- Disseminal Chaucer: Rereading The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
The Nun’s Priest entertained Chaucer’s pilgrims with the story of Chaunticleer, a rooster, and his wife, Pertelote, and Chaunticleer’s dream that he will be attacked and killed by a fox. The story comprises 626 lines of the Canterbury Tales but its brevity exists in an inverse ratio to the volume of critical commentary it has provoked.
Adding to the extensive literature on this tale is Disseminal Chaucer. Earlier interpretations of the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ have stressed the parodic nature of the work, especially its apparent parody of medieval educational [End Page 268] practice. Featuring a rooster who not only quotes, but then mistranslates a Latin tag, it is not surprising that scholars have reached this conclusion.
The strongest element of this book is Travis’s impressive ability to dig deeper into the story’s parody and to historicize the tale within medieval educational practice and theory. Travis suggests that the tale parodies the teaching conventions in the grammar schools. This point is not especially innovative, but Travis goes further than previous assessments in offering exceptionally detailed analysis of the understandings (classical, medieval, and modern) of parody and satire. In particular he comes down on the side of the argument that the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ is Menippean satire.
The weakest element of this text is that it seems at least one edit away from reaching full cohesion. Perhaps indicating that at 626 lines the tale does not really provide enough matter for 350 pages of dense theoretical analysis, the text’s argument frequently detours down paths that take us far away from the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’. A range of theoretical authorities, from classical writers up to Derrida, appear at various points, but this concatenation of viewpoints is unwieldy and does not allow for Travis’s argument to develop much unity. Similarly, because the text is a combination of articles (from the 1980s onwards) the overall text is disjointed.
However, it is also lively and the breadth of Travis’s scholarship is truly impressive. He does justice to the many ways the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ can be approached, including the sexual politics of the story (his account of the innkeeper Harry’s fixation on the physicality of the priest himself is especially fine) and the parody of academic practice.