cock Chauntecleer nearly devoured for lack of good Latin learning

Nun's priest from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

In Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the cock Chauntecleer explained to his favorite wife, the hen Pertelote:

For as surely as in Genesis,
Mulier est hominis confusio —
Madame, the meaning of this Latin is,
“Woman is man’s joy and all his bliss.”

{ For al so siker as In principio,
Mulier est hominis confusio —
Madame, the sentence of this Latyn is,
“Womman is mannes joye and al his blis.” } [1]

Chauntecleer translated the Latin incorrectly. “Mulier est hominis confusio” actually means “woman is man’s troubling.” Moreover, Pertelote suggests in Old French “one who confuses someone’s lot or fate.”[2] Chauntecleer lacked respect and understanding of his wife and of the extent to which she could ruin his life. If he had studied carefully medieval Latin literature, particularly the Mirror of Fools {Speculum Stultorum}, he would have known better.

Chauntecleer allowed his wife Pertelote to manipulate him into disbelieving his ominous dream. Chauntecleer dreamed that while he was roaming in the yard, a beast tried to seize him and kill him. He fearfully told his dream to his wife. She in turned shamed and belittled him:

“Shame!” said she, “pathetic are you, coward!
Alas,” said she, “for, by that God above,
Now you have lost my heart and all my love!
I cannot love a coward, by my faith!
For certainly, whatever any woman says,
We all desire, if it might be,
To have husbands hardy, wise, and generous,
And discrete — and no miser, nor no fool,
Nor him who is afraid of every weapon,
Nor any boaster, by that God above!
How dare you say, for shame, unto your love
That anything might make you afraid?
Have you not man’s heart, and have a beard?
Alas! And can you be frightened of dreams?

{ “Avoy!” quod she, “fy on yow, hertelees!
Allas,” quod she, “for, by that God above,
Now han ye lost myn herte and al my love!
I kan nat love a coward, by my feith!
For certes, what so any womman seith,
We alle desiren, if it myghte bee,
To han housbondes hardy, wise, and free,
And secree — and no nygard, ne no fool,
Ne hym that is agast of every tool,
Ne noon avauntour, by that God above!
How dorste ye seyn, for shame, unto youre love
That any thyng myghte make yow aferd?
Have ye no mannes herte, and han a berd?
Allas! And konne ye been agast of swevenys? } [3]

Given that serious violence is many times more prevalent against men than against women, men have good reason to be relatively fearful. Women should recognize the reasonableness of men being afraid.[4] Pertelote, however, dismissed Chauntecleer’s fearful dream as mere foolishness. She advised him to take laxatives. That was crappy advice.[5]

While Chauntecleer rejected his wife’s advice to take laxatives, the labor of finding food for his wives and sexually servicing them distracted him from taking appropriate action in response to his dream. Early in the morning, he flew down onto the ground and starting searching for seeds. Whenever he found some, he called to his wives to come and feed. He also engaged in strenuous erection labor. In fact, the cock Chauntecleer had sex with his wife Pertelote twenty times that morning before six in the morning. Given that he had six more wives to satisfy sexually, you can be sure that was one tired cock by the end of the day. While he was busy with a husband’s double burden of duties, a fox was stalking him. That was exactly the sort of danger that Chauntecleer’s dream had forebode.

While he caught sight of the fox just in time, Chauntecleer didn’t know the medieval Latin poem that would have provided him with life-saving guidance. The fox had previously eaten Chauntecleer’s father and mother. He sought through flattery to gain an opportunity to grab Chauntecleer by the throat. With a story summary, the fox praised the craftiness of Chauntecleer’s father:

I have well read in “Sir Burnel the Ass,”
Among his verses, how there was a cock,
Because a priest’s son gave him a knock
Upon his leg while he was young and foolish,
He made him lose his land.
But certainly, there is no comparison
Between the wisdom and discretion
Of your father and of his craftiness.

