A Festschrift in Honour of A.V.C. Schmidt
Nebuchadnezzar and the Moral of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale
← 108 | 109 → NICOLAS JACOBS
Short of not mentioning him at all, Chaucer could not have given less attention to the Nun’s Priest in the General Prologue than he does. The Prioress’s entourage is described in two lines, one and a half of which are given over to the Nun who later tells the tale of St Cecilia. The three priests who ride with her have three words between them stating exactly that: on average one word for each (I.164). They thus appear to be of less significance than the wart on the Miller’s nose, which by comparison rates three lines of description (I.554–6). It is one of these priests, to all appearances the least interesting person on the pilgrimage, who tells what is perhaps the wittiest of the tales. We learn no more of this priest in the prologue to his tale than that his name is John and that he rides an old, worn-out horse (VII.2810–13), but we are told a little more about him in a few lines that follow the end of the tale; these lines are absent from the best manuscripts. In them Harry Bailly describes the virility of the Nun’s Priest in hyperbolic terms: if he were a layman, he says, it would take ‘more than seven times seventeen’ hens to satisfy him; he is in addition a mighty muscular fellow with commanding hawkish eyes and a high complexion (VII.3447–60). This brings us no nearer to visualizing the Nun’s Priest:...
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