The Second Nun's Tale

The Ellesmere miniature of the second nun. Although she is not represented in the General Prologue, the Ellesmere portraits include her among the Canterbury pilgrims.

The Question of Free Choice in Marriage

Behind the story of St. Cecilia and other virgin saints can be glimpsed the drama of women forced into unwanted marriages whose only refuge was the church. From the ninth century, the church had been vying with the nobility for control over marriage, and by the year 1100, the Church had established the supremacy of canon law over secular law in matters pertaining to marriage. Emphasizing the consensus of both parties as the essential element of a valid marriage and the indissolubility of the marital union allowed marriage to become a symbol of the unity between Christ and the Church and thus permitted a greater spiritualization of the marital union, but it also conflicted with the desire of the nobility to control property through marriage. Marriage in the twelfth century was the most important means of transferring property between different families and of insuring the passage of property within families into the next generation. Marriage in fact was the primary means by which social position could be secured, advanced, or lost, and the final authority over the marriage of heiresses rested with the king. Tight royal control over the marriage rights to heiresses allowed kings to promote their favorites primarily by rewarding them with advantageous marriages, as Henry I did in 1111 when he rewarded Miles of Gloucester by giving him in marriage Sybil, daughter of Bernard with all the lands she would inherit in the future from her parents. Under Henry I's charter, if a family objected to the king's choice of a husband for an heiress, they were forced to pay in order to avoid coercion, just as they were required to pay in order to secure the king's approval of a marriage. The first comprehensive statement of the Church's position on the issue of consent was that formulated by Gratian in the Decretum, which appeared at Bologna about 1140, but the question had a long history. In that work Gratian considered the question, " May a daughter be given in marriage against her will?" to which he answered: "A father's oath cannot compel a girl to marry one to whom she has never assented." [420] Gratian considered consent the one indispensable element of a valid marriage, so that even a couple who pronounced vows in secret had a valid marriage. To consent Gratian added two qualifications: the presence of "marital affection" between the spouses and consummation, which perfected the marriage. The significance of the principle of consent enunciated in the Decretum was not so much that it interfered with family control over marriage as that it established the superiority of the Church over the feudal lord in the regulation of marriage. Pope Urban II's intervention to prevent the marriage of the daughter of Jourdian I, prince of Capua, to Renaud Ridel, duke of Gaeta, one of the cases cited by Gratian in support of his position, is exemplary of the issues involved. Jourdain was a son of a Norman knight and a strong ally of the pope while Ridel was a troublemaker for the papacy. Although Jourdain had given his pledge to the marriage, he had done so unwillingly and was described as "coerced and grieving." Jourdain himself rather than his daughter, a child at the time, was thus the true plaintive in this matter. It is hardly necessary to mention out that in actual fact, the Church's stand did little to free women from arranged marriages. Since the Church could not change an economic structure based on impartible inheritance and primogeniture, the prevailing pattern remained that families decided the marriages of heiresses in order to control the transmission of property. Still, the Church's support for a woman's freedom of choice in marriage was an important vindication of the individual because it recognized an area in which all individuals are free and equal. Since the one indispensable element of marriage was consent informed by marital affection, the view of marriage promoted by the Church applied equally to the non-free. In the Christian view anyone, even a slave, was free to marry the person of his or her own choosing. The Church's support for liberty in love implied a parallel between the woman's right to freedom in love and the individual's right to free choice. The ideal of individual consent in love implies a society that, at some level at least, is without caste or rank. Thus by limiting the authority of feudal lords over their vassals by affirming the right of women to free choice in marriage, the Church found itself espousing, a latently egalitarian and anti-authoritarian position. The subtext of the lives of virgin martyrs and saints such as Cecilia, which today may seem to us hopelessly otherworldly and unrealistic, is the strongly anti -feudal and anti-government background of the Church's position in favor of the woman's right to free choice in marriage.


St. Cecilia and the angel, from the breviary of Martin d'Aragon, 15th-century Spain




Christina of Markyate--a Twelfth-Century Saint
The fate of women who resisted forced marriages is well-evident in the history of Christina of Markyate. For the most part, the private dramas of women were not noted by history, but occasionally, here and there, exceptional cases found their way into the written record. That is the situation of Christina of Markyate whose exceptional resistance to a forced marriage at last resulted in her sainthood and the redaction of her life as an exemplary biography. The relationship between virgin saints and the drama of forced marriage is clear in her biography. The following passage is excerpted from Women's Lives in Medieval Europe, edited by Emilie Amt (Routledge, 1993).

The Life of Christina of Markyate: Christina's Rebellion (12th c.) Christina of Markyate was born in England at the end of the eleventh century. Her family was a noble Anglo-Saxon one, as her biographer tells us; thus she belonged to the same group as the women whose wills precede this reading. But the Anglo-Saxon nobility was being depressed into a lower status by the French Normans who had conquered England in 1066, bringing with them a somewhat different way of life; thus the details of Christina's daily life were part of a vanishing culture. Christina's biogra- phy was written because she was a renowned holy woman--a local saint. "Saints' lives" were a common form of narrative writing throughout medieval Europe; the writer of such a work presented the holy figure as capable of miracles and worthy of veneration. Christina's struggle did not end with the episcopal decision described below; after this a bribe from Autti caused the bishop to reverse his ruling, and Christina eventually had to run away from home to enter the religious life. She died sometime between 1155 and 1166. Source: Reprinted from The Life of Chrisfina of Markyate, a Twelfth Centtlry Recluse, edited and translated by C. H. Talbot (1959), by permission of Oxford University Press. Reprinted in the Oxford Medieval Texts series, 1987.

In the town of Huntingdon there was born into a family of noble rank a maiden of uncommon holiness and beauty. Her father's name was Autti, her mother's Beatrix. The name which she herself had been given in baptism was Theodora, but later on, through force of circumstance, she changed it to Christina. Autti and Beatrix brought their daughter Christina with them to our monastery of the blessed martyr St. AIban, where his sacred bones are revered, to beg his protection for themselves and for their child. When the girl therefore had looked carefully at the place and observed the religious bearing of the monks who dwelt there, she declared how fortunate the inmates were, and expressed a wish to share in their fellowship. . . . Thenceforward she lost all interest in worldly ostentation and turned to God with all her heart, and said, "Lord, my desire is before Thee, and my groaning is not hid from Thee... . Grant me, I beseech Thee, purity and inviolable virginity whereby Thou mayest renew in me the image of Thy Son: who lives and reigns with Thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit God for ever and ever, Amen." After she had returned to Huntingdon she revealed to Sueno [her spiritual advisor] what she had vowed and he, who was considered in those parts as a light of God, confirmed the virgin's vow before God. After this the aforesaid young man IBurthred] called on her father and mother to arrange his betrothal with the girl who they had prom- ised should be his wife. When they spoke to her about preparations for the wedding, she would not listen. And when they asked the reason, she replied: "I wish to remain single, for I have made a vow of virginity." On hearing this, they made fun of her rashness. But she remained unmoved by it: therefore they tried to convince her of her foolishness and, despite her rejections, encouraged her to hurry on the marriage preparations. She refused. They brought her gifts and made great promises: she brushed them aside. They cajoled her; they threatened her; but she would not yield. At last they persuaded one of her close friends and inseparable companions, named Helisen, to soothe her ears by a continuous stream of flattery, so that it would arouse in her, by its very persistence, a desire to become the mistress of a house. . . . But she was quite unable to extort one word signifying her consent even though she had spent a whole year trying out these stratagems. Some time later, however, when they were all gathered together in the church, they made a concerted and sudden attack on her. To be brief, how it happened I cannot tell. All I know is that by God's will, with so many exerting pressure on her from all sides, she yielded (at least in word), and on that very day Burthred was betrothed to her. After the espousal the maiden returned once more to her parents' home whilst her husband, though he had houses elsewhere, built her a new and larger dwelling-place near his father-in-law. But although she was married, her former intentions were not changed, and she freely expressed her determination not submit to the physical em- braces of any man. The more her parents became aware of her persis- tence in this frame of mind, the more they tried to break down her resistance, first by flattery, then by reproaches, sometimes by presents and grand promises, and even by threats and punishment. And though all her friends and relatives united forces together in this purpose, her father Autti surpassed them all in his