Carole Hough
University of Glasgow
C dot Hough at englang dot arts dot gla dot ac dot uk

Names in Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Chaucer’s use of names is widely recognised to be subtle and innovative. In The Canterbury Tales, etymological and associative meanings of names contribute both to the thematic unity of individual tales and to the infrastructure of the story cycle as a whole. Previous work on The Nun’s Priest’s Tale has shown that Chaucer took particular care over the names of major characters, retaining that of the cock from his sources but changing those of the fox and hen (Pratt). Moreover, the use of the name Malle or Malkyn for two minor characters has been identified as part of a series of punning references to his family name helping to establish the centrality of this tale ( Taylor). This paper offers a new interpretation of the name Pertelote invented by Chaucer, and argues that the names of the three dogs have special significance.

The French vocabulary and high style of writing used for the mock-heroic descriptions of the main protagonists contrast with the plain vocabulary and low style used for the description of the widow and for the chase scene just as the elaborate names Chantecleer and Pertelote contrast with the vernacular Colle, Talbot and Gerland and with the anonymity of the human characters. Whereas Chantecleer ‘one who sings clearly’ is etymologically appropriate, the meaning of Pertelote is uncertain. Pratt’s derivation from perte ‘destroys’ and lot ‘fate’, alluding to the Fall of Man, was based on an allegorical reading of the tale no longer favoured by scholars. Eliason’s suggestion that the name is onomatopoetic, with no semantic meaning, is unconvincing. The repeated emphasis on the hen’s beauty supports a derivation from ME pert ‘attractive, comely; ... an attractive woman’ (MED, s.v., sense 2). The suffix may represent a double diminutive (-el, -ot), with echoes of ME lōt ‘appearance’ and lōtebī ‘lover, paramour’. I propose an interpretation of Pertelote as ‘little beauty’.

Colle was a common form of Nicholas in the medieval period, so that Chaucer’s audience would have associated it with The Miller’s Tale. The word gerland appears in other tales and prologues; and a later name for the Tabard inn in Southwark was the Talbot. This is usually explained as a copying error, although Fleming suggests deliberate renaming. An early association between the names Talbot and Tabard, identified in a different context (Cox), raises the possibility that both were used for the inn during the fourteenth century. The dogs’ names may thus form another link between this tale and the overall framework of The Canterbury Tales.