Thursday 12 November 2015

The Canterbury Tales ~~ The Manciple's Prologue and Tale

Is it my imagination or, as we are nearly at the end of these tales, are the pictures of the pilgrims improving?  Or perhaps they are only better preserved. A Manciple, for those who don't know (me!), is a purchasing agent for a college, monastery or other institution.

The Host wishes the Cook to tell the next tale but, sadly, the Cook is dead drunk, and the Manciple offers to take his place, merrily deriding the Cook for his condition.  Enraged, the Cook attempts to strike the Manciple but ends up falling from his horse.  The pilgrims manage to remount him on his hack and the Manciple is scolded for chiding the Cook, and, to make up, the Manciple offers the Cook a drink.  He then begins his tale.

The Manciple's Tale

Phoebus and Boreas (1879)
Gustave Moreau
source Wikiart
Phoebus, renown for his nobility and skill with bow and arrows, had his dwelling on earth.  An artful singer in his own right, the handsome Phoebus had a crow which he kept in a cage.  Now this crow had snowy white feathers, a song that would rival the Sirens, and could mimic any sound that it heard.

Phoebus also had a lovely wife, who he loved more than he loved his own life.  Jealous for his spouse's love, he ensured that he acted toward her with kindness and manly conduct, confident that she would not stray from his affections.  But a caged bird, wishes for its freedom no matter what its treatment and:

"(A good wife) Should not be checked and spied on, that is plain,
And truly it is labour all in vain
To check a wicked wife; it can't be done.
It's imbecility, say I for one,
For men to waste their labour checking wives,
And so the ancients say who wrote their lives."

Middle English:

Sholde nat been kept in noon awayt, certayn;
And trewely the labour is in vayn
To kepe a shrewe, for it wol nat bee.
This holde I for a verray nycetee,
To spille labour for to kepe wyves:
Thus writen olde clerkes in hir lyves.

One day, when Phoebus was away, his wife sent for her "bully", and proceeded to deceive her husband, as the crow in its cage looked on.  When Phoebus returned, the crow trilled out the words, "Cuckoo!  Cuckoo!" and then informed Phoebus of his wife's indiscretion.  In a towering rage, Phoebus slew his wife, yet immediately remorse came upon him for his deed.

"O fainting trust, O prompting to suspect,
Where was your thought and wisdom to direct?
O every man, beware how you are moved,
Never believe but what is strongly proved!
Strike not too soon, ere you can reason why,
Be soberly advised before you try
To execute your justice and assuage
Suspicion by the acting of your rage.
Alas, a thousand in their hasty ire
Have been undone and brought into the mire."

Middle English:

O wantrust, ful of fals suspecion,
Where was thy wit and thy discrecion?
O every man, be war of rakelnesse!
Ne trowe no thyng withouten strong witnesse.
Smyt nat to soone, er that ye witen why,
And beeth avysed wel and sobrely
Er ye doon any execucion
Upon youre ire for suspecion.
Allas, a thousand folk hath rakel ire
Fully fordoon, and broght hem in the mire.

He verbally flayed the crow for its thoughtless revelation and placed on it a curse, that it would forever wear feathers of black, its powers of speech would be taken, and its lovely voice would be transformed to a croak.

The Manciple conveys the moral of the story, instructing "his son" to hold his tongue, do not use words idly, refrain from superfluous thoughtless speech, guard his tongue, and not be a chatterbox.

"Wherever you may be, with high or low,
Refrain your tongue and think upon the crow."

Middle English:

Whereso thou come, amonges hye or lowe,
Kepe wel thy tonge and thenk upon the crowe.

The Manciple's Tale (1913)
W. Russell Flint

This tale was perhaps the most confusing of all of the tales.  Of course, Phoebus' wife didn't deserve death for her infidelity, but why was it so terrible for Phoebus to be advised of what she had done?  The crow only told the truth.  Was it the manner in which he told the truth?  Instead of having concern for the feelings of Phoebus and telling him privately, he blurted out the truth like a scandalmonger, with a sort of glee?  I'm really puzzled.  In any case, it is obvious from the start that the Manciple is a merry soul, who likes to tease and twist situations.  Can we even take him seriously?

This story was taken from Ovid's Metamorphoses, which I hope to read next year, so I will be able to do a comparison.


  1. Great Review as usual Cleo! Human psychology twisted as it is, works in very irrational fashion. We always seem to dislike not only the culprit but also the bearer of the bad news, the one who introduces us to the culprit and his misdeeds.It really depends on the motive of the bearer of the bad news on how one reacts; but then we are hardly that logical by nature. May be the crow wanted all of Pheobus's attention? Love is often irrational and it leads us to do many a stupid things!

    1. Really good points! I also noticed how Phoebus reacted with insensible anger towards his wife and regretted it, but then he turned around and acted the same way towards the crow. He certainly didn't learn any temperance from this experience. Which again proves the capriciousness of human nature. As always, I love your comments! :-)

  2. Yes, another great edition of the Chaucer critique and analysis. The more you write and the more I read, I am more impressed by the ways in which Chaucer portrayed such wonderfully flawed human characters, warts and all, within the framework of an ostensibly Christian pilgrimage epic. Your postings remind me of my current literary obsession -- the portrayals of the agon (struggle) in characters (against themselves, others, their world, their God, and more). You've pushed me toward revisiting all of the Canterbury Tales. I think they would tie in nicely with my other literary obsession: Flannery O'Connor. All the best to your from R.T. at the revived and revised Beyond Eastrod:

    1. Thanks, R.T. It's good to hