The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Second Nun's Tale Summary

The Second Nun’s Tale begins with a prayer asking people to avoid sin and making a formal invocation to the Virgin Mary. Then the Second Nun offers an interpretation of the name of St. Cecilia, the heroine of the Second Nun’s Tale. In English, according to the Second Nun, “Cecilia” might be understood to mean “heaven’s lily,” or “the way to understanding,” because she was constantly busy doing good words.

Saint Cecilia was Roman by birth, but raised a Christian. Although she wanted to remain a virgin, she was eventually betrothed to Valerian. On her wedding day, she wore a hair shirt under her wedding robes and prayed to God that she might stay a virgin. On their wedding night, she tells Valerian a secret: she has an angel lover who will kill Valerian if he touches her sexually.

Valerian wants to see this angel, so Cecilia tells him to go to the Via Appia, find the Pope, and ask him for absolution from sin. Valerian does this, receiving baptism from the Pope in addition to absolution. He comes home to find the angel with Cecilia, bearing two crowns of flowers that will never wilt, since they come from Paradise. The angel gives one flower crown to Cecilia and one to Valerian, telling them that only the pure and chaste can see the crowns.

Valerian asks the angel to bless his brother, Tibertius, who can smell the flower crowns but cannot see them. After some urging, Valerian talks Tibertius into being baptized by the Pope. For a while, Cecilia, Valerian, and Tibertius live happily (and chastely) together.

Eventually, however, the three are dragged in front of Almachius the prefect, who orders them to be put to death. During the execution of Valerian and Tibertius, one of the sergeants, Maximus, claims he can see the spirits of Valerian and Tibertius ascending to heaven. His claim leads many of the members of the audience to convert to Christianity. Almachius has Maximus put to death for inciting the crowd with his claims, but Cecilia claims his body and buries it beside her dead husband and brother-in-law.

Almachius then summoned Cecilia and told her she could either give up her faith or be put to death. She chooses death and lectures Almachius for worshiping false idols. He tries to have her boiled to death, but despite being left all day in a tub full of boiling water, she doesn’t even break a sweat. Almachius then orders a servant to behead her, but he succeeds only in causing a serious neck wound. Other Christians stop the bleeding with some sheets, and Cecilia lies in agony for three days, preaching constantly.

After three days, Cecilia dies and her body is taken to the Pope. He buries her alongside several other saints and consecrates the local church in her name.

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