efforts, whilst he himself was outclassed by the girl's mother, as will become evident later on. After they had tried out many methods without result, they finally hit on this subterfuge. rutting her under strict and rigorous guard, they prevented any religious god-fearing man from having any conversation with her: on the other hand they freely invited to the house people given to jesting, boasting, worldly amusement, and those whose evil communications corrupt good manners. . . . [And] they took her with them, against her will, to Public bancIuets, where divers choice meats were followed by drinks of different kinds, where the alluring melodies of the singers were accompanied by the sounds of the tither and the harp, so that by listening to them her strength of mind might be sapped away and in this way she might finally be brought to take pleasure in the world. But their wiles were outwitted at all points and served but to emphasize her invincible prudence. See finally how she acted, how she behaved herself at what is called the Gild merchant, which is one of the merchants' greatest and best- known festivals. One day, when a great throng of nobles were gath- ered together there, Autti and Beatrix held the place of honour, as being the most important among them. It was their pleasure that their daughter Christina, their eldest and most worthy daughter, should act as cup-bearer to such an honourable gathering. Wherefore they commanded her to get up and lay aside the mantle which she was wearing, so that, with her garments fastened to her sides with bands and her sleeves rolled up her arms, she should courteously offer drinks to the nobility. They hoped that the compliments paid to her by the onlookers and the accumulation of little sips of wine would break her resolution and prepare her body for the deed of corruption. Carrying out their wishes, she prepared a suitable defence against both attacks. Against the favours of human flattery she fixed in her memory the thought of the Mother of God. . . . Against the urge to drunkenness, she opposed her burning thirst. . . . But as her parents had been outwitted in this, they tried something else. And at night they let her husband secretly into her bedroom in order that, if he found the maiden asleep, he might suddenly take her by surprise and overcome her. But even through that providence to which she had commended herself, she was found dressed and awake, and she welcomed the young man as if he had been her brother. And sitting on her bed with him, she strongly encouraged him to live a chaste life, putting forward the saints as examples. . . . When the greater part of the night had passed with talk such as this, the young man eventually left the maiden. When those who had got him into the room heard what had happened, they joined together in calling him a spineless fellow. And with many reproaches they goaded him on again, and thrust him into her bedroom another night, having warned him not to be misled by her deceitful tricks and naive words nor to lose his manliness. Either by force or entreaty he was to gain his end. And if neither of these sufficed, he was to know that they were at hand to help him: all he had to mind was to act the man. When Christina sensed this, she hastily sprang out of bed and clinging with both hands to a nail which was fixed in the wall, she hung trembling between the wall and the hangings. Burthred meanwhile approached the bed and, not finding what he expected, he immedi- ately gave a sign to those waiting outside the door. They crowded into the room forthwith and with lights in their hands ran from place to place looking for her, the more intent on their quest as they knew she was in the room when he entered it and could not have escaped without their seeing her. . . . Then the maiden of Christ, taking cour- age, prayed to God, saying: "Let them be turned backward, that desire my hurt;" and straightaway they departed in confusion, and from that moment she was safe. . . . Whilst her parents were setting these and other traps for her they fixed a day for the marriage with their son-in-law several times. For they hoped that some occasion would arise when they could take advantage of her. For what woman could hope to escape so many snares? And yet, with Christ guarding the vow which his spouse had made, the celebration of the wedding could nohow be brought about. Indeed, when the day which they had fixed approached and all the necessary preparations ~or the marriage had been arranged, it hap- pened first that all the things prepared were burned by an unexpected fire, and then that the bride was taken with a fever. In order to drive away the fever, sometimes they thrust her into cold water, at other (cfimes they blistered her excessively. . . . Her father brought her [to the priory of Huntingdon] another time, and placing her before Fredebertus, the reverend prior, and the rest of the canons of the house, addressed them with these words: "I know, my fathers, I know, and i admit to my daughter, that I and her mother have forced her against her will into this marriage and that against her better judgement she has received this sacrament. Yet, no matter how she was led into it, if she resists our authority and rejects it, we shall be the laughing-stock of our neighbours, a mockery and derision to those who are round about. Wherefore, I beseech you, plead with her to have pit!: on us: let her marry in the Lord and take away our reproach. Why must she depart from tradition? Why should she bring this dishonour on her father? Her life of poverty will bring the whole of the nobility