The Canterbury Tales: Predestination and Foreknowledge in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale

The tale of Chanticleer the rooster, told by the Nun’s Priest, is an interesting glimpse into one way that complicated theological questions were dealt with by laymen in the later Middle Ages. After an interesting (but it seems to me “artificially” lengthy and technical) discussion between Chanticleer and his favorite “wife”, Partlet, about the meaning of dreams and how seriously they should be taken, the story purports to give us the teller’s (perhaps the author’s?):”(I’m not sure of this, but given that Chaucer was suspected of Lollardy, it would be interesting to study in more detail his possible relationship to the reinvigoration of a high Augustinian soteriology that was getting underway in this period.)”: own convictions on the matter:

Yet any perfect cleric will bear witness that there is in the schools great altercation and dispute about this matter, and it has been so among a hundred thousand men. But I cannot sift the matter to the bottom, as the holy doctor Augustine can, or Boethius, or Bishop Bradwardine: whether God’s noble foreknowledge forces me of necessity to do a certain thing—by “necessity” I mean simple necessity—or whether free choice is granted me to do that same thing or not to do it, although God had foreknowledge of it before it was done; or whether his foreknowledge forces me only by conditional necessity. I will not have anything to do with such debates; my tale is of a rooster, as you can hear, who took the advice of his wife, worse luck, to walk in the yard on that morning after he had had the dream that I have told you about.:”(The Canterbury Tales, trans. R.M. Lumiansky [New York: Pocket Books, 1971], pp. 160-161.)”:

And yet, immediately prior to this “disclaimer” the Nun’s Priest had described the story’s villain, a fox “full of sly wickedness” and a “false murderer lurking in your den” as having been “put there by divine foreknowledge”.:”(Ibid., pg. 160)”: Once the story has come to its resolution with the fortuitous escape of Chanticleer from the clutches of the fox, the Nun’s Priest then seems to explicitly deny what he had said earlier regarding the tale’s supposed lack of a “deeper” meaning: “But you good people, who think that this tale is a piece of foolishness about a fox, or a rooster and a hen, take heed of the moral. For St. Paul says that all which is written is without doubt written for our instruction; take the fruit and let the chaff be.”:”(Ibid., pg. 165)”: This is an interesting method of bracketing the central theme of the story, and it is an excellent example of the overall Medieval tendency to think about Truth in terms of symbols rather than in terms of abstract concepts, as is our own wont. It reminds me of the description given by Johann Huizinga of the mind of the Middle Ages:

Whatever the faculty of seeing specific traits may have been in the Middle Ages, it must be noted that men disregarded the individual qualities and fine distinctions of things, deliberately and of set purpose, in order always to bring them under some general principle. This mental tendency is a result of their profound idealism. People feel an imperious need of always and especially seeing the general sense, the connection with the absolute, the moral ideality, the ultimate significance of a thing. What is important is the impersonal. The mind is not in search of individual realities, but of models, examples, norms.:”(Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages: A Study of the Forms of Life, Thought and Art in France and the Netherlands in the XIVth and XVth Centuries [Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1954], pg. 216.)”:

The “high-minded” subject matter standing behind this tale, wrapped up in biblical (“Oh, second Iscariot”) and classical allusions (“Oh, Greek Sinon, who brought Troy to its utter ruin!”) also stands in striking contrast to the crassness of the Miller’s, Reeve’s, and Shipman’s Tales which had come shortly before and focused upon various illicit sexual escapades by clergymen and which featured sometimes unflattering commentary upon the Church.

At any rate, the immediate historical-theological context of the Canterbury Tales, alluded to by the Nun’s Priest himself in this story, is of great import, especially for those interested in studying late Medieval culture as a prelude to the Protestant Reformation which would occur in the not too-distant future. Chaucer himself was born nine years after the death of the great theologian and (interestingly) Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Bradwardine (1290-1349)—later known as the Doctor Profundus. By the time he began writing the Canterbury Tales, then, the impact of Bradwardine’s energetic Augustinianism would have been keenly felt in intellectual circles and would almost certainly be trickling down into the popular imagination. That Chaucer includes amongst his motley collection of stories told for the most part by “ordinary folks” this example of intricate theological wrangling dressed up as a “mere” fable about a rooster and his dream seems to bear this out. Along with the ferment being created by men such as Bradwardine, it should be noted that William of Ockham (1280-1349) had flourished in the same period, and his own ideas were also making great headway in intellectual circles and paving the way for the masses to accept new ways of thinking about old questions of theology and societal order.

Above I mentioned that the Nun’s Priest ends his tale by speaking of the higher moral of the story. He himself would have it that the meaning of the story concerns the disastrous results of hubris but I think that the earlier theological discourse regarding predestination and free will is actually the key theme. This is because the Nun’s Priest describes the fox’s entrapment of Chanticleer with the phrase “Oh, Destiny, there is no escaping you!” and then shortly has both the major characters attribute the course of events to God. For while Chanticleer says that “For he who closes his eyes on purpose when he should watch, God let him never prosper”, the fox replies “God brings misfortune to him is so careless about his self-control as to prattle when he should hold his peace.”:”(Both citations from Canterbury Tales, pg. 164. It would seem the fox is condemning Chanticleer for his vanity, but then it was the fox who at Chanticleer’s clever bidding opened his mouth to prematurely “prattle” about his victory and thus allowed the rooster to escape.)”: The colorful fable of Chanticleer and the fox provide interesting and very Medieval illustrations of some of the important questions that were coming to be debated anew in Christendom during the turbulent period of the fourteenth century, and it is no small coincidence that Chaucer’s popular Canterbury Tales would contain discourse concerning a theological subject that would soon animate a German Augustinian monk to take up his own pen and write about the mystery of predestination and free will in very similar terms.

[Originally written December 2003 for Peter Leithart's Literature Colloquium at New St. Andrews College].

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