{ I have wel rad in “Daun Burnel the Asse,”
Among his vers, how that ther was a cok,
For that a preestes sone yaf hym a knok
Upon his leg whil he was yong and nyce,
He made hym for to lese his benefice.
But certeyn, ther nys no comparisoun
Bitwixe the wisedom and discrecioun
Of youre fader and of his subtiltee. }

“Sir Burnel the Ass” refers to the twelfth-century Latin poem Mirror of Fools {Speculum stultorum}. That poem concerns the foolish donkey Burnel. If Chauntecleer had studied that poem, he would have gained precious insights into lessening the danger of foxes and thriving within the constraints of marriage.

The Mirror of Fools contains a vitally important story about a cock and his priest-owner. The priest had a wife, a son, and a wealthy homestead. One day the son Gundulf was guarding their granary when the hen Coppa with her chicks attempted to enter to peck some grain. Gundulf angrily chased them away with a whip, whipping so hard that he broke one chick’s leg. That chick eventually grew into a cock on the estate that Gundulf then controlled in his father’s place. The cock never forget the injury that Gundulf had committed against him.

The cock finally found an opportunity for revenge against Gundulf. To be installed fully in his father’s estate, Gundulf had to be ordained as a priest. The day of the ordination was set. Family and friends came together the day before for a magnificent feast. After much food and wine, the household went to sleep. Gundulf needed to get up at dawn of the next day to travel to town to be ordained. As always, the household counted on the cock’s crow to wake them at dawn. The cock, knowing the occasion, planned to keep silent and have Gundulf miss his ordination.

Keeping silent was no easy task. The cock himself struggled mightily:

Enheartened indeed so greatly, he
Could hardly keep his lips from shouting praise.
And what by silence he was eager to delay,
He almost hastened by his shouting out.
A voice muffled by grief cries out with joy;
Joy fosters crowing; grief bids one be quiet.
Between the two he stayed, consenting not, both
overcome and overcame, his voice was still.

{ Tanta quidem super his fuit exultatio cordis,
Ora quod a laude vix cohibere potest.
Quodque praeoptabat multum differe tacendo
Vocibus explosis accelerare parat.
Quam dolor excludit immittunt gaudia vocem,
Haec sua plectra monent, hic reticere jubet.
Inter utrumque manens neutri consentit, utroque
Vincitur, et vincit, voce tacente tamen. } [6]

While the cock was manfully maintaining silence, his wife chided him for his performance:

His hen, long wondering why the cock was still
And why he failed to carry out his task,
Drew near her mate and whispered in his ear
That both the time and hour had now passed.

{ Admiransque diu gallina silentia galli
Et quod ab officio cederet ipse suo,
Leniter accendens sponso suggessit in aure
Quod jam transissent tempus et hora simul }

In response to this abusive domestic behavior, the cock prudently didn’t call the police to make a claim of domestic violence:

He thus replied: “Don’t bother me, shut up!
You’ll always be a fool; away you fool!
Oh, woe to him that’s wedded to a fool!
His bed will never be absent from grief.”

{ Qui respondit ita, “Noli vexare, quiesce!
Semper eris stulta; stulta, recede, precor!
Vae cui stulta comes sociali foedere nupsit!
Non erit illius absque dolore torus.”

His wife nonetheless persisted:

Not less, but even more, she begged her spouse
To herald forth the stages of the night.
But he, opposing, tried to keep her still,
And now he begged and then he threatened her.
She swore, however, that unless he crowed
She’d sing and shake the rafters of the house.
And tired of waiting, from her throat she poured
A raucous cry, the best that she could do.

{ Nec minus illa tamen nimis importuna marito
Institit, ut noctis tempora certa notet.
Ille sed e contra tentans cohibere loquacem
Porrigit inde preces, intonat inde minas.
Illa tamen jurat, nisi tanta silentia solvat
Ille, quod illa canet concutietque domum;
Impatiensque morae raucas de gutture voces
Promit quaque potest voce sonare sonat. }

A hen’s crowing was no substitute for a cock crowing:

A certain one on hearing her replied:
“Stop, hen, I pray, for nothing do you gain.
Although a chicken cackle in the night,
No sooner will she make the sun arise.”