into disrepute. Let her do now what we wish and she can have all that we possess." When Autti had said this, Fredebertus asked him to leave the assembly and With his canons about him he began to address the maiden with these words: "We are surprised, Theodora, at Your obstinacY, or rather we should say, your madness. We know that you have been betrothed according to ecclesiastical custom. We know that the sacrament of marriage, which has been sanctioned by divine law, cannot be dissolved, because what God has joined together, no man should put asunder. . . . [He quotes several passages from the Bible about marriage and about children's duty of obedience to parents.] Nor should you think that only virgins are saved: for whilst many virgins perish, many mothers of families are saved, as well we know. And since this is so, nothing remains but that you accept our advice and teaching and submit yourself to the lawful embraces o~ the man to whom you have been legally joined in marriage." To these exhortations Christina replied: "I am ignorant of the scrip- tures which you have quoted, father prior. But from their sense I will give my answers thereto. My father and mother, as you have heard, bear witness that against my will this sacrament, as you call it, was forced on me. I have never been a wife and have never thought of becoming one. Know that from my infancy I have chosen chastity and have vowed to ~hrist that I would remain a virgin: this I did before witnesses, but even if they were not Present God would be witness to my conscience continuously. This I showed by my actions as far as I was allowed. And if my parents have ordered me to enter into a marriage which I never wanted and to break the vow which I made to Christ which they know I made in my childhood, I leave you, who are supposed to excel other men in the knowledge of the scriptures, to judge how wicked a thing this is. If I do all in my power to fulfil the vow I made to ~hrist, I shall not be disobedient to my parents. What I do, I do on the invitation of Him whose voice, as you say, is heard in the Gospel: 'Every one who leaves house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or possessions for My name's sake shall receive a hundredfold and possess eternal life.' Nor do I think that virgins only will be saved. But I do say, and it is true, that if many virgins perish, so rather do married women. And if many mothers of families are saved, which you likewise say, and it is true, certainly virgins are saved more easily." Fredebertus, astonished at the common sense and answers of Chris- tina, asked her, saying, "How do you prove to me that you are doing this for the love of Christ? Perhaps you are rejecting marriage with Burthred in order to enter a more wealthy one?" "A more wealthy one, certainly," she replied. "For who is richer than Christ?" Then said he, "I am not joking. I am treating with you seriously. And if you wish us to believe you, take an oath in our presence that, were you betrothed to him as you have been to Burthred, you would not marry even the king's son." At these words the maiden casting her eyes up to heaven and with a joyful countenance replied: "I will not merely take an oath, but I am prepared to Prove it, by carrying red-hot iron in these my bare hands."' For, as I have frequently declared, I must fulfil the vow which through the inspiration of His grace I made to the only Son of the Eternal King, and with the help of this same grace I mean to fulfiI it. And I trust to God that the time is not far off when it will become clear that I have no other in view but Christ." Fredebertus then called in Autti and said to him: "We have tried our best to bend your daughter to Your will, but we have made no headway. We know, however, that our bishop Robert will be coming soon to his vill at Buckden, which is near this town. Reason demands that the whole question should be laid before him. Let the case be put into his hands after he comes and let her take the verdict of the bishop, if of no other. What is the point of tearing your vitals and suffering to no purpose? We respect the high resolution of this maiden as founded on impregnable virtue." To which Autti replied, "I accept your advice. Please seek the bishop on this affair. " He agreed, and so Autti brought back his daughter and placed her under the usual restraint. In the meantime he heard that the bishop had come out to Buckden. Fredebertus immediately sought him out, being sent by Autti: and with him went the most noble citizens of the town, who thought that, as the marriage had already been performed, the bishop would immediately order the betrothed woman to submit to the authority of her husband. Hence they laid before him in detail and without delay all the facts which they knew pertained to the business in hand, namely what Christina had done, what others had done to her, begin- ning with her childhood and bringing it up to the present day. At last they brought foru·ard the proposal ... that since neither adversity not prosperity could bring her to it she should be forced to accept her marriage at least by episcopal authority. After weighing the evidence minutely, the bishop said: "I declare to you, and I swear before God and His blessed Mother that there is no bishop under heaven who could force her into this marriage, if according to her vow she wishes to keep herself for God to serve Him ireelp and for no man besides." 52. The ordeal of the hot iron was a common procedure ~or determining guilt or innocence in Germanic law. If the burns healed cleanly, the subject was judged to be telling the truth.


