Cecilia, a noble Roman maiden, is wedded to Valerian, but she tells him her guardian angel will slay anyone who touches her; to see the angel he must first be baptized. She sends him to Saint Urban, who is in hiding. Valerian is converted; his brother Tiburce is also converted. The prefect Almachius orders them siezed, but the officer sent for them is converted by Cecilia. She refuses to worship the Roman gods; Almachius commands her to worship the gods and boasts of his power; Cecilia shows him the foolishness of his arguments. She is condemned to be burned in a "bath of flames"; she survives a night and a day. A tormentor attempts to behead her, striking three times. She survives for three days, preaching the faith. Finally she dies; her house becomes the church of St. Cecilia in Rome, where it survives "unto this day."
Students reading this text for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful.
The Second Nun tells a 'saint's life,' one of the most popular of medieval literary genres. The saint's life typically tells of the life, miracles, and martyrdom of the hero or heroine. The general resemblances between this genre and romance have often been noted (though there is little of romance in the Life of Saint Cecilia).
Chaucer based his life of St. Cecilia on the Legenda aurea -- The Golden Legend -- by Jacobus de Voragine, one of the most widely read works, among both religious and laity, in the later Middle Ages, though he also knew some other Latin versions of the life (see The Riverside Chaucer , p. 942).
Chaucer's Life of Saint Cecilia is introduced by the three-part prologue -- a disquisition on idleness (vv. 1-28), an invocation to Mary (vv. 29-84), and the interpretation of the name Cecilia (vv. 85-119).
The disquisition on Idleness bears a general similarity to the introduction to a French version of the Golden Legend by Jehan de Vignay (printed in the Chaucer Society's Originals and Analogues of Some of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Part II, pp. 190-91). However, the ideas are commonplace and need not be attributed to any one source.
On the other hand, the Invocation to Mary -- Invocacio ad Mariam -- does have an exact source. It is based upon Dante's Prayer to the Virgin at the beginning of the last canto of his Divine Comedy: Paradiso, Canto 33.
Dante's prayer (which he in turn derived from St. Bernard) seems to have been Chaucer's favorite passage in the Divine Comedy; he quotes it again in the Prioress' Tale (VII.474-80; see note in The Riverside Chaucer, p. 914) and he uses it in a purely secular sense in Tr 3 1261-67 (see note in The Riverside Chaucer, p. 1042).
The interpretation of the name Cecilia is from The Golden Legend , where it serves as an introduction to the life: Interpretation.
For the Life of Saint Cecilia, in Caxton's translation from the Latin, see: Saint Cecilia.
As a reading of Caxton's version shows, Chaucer treats his source with great respect, following it with remarkable fidelity (as opposed to what seems his more usual method of free adaptation, especially in the development of characters). Older scholars attributed this to the fact that (as they thought) the saint's life was an early work. Certainly the composition of the Life of Saint Cecilia preceded that of The Canterbury Tales (since it is mentioned in the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women (F 426). But that it is therefore artistically weak does not necessarily follow; it may be a better work than those older critics believed.
For an interesting study of Chaucer's version of the legend see Sherry L. Reames, "The Cecilia Legend as Chaucer Inherited It and Retold It: The Disappearance of an Augustinian Ideal," Speculum, Vol. 55, No. 1. (Jan., 1980), pp. 38-57.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Second Nun's Tale (and Fragment VIII) click here; for a bibliography of works on saint's lives, click here.