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Business or Busyness?: The Life of St. Cecelia in Chaucer and Bokenham

In her discussion of Osbern Bokenham’s The Legend of Holy Women as part of the corpus of grossly undervalued fifteenth-century literature, Sheila Delany adds “study in fifteenth-century Chaucer reception” (4) to its list of theological, aesthetic, and historical values. As the “first all-female legendary in English” (Delany 4), the text owes a debt to Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, and in the case of his treatment of St. Cecelia, The Second Nun’s Tale. Though Bokenham is explicit about his use of Jacobus of Voragine’s The Golden Legend as a source, and indeed his finished product shares much with Voragine’s text, it is clear that Bokenham was “an attentive reader of Chaucer” (25). Such a famous English predecessor could not be ignored when writing another version of the same saint’s life. The major differences between the two versions are thus brought into sharp relief, as Bokenham and his audience would have been keenly aware of any deviations the later translator of Voragine rejected or retained. The most significant of these is the two texts’ treatment of economic practices, as found in Bokenham’s exchange economy and Chaucer’s “bisynesse” (SNT 5).

As with so many elements of The Golden Legend, certain features of the legend of St. Cecelia might cause theological discomfort for its readers. In particular, Cecelia’s lecture to the emperor’s men about the mercantile exchange of her worldly life for an eternal one might strike some as contrary to Christian doctrine of God’s unconditional generosity, as Delany points out. While Chaucer removes this portion entirely, Bokenham amplifies the scene, and gives it plenty of space and monetary language such as where “Voragine is considerably terser” (Delany 100). Bokenham’s Cecilia compares this life and the next to a “penny” and a “shilling” (Bokenham 152), which Delany admits may “have been theologically suspect, for the commercial metaphor is at odds with one of the most basic Christian doctrines, the definition of grace as an absolutely free and unmerited gift of God” (Delany 100). She offers as a possible explanation for Chaucer’s omission of the speech that “such attention to finances struck some readers as repulsively materialistic” (100), but his frank treatment of such matters elsewhere in The Canterbury Tales and his other works makes this squeamishness seem unlikely. Rather than an attempt to avoid repulsing his readers, especially from a writer who elsewhere in The Summoner’s Tale includes a discussion of the best way to divide a fart between 12 friars, Chaucer’s differing treatment of the mercantile theme of the legend of St. Cecelia simply takes a different form in his prologue.

Though the omission of economic language in this section of Chaucer’s text is balanced out, or exchanged, in his prologue by a lengthy discussion of “bisynesse” (SNT 5). Though Voragine briefly mentions that Cecelia is “busy” (Voragine) in his prologue, Bokenham omits busyness entirely, which seems deliberate considering the amount of space devoted to it by Chaucer. The narrator of Chaucer’s prologue, presumably the Second Nun, starts out by warning her listeners that they must do everything they can to mindfully engage in busyness, lest the Fiend exchange their industry for idleness (SNT 7). Chaucer retains the concept of having to exchange something for one’s entry into Heaven, but figures the tokens of exchange more literally as “good werkynge” (116) or even the narrator’s “translacioun” (25) of Cecelia’s legend. Chaucer’s text’s treatment of industry and exchange ensure that this element is included in his text, but in a more exegetical manner that illuminates what Cecelia means when she uses these terms

Since Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tale was a well known text in Bokenham’s era, he must have had a deliberate reason for rejecting the changes Chaucer made to the tale and indeed accentuating the parts of Voragine’s text that Chaucer rejected. Delany posits that this move is in support of the Augustinian doctrine that he was committed to by holy orders, as Augustine writes of salvation that “this marvelous exchange was made, these divine transactions accomplished” (qtd. in Delany 102). In addition to these reasons, however, I argue that Bokenham had further motivation for allowing St. Cecelia to make this speech instead of pushing it to a more straightforward prologue. Bokenham was politically controversial in his time because in an era when any preaching was expressly forbidden to women, he “gave voice to his female saints” (Bokenham 90) in a variety of contexts, preacherly and otherwise. This iteration of the legend gives the most verbal agency to Cecelia, allowing her to expound on a controversial doctrinal point in a controversial manner, and move beyond the safe and easy recitation of received wisdom. Though Voragine, Chaucer, and Bokenham all deal with the theme of spiritual economy in their retellings of the legend of St. Cecelia, Bokenham uses the occasion of his translation to be politically subversive and take a doctrinal stand on women’s preaching.

Bokenham, Osbern. A Legend of Holy Women. Trans. Sheila Delany. Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 1992. Print.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale.” The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co, 1987. 262-9.

Delany, Sheila. Impolitic Bodies: Poetry, Saints, and Society in Fifteenth-Century England: The Work of Osbern Bokenham. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Voragine, Jacobus de. The Golden Legend: Selections. Trans. Christopher Stace. London: Penguin Books, 1998. Print.

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Filed under Hagiography, St. Cecelia, Women