Yet I pray you that read what I write,
Foryeve me that I do no diligence
forgive me that I take no pains
Thil ilke storye subtilly t'endite;
to write this story artfully;
For bothe have I, the wordes and sentence,
For I have both the words and the substance
Of him that at the seintes reverence
from him who, in honor of the saint
The storye wroot, and folwen hir legende,
wrote the story and followed her legend,
And pray yow that ye wol my werk amende.
so I hope that you will take my work in the best way.
First wolde I yow the name of Seint Cecilye
First I will for you the name of Saint Cecilia
Expowne, as men may in hir storye se.
Expound, as men may see in her story.
It is to seye in Englissh "hevenes lilye",
It is like saying in English "heaven's lily",
For pure chastnesse of virginitee;
for the pure chastity of her virginity;
Or, for she whitnesse hadde of honestee,
Or, for the whiteness [spotlessness] of her purity,
And grene of conscience, and of good fame
And greenness [spring-like freshness] of her conscience, and of good reputation
The swote savour, "lilye" was hir name.
the sweet scent, "lily" was her name.
Or Cecile is to seye "the wey to blinde",
Or Cecilia is like saying "a path for the blind",
For she ensample was by good techinge.
for she was an exemplar by her good teaching.
Or ellis Cecile, as I writen finde,
Or else Cecilia, as I find written,
Is joined by a manere conjoininge
is formed by a sort of conjoining
Of "hevene" and "lia"; and here in figuringe
of "heaven" and "lia", which here symbolizes
The hevene is set for thoght of holinesse,
Heaven for thoughts of holiness
And "lia" for hir lasting bisinesse.
and "lia" for her lasting labor and diligence.
Cecile may eek be seid in this manere:
The name Cecilia may also be interpreted in this manner:
"Wantinge of blindnesse", for hir grete light
"lack of blindness", for her great light
Of sapience, and for hir thewes clere.
of wisdom, and for her bright and clear qualities.
Or elles, lo, this maidenes name bright
Or else, indeed, this maiden's bright name
Of "hevene" and "leos" comth, for which by right
comes from "heaven" and "leos", because of which
Men mighte hire wel "the hevene of peple" calle,
men might well call her "a heaven of the people",
Ensample of goode and wise werkes alle.
as an example of works good and wise altogether.
For "leos" "peple" in Englissh is to seye,
For "leos" is "people" in English,
And right as men may in the hevene see
and just as men may see in the heavens
The sonne and moone and sterres every weye,
the sun and moon and stars in every direction,
Right so men goostly in this maiden free
just so men spiritually in this gracious and liberal maiden
Sayen of feith the magnanimitee,
may see the magnanimity of faith,
And eek the cleernesse hool of sapience,
and also the spotless wholeness of wisdom,
And sondry werkes brighte of excellence.
and various works of bright outstanding excellence.
And right so as thise philosophres write
And just as philosophers write
That hevene is swift and round and eek brenninge,
that heaven is swift and round [quickly revolving] and always burning,
Right so was faire Cecilye the white
Just so was fair Cecilia the white [pure]
Ful swift and bisy evere in good werkinge,
always swift and ever occupied in good works,
And round and hool in good perseveringe,
and daily dedicated and complete in persevering in good,
And brenning evere in charite ful brighte.
and ever-burning with the full brightness of charity [caritas];
Now have I yow declared what she highte.
and now I have explained to you why she was called what she was called.
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, The Second Nun's Prologue, ll 78 - 119
Yesterday (November 22) was the feast of St Cecilia, so here is an appropriate selection from The Canterbury Tales. The Second Nun (the first nun would be the Prioress, who also recites one of the lives of the saints) tells the story of Cecilia's life and martyrdom. Oddly enough, in our eyes, no mention is made of her role as the patron of music, except for a passing reference in the opening section describing her self-mortification and spiritual practices: And whil the organs maden melodye, / To God allone in herte thus song she (And while the organs were being played, to God alone in her heart thus she sang) (The Second Nun's Tale, the beginning of the third stanza). Although her story was always a favorite among the lives of the early Christian martyrs, her musical prominence, the reason for her continued renown, seems to be a product of the early baroque.
The Canterbury Tales is an anthology of many varieties of medieval narrative genres, from chivalric romances and beast fables to bawdy anecdotes. Hagiography (or the lives of the saints, a form of magical realism before the term was invented) was one of the most favored story-forms in this period in Europe; The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, a massive compilation of these legends, was one of the most popular books of the period, surviving in around one thousand manuscripts, which is an amazing number for a lengthy book that had to be written out by hand for each new copy in those years before the invention of the printing press. De Voragine is the him that at the seintes reverence / The storye wroot referred to in the first stanza of this excerpt.
Chaucer's rendition is closely based on the story as found in The Golden Legend; up until the Romantic era, when the idea of the genius writer became linked with inspiration and originality, it was common practice to borrow, adapt, or loosely translate earlier works (this is one way stories were disseminated across Europe in the days before the printing press). Such new versions were seen as adding to and building off of (or even surpassing) the original; there's a whole tradition of poets taking specific similes from Homer or Virgil and adapting them – the point is not to present someone else's work as your own, but to show your knowledge of and your skill compared to the great classic writers. Sometimes the debt is acknowledged, as it is here (though de Voragine is not named; presumably, given the popularity of his book, you would recognize him as the source); other times educated readers are being flattered by the assumption that they will recognize the source. Part of the fun is seeing how the author has changed the original, and seeing how that changes the shading of the story.
