The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer/Nun’s Priest’s Tale

The Nun's Priest's Tale

Here beginneth the Nun's Priest's Tale of the Cock and Hen, Chaunticleer and Pertelote.

APOOR widow, well on in old age, dwelt once in a small cottage, that stood in a dale, beside a grove. Since the day her goodman died, this widow of whom I tell you my tale, had led her simple life in patience, for her worldly goods were few and her winnings scant. By husbanding well that which God sent her she provided for herself and her two daughters. Three large sows she had, but no more; three kine and eke a sheep, named Moll. Her bower was full sooty and eke her hall, in which she ate full many a spare meal. Never a bit needed she pungent sauce; no dainty morsel passed her lips. Her diet was in accord with her petticoat. Repletion never made her to ail; a temperate diet was her only physic, save exercise and heart's content. The gout hindered her not from dancing; apoplexy weakened not her head. No wine she drank, neither red nor white. Her board for the most was laid with white and black: milk and brown bread, of which she had a plenty, and broiled bacon, and sometimes an egg or two; for she was as it were a kind of dairy woman.

A yard she had enclosed on all sides by sticks, and a dry ditch without. Therein she kept a cock named Chaunticleer, whose like for crowing was not in all the land. His voice was merrier than the merry organ-pipes that play in the church o' mass-days, and surer his crowing on his perch than a clock, or an abbey horologe. He knew by nature each ascension of the equinoxial in those parts; for when the sun was arisen fifteen degrees, then he crew, that there was no gainsaying it. His comb was redder than fine coral, and battlemented like a castle-tower. His bill was black and shone like jet, like azure were his legs and his toes, his nails whiter than the lily-flower, and his body like burnished gold.

This gentle cock had under his governance, to perform all his will and pleasure, seven hens, who were his sisters and paramours, and in colour, wondrous like to him; of which she with throat of the fairest hue was named fair Demoiselle Pertelote. Courteous she was, debonair and discreet, and so companionable, and bare herself so sweetly, ever since the day that she was seven nights old, that truly she holdeth the heart of Chaunticleer locked up in every limb of her ; he loved her so, that it was heaven to him. Ah! but such joy as it was to hear them when the bright sun gan rise, singing in sweet accord, "My lief is faren in londe," for at that time, as I have understood, beasts and birds could sing and speak.

So it befell, one dawn, as Chaunticler among his wives sat on his perch that was in the hall, and his fair Pertelote beside him, that he began to groan in his throat like one that is sore plagued in his dream. And when Pertelote heard him roar thus, she was aghast, and said: "O dear heart! what aileth you to groan in this manner? Ye are a pretty sleeper! Fie! for shame!"

And he answered and said thus: "Madam, I pray you, that ye take it not amiss. God's truth, I dreamed but now I was in such peril that my heart even yet is sore afeard. Now may God," quoth he, "bring my dream to good, and keep my body out of foul prison! I dreamed how that I was roaming up and down in our yard, when I saw a beast that was like a hound, and would have seized upon my body, and would have killed me. His colour was betwixt yellow and red, and his tail was tipped—and so were his ears—with black, unlike the rest of his hide; his snout was pointed and his two eyes glowed. Even yet I almost die for dread of his look. This, it was, caused my groaning doubtless."

"Avoy!" quoth she, "fie on you, chicken-hearted! Alas!" quoth she, "for now, by that God in heaven, have ye lost my heart and all my love. By my faith, I cannot love a coward! For certes, whatsoever any woman may say, we all desire, if may be, to have husbands hardy, wise, generous, and trusty with secrets; yea, and no niggard, nor fool, nor him that's aghast at every knife, nor a boaster, by that God in heaven! How for shame durst ye say unto your love that anything might make you afraid? Have ye no man's heart—and have a beard? Alas! how can ye be aghast at dreams? There is nothing, God wot, but vanity in dreams. Dreams be engendered by repletions, and fumes, and oft of a man's temperament, when humours be too abundant in a wight. Certes, this dream which ye have dreamt cometh from the great superfluity of your red colera, which causeth folk in their dreams to be in terror of arrows, of fire with red flames, of great beasts, lest they bite them, of fighting, and of whelps, great and small; right as the humour of melancholy causeth full many a man to cry out in his sleep for fear of black bears, or black bulls, or else lest black devils catch them. I could also speak of other humours, that work sore woe to many a man in his sleep, but I will pass on as lightly as I may. Lo! Cato, so wise a man as he—said he not thus: 'Give no heed to dreams'? Now, sir," quoth she, "when we fly from these rafters, do, for God's love, take some laxative. On peril of my soul, without lying, I counsel you for the best, that ye purge you both of choler and of melancholy, and that ye may not lose time, though there be no apothecary in this town, I shall myself teach you what herbs be for your health and weal; and in our yard I shall find those herbs which have such properties, by nature, as shall purge you well. For God's own love, forget not this, that ye be full choleric. So beware that the sun in its ascension find you not replete with hot humours ; for if it do, I dare lay a groat that ye shall have a tertian fever, or an ague, that may be the bane of you. For a day or two, ye shall eat worms as digestives, before ye take your laxatives, lauriol, centaury and fumitary, or else hellibore (which grows there), catapuce, goat-tree berries, or herb-ivy, that is pleasant to take and grows in our yard. Peck them up just as they grow and eat them in. Think of your forefathers, husband, and be merry. Dread no dream; I can say no more to you."

