- Apprehending the Divine and Choosing To Believe: Voluntarist Free Will in Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale
Geoffrey Chaucer's saint's life The Second Nun's Tale opens with an arresting description of a wedding night in which the tale's saintly heroine Cecilia gives her new husband Valerian a startling choice: join me in a life of chastity, she proposes, or, if you touch me, my angel who accompanies me will kill you. He responds by setting out equally startling alternatives: show me the angel, and if he proves to be an angel, I will believe you, but, if he proves to be a mere mortal, I will kill him and you as well. From his ultimatum springs the drama of the tale, which charts, first, the process by which Valerian and his brother Tiburtius come to affirm their belief in Christianity, and, second, the events that lead to their and Cecilia's martyrdom. Sherry Reames has powerfully demonstrated the ways in which Chaucer's revision of his sources deemphasizes the role reason plays in the two future martyrs' conversion; she concludes that the tale's emphasis on "supernatural power at the expense of human understanding and choice" results in "theological pessimism" about "the value of human nature and earthly experience." 1 While Reames accurately describes the many instances in which Chaucer seemingly puzzlingly omits or greatly reduces scenes in which the future martyrs are trained in doctrine, her conclusions overlook what I suggest is Chaucer's larger purpose in the tale, that is, to explore the radical and ineffable motions of the will that underlie not only the choice to believe but any choice. Rather than being guided solely by reason, the process by which conversion takes place in this [End Page 111] tale is initiated by the senses of smell, touch, and sight—that is, the divine is wondrously apprehended through the senses rather than comprehended by the mind. By redirecting the reader's attention away from cognitive processes and towards those indiscernible processes of the will that bodily sensation can trigger, Chaucer celebrates rather than denigrates the human, for he brings to the fore that aspect of the human that even more than reason defines human beings: free will. Chaucer's representations of stark and dramatic choices crystallize, then, his interest in the transformative and irrevocable power of this human capacity.
Lynn Staley uses the word radical to describe Chaucer's version of the saint's life. She finds Chaucer's discussion of translation in the tale's prologue "potentially radical," points to "the radically new nature of this relationship" of Valerian and Cecilia, and discusses "the radical undertones provided by the example of Cecilia" and the "radically simple" ideal of the Church she embraces. 2 The word radical should indeed be brought into discussions of this tale, but I suggest that it is most suited to Chaucer's emphasis on the radical nature of choice itself, an emphasis also of primary interest to late medieval voluntarist explorations of choice. As they propose and Chaucer's tale illustrates, choice involves (whatever the motivations) an act of the will that yields dramatic change. Chaucer explores the nature of a particularly charged kind of choice—the choice to believe—and uses the language of wonder, miracle, and violence, I suggest, to indicate that choice is itself a radical act of the will, unmediated and immediate, if not inherently violent.
Part One: The Role of the Senses in the Apprehension of God
The protagonists of the Second Nun's Tale are inspired to make the choice to believe through sensory apprehensions of the divine. While these moments inspire the protagonists to know more about God cognitively, Chaucer's emphasis on ineffable sensual encounters suggests the wondrous nature of encounters with the divine that involve the engagement of the full person, both body and mind. Most notable of the scenes that affirm the positive role of the senses is that in which Tiburtius smells invisible garlands of roses and lilies, which an angel has recently given to his brother Valerian and his new wife Cecilia. In a tale striking for its representation of stark choices and of...