Back to top

Why I Can't Be a Nun


1 And were fully in control of their lives

2 Otherwise your dress is no true sign (token) of your character


19 There appears to be a line missing here as the b-rhyme continues. The stanza thus has seven rather than eight lines.

21 The persona's oath on womanhode is the first indication that she is female.

24-25 MS and Furnivall indent these lines. MS has ut at head of line 24; Furnivall supplies B. This stanza marks a narrative division, since the "I" of previous stanzas becomes identified as a woman. Similar narrative divisions occur at lines 120-21 and 159-60.

30-31 The implication is that the nuns are worldly and eager to please visitors.

32-33 The father is grateful for the report, since now he can make an informed decision to keep his daughter from joining a convent.

49 MS and Furnivall: my will[e] my.

53 So Furnivall; MS: woo.

56 Than hyt befell in . . . May. The chanson d'aventure formula provides the shift in scene to the garden in May, where medieval dream visions so often occur. Here the scene defines the girl's domestic security, her place apart where she can relax and meditate. The merry innocence of the singing birds inspires her prayer for purity even though she feels she is in opposition to her father's wishes.

63 Katerine is so modest that she will not reveal her innermost thoughts to the reader: see also lines 211-14.

99 So MS; Furnivall: are.

102 her love. The Virgin Mary's love, she the fruit of whose womb was "swete Ihesu."

105 So Furnivall; MS: an wyt.

108 handmayde. In her obedience, Katerine would be like the Virgin Mary, the handmaiden of the Lord (ancilla domini - Luke 1.38).

120-21 MS and Furnivall indent these lines (as at 24-25). The scribe, anticipating a rubricated A, left a space before nd. The scribe indented here because this point marks the beginning of the narrator's dream.

137 So MS; Furnivall omits this line.

144-51 The rhyme scheme of this stanza - abbbbcbc - is faulty; and the identical "rhyme" of lines 145-46 (not rime riche) is especially corrupt.

158 MS and Furnivall sche for schew (to rhyme with rew and trew).

160-61 These lines are indented in the MS and Furnivall. Line 160 perhaps should read I thanke yow lady quod I than.

173 MS and Furnivall: And howse.

   wommen reguler. Women who have taken vows to follow the rules of their conventual order. Their opposite would be "women secular." Katerine will conclude in the more Wycliffite vein of prescribing her own personal rules for living.

176 MS: thow3t; Furnivall: thou3t.

193 So MS; Furnivall: old.

197 So MS; Furnivall: dyscord.

215 and se inserted above the line in the MS.

258 Envy. MS: enevy.

274 Priores. The Prioress, or Mother Superior, is head of the convent or priory.

301 sche inserted above the line in the MS.

329 MS and Furnivall: thow3.

   how I may governed be. Having rejected the convent, Katerine is still concerned to understand what rule she will follow. Her instruction to ladies at the end serves a dramatic function in the poem's plot: it offers rules within the household as guides to life.

336 sum man. Katerine seems particularly concerned that some male in her audience, perhaps a church official, might challenge the authority of her vision and her resistence to the convent on grounds that she is simply following her fantasy. Compare line 63, where she likewise seems uncomfortable with the opinions of men.

346-49 The Vulgate simply says that Dinah "went out to see the women of that country" (Gen. 34.1), without implying that she has done anything wrong. Katerine's suggestion that she "went owte to see thynges in veyne" is an unusual interpretation, reflecting her modesty against appearing forward in public.

350 Here Katerine appears to be addressing the nuns themselves, or would-be nuns. But her remarks apply as well to all women, who should avoid provocative dress, or dress that is inappropriate to their spiritual welfare.

377 endlesly. MS and Furnivall: enlesly.

378-88 The narrator adduces exempla of holy nuns including St. Clare of Assisi (d. 1253), who founded the Order of Poor Clares (feasts Sept. 23, Oct. 3); St. Edith of Wilton (d. 984), who refused the English throne (feast Sept. 16); St. Scholastica (sixth century), sister of St. Benedict and principal female saint of the Benedictine Order (feast Feb. 10); St. Bridget (sixth century), "Mary of the Gael," patron of Ireland with Columbia and Patrick and abbess of the first Irish convent (feast Feb. 1); St. Radegund (sixth century), who founded the double monastery of the Holy Cross at Poitiers, an influential center of learning (feast Aug. 13); St. Etheldreda or Audrey (d. 679), who maintained her virginity despite two marriages and who founded a double monastery at Ely (feast June 23); St. Frideswide (eighth century), patron saint of Oxford, who founded a priory that was said to have healing powers (feast Oct. 19); St. Withburga (eighth century), who founded a convent at Dereham and whose death inspired a fresh spring to flow (feast July 8); St. Mildred (eighth century), who was known for her piety and aid to the poor (feast July 13); St. Sexburga (late seventh century), who founded Minster Monastery on Sheppey Island and who retired to Ely (feast July 6); and St. Ermengild (d. 703), who helped spread Christianity in England and who joined St. Sexburga at Ely (feast Feb. 13). I am uncertain of the identity of Emerelde (line 385).