"Madame," quoth he, "gramercy for your lore. Natheless, touching Dan Cato, that hath such a renown for wisdom, though he bade us fear no dreams, yet by my troth, one may read in old books of many men of—more authority, I lay my life, than ever Cato was—who say the very contrary of his opinion, and who have found by experience that dreams be significant as well of the joys as of the tribulations which folk endure in this life. It needeth not to make an argument of this; experience itself showeth it in sooth. One of the greatest authors that men read saith thus: that whilom two comrades, with good intent, made a pilgrimage; and it so befell that they came into a town, where there was such a flocking together of people with such scant harbourage, that they found not even so much as one cottage where they might both be lodged. Wherefore, of necessity, they must part company for that night; and each of them goeth to his hostelry and taketh such lodging as befalleth him. One of them was lodged in a stall, far back in a yard, with oxen of the plough. The other man was well enough lodged, as was his chance, or fate, such as governs all of us in common.

"And it so befell that, long ere day, this latter man, as he slept in his bed, dreamt how his fellow gan call upon him, and said: 'Alas! for here to-night I shall be murdered where I lie in an ox's stall. Now help me, dear brother, ere I die. In all haste, come to me!' he said.

"Out of his sleep this man started for fear, but when he was full awake, he turned over, and gave no heed to this; his dream seemed to him was but a vanity. Thus twice he dreamed in his sleep. And at still the third time, his comrade came, as seemed to him, and said: 'I am now slain. Behold my bloody wounds deep and wide. Arise up early in the dawning, and at the west gate of the town thou shalt see a cart full of dung in which my body is privily hidden. Cause that cart boldly to be stopped. It was my gold caused my murder, sooth to say.' And he told him with a pale and piteous face in every point how he was slain.

"And be sure he found his dream full true. For on the morrow, as soon as it was day, he went forth to his fellow's inn, and when he came to the stall, he began to shout for him. Anon the host answered him and said: 'Sir, your comrade is gone. As soon as it was day, he walked out of the town.'

"This man now gan to suspect somewhat, remembering the dreams he had dreamt, and forth he goeth without longer tarrying to the west gate of the town, and came upon a dung-cart, all loaded as if to dung some land, even in the same wise as ye have heard the dead man describe. And with a stout heart he gan to cry: 'Vengeance and justice for this crime! This night was my comrade murdered, and lieth gaping in this cart. I cry out upon the officers that should keep and rule this city. Harrow! Alas! Here my fellow lieth slain!'

"What more should I add unto this tale? The people haste out of their houses and overturn the cart; and in the midst of the dung they found the dead man, murdered all newly. O blessed God! just and true, lo! how alway thou layest murder bare. Murder will out; that see we daily. Murder is so loathsome and abominable to God, the wise and just, that he will not suffer it to be concealed. Though it may abide for a year, or two or three, yet murder will out. This is my conclusion.

"And straightway the officers of that town have seized the carter and the inn-keeper, and have them so sore tormented and racked, that anon they acknowledged their wickedness, and were hanged by the neck-bone.

