A poor widow lives a simple life in a little cottage with her two daughters. Her greatest possession is her noble rooster, Chaunticleer, who is the best singer in the land. Chaunticleer crows the time more accurately than the church clocks. His coxcomb is red as coral, his beak black as jet, and his feathers shine like burnished gold. Chaunticleer has seven hens, and his favorite is the lovely Pertelote.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a beast fable. The most direct source text of the Tale is a fable by Marie de France. Although it appears to be a simple animal fable with a moral, the Tale ends up being much more complicated, with lots of allusions and plot twists.
One morning, Chaunticleer awakens from a terrible nightmare. He tells Pertelote that a savage, reddish, beast was about to swallow him. Pertelote chides him, saying that she cannot love such a coward. The Roman philosopher Cato, she says, tells men not to be scared of dreams. She says that the dream comes from some physical melancholy and urges him to take a laxative to get rid of this black bile.
Chaunticleer and Pertelote argue over the correct interpretation of dreams, each citing literary authorities to back up their claims. Pertelote says that bad dreams are simply a physical reaction and that Chaunticleer should just take some medicine to set his humors in order.
Chaunticleer argues that men of even greater authority than Cato argue that dreams are extremely important. He sites authors who describe premonitions of murders in dreams in order to prove to Pertelote that “Mordre wol out” through dreams that show the truth. Chaunticleer continues to cite many books and legends that tell about men who have portentous dreams, referring to Macrobius, Scipio, Joseph, and Croesus, among others.
Chaunticleer cites many different textual sources to prove to Pertelote that dreams are matters that should be taken seriously. He uses complex literary allusions to make his point. However, in the end, Chaunticleer doesn’t follow his own advice, foolishly abandoning his own wisdom for the sake of his wife.
Chaunticleer praises Pertelote’s beauty, saying that “In principio, mulier est hominis confusion,” which he translates as “Womman is mannes joye and al his blis.” Therefore, in spite of all his evidence that dreams are important, Chaunticleer decides to abide by his wife’s advice and ignore his dreams. He then makes love to Pertelote.
Chaunticleer completely mis-translates the Latin that he quotes, which really means “In the beginning, woman is man’s ruin.” His misinterpretation of the Latin foreshadows his misinterpretation of his dream and the negative ramifications of listening to his wife. (The Wife of Bath, probably, isn't a fan of this tale.)
One day in May, just as Chaunticleer has declared his perfect happiness, an inexplicable wave of sorrow comes over him. That very night, Russell the fox comes into the yard and lies in wait till morning. The Nun’s Priest laments the inevitable fate of the rooster to the murderous fox, but says it is his duty to tell the tale. Just like Adam, the cock has obeyed his wife’s counsel at his own peril.
The Nun’s Priests uses many of the conventions of both courtly romance and Homeric epic to describe his barnyard scene, lifting his story from a simple fable to the genre of mock epic and social satire. By taking noble concepts and ideas and putting them in mouths of chickens and foxes, the tale suggests that perhaps these high ideas, or those who talk about them, are not as noble or serious as they seem.
The next morning, Chaunticleer is watching a butterfly when he sees the fox watching him. Terrified, the cock is about to run away, but the sweet-talking fox flatters him. The fox says that Chaunticleer’s father was the best singer he ever heard, and he coaxes Chaunticleer to sing for him. Chaunticleer puffs out his chest, beats his wings, closes his eyes, and stretches out his throat, and just as he begins to sing, Russell darts out and grabs him by the throat.
The fox uses Chaunticleer’s own powers against him: Chaunticleer is the best singer in the barnyard, and the fox crafts his own sort of song to coax the rooster to lose his focus. The reference to Chaunticleer’s father also places this story in the tradition of many cock-and-fox beast fables.
The hens in the barnyard wail louder than the woman of Troy did when their city was captured. When the widow and her daughters hear the crying, they rush in to the barnyard. Together with all the farm animals, they all run after the fox, just like Jack Straw leading the peasants in rebellion.
The Nun’s Priest uses mock-Homeric similes in his comparison of the hens to the Trojans’ wives. In one of the only direct allusions to current events, Chaucer compares the barnyard to the 1381 peasant’s revolt in England, lead by Jack Straw.
Chaunticleer suggests to the fox that he stop and taunt his pursuers. The fox likes this idea. But as soon as the fox opens his mouth to do so, Chaunticleer flies away and perches in a high tree. The fox tries to flatter the rooster again, but Chaunticleer has learned his lesson. The moral of the story, says the Nun’s Priest, is never to trust flatterers.
Usually, the clever fox defeats the rooster in this type of beast fable, but here, Chaunticleer tricks the fox at his own game and foils Russell. The moral of the story, says the Nun’s Priest, is to never trust flatterers––perhaps a subtle jab at some of his fellow pilgrims. Though it is also worth noting that there is a moral of not trusting women or wives, either, that the Nun's Priest does not explicitly mention here.