{ Qua tamen audita quidam respondit eidem,
“Desine, Coppa, precor, nam nihil est quod agis.
Quamvis gallina nocturno tempore cantet,
Non ideo citius lux oriunda venit.” }

Only a cock crowing makes the day begin. Gundulf thus slept through the beginning of the day. He arose only when sunlight burst through every window of the house. That was too late. The ordination ceremony was over. Gundulf wouldn’t follow his father as a priest. On hearing that news, Gundulf’s family and friends wept and beat their breasts. Both his parents died shortly thereafter. Gundulf was subsequently evicted from his priest-father’s estate. He became a wretched, wandering beggar. By remaining silent and not following his wife’s advice, the cock achieved devastating revenge on the person who had wronged him.[7]

If the cock Chauntecleer had studied Speculum stultorum, he would have known to remain silent and not follow his wife’s advice. Instead, the cox attempted to sing, as the fox had urged him to do. The fox then sprang at the cock, grabbed him by the throat, and ran off to devour him in the woods. A leading scholar of Chaucer observed:

Of all the married couples in the Canterbury Tales, it is Chauntecleer and Pertelote who give us a classic illustration of the distribution of roles in a conventional marriage. [8]

That observation underscores the importance of men learning from Speculum stultorum what Chauntecleer didn’t: remain silent when advantageous to you, ignore your wife’s attempts to shame and belittle you, and exercise your own good judgment about the dangers you face.

The teller of the tale of Chauntecleer’s near-fatal mistake was a man called the Nun’s Priest, also known as Sir John. The former name highlights his subordination to a woman; the latter, his high social status relative to other men. The Nun’s Priest traveled with two other priests in the entourage of a Prioress called Madame Eglentyne. The entourage of the Prioress Madame Eglentyne also included a nun who served as the Prioress’s secretary. The Prioress, who apparently was fat, wore about her neck a golden brooch inscribed “Amor vincit omnia {Love conquers all}.” A crown on the “A” crowned this Virgilian-Ovidian reference to love.[9] The Prioress’s greatest concern was to cultivate courtly manners in speaking and eating. She also practiced sensational acts of compassion:

She was so charitable and so compassionate
She would weep, if she saw a mouse
Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bled.
She had some small hounds that she fed
With roasted meat, or milk and fine white bread.
But sorely she wept if one of them were dead,
Or if someone smote it smartly with a stick;
And all was feeling and tender heart.

{ She was so charitable and so pitous
She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous
Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde
With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed.
But soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte;
And al was conscience and tendre herte. } [10]

In short, Madame Eglentyne was the sort of woman that would be highly respected among the global elite today. The Nun’s Priest, in contrast, was a highly learned man who rode on mere nag, “poor and lean.”[11] His subordination to the nun who served as secretary to the lavishly living Prioress shows the extent to which merit becomes meaningless under the hierarchies of gynocentrism.

Just as Chauntecleer did with respect to his wife Pertelote, men like the Nun’s Priest allow high-ranking women to shame and silence them. In his tale, the Nun’s Priest at one point said:

Women’s counsels are very often fatal;
Woman’s counsel brought us first to woe
And made Adam to go from Paradise,
Where he was very merry and well at ease.
But because I know not to whom it might displease,
If I would blame counsel of women,
Pass over, for I said it as a joke.
Read authors, where they treat of such matter,
And what they say of women you may hear.
These are the cock’s words, and not mine;
I can know no harm of any woman divine.

{ Wommennes conseils been ful ofte colde;
Wommannes conseil broghte us first to wo
And made Adam fro Paradys to go,
Ther as he was ful myrie and wel at ese.
But for I noot to whom it myght displese,
If I conseil of wommen wolde blame,
Passe over, for I seyde it in my game.
Rede auctours, where they trete of swich mateere,
And what they seyn of wommen ye may heere.
Thise been the cokkes wordes, and nat myne;
I kan noon harm of no womman divyne. } [12]

While being poorly compensated for serving the secretary of a morally vacuous Prioress, the Nun’s Priest nonetheless apparently feared to displease her. Criticism of women in literary history has generated quarrels about women, apologies to women, and defenses of women. The Nun’s Priest might well have lost his livelihood and social standing if he had dared to present directly issues of men’s sexed protest.

