The Second Nun - Ellesmere Chaucer

The Second Nun, illustration from an early manuscript of The Canterbury Tales which is now in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

"The Second Nun's Tale" (Middle English: "The Seconde Nonnes Tale") is a short story in verse from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. It is a hagiography[1] which relates the traditional legend of Saint Cecilia,[2] referred to as Cecilie in the original Middle English text.


The story's protagonist Cecilie is a Roman noblewoman who has been raised as a Christian since infancy. She is a virtuous and pious woman. She lives at a time in which Christianity is illegal in the Roman Empire and Christians are persecuted.

St cecilia guido reni

Saint Cecilia as patron saint of musicians, early 17th century oil painting by Guido Reni.

Cecilie marries a young man named Valerian. On their wedding night, she tells him that there is an angel who constantly protects her. She adds that if Valerian touches her with lustful intent, the angel will strike him dead. The skeptical Valerian believes that Cecilie has another lover and asks to see the angel. Cecilie tells him that, if he wants to see the angel, he should go to the Appian Way, tell the poor people he sees there that Cecilie sent him and ask where he can find the aged Pope Urban. Valerian finds Pope Urban hiding in the catacombs. Another old man, dressed in white, appears in front of Valerian. The young man is told to read from a gold-lettered book which says that there is only one God and only one true faith. Valerian is asked if he believes what he has read. When Valerian replies that he does, the old man in white vanishes. Valerian is baptized by Pope Urban.

When he returns home, Valerian sees the angel. The angel gives Cecilie a crown of red roses and gives Valerian a crown of white lilies. He says that the flowers come from Heaven, which means that they will last forever, and that they can only be seen by people who are "Chaste and hate villainy". The angel tells Valerian that he can ask for any favor he likes. Valerian says that he would like his brother Tiburce to be converted to Christianity too. Tiburce appears before Cecilie and Valerian. He can smell the flowers but cannot see them. Cecilie preaches to him and convinces him that the old Roman religion is false. At first, Tiburce is afraid to see Pope Urban because he knows that Urban has been condemned to death and that anyone who is seen with him will be condemned to death also. Cecilie says that there is no need to fear death because there is a better life to come afterwards. Tiburce goes to see Pope Urban and is baptized.


Illustration by W. Russell Flint for "The Second Nun's Tale" from a 1913 edition of The Canterbury Tales.

Some time later, Cecilie, Valerian and Tiburce are arrested. They are brought before the judge Almachius and told that they will be put to death unless they pay homage to the god Jupiter. Maximus, the soldier who is put in charge of Cecilie, Valerian and Tiburce, feels sorry for them and takes them home with him. Cecilie preaches to Maximus and his family, managing to convert all of them to Christianity.

Tiburce and Valerian are executed for refusing to pay homage to Jupiter. Maximus sees angels carry the two men's souls to Heaven. He begins preaching to others and converts many more people to Christianity. As punishment, Maximus is whipped to death.

Cecilie is brought before Almachius for questioning. She shows no fear and refuses to renounce her faith. Almachius orders that she be taken back to her own house for execution. She is sealed inside a bath under which a fire is lit. However, although she spends several hours inside the scolding hot bath, Cecilie remains completely unharmed. Almachius sends a man to Cecilie's house to behead her. The executioner strikes at her neck three times but does not manage to cut off her head. It is illegal for an executioner to attempt to cut off somebody's head more than three times, which means that the man has to go, leaving Cecilie still alive but mortally wounded.

It takes three days for Cecilie to die. During that time, she continues to preach and converts many more people to Christianity. She leaves all of her possessions to Pope Urban and asks that he convert her home into a church.


  1. A hagiography is an account of the life of a saint.
  2. According to Christian tradition, Saint Cecilia was a virgin martyr. She is the patron saint of musicians. Her feast day is November 22. Most modern scholars believe that she was a genuine historical figure who was put to death in Sicily in the 2nd century CE. However, her legend, which is retold in "The Second Nun's Tale", is now believed to be largely a fiction which was created in the 5th or 6th century.

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