Female Martyr Saints and Chastity in The Canterbury Tales

Virginities by Ruth Evans, as part of The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing, discusses the heavenly value and reward of chastity as it relates to women, in that the biblical “virgin- martyr saints were widespread and multivalent cultural symbols” that medieval women used and idolized in “highly personal ways”(Evans, 23). Saints such as the Cecilia of The Second Nun’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer served as a moral maxim for medieval woman who read their lives “symbolically as well as literally”; it gave them confirmation that keeping their bodies untouched and chaste as is God’s will, for even if it may cost them their earthly lives at the hands of desiring men, they would be granted eternal salvation and be all the more loved by the Lord for dedicating their earthliness to him and not to their “dirt” sexuality(Evans, 23).

“Virginity represents the closest thing on earth to prelapsarian purity”, and willing virginity engages in “a war against the flesh”, that is successfully overcome through virtue(Evans, 25). Cecilia of The Second Nun’s Tale, who holds similarity to the martyred Saint Cecilia, understands the temptation of the body and sees the promise of eternal life in guarding her chastity. In reflecting upon her upcoming marriage and understanding the sexual obligation that it entails, she takes a moment to renew her vow to virginity, as

“whil the organs maden melodye,

To God allone in herte thus song she:

“O Lord, my soule and eek my body gye

Unwemmed, lest that I confounded be!”

And for his love that deide upon a tree,

Every seconde and thridde day she faste,

Ay bidding in hir orisons ful faste”(Chaucer, 627, 134-140).


Although “the organs maden melodye”, or sex is a type of harmonious bodily pleasure between husband and wife, the true melodye is found within Cecilia’s willing heart that sung “to God allone” lest she be “confounded”(Chaucer, 627, 134-140). The concept of her being “confounded” or damned, can being taken with a multitude of meanings: her “confounded” state could be the condemnation of a wife obligated to sexual acts for procreation and male satisfaction. It could also be damnation to hell for not obeying virgin morality and fornicating despite her vocation to God. The third interpretation of damnation arises from being sentenced to ridicule, exile or death as a result of denying the advances of males, as Evans states that all medieval woman were familiar with the matrydom stories of virgin saints which carried moral instruction for women.

This double standard was both complicated and dangerous to women, as they were and for the most part still are, expected to be simultaneously both the vessel for “maidenhood” but also accept the lost of their “chaste purity” at the hands of men(Evans, 26). In the case of Cecilia, this conflict leads to her beheading, which is foreshadowed in these lines within the mentioning of her being “confounded”. Perhaps raptured in religious fervor, or possibly begging for mercy from God upon her death- both metaphorically by marriage and the expectation of utilizing her sexuality ,and literally of her death towards the end of The Second Nun’s Tale– “she for his love that deide upon a tree, Every seconde and thridde day she faste, Ay bidding in hir orisons ful faste” (Chaucer, 627, 134-140). Cecilia seems an exemplar of Evans’ claim that for medieval women, this concept of suffering at the cost of chastity whether through conserving or casting it aside, is commonplace and societally expected and accepted.

The a-b rhyme scheme of The Second Nun’s Tale recalls typical characteristics of a religious hymn. Cecilia’s statement in and of itself can be read as if a song glorifying God, that even through the threat of three- fold suffering, she will not cease to honor him through behavior, nor prayer, nor fasting. The rhyming of The Second Nun’s Tale can also be considered stylistic of a fable carrying moral maxim, which upon being performed orally would be easier to remember and memorize. This would be necessary when understanding the moral value that stories such as these carried for women at the time. The Second Nun’s Tale speaks towards the complicated social order of which women were depicted as both saintly maidens and wanton seductresses.


Works Cited:

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Jill Mann. London: Penguin, 2005. Print.


Evans, Ruth. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing. Ed. Carolyn

Dinshaw and David Wallace. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.






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