381 weren. MS: werenen.

388 The poem ends at the bottom of folio 190b. Another work begins on folio 191, suggesting that the poem is incomplete.
  [The beginning of the poem is missing. The opening lines apparently told how Commissioners were sent to investigate the condition of nunneries throughout the kingdom.]
And whan they had resceyved her charge,
   They spared nether mud ne myer,
But roden over Inglonde brode and large,
   To seke owte nunryes in every schyre.
   Her hertys were alwey on her hyre,
And that scheude they wel in her workyng,
   For they were as ferfent as ony fyre
To execute her lordys byddyng.
And schortly to sey, no man abode
   That on thys erand schulde be sent.
Into dyvers schyres dyvers men rode,
   And one of hem began in Kent.
   They token her leve and forthe they went;
And to eche of hem was geven grete hyre,
   And therefore they were so fervent
To seke owte nunryes in every schyre.
But the townes names I ovyr pas,
   For and I schulde telle alle in fere,
   Hyt were a long tale for to here.
   But on a boke I dare well swere,
In gode feythe and on womanhode,
   None was forgete, fer ne nere,
Thorowgh Ynglond long and brode.
But when they were com home agene
   That roden owte message to bere,
Than my fader was fulle fayne
   And callede hem to hym alle in fere
   And seyde, "How sped ye there ye were,
How faren the nunnes that ye cam tylle?"
   "Welle, syr," quod they, "and made us gode chere,
And yowre desyre they wolle fulfylle."
"I thanke hem seres, iwys," quod he,
   "Now am I glade, so God me spede."
And than my fader loked on me,
   "Dameselle," quod he, "now take gode hede,
   For yowre entent God do yow mede.
Ye seyde ye wolde be a nune,
   But ye may not fulfylle in dede
The purpose that ye have begun."
"Fader," quod I, and sore I wept,
   "Wolle ye me here wyth wordys few?
I trow my wylle schalle be accept
   Before owre sovereyne Lorde Ihesu,
   And to Him I am and wolle be trew
Wythe alle my wylle and obcervaunce,
   And I wolle not chonge Hym for no new,
For I love Hym wythe owten variaunce.
"And trewly me repenteth fulle sore
   That my wylle may not be had."
Than my fader lowgh and seyde no more,
   But went hys way and was fulle glade.
   But than morned I, and was ryght sad,
And in my hert I was fulle wo:
   "Alas," I thowght, "my chawnce ys bad,
I trow that fortune be my fo."
Than hyt befelle in a mornyng of May,
   In the same yere as I seyde before,
My pencyfness wolde not away
   But ever waxed more and more,
   I walked alone and wepte sore
Wythe syhyngys and mornyng chere,
   I seyde but lytylle and thowght the more,
For what I thowght no man myght here.
And in a gardyne I sportyd me
   Every day at dyvers howres,
To beholde and for to see
   The swete effecte of Aprelle flowres,
   The fayre herbys and gentyl flowrys
And birde syngyng on every spray,
   But my longyng and my dolowrys
For alle thys sport wolde not away.
The byrdys sate on the bowes grene
   And syngyng fulle meryly and made gode chere;
Her federys were fulle fayre and schene
   And alle they maden mery in her manere.
   Than went I into a fayre herbere,
And set me on my kneys allone,
   To God I made my prayowre,
And on thys wyse I made my mone:
"Lorde God, that alle vertu hast
   And haddyst wythowten begynnyng,
Kepe me that I may lyve chaste
   For the corupcion of synnyng;
   For thowgh my fadyr and alle my kyn
Forsake me thus in necessite,
   Yyt I hope suche grace to wyn
That owre Lord Ihesu wolle resceyve me.
"Sovereyne Lord omnipotent,
   Now be my comfort, swete Ihesu.
Before The alle thyng ys present,
   Alle that evyr was, and alle that ys,
   Alle that schalle be aftyr thys.
Thow knowest alle thyng bothe most and lest.
   Now Ihesu kyng of Hevyn blys,
Wysse me thy servant what ys best.
"For now I am alle desolate,
   And of gode cownesayle destitute.
Lord, to my mornyng be mediate,
   For Thow art oonly my refute,
   To The for comfort I make my sute,
To have that joy that lastythe ay,
   For her love that bare that frute,
Swete Ihesu, miserere mei!
"I can no more, but trust in The
   In whom ys alle wysdom and wyt;
And thow wost what ys best for me,
   For alle thyng in thy syght ys pyt.