The miracle-filled stories of the saints may seem more like fantasy than history to modern eyes, but they are meant to reveal a spiritual reality – actions illustrating Christian doctrine – under mundane reality (as with magical realism, the fantastical reveals a deeper, often emotional or otherwise non-physical, truth). This attitude underlies the long analysis of possible meanings of the name Cecilia; though each interpretation suggests that she is a moral exemplar for us, there are a number of possible interpretations with no definitive final meaning given – an ambiguity which might remind us that "in my Father's house are many mansions" (John 14:2). Though we tend to think of the religion of the middle ages as monolithic and intolerant, it was actually, within certain boundaries, full of multiple meanings and different pathways: a compendium of possibilities, like The Canterbury Tales itself. Many people associate the collection with the stories that are robust and ribald jokes, but the longest single "story" is a prose sermon on the seven deadly sins (and it's actually quite lively; I had never read that one until this past summer, when I decided to read the entire book, from the General Prologue to Chaucer's Retraction, something I had never done despite majoring in English and taking at least one course solely in Chaucer; The Parson's Tale is not usually assigned to undergrads).
The whole lengthy analysis of the significance of a name comes from de Voragine; it is his typical way of opening a saint's life. The idea is that the name reveals some truth about the person. Such playing with names seems to be an ancient form, dating from a period when nomenclature was likely to be based on personal circumstances. (The Second Nun and Wagner may seem like an unlikely duo, but this passage always reminds me of Siegmund's lengthy explanation to Sieglinde in Act I of Die Walküre of the name he travels under.) Here is the relevant passage from The Golden Legend, in the translation from the Latin by William Granger Ryan:
The name Cecilia may come from coeli lilia, lily of heaven, or from caecitate carens, lacking blindness, or from caecis via, road for the blind, or from coelum and lya, a woman who works for heaven. Or the name may be derived from coelum and laos, people. For Saint Cecilia was a heavenly lily by the modesty of her virginity. She is called a lily because of her shining cleanness, her clear conscience, and the aroma of her good renown. She was a road for the blind by giving good example, a heaven through her continual contemplation, and a worker for heaven by her application to good works. Or she is called heaven because, as Isidore says, the philosophers have said that heaven is revolving, round, and fiery, and Cecilia was revolving in a constant circle of good works, round in her perseverance, and fiery with the warmth of her charity. She was free of blindness through the splendor of her wisdom. She was a heaven of the people because in her, as in a spiritual heaven – the sun, the moon, the stars – people saw how to imitate heaven, namely, by the perspicacity of her wisdom, the magnanimity of her faith, and the variety of her virtues.(The life of Saint Cecilia is found in Volume 2 of the two-volume translation of The Golden Legend, the first complete one in modern English, by William Granger Ryan, issued by Princeton University Press in 1993.)
The lily is a traditional attribute of the Virgin Mary, signifying her purity and chastity (in paintings of the Annunciation you will almost always see, either prominently or tucked in some corner, a vase of lilies), so referring to Cecilia as a lily links her to the Virgin Mary (and, in fact, the Second Nun begins her prologue by invoking the Virgin Mary as a kind of heavenly muse to guide her in her tale, just as Homer and Virgil begin by asking the appropriate muse to inspire them). The Isidore referred to is St Isidore of Seville, the sixth-century archbishop whose Etymologiae was a learned, vast, and vastly influential compilation of universal knowledge as found in hundreds of classical sources.
Despite the elaborate and suggestive interpretation of the saint's name, our speaker protests that she is speaking plainly, not artfully: what is important is not stylishness but the truths exemplified by the martyr's life. Throughout this passage there is a traditional association of whiteness and light with purity and holiness. This association of whiteness with purity and goodness tends to make modern readers understandably uncomfortable, so it may help to think of it as suggesting spotlessness and clarity rather than the mere color. Though light is traditionally associated with Godhead, the name Cecilia's connections to caecus, the Latin word for blind, may strengthen the association between this saint and brightness and light (think of the opening of Purcell's setting of an Ode to St Cecilia: Hail, bright Cecilia!). The word heaven keeps recurring in this passage, reminding us of our ultimate goal. The climax of the passage is that the life of a single good and wise woman expands to the size of the universe, glowing with the celestial light of the sun, moon, and stars. (Chaucer – the author of The Legend of Good Women and the creator of the Wife of Bath as well as of a strikingly sensitive and empathetic portrait of Cressida, who is traditionally seen as basically a faithless whore – tends to be very sympathetic to women.)
By the way, current research suggests that, just as Judith is actually a generic name meaning a woman of Judea, so Cecilia is actually a collective name common to all women from the Roman family Caecilii, named after their legendary founder Caeculus (the little blind boy, from caecus, blind), a son of the divine blacksmith Vulcan. It was, early on, mistaken as a personal name. The beloved legend is based on little to no actual historical evidence.
This is from the Penguin Classics edition of The Canterbury Tales, edited and with notes by Jill Mann. One of the interesting points she makes is that referring to you that reden that I write is inconsistent with the framing device of the Tales, in which each speaker tells the story orally to the other pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. Chaucer used some of his earlier works in putting together the Canterbury Tales, and died before the work reached final form, so these little contradictions do occur.
The interlinear crib is my attempt to convey the meaning of the passage. For some suggestions on how to pronounce the Middle English text, see the links in this earlier entry from Chaucer.