The cock Chauntecleer nearly being devoured underscores the importance to men of studying medieval Latin literature. No man should consider getting married without pondering the medieval Latin masterpieces Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum and Lamentationes Matheoluli. All men should know of Marcolf’s courage in confronting elite malice toward men. Just as the bear Ysengrimus sought to study medieval Latin literature, so too can any man, irrespective of his personal attributes and educational background.

Medieval Latin literature isn’t just for men. Repression of discussion about injustices against men ultimately threatens to undermine civilization and cause grave harm to women as well as men. Medieval Latin literature historically played an important role in supporting freedom of speech under gynocentrism. Women writers of the Middles Ages courageously expressed concern and compassion for men. Drawing upon the rich intellectual and imaginary resources of medieval Latin literature, women today can do likewise.

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:

Notes:

[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, ll. 3163-6, Middle English text from Benson (1987) and translation into modern English by Larry D. Benson. Lines are specified with respect to the full Canterbury Tales in the Riverside edition. Both the Middle English and modern English texts are freely available online via Benson’s outstanding website, the Geoffrey Chaucer Page. All subsequent quotes from Chaucer are from Benson’s Chaucer website. I’ve made some minor changes to the modern English translations to make them easier for general readers to understand.

Chaucer probably wrote the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in the 1390s. Here are some additional resources on the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.

[2] “Mulier est hominis confusio” comes from the Life of Secundus, the Silent Philosopher. Modern scholars have also mis-interpreted and mis-contextualized that phrase.

The name Pertelote plausibly is rooted in the French perte, which came from the Latin perdita. Pratt (1972), p. 655, cited in Benson (1987) p. 937, note to l. 2870. Hough (2013) derives Pertelote from the Middle English pert (attractive, comely) and a double diminutive. That yields an etymology “petite beauty.”

[3] Chaucer, Nun’s Priest’s Tale ll. 2908-21. Pertelote quoted Cato as an authority for disregarding dreams. Id. ll. 2940-1. Cato at least had a realistic sense of wives’ authority over their husbands. The subsequent quote describing verses from “Daun Burnel the Ass” is from id. ll. 3312-9.

[4] Under the men-abasing ideology of courtly love, men are expected to rush fearlessly to be maimed and killed in the service of women. The Nun’s Priest declared his tale to be as true as the story of Lancelot, paragon of courtly love:

This story is as true, I declare,
As is the Book of Lancelot of the Lake,
Which women hold in very great reverence.

{ This storie is also trewe, I undertake,
As is the book of Launcelot de Lake,
That wommen holde in ful greet reverence. }

Nun’s Priest’s Tale ll. 3211-3.

[5] All the herbs that Pertelote prescribed to form a laxative were wrong for the medical problem she diagnosed. Following his wife’s advice could have seriously endangered Chauntecleer’s life:

her compound {of herbs} is so powerful as to endanger even the most virile and durable digestive system. Three of the seven herbs, laurel, hellebore, and catapuce, are described in the herbals as “gnawing,” “fretting,” “scorching,” and violently caustic. The same three are to be used only under extreme conditions as a last resort and even then with great caution and accompanied by soothing agents, certainly not raw and certainly not in random dosage. … So corrosive a medication would, in fact, have hastened the departure of even the mightiest epic heroes, either human or rooster.

Kauffman (1969) p. 47.

[6] Nigellus Wireker, Mirror of Fools {Speculum stultorum} 1343-50, Latin text from Mozley & Raymo (1960) p. 61, English translation from Regenos (1959) p. 79, with my minor adaptation of the later. Regenos translated the above passage as:

So pleased indeed was he by this that he
Could hardly keep his lips from shouting praise.
And what by silence he was eager to delay
He almost hastened by his shouting out.
A voice made still by grief cries out with joy;
Joy fosters lyrics; grief bids one be still.
Betwixt the twain he stayed, nor did he yield;
By neither overcome, his voice was still.