   Loo here I thyne handmayde syt
Dyspysede and in poynte to spylle.
   My cawse to The, Lorde, I commytte:
Now do to me aftyr Thy wylle."
And at that worde forfeynte I fylle
   Among the herbes fresche and fyne;
Unto a benche of camomylle
   My wofulle hede I dyd inclyne,
   And so I lay in fulle grete pyne,
And cowde not cese but alwey wepe,
   And sore I syghed many a tyme
And prayed my lorde he wolde me kepe.
And at the last a sclepe was ibrowght
   And alle alone in this gardyne.
And than com a fayre lady, as me thowght,
   And called me by name - "Kateryne,"
   And seyde, "Awake, dowghtyr myne,
And to my talkyng take entent.
   To bryng thyne hert owte of pyne,
And to comfort the, now have I ment.
"Kateryne," sche sayde, "loke up and have."
   And than I behelde welle her fygure -
I pray to God in Hevyn her save -
   For hyt was the most godely creature
   That ever I saw, I yow ensuer,
As I wolle telle yow or I go,
   For I behelde welle her feture,
Her bewté, and her clothyng also.
And me thowght I was as wakyng tho,
   As I am now wythowten lesyng;
And I behelde that lady so
   That I forgate alle my mornyng,
   For hyt was to me a wondyr thyng
That lady to beholden and see:
   Sche was so fayre wythowten lesyng
Bothe of clothyng and of bewté,
Thys that was so godely arrayed.
   Sche comfortythe me in dyvers wyse,
And spake to me in dyvers wyse,
   And bad me anone I schulde aryse.
   And me thowght I rose and knelyd thryes,
And seyde to her wythe grete reverence,
   "What ys yowr name, dame empryse?"
Sche seyde, "My name ys Experience."
"And, dowghter, my techyng may not fayle,
   For what so I teche, hyt ys fulle trew,
And now at thys tyme for thyne avayle
   I am com hedyr on the to rew;
   And wythe the help of Cryste Ihesu
I hope hyt schalle be for the best,
   For suche thynges as I schalle the schew,
I tro hyt schalle set thyne hert in rest."
"Thanke yow, lady," quod I than,
   "And thereof hertely I yow pray;
And I, as lowly as I can,
   Wolle do yow servyse nyght and day;
   And what ye byd me do or say
To yow I promyt obedyence,
   And bryng me owte of thys carefulle way,
My gode dere Lady Experience."
Than me thowght sche toke me by the honde
   As I knelyd upon my kne
And up anone sche bad me ryse
   And on thys wyse seyde to me:
   "Kateryne, thys day schalt thow see
An howse of wommen reguler,
   And diligent loke that thow be,
And note ryght welle what thow seest there."
Than me thowght sche led me forthe a pace
   Thorowgh a medow fayre and grene,
And sone sche browght me to a place,
   In erthe ys none so fayre I wene,
   Of ryalle byldyng so I mene,
Hyt schyned wythowte so fayre and clere,
   But syn had made hyt fulle unclene
Wythin, as ye schalle aftyr here.
"What place ys thys that stondythe hyre,"
   Quod I to hyre that dyd me lyde.
"Kateryne," sche sayd, "we wyl go nere,
   And what you seyst, take good hede."
   Than at the gates in we yede,
Boldly as thowgh we had be at home,
   And I thowght, "Now Chryst us spede."
Than to the cloyster sone we com,
For hyt was a howse of nunes in trewthe,
   Of dyvers orderys bothe olde and yong,
But not welle governede, and that was rowthe,
   Aftyr the rewle of sad levyng.
For where that selfe wylle ys reyngyng,
The whyche causethe dyscorde and debate,
   And resun hathe none enteryng,
That howse may not be fortunate.
For Arystotelle, who so redythe,
   In the fyrst boke of hys Moralité,
Playnely seyethe that every man nedethe
   To be ware of the unresonabylité
   That comethe of the sensualité,
And not hys bestely condiciones sewe,
   But let resun have the soveraynté,
And so he schalle purches vertu."
But what in that place I saw
   That to religion schulde not long,
Peraventure ye wolde desyre to know,
   And who was dwellyng hem among.
   Sum what schalle I telle you wyth tong,
And sum what cownseyle kepe I schalle,
   And so I was tawght whan I was yong,
To here and se, and sey not alle.
But there was a lady, that hygh Dame Pride,
   In grete reputacion they her toke;
And pore Dame Mekenes sate be syde,
   To her unnethys ony wolde loke,
   But alle as who seythe I her forsoke
And set not by her nether most ne lest.
   Dame Ypocryte loke upon a boke
And bete her selfe upon the brest.