"Herein men may see that dreams be worthy of dread. And certes, in the same book (as I hope for joy, I gab not), right in the next chapter after, I read thus: 'Two men who, for a certain cause, would cross the sea into a far country, were constrained by contrary winds to tarry in a certain city, that stood full pleasant on a haven-shore. But on a day, toward even-tide, the wind gan change and blew right as they listed. Merry and glad they went to their rest and cast in their minds to sail full early. But to one of the men befell a great marvel. For one of them, as he lay sleeping, toward day dreamt a wonderful dream. It seemed to him that a man stood by his bed's side, and commanded him to tarry, and said to him thus: 'If thou set forth to-morrow, thou shalt be drowned; my tale is at an end.' He awoke and told his fellow what he had dreamed, and prayed him to delay his voyage, or even for that day to tarry. His comrade, who lay by his bedside, gan to laugh and to scoff at him boisterously.

" 'No dream,' quoth he, 'may so make my heart aghast that it shall hinder me in my business. I set not a straw by thy dreamings. For dreams be but vanities and trash. Daily men dream of owls, or of apes, and therewithal of many a strange marvel—such things as never were, nor ever shall be. But sith I see that thou wilt abide here, and thus wilfully waste thy time in dallying, God wot, I am sorry; good day to thee.' And thus he took his leave and went on his way. But ere he had sailed half his course—I wot not why, nor what misfortune ailed it—the ship's bottom was by chance riven asunder, and ship and men sank under the water within sight of other ships hard by, that had sailed at the same time as they.

"And therefore, fair Pertelote, dear heart, by such old ensamples mayst thou learn that no man should be too reckless of dreams, for I tell thee that many a dream is doubtless to be dreaded full sore.

"Lo! I read in the life of Saint Kenelm, that was the son of Kenulphus, the noble king of Mercenric, how Kenelm dreamed a dream. On a day, a little while ere he was murdered, he saw his murder in a vision. His nurse expounded his dream to him every whit, and bade him guard him well against treason; but he was but seven years old, and therefore gave little heed to any dream, so holy was his heart. By God's truth, I would give my shirt that ye had read his legend as I have.

"Dame Pertelote, I tell you truly, Macrobeus, that wrote the vision of the noble Scipio in Africa, affirmeth dreams, and saith that they be warnings of things that men see afterwards. And furthermore, I pray you look well in the Old Testament, whether Daniel held dreams to be any vanity. Read eke of Joseph, and there shall ye see whether dreams be not sometime (I say not alway) warnings of things that shall befall afterward. Look at Dan Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, his baker and eke his butler, whether they felt no significance in dreams. Whosoever will search the chronicles of sundry kingdoms may read about dreams many a wondrous thing. Lo! Crœsus, that was king of Lydia, dreamt he not that he sat upon a tree, which signified that he should be hanged. Lo! Andromache, the wife of Hector, she dreamed on the very night before, how the life of Hector should be lost, if he went into battle on that day. She warned him, but it might not avail; he went none the less to fight. But he was slain anon by Achilles.

"But that tale is all too long to tell, and eke it is nigh day; I may not dally. In short, I say that I shall have adversity from this vision, and further I say that I set no store by laxatives, for I wot well they be venomous. I defy them; I love them never a whit. Let us stint all this now and speak of mirth. Madame Pertelote, in one thing hath God given me largely of his blessing, for when I look upon the beauty of your face, ye be so scarlet-red about the eyes, that it maketh all my dread for to cease. For as sure as in principio 'Mulier est hominis confusio'—my lady, this is the meaning of the Latin: 'Woman is man's joy and all his delight.' For at night on our narrow perch, when I feel your soft side, I am so full of joy and bliss, that I defy both dream and vision."

With that word, he flew down from the rafter, and with a "chuck" gan to call them, for he had found a grain of corn that lay in the yard. Royal he was ; afraid no more ; he looketh as it were a grim lion. Up and down he roameth upon his toes, for he deigneth not to set his foot to the ground. When he hath come upon a kernel, he chucketh and then to him run all his wives. Thus royal as a prince in his hall I leave this Chaunticleer in his feeding-ground, and hereafter I will tell what befell him.

When the month in which the world began—the month called March in which God created Adam—was completed, and when there had passed also, since March began, two and thirty days, it befell that Chaunticleer, walking in all his pride with his seven wives, cast up his eyes to the bright sun, that had voyaged in the sign of Taurus one and twenty degrees and somewhat farther, and knew by no other lore than nature that it was prime of day, and crew with blissful voice.

"The sun," he said, "is clomb up on heaven one and forty degrees and more in sooth. Madame Pertelote, bliss of my world, hark to these blissful birds how they sing, and see the fresh flowers how they spring. Full is my heart of revelry and delight."

