The Nun's Priest is barely mentioned in the General Prologue, where we are told only:
Another NONNE with hire hadde she,
That was hir chapeleyne, and preestes thre.
We learn later, in the Prologue to the Nun's Priest's Tale that his horse is a very poor one:
Be blithe, though thou ryde upon a jade,
What though thyn hors be bothe foule and lene?
In a chicken yard owned by a poor widow, the rooster Chaunticleer lives in royal splendor with his seven wives, of whom his favorite is the fair Pertelote. He dreams that he is attacked by a strange beast (a fox, which he does not recognize because he has never seen one). Pertelote advises he forget the dream; dreams, she says, come from indigestion. Chaunticleer insists on the power of dreams to predict the future. But he takes her advice. Later that day a fox appears and by trickery seizes Chaunticleer and carries him off, pursued by all of the old widow's household. Chaunticleer tells the fox to taunt his pursuers; the fox opens his mouth to do so, and Chaunticleer is free to fly into a tree. Chaunticleer, the fox, and the narrator all draw morals from the adventure.
Students reading this text for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful.
The Nun's Priest's Tale is ultimately based on the fable "Del cok e del gupil" ("The Cock and the Fox") by Marie de France. It is a fable in the tradition of Aesop, told to point a moral: Marie's Fable of the Cock and the Fox.
The simple aesopian fables featuring the clever fox were soon expanded into the much more elaborate Roman de Renart, an "epic version" of Reynard the Fox's adventures. Chaucer seems to have known this version and drew upon it for some details, as well, perhaps, for the mock-heroic tone of his work. Unfortunately, it has never been translated into English; the Old French version is printed in Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales, ed. W. F, Bryan and Germaine Dempster. New York, 1958. For a summary see: Chanticleer and Reynard.
Marie's version ends with morals drawn by the cock, the fox and the author, who concludes:
Thus fools contraiously do all:
They chatter when they should be dumb,
And when they ought to speak, are mum.
The author of the Roman de Renart ends only with the morals drawn by the cock and the fox. Chaucer's Nun's Priest Tale ends not only with all of Marie's morals but with even more:
For he that wynketh, whan he sholde see,
Al wilfully, God lat him nevere thee!"
"Nay," quod the fox, "but God yeve hym meschaunce,
That is so undiscreet of governaunce
That jangleth whan he sholde holde his pees."
Lo, swich it is for to be recchelees
And necligent, and truste on flaterye.
But ye that holden this tale a folye,
As of a fox, or of a cok and hen,
Taketh the moralite, goode men.
For Seint Paul seith that al that writen is,
To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille. (NPT VII.3431 ff.)
The idea that literary works consist of "fruit" (moral instruction) and "chaff" (the literary form used to convey the instruction) is common in medieval allegorical readings of literary texts (primarily biblical texts). Dante, in a famous letter to Can Grande (the authenticity of which has been questioned in the past), explains the way in which he wants his Paradiso (a copy of which he has sent to Can Grande) to be read: Dante's Letter to Can Grande.
It may be that Chaucer is urging us to read his tale of a Cock and a Fox allegorically, to discover the "moralite." Or this may be one more joke in Chaucer's most elaborate spoof.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Nun's Priest's Tale, click here.