On every syde than lokede up I,
   And fast I cast myne ye abowte.
Yf I cowde se, beholde, or a-spy,
   I wolde have sene Dame Devowte.
   And sche was but wythe few of that rowght,
For Dame Sclowthe and Dame Veyne Glory
   By vyolens had put her owte;
And than in my hert I was fulle sory.
But Dame Envy was there dwellyng
   The whyche can sethe stryfe in every state,
And another lady was there wonnyng
   That hyght Dame Love Unordynate;
   In that place bothe erly and late
Dame Lust, Dame Wantowne, and Dame Nyce,
   They ware so there enhabyted, I wate,
That few token hede to Goddys servyse.
Dame Chastyte, I dare welle say,
   In that covent had lytylle chere,
But oft in poynte to go her way,
   Sche was so lytelle beloved there;
   But sum her loved in hert fulle dere,
And there weren that dyd not so,
   And sum set no thyng by her,
But gafe her gode leve for to go.
And at that place I saw muche more,
   But alle I thenk not to dyscrye,
But I wolle sey as I seyde before,
   And yt ys a poynte of curtesy:
   For whoso chateryt lyke a py
And tellethe alle that he herethe and seethe,
   He schalle be put owte of company,
And scho the gose, thus wysdum us lerethe.
And in that place fulle besyly
   I walked whyle I myght enduer,
And saw how Dame Envy
   In every corner had grete cure;
   Sche bare the keyes of many a dore.
And than Experience to me came
   And seyde, "Kateryne, I the ensuer,
Thys lady ys but seldom fro home."
Than Dame Pacience and Dame Charyte
   In that nunry fulle sore I sowght;
I wolde fayne have wyst where they had be,
   For in that covent were they nowght;
   But an owte chamber for hem was wrowght,
And there they dweldyn wythowtyn stryfe,
   And many gode women to them sowght
And were fulle wyfulle of her lyfe. 1
Also another lady there was
   That hyght Dame Dysobedyent,
And sche set nowght by her Priores.
   And than me thowght alle was schent,
   For sugettys schulde evyr be dylygent
Bothe in worde, in wylle, and dede,
   To plese her sovereynes wyth gode entent,
And hem obey, ellys God forbede.
And of alle the defawtes that I cowde se
   Thorowgh schewyng of Experience,
Hyt was one of the most that grevyd me,
   The wantyng of obedyence.
   For hyt schulde be chese in consciens,
Alle relygius rule wytnesseth the same,
   And when I saw her in no reverence,
I myght no lenger abyde for schame.
For they setten not by obedyence,
   And than for wo myne hert gan blede,
Ne they hadden her in no reverence,
   But few or none to her toke hede.
   And than I sped me thens a grete spede,
That covent was so fulle of syn.
   And than Experience dyd me lede
Owte at the gates there we com in.
And when we were both wythowte,
   Upon the gras we setten us downe,
And then we behelde the place abowte,
   And there we talkeden as us lest.
   And than I prayed Experience for to have wyst
Why sche schewed me thys nunery.
   Sche seyde, "Now we bene here in rest,
I thenk for to tellen the why.
"Thy fyrst desyre and thyne entent
   Was to bene a nune professede,
And for thy fader wolde not consent.
   Thyne hert wyth mornyng was sore oppressede,
   And thow wyst not what to do was best;
And I seyde, I wolde cese thy grevawnce,
   And now for the most part in every cost
I have schewed the nunnes governawnce.
"For as thow seest wythin yonder walle
   Suche bene the nunnes in every warde,
As for the most part, I say not alle,
   God forbede, for than hyt were harde,
   For sum bene devowte, holy, and towarde,
And holden the ryght way to blysse;
   And sum bene feble, lewde, and frowarde,
Now God amend that ys amys!
"And now, Kateryne, I have alle do
   For thy comfort that longeth to me,
And now let us aryse and go
   Unto the herber there I com to the."
   Than in thys herber sche let be me.
I thanked her wyth grete reverence,
   I pray to God i-blessyd be sche,
Thys fayre Lady Experience.
And whan sche was gone, I wakede anone.
   And I thowght how I may governed be,
For nun wold I nevere be none,
   For suche defawtes that I have see.
   But yyf they myght amendyd be,
And forsake her syn both day and nyght,
   God yyf me grace that day to se,
And ellys hyt wolle not be a ryght.
But here peraventure sum man wolde say,
