man unconscious of treachery, began to beat his wings, so ravished was he with all this flattery. Alas! for you lords; many a false flatterer have you in your courts, who please you more than he that will tell you nothing but the truth. Beware, lords, of the treachery of such dependants.

Our Chanticleer, standing high upon his toes, stretching his neck, and holding close his eyes, began to crow with all his might. Up starts Dan Russell  and catches him by the gorge, bearing him off on his back toward the wood, for as yet there was no one to follow him.

O fate, that may not be avoided! alas that Chanticleer flew from his perch! alas that his wife had no faith in dreams! On a Friday, too, fell all this mischance.

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O Geoffrey, * dear sovereign master of the poetic art, who, when thy worthy King Richard was slain, so sorely bewailed his death, why have I not thy learning to chide as thou didst this same unlucky day (for on a Friday also was he killed)? Then would I show you how to lament the painful fate of Chanticleer.

When Troy was sacked, and Pyrrhus with his stern sword, having seized old Priam by his grey beard, slew him, the ladies of the palace made not so great cry and lamentation as did all the hens in the close when they witnessed the spectacle of their beloved Chanticleer. Above them all shrieked Dame Partlet, louder than the wife of Asdrubal at the death of her husband, when the Romans burned Carthage. So full of fury and torment was that noble-minded woman, that with a stedfast heart she wilfully rushed into the fire, giving herself for a burnt-offering to her lord. But to my tale again.

The simple widow and her two daughters heard the woful shouting of the hens, and out they started, when they saw the fox making towards the wood bearing the cock upon his back. "The fox! the fox!" they cried, and after him they scoured; many neighbours also came out with sticks. Out ran Col the dog, and Talbot and Garland; and Malkin with her distaff in her hand: away ran the cow and calf; the very hogs too scoured off, and ran ready to break their hearts at the barking of the dogs and the shouting of the people. They all yelled like fiends in torment. The ducks screamed, the geese flew over the trees, and even a swarm of bees scrambled out of their hive. So hideous was the noise that Jack Straw and his men, when

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they were going to kill a Fleming, were not so outrageous as these in pursuing the fox.

And now I pray you to mark how suddenly Madam Fortune will, upon occasion, check the hope and pride of her enemies! This cock as he lay upon the fox's back in a deadly fright said to him, "If I were you, sir, I would turn again upon these churls, and bid them sheer off, with a pestilence; for, having reached the wood-side, you would make a meal of your cock in spite of their heads."

"And so I will, i’faith," answered the fox, and as he opened his mouth in speaking, suddenly the cock broke away from him and flew up into a tree.

When he saw his prey was gone, "Alas! Chanticleer," said he, "I did you an ill turn in frightening you so when I brought you out of the yard; but, sir, I did not do it with a wicked intention; come down, and I will explain everything."

"No, no!" said the cock, "beshrew us both—and hang me up body and bones, if ever you cheat me a second time: your flattery shall no more get me to sing and wink my eyes, for ill betide him who winks when he should be looking about him."

"Nay then," said the fox, "heaven send him bad luck who will keep jangling when he should be silent."

And here, gentlemen, you see the evil of thoughtlessness and trusting to flattery. You, who look upon the fable of a fox, a cock, and a hen as so much folly, will do well to give heed to the moral of it—take the grain and leave the chaff.




136:* Sir John. I know not how it has happened that in the principal modern languages, John (or its equivalent) is a name of contempt, or at least of slight. So the Italians use Gianni, from whence Zani; the Spaniards Juan, as Bobo Juan, a foolish John; the French Jean, with various additions; and in English, when we call a man a John, we do not mean it as a title of honour. Chaucer uses Jack-fool as the Spaniards do Bobo Juan, and I suppose Jackass has the same etymology. The title of Sir, or Sire, was usually given, by courtesy, to priests, both secular and regular.—Note to Tyrwhitt's Edition of The Canterbury Tales, 1775. If the host then used the title John in an impertinent or contemptuous sense, that of Sir must also be understood as an additional piece of rudeness, because of its affectation of courtesy and respect.

137:* The first words of a song most probably familiar to the poet's readers.

139:* Alterative medicines are those which, unperceived, restore the body from indisposition to clear health.

140:* Cicero [De Divinitate, B. l, c. 27] relates this and the following story, but in a contrary order, and with so many other differences, that one might be led to suspect that he was here quoted at second hand, if it were not usual with Chaucer, in these stories of familiar life, to throw in a number of natural circumstances not to be found in his original authors.—Note to Tyrwhitt's Edition.

142:* The impudent wag! he knew that Dame Partlet was no scholar, or she would have told him that the translation of the saying was, "In the beginning woman was man's confusion."

145:* Dan was formerly a title of distinction commonly given to monks.

145:† Chaucer possibly calls the fox Russell, from his red, or russet colour.

146:* Geoffrey de Vinsauf, author of a poem on the death of Richard the First.

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