Subsequent quotes from Speculum stultorum are (cited by line number; English translation similarly from id. p. 61): 1361-4 (His hen long wondering…); 1365-8 (He thus replied…); 1369-76 (Not less, but even more…); 1377-80 (A certain one on hearing…).

[7] While being able to remain silent and reject the advice of one’s wife are vitally important capabilities for married men, speaking of such capabilities is dangerous under gynocentric. Apparently seeking favor in a letter to William of Longchamp, chancellor England and Bishop of Ely, Nigellus Wireker omitted mention of marital relations in interpreting the story of the cock:

The story that comes next, concerning the priest’s son and the little chicken which later retaliated because of his broken leg, requires no explanation, for its meaning is clear. Indeed it is a very normal trait of character for those who are injured or offended in childhood, even though the wrong be slight, to hold in their minds thoughts of revenge even to an advanced old age, nor do they ever forget a wrong done to them until it has been fully satisfied by punishment.

Nigellus, Letter to William, from Latin trans. Regenos (1959) pp. 27-8. On Nigellus interpretation of his Speculum stultorum for William, Mann (2007).

Showing great intellectual courage, a scholar writing in 1970 expressed the clear meaning to husbands of the story of the cock:

Nigel’s rooster succeeded because he did not listen to his wife. … , they {the allusions to Speculum stultorum in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale} also indicate some of the morality that we good men might take.

Schrader (1970) pp. 289-90. Mann (1975) shows no awareness of Schrader’s insight, nor of the serious meaning for husbands of the story of the cock in Speculum stultorum.

[8] Mann (2002) p. 145.

[9] The Prioress “was nat undergrowe {was not undergrown}.” Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, General Prologue 156. In its context, that phrases seems to me to mean most plausibly that she was fat. Scholars working under the gynocentric imperative of not offending women have interpreted that phrase to mean that she was “tall and slender.” See Wu (2014) pp. 2-3.

The Prioress’s golden brooch is described in General Prologue 160-2. The phrase “omnia vincit Amor: et nos cedamus Amori {“love conquers all: let us too yield to love}” occurs in Virgil, Eclogues X.69. The Eclogues were well-known in late medieval England. McGowan (2003) p. 199. The power of the god of Love is a central Ovidian theme. Scholars working under the gynocentric imperative of not offending women have interpreted the Prioress’s broach to be expressing her Christian piety. Id.

[10] Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, General Prologue 143-50. The Prioress’s entourage of her nun-secretary and three priests is described in ll. 163-4.  The Prioress fed her dogs much better food than most persons in medieval England had:

Wastel-bread {which the Prioress fed to her dogs}, the second {ranking bread} in quality, was a fine wheat bread, probably white, and far superior to the third and fourth grade breads. We cannot imagine that it was found on any tables other than those of the well-to-do. The roast meat lavished upon the ‘smale houndes’ would be judged an extravagance by even the most lenient of fourteenth-century standards.

Broes (1963) p. 160, quoting Muriel Bowden, On the Sources of the Nonne Prestes Tale, Radcliffe College Monographs, No. 10, Boston, 1898, p. 59.

[11] The Nun’s Priest’s horse is described in the Nun’s Priest’s Prologue, ll. 2812-3.

[12] Nun’s Priest’s Tale ll. 3256-66. On the range of meanings of the line “I kan noon harm of no womman divyne,” Besserman (1977). The Nun’s Priest didn’t lack masculine strength:

“Sir Nun’s Priest,” our Host said straightway,
“Blessed be your buttocks, and every testicle!
This was a merry tale of Chanticleer.
But by my oath, if you were a layman,
You would be an excellent copulator of hens.
For if you have as much desire as you have strength,
You would have need of hens, as I think,
Yes, more than seven times seventeen.
See, what muscles this gentle priest has,
So big a neck, and such a large chest!