But suddenly a sorrowful chance befell him, for the latter end of joy ever is woe. God wot, in this world, joy is soon passed away; and the fairest-enditing rhetorician might safely write it down in a chronicle for a sovereignly notable thing. Now every wise man let him hearken to me. This story, I vow, is as true as the book of Launcelot de Lake, which women hold in great reverence. Now will I turn again to my matter.

A fox, that had dwelt three years in the grove, full of sly iniquity, and fore-guided by lofty imagination, that same night burst through the hedges into the yard, where Chaunticleer, the splendid, was wont to repair with his wives, and in a bed of herbs he lay still, till it was past undern, biding his time to fall upon Chaunticleer, as all these homicides will do, that lie in wait to murder men.

O, false murderer, lurking in thy lair! O second Iscariot! Second Genilon! False dissimulator! O thou Greek Sinon, that broughtest Troy utterly to sorrow! O Chaunticleer, cursed be that morn that thou flewest from thy perch into that yard! Full well wast thou warned by thy dreams how that day should be perilous to thee. But what God foreknows must needs come to pass—according to the opinion of certain clerks. I take any perfect clerk to witness, that there is great altercation in the schools concerning this matter, yea, great disputation hath there been by an hundred thousand men. But I cannot bolt it to the bran, as can the holy doctor Augustine, or Boethius, or Bradwardine the bishop. Whether God's glorious foreknowing constraineth me of necessity to do a thing (necessity, I construe as absolute necessity), or whether free choice be granted me either to do that same thing or to do it not, in spite of God's fore-knowledge of it ere it was done; or whether his knowing constraineth only by conditional necessity; with such matters I will not have to do. My tale, as ye may hear, is of a cock that took the counsel of his wife—sorrow befall her!—to walk in the yard, upon that morrow when he had dreamed the dream which I described to you.

Full oft be women's counsels cold. Woman's counsel brought us first to woe, and made Adam to depart from Paradise, where he was full merry and well at ease. Yet sith I wot not whom I might offend if I should blame the counsel of women, pass on, for I said it in my sport. Read authors, where they treat of such matters, and ye may learn what they say of women. These be the cock's words; not mine. I can imagine no harm of any woman.

Fair in the sand lieth Pertelote, bathing her merrily and all her sisters nigh her in the sunshine ; and Chaunticleer, the noble, sang merrier than the mermaid in the sea; for Phisiologus saith in all sooth how they sing well and merrily. And it so befell, as he cast his glance among the herbs upon a butterfly, that he was ware of this fox, that lay full low. No lust had he then to crow but straightway cried "Cok! Cok!" and up he started as one that is afraid in his heart. For by nature a beast desireth to flee from his born foe, if he see it, even though he hath never before cast his eye upon it.

This Chaunticleer, when he espied him, would have fled, but that straightway the fox said: "Gentle sir, alas! where will ye go? Be ye afraid of me? Me, that am your friend? Certes, now, I were worse than a devil, if I would do you harm or discourtesy. I am not come to spy on your privacy, but truly the cause of my approach was only to hearken how ye sing. For truly ye have as merry a voice as hath any angel that is in heaven ; and eke ye have more feeling in music than had Boece, or any wight that can sing. My lord, your father (God bless his soul!), and eke your mother, of her courtesy, have been in my house—to my great ease. And certes, full fain would I do you a pleasure, sir. But I will say, sith we speak of singing, may I be blind if I ever heard, save you, a man so sing as did your father in the morn. Certes, it was from the heart—all that he sung; and for to make his voice the stronger, he would take such pains that he must needs shut both eyes, so loud would he cry, and therewithal stand on his tiptoes and stretch forth his neck long and slim. And he was of such discretion eke that there was no man in any land that could pass him in song or wisdom. I have read indeed in the book of Dan Burnel, the Ass, how on a time there was a cock that, because a priest's son banged him on the leg, while he was young and foolish, made him to lose his benefice. But certainly there is no comparison betwixt his subtlety and the discreet wisdom of your father. Now, for Saint Charity! sing, sir. Let see, can ye counterfeit your father?"

This Chaunticleer gan beat his wings, as one that could not discern the fox's treason, so ravished he was by his flattery.