   And to hys conceyte so hyt schulde seme,
That I forsoke sone a perfyte way
   For a fantesy or for a dreme.
   For dreme was hyt none, ne fantasye,
Hyt was unto me a gratius mene
received their orders
avoided neither; mire
far and wide
nunneries; shire
Their hearts; their work
showed; labor
fervent; fire
their leave
given; wages
pass over
if; together
hear; (see note)
book; swear
(see note)
overlooked; far; near
again; (see note)
father; fully eager
all together
fared you where
said; (see note)
They're certainly obliging
sirs, indeed; he (the father); (see note)
intention God reward you
believe; acceptable
another [lord]
(see note)
heart; woeful; (see note)
believe; foe
(see note)
pensiveness; [go] away
sighs; mournful demeanor
But; hear; (see note)
entertained myself
various times
birds; green boughs
Their feathers; shining
manner; complaint
grief; mediator
refuge; (see note)
(see note)
have mercy on me
know; have faith in You
knowledge; (see note)
(see note)
Despised; point of death
in a faint; fell
sleep came upon me; (see note)
pay attention
And it seemed to me; then
(see note)
This [person]; handsomely dressed; (see note)
comforted; many ways
asked me soon
kneeled three times
most excellent lady
hither to take pity on you
show you; (see note)
(see note)
convent of nuns; (see note)
quickly; (see note)
royal architecture
her; lead
see; heed
help us
(see note)
a pity
regulation of sober living
(see note)
If; access
whosoever reads [him]
beastly; follow
achieve virtue
That which; belong
hear; see; say; (see note)
was called
scarcely any
But; company
was called
ensconsed; know
about to
didn't care about
a matter
chatters; magpie
hears; sees
show; goose; teaches
(see note)
assure you
outer; made
cared nothing about; (see note)
quickly went away
as we wished
make known
showed; (see note)
pertains to my office
arbor where; came
awakened soon
(see note)
their sinfulness
perhaps; (see note)
[too] soon; perfect
gracious course of action
  [A piece of the manuscript is torn away here, bearing the last line of this stanza, all of the next, and part of the one following.]
Holy wryt w . . .
   Pleynely go rede hyt wh . . .
And hyt ys wretyn in Genesye,
   In the fowre and thyrty chapytylle,
   How Dyna, for sche bode not stylle
But went owte to see thynges in veyne,
   Sche was defowled agenyst her wylle,
And therefore thowsandys of peple were sclayn.
Yowre barbe, your wymppylle and your vayle,
   Yowre mantelle and yowre devowte clothyng,
Maketh men wythowten fayle
   To wene ye be holy in levyng.
   And so hyt ys an holy thyng
To bene in habyte reguler.
   Than, as by owtewarde aray in semyng,
Beth so wythin, my ladyes dere.
A fayre garlond of yve grene
   Whyche hangeth at a taverne dore,
Hyt ys a false token as I wene,
   But yf there be wyne gode and sewer;
   Ryght so but ye your vyces forbere,
And let alle lewde custom be broken,
   So God me spede, I yow ensewer,
Ellys yowre habyte ys no trew token. 2
Holy scripture
Dinah; (see note)
veil; hood; scarf; (see note)
think; living
wine; dependable
  [Again the manuscript is damaged and the better part of a stanza missing.]

   . . . yng . . . nde gode levyng,
. . . yf they be wythin the contrary
   In Holy Schrypture wythowte lesyng
They bene called the chyldryn of false ypocrasy.
Now, ladyes, taketh gode hede to thys exhortacion
   That I have tawght yow in thys lore,
And beholde the gode conversacion
   Of gode women here before,
   Fulle holy vyrgynes many a store,
The whyche levedyn here relygyisly,
   And now in joy and blysse therefore
They have possession endlesly:
Seynte Clare and Seynte Edyth also,
   Seynte Scolastica and Seynte Brigytte,
Seynte Radegunde, and many mo
   That weren professed in nunnes habyte.
   They fulle besy were wyth alle her wytte
To be ware of syn, and fle there froo,
   And now for evyr they bene qwyte
From alle maner sorow and woo,
Seynte Audre, Seynte Freswyth, and Seynte Emerelde,
   Seynte Wythbuge and Seynte Myldrede,
Seynte Sexburge and Seynte Ermenylde -
   Of alle these holy women we rede.
an abundance
lived on earth piously
(see note)
(see note)
(see note)
flee; from
(see note)
  [The poem breaks off mid-stanza, apparently incomplete.]

Go To The Table of Contents