{ “Sire Nonnes Preest,” oure Hooste seide anoon,
“I-blessed be thy breche, and every stoon!
This was a murie tale of Chauntecleer.
But by my trouthe, if thou were seculer,
Thou woldest ben a trede-foul aright.
For if thou have corage as thou hast myght,
Thee were nede of hennes, as I wene,
Ya, moo than seven tymes seventene.
See, whiche braunes hath this gentil preest,
So gret a nekke, and swich a large breest! }

Nun’s Priest’s Epilogue ll. 3447-56. The Nun’s Priest, however, apparently wasn’t strong enough to challenge directly his women overlords. Perhaps he was too nice: “This sweet priest, this goodly man sir John.” Nun’s Priest’s Prologue l. 2820.  The Nun’s Priest’s Tale merely contains a subtle current of satire against the Prioress. Broes (1963).

With worn-out, anachronistic, delusional claims about anti-feminism, misogyny, and men, Mann suggests that the minds of some academics cannot be reconstructed, socially or medicinally. Consider:

The same interpretative facility with which the cock so successfully fended off the medicinal dose {of deadly laxatives} is here set to work by the teller of the tale to conjure up a male alibi out of the ready store of antifeminist clichés, with a sublime indifference to the facts of the case. … the accusation-cum-apology is revealed as a pure smokescreen. Like all the rhetorical paraphernalia superimposed on the action in this tale, it functions as a verbal strategy behind which men can disguise from themselves the realities of their own lives.

Mann (2002) pp. 150-1.

[image] The Nun’s priest, illumination (with color enhancement) of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale in the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Manuscript created c. 1400-1410. From manuscript EL 26 C9 (Ellesmere manuscript), f. 179r, held in the Huntington Library, in San Marino, California. Here’s the version on Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Benson, Larry D., ed. 1987. Geoffrey Chaucer. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd. ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Besserman, Lawrence L. 1977. “Chaucerian Wordplay: The Nun’s Priest and His “Womman Divyne.” The Chaucer Review. 12 (1): 68-73.

Broes, Arthur T. 1963. “Chaucer’s Disgruntled Cleric: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Proceedings of the Modern Language Association (PMLA). 78 (3): 156-162.

Hough, Carole. 2013. “Names in Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Pp. 215-229 in Richard Dance and Laura Wright, eds. The Use and Development of Middle English: Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Middle English, Cambridge 2008. Studies in English medieval language and literature 38. Peter Lang: Frankfurt, Germany.

Kauffman, Corinne E. 1969. “Dame Pertelote’s Parlous Parle.” The Chaucer Review. 4 (1): 41-48.

Mann, Jill. 1975. “The Speculum stultorum and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review. 9 (3): 262-282.

Mann, Jill. 2002. Feminizing Chaucer. Cambridge, England: D.S. Brewer.

Mann, Jill. 2007. “Does an Author Understand his Own Text? Nigel of Longchamp and the Speculum stultorum.” The Journal of Medieval Latin. 17: 1-37.

McGowan, Joseph P. 2003. “Chaucer’s Prioress: Et Nos Cedamus Amori.” The Chaucer Review. 38 (2): 199-202.

Mozley, John H., and Robert R. Raymo, ed. 1960. Nigellus Wireker. Speculum stultorum. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pratt, Robert A. 1972. “Three Old French Sources of the Nonnes Preestes Tale (Part II).” Speculum. 47 (4): 646-668.

Regenos, Graydon W.. 1959. Nigellus Wireker. The book of Daun Burnel the ass: Nigellus Wireker’s Speculum stultorum. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Schrader, Richard J. 1970. “Chauntecleer, the Mermaid, and Daun Burnel.” The Chaucer Review. 4 (4): 284-290.

Wu, Hsiang-mei. 2014. “Measuring the Prioress’s Forehead: Beauty and Piety.” Intergrams 14.2.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month [email protected] day *