Alas! ye lords; many a false flatterer is in your courts and many a dissimulator that, by my faith, pleaseth you far more than he that saith soothfastness unto you. Read of flattery in Ecclesiasticus, and beware, ye lords, of her treachery.

This Chaunticleer stood up high on his toes, stretching his neck, and held his eyes shut, and gan to crow loud for the nonce ; and straightway Dan Russell, the fox, started up, and snatched Chaunticleer by the gorge, and bare him on his back away toward the wood, for as yet there was none that pursued him.

O destiny, that mayst not be shunned! Alas! that Chaunticleer flew from his perch. Alas! that his wife recked not for dreams! And on a Friday befell all this mischance.

O Venus, goddess of pleasure, sith this Chaunticleer was thy servant, and performed his utmost power in thy service, more for delight than to multiply this world, why wouldst thou suffer him to die on thy day? O Gaufred, dear sovereign master that, when thy worthy King Richard was slain with shot, mournedst his death so sore, why have not I thine eloquence and learning to chide Friday, as ye did? (For in sooth on a Friday thy king was slain.) Then would I show you how I could lament for Chaunticleer's need and torment.

Certes, such cry, or lamentation, was never made by ladies, when Ilium was won, and Pyrrhus, with his sword drawn, had seized King Priam by the beard and slain him (as the Æneid telleth us), as made all the hens in the close when they had seen the sight of Chaunticleer. But most of all shrieked dame Pertelote—far louder than Hasdrubal's wife, when her husband had been slain and the Romans had burned Carthage; she was so full of torment and madness, that, of her own will, she leapt into the fire, and burned herself with a steadfast heart.

O woful hens! even so ye cried as cried the wives of the Senators, because their husbands had perished, when Nero burned the city of Rome; without guilt, this Nero hath slain them.

Now will I turn once more to my tale. This simple widow and eke her two daughters heard these hens cry and make woe, and anon they started out of doors and saw how the fox went toward the grove and on his back bare away the cock ; and cried : "Out! Harrow! Weylaway! Ha! ha! the fox!" and after him they ran, and eke many other folk with staves.

Ran Colle, our dog, and Gerland and Talbot and Malkin, with a distaff in her hand ; ran cow and calf and eke the very hogs, so frightened were they by the dogs' barking and the shouting of the men and women. They ran so that it seemed their hearts would crack; they yelled as do the fiends in hell. The ducks cackled as if men were killing them ; the geese flew over the treetops for fear; out of the hive came the swarm of bees. So hideous was the noise—ah! benedicite! certes, even Jack Straw and his rabble never make shouts half so shrill when they would slay any Fleming, as were made that day after the fox. Trumpets they brought of brass, of box-wood, of horn and of bone, in which they bellowed and blew, and therewithal so shrieked and whooped, that it seemed heaven would come down. Now, good men, I pray you all hearken!

Lo! how fortune suddenly overturneth the hope and eke the pride of her enemy! This cock that lay, in all his fright, upon the fox's back, he spake unto the fox and said: "Sir, if I were as ye, so help me God, but I should say: 'Turn back, all ye proud churls! A very pestilence fall upon you! Now that I am come unto the wood's edge, the cock shall abide here, maugre your heads. In faith, I will eat him and that anon!" The fox answered : "In faith it shall be done." And as he spake that word, suddenly the cock brake nimbly from his mouth, and straightway flew high upon a tree. And when the fox saw that he was gone, "Alas!" quoth he, "O Chaunticleer! Alas! I have done you wrong inasmuch as I frightened you when I seized and brought you out of the yard. But, sir, I did it with no wicked design. Come down, and I shall tell you what I meant. I shall say you sooth, so help me God!"

"Nay, then," quoth he, "I beshrew both of us, and first I beshrew myself, both bones and blood, if thou beguile me more oft than once. Thou shalt no more by thy flattery make me to sing and close mine eyes; for he that is wilfully blind when he should see, God let him never thrive!"

"Nay," quoth the fox, "but God give him mischance, that is so indiscreet that he babbleth when he should hold his peace."

Lo! such it is to be reckless and negligent and trust to flattery. But ye that hold this tale to be a foolish story as of a fox and a cock and hen, take the moral, good folk. For Saint Paul saith that all which is written, in sooth, is writ for our instruction. Take the fruit and let the chaff be. Now, good God, if it be thy will, as my lord archbishop saith, then make us all good people and bring us to thy heavenly bliss.—Amen.

Here is ended the Nun's Priest's Tale.