Note the crown of roses and lilies in this seventeenth-century portrayal of Cecilia


from Jacobus de Voragine, the Legenda Aurea

The source for Chaucer's version of the St. Cecilia legend was Jacobus de Voragine's (13th century) The Golden Legend, a collection of saints' lives and other religious matter which was extremely popular in the Middle Ages. This translation is excerpted from Robert Miller, Chaucer, Sources and Backgrounds (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

The Life of Saint Cecilia] Cecilia is as much as to say the "lily of heaven,"' or "a way for blind "2 Or she is named for caelum and lya;3 or else Cecilia, as "lacking blindness."" Or she is named for caelum, that is "heaven," and lees, that is "people."" She was a heavenly lily by shamefastness of virginity. Or she is said to be a "lily" because she had the whiteness of purity, strength of conscience, and the odor of good fame. She was a "way to blind men" by her example, "heaven" by her devout contemplation, "lya" by her busy labor. Or she is named for "heaven" because, accord ing to Isidore, the philosophers say that heaven is movable, round, and burning." just so she was moving in her busy works, round in her per- severence, and burning in fiery charity. She was "lacking blindness" through the illumination of wisdom. And she was "heaven of the peo- ple," for the people beheld in her, as if following the spiritual heaven, the sun, the moon, and the stars: that is to say, shining of wisdom, mag- nanimity of faith, and diversity of virtues. Saint Cecilia, the holy virgin, came from the noble lineage of the Ro- mans, and from the time that she lay in her cradle she was fostered and nourished in the faith of Christ. She always bore the gospel hidden in her breast, and never ceased day or night from holy prayers and divine discourse, but always commended her virginity to God. And when this blessed virgin was to be espoused to a young man named Valerian, and the day of the wedding had come, she was clad in royal clothes of gold, but under them she wore a hair shirt. And hearing the organs making melody, she sang in her heart only to God, saying, "0 Lord, I beseech thee that my heart and body map be undefiled, so that I be not con- founded." And every second and third day she fasted praying, com- mending herself unto our Lord, whom she feared. The night came in which she was to share the secret silences of the bridal chamber alone with her husband, and she said to him: "O most beloved and sweet youth, I have a secret to tell you, if you will keep it secret and swear that you will reveal it to no man." When Valerian swore that under no circumstances would he reveal it, nor for any rea- son, she said to him: "I have an angel as my lover, which keeps watch over my body with extreme jealousy, and if he finds that you touch me even lightly in polluted love, he will slay you at once, and you will lose the flower of your most gracious youth.' But if he knows that you love me with pure love, he will love you as he loves me, and will show you his glory." Then Valerian, fearing the will of God, said to her: "If you wish me to believe what you say to me, show me that angel, and if I find that he is truly an angel of God, I will do as you say; but if it hap- pens that you love another man than me, I will slay both him and you with my sword." Cecilia answered him: "If you will believe in the true God and promise to be baptised, you shall have the power to see him. Go then forth to the Via Appia, to the third milestone from the city, and say to the poor folk whom you will find there,'Cecilia has sent me to you, so that you can lead me to the holy old man, Urban,s because I bear a secret message for him." When you see him, tell him the words that I have said; and after you have been purified by him, then when you return you shall see the angel." Valerian went forth and, following the signs he had received, found this holy bishop Urban hiding among the sepulchres of the martyrs, to whom he reported all the words that Cecilia had said. And Saint Ur- ban, raising his hands to heaven, wept and said: "0 Lord Tesus Christ, sower of chaste counsel and keeper of us all, receive the fruit of the seed that thou hast sown in Cecilia. O Lord Tesus Christ, good Shep- herd, your servant Cecilia, like a busy bee, serveth Thee. For the spouse whom she hath taken, who was like a wild lion, she hath sent hither to Thee like a most gentle lamb." And with that word there suddenly ap- peared an old man clad in clothes as white as snow, holding a book writ- ten with letters of gold. When Valerian saw him, he for fear fell down to the ground as if he were dead. The old man raised him up, and read in this manner: "One God, one faith, one baptism, one God and Fa- ther of all, above all, and in us all, everywhere."g And when the old man had read this, he said: "Do you believe this, or do you still doubt it!" Then Valerian cried out, saying: "Nothing under heaven can be believed more truly." The old man vanished on the spot. Then Vale- rian received baptism from Saint Urban, and returning home he found Cecilia within their chamber speaking with an angel. And this angel had two crowns of roses and lilies which he held in his hands, of which he gave one to Cecilia and the other to Valerian, saying: "Keep these crowns with an undefiled heart and clean body, for I have brought them to you from God's Paradise, and they shall never wither, nor lose their fragrance, nor may they be seen by any but those to whom chastity is pleasing." And thou, Valerian, because thou hast used profitable counsel, demand whatever thou wilt." Valerian said: "There is nothing in this life more dear to me than the love of my only brother. Therefore I pray that he might know this truth with me." The angel said: "Thy petition pleaseth our Lord, and ye both shall come to Him with the palm of martyrdom." At that moment Tyburtius, his brother, entered the chamber, and as he smelled the sweet odor of roses, he said: "I wonder where this odor of roses and lilies can come from, this time of the year, for if I were holding those roses and lilies in my own hands, perfumes of such s\yeet- ness could not so penetrate my senses. I confess, I am so refreshed that I think I have been suddenly transformed." Then Valerian said: "We have crowns that bloom with rose red and snow white flowers which your eyes have no power to see, and as by my prayers you have smelled their odor, so, if you will believe, shall you be able to see them." Ty- burtius replied: "Do I hear this in my dreams or do you speak to me in very truth, Valerian!" Valerian said: "~ie have been in dreams up to now, but now we reside in the truth indeed." Tyburtius inquired: "Where have you learned this!" Valerian said: "An angel of God has taught me, ~;hom you will be able to see if you will be purified and re- nounce all idols." To this miracle of the crowns of roses Ambrose testifies in his Pref- ace," saying: Saint Cecilia was so filled with the heavenly gift that she took up the martyr's palm. She renounced the world itself along with her marriage chamber. TYitness is the confession of Valerian her husband and of Tyburtius, whom, O Lord, you crowned by an angelic hand with perfumed flowers; a virgin led these men to glory; the world acknowl- edges how great is the pon·er of devout chastitv. Thus Ambrose. Then Cecilia showed him plainly that all idols were mute and with- out senses, so that T!iburtius responded, saying: "Whoever does not believe this is a beast." Then Cecilia, kissing his breast, said: "Today I acknowledge !-ou as my relative. For just as the love of God made your brother my husband, so your contempt of idols will make )·ou one of our family. nTow go with your brother to receive baptism, and you will be able to see the faces of the angels." And Tyburtius asked his brother: "I beseech !-ou, brother, to tell me to whom you are taking me." Vale- rian replied: "To the bishop Urban." TJiburtius inquired. "Do you mean that Urban who has so often been condemned to death and who still lurks in secret hiding places! If he is found he niill be burned, and we will be wrapped in the same flames. And while we seek out the di- vinity hidden in heaven, we will incur the fury of fire on earth." Cecilia aIlswered him: "If this life n·ere the only one, we might lustly fear to lose it. There is, however, another better life, which can never be lost, which the Son of God has told us of. All things created have been made by the Son born of the Father, and the whole, which was created, was animated by the Spirit proceeding from the Father. This very Son of God, coming into the world with words and miracles, showed us that there is another life." Tyburtius asked: "You have said that there is one God; how can you now speak of three!" Cecilia re- plied: "rust as in the single wisdom (sa~ientia) of a man there are three things: reason (ingeniunz), memory (memorial, and understanding (int~llectus), so can there be three persons in the one essence of divin- ity." Then she began to preach to him of the coming of the Son of God and of His passion, and to show the maIly pertinent applications of his martyrdom. "For," she said, "the Son of God was slain so that human nature bound by sin should be freed; blessed, he was reviled, so that the reviled man should receive blessing; he permitted himself to be mocked, so that man should be freed from the mocking of demons; he received on his head a crowI1 of thorns, in order to remove from us the sentence of death ('capital sentence'); he drank the bitter gall, in order to re- store a sweet taste to mall, he was stripped, in order to cover the naked- ness of our first parents; he was hanged on a tree, to lift the burden of the lie of the first tree." Then Tyburtius said to his brother: "Have pity on me, and take me to the man of God so that I may be baptised." He was taken and baptised, and thereafter he often saw angels of God, and he obtained all that he ever required of God. After this, Valerian and Tvburtius devoted themselves to giving alms to the poor, and they gave burial to the bodies of the saints whom the prefect Almachius had put to death. Almachius called them before him, and inquired why they were burying those condemned for their crimes. Tyburtius replied: "Would that we were the servants of those whom you call criminals! They rejected what appeared to be but was not true, and they discovered that what did not seem to be was true." The prefect asked: "Now, what could that be!" Tyburtius replied: "That which seems to be but is not, is all that is in this world, which leads men to nothingness. And that which does not seem to be but is, is the life of the just and the punishment of the evil." The prefect said: "I do not think you speak reasonably." Then he ordered Valerian to stand forth, saying: "Since your brother is not of sound mind, you, at all events, can answer for him. Most people hold that you are wrong--you who contemn worldly pleasure and welcome all sorts of suffering as pleasures." Then Valerian said that he had seen idle men joking and deriding workers in the field in cold weather, but in summer time, when the blessed came into the fruits of their labor, to the joy of those who were thought to be foolish, then those who were thought so witty were reduced to weeping. "Thus is it with us who even now un- dergo ignominy and labor. In the future, however, we will receive our glory and our eternal reward.'" But you who now enjoy temporal pleas- ures will, in the future, find eternal ruin." Then the prefect said: "Therefore we who are invincible princes will suffer eternal sorrow, and you who are most worthless will possess eternal joy!" Valerian an- swered: "You are but little men, not princes, born in our own time, destined soon to die and to render account to God more than other men." But the prefect said: "Why should I put up with your twisted words! Offer sacrifice to the gods and depart without harm." The holy men answered: "We offer sacrifice to the true God every day." The pre- feet demanded: "What is his name!" Valerian responded: "You could not discover His name even if you could fly with wings." The prefect asked: "Therefore Tupiter is not the name' of god!" Valerian said: "That is the name of a murderer and a ravisher of women." Almachius asked him: "Therefore the whole world is in error, and only you and your brother know who is the true god!" Valerian answered: "We are not alone: a great multitude of people has accepted this doctrine." The holy men were turned over to the custody of Maximus. He said to them: "0 bright flower of youth, O mutual brotherly devotion, how is it that you hasten to death as if to a feast!" Valerian answered that if he would promise to believe their faith, he would see the glory which their souls would receive after death. Maximus said: "May I be blasted bv thunderbolts if I do not confess Him whom you worship to be the only God, if He can bring about what you say." Then this Maximus, with all his household and all the executioners, were turned to the faith and received baptism from the holy Urban, who came there secretly. And afterwards, when the morning came, Saint Cecilia said to them: "Hail, you knights of Christ; cast off the works of darkness and clothe yourselves with the arms of light." And then they were led four miles out of the town to the statue of Tupiter, and when they refused to sac- rifice they were beheaded together. Then Maximus, who saw this thing, swore that in the hour of their passion he saw clear shining angels, and their souls leave like virgins from their chamber, borne up by the angels to heaven. Many believed him, and, converted from the error of idol- atry, returned to faith in their Creator. When Almachius heard that Maximus had been made a Christian, he ordered him beaten with whips of lead until he gave up his spirit and died. Saint Cecilia buried his body by Valerian and Tyburtius. Then Almachius began to inquire into the relationships of the two men, and he brought Cecilia before him inasmuch as she was the wife of Valerian, and ordered that she sacrifice unto the idols or accept the sentence of death. When the officers came to press her on this matter, they wept bitterly that so fair and so noble a maid should be put to death. Then she said to them: "0 good young men, this is not to lose my youth, but to change it: that is, to give clay and receive gold, to give up a vile habitation and receive a precious one, to give up a little cor- ner and receive a bright open space. For each offering God repays a hundredfold. Do you believe what I say!" And they said: "We believe Christ to be very God, who has such a servant." Bishop Urban was called, and four hundred and more were baptised. Then Almachius, calling Saint Cecilia before him, said to her: "Of what condition are you?" And she said: "I am native born, and a no- ble." Almachius asked her: "I demand to know of you your religion." Then Cecilia said: "You began your interrogation foolishly, since you would have two answers to one question." Almachius answered: "What is the cause of your rude answer!" And she said: "A good conscience and a faith not feigned." Almachius said: "Do you not know my power!" And she said: "Your power is like a bladder full of wind; its rigor can be deflated by a needle's prick, and whatever seems straight in it will be twisted." Almachius replied: "You began with injurious words, and you continue with injurious words." Cecilia answered: "Only if I have put my case with deceiving words can what I have said be called injurious; therefore, either show that I have spoken falsely, or condemn yourself for making false accusations. But we who know the holy name of God are entirely uIlable to deny it. It is better to die with joy, than to live in misery." Almachius asked her: "How is it that you speak with such pride!" And she said: "It is not pride, but constancy." Almachius said: "Wretch, don't ):ou know that I have been given the power over life and death!" And she said: "Now shall I prove you a liar against accepted truth. You may indeed take life from those who live, but to those who are dead you can give no life. Therefore you are a minister not of life, but of death." Almachius returned: "Now put aside your madness, and sacrifice unto the gods." Cecilia answered: "I do not know where you lost your eyes; for those whom you call gods, we all can see are only stones. Put !lour hands on them, and by touch- ing learn what your eyes are unable to see."'" Then Almachius became angry, and commanded that she be led to her house, and commanded that she be burned there day and night in a boiling bath. In this she remained, as if she were in a cold place, and she did not feel even a drop of sweat. Tlihen Almachius heard of this, he commanded that she should be beheaded in that very bath. The ex- ecutioner struck her three times on the neck, but could not cut off her head; and since the law decreed against a fourth stroke for decapita- tion, the executioner left her there bleeding half alive and half dead. During the next three days she gave all her possessions to the poor, and continually preached the faith all that while. And all those whom she converted to the faith she commended to bishop Urban, saying: "I have asked a respite of three days, that I might commend these souls to your blessing, and that you might consecrate my house as a church." Then Saint Urban, taking up her body, with his deacons buried her among his bishops, and consecrated her house as a church, in which the service of our Lord is said to this day in memory of the blessed Cecilia. She suffered her passion about the year of our Lord two hundred and thirty-six, in the time of Alexander the emperor. However, it is read in another place that she suffered in the time of Marcus Aurelius, who reigned about the year of our Lord two hundred and twenty. NOTES 1. Lat. coeli lilia. 2. Lat. coecis via. 3· I.e., "heaven" and Lia (or Leah, representative of the active life, according to the conventional interpretation of Gen. xxix-xxx). 4· Lat. caecitate carens. 5· Lat. coelo, "heaven," and Gk. lees, "people." 6. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae III, 31: "Caelum philosophi rotundum, volubile atque ardens esse dixerunt." 7· See Psalm re, 11, a basis for the Christian belief in a "guardian angel." 8. Pope Urban I (ruled 2zz-30). He \vas beheaded hlay 25, zjo.,4s a martyr he became a "saint," but onlv after the events recorded in this legend. His own legend appears in the Lbgenda aurea, Chapter LXXVII. Cecilia has sent Valerian to the Catacombs, near Rome. g. The old man is usually identified as St. Paul. The passage he reads is Ephesians iv, 5-6 to. Probably a spiritual version of the "nuptial crowns" worn in Roman wedding ceremonies. The roses and lilies conventionally symbolize martyrdom and virginity. 11. The reference is to the Ambrosian pra~fatio to the RiIass for St, Cecilia's day. 12. For the image, compare Matthew xx, 1-16. 13· Compare Wisdom, xv.


Click here to return to the index of Jane Zatta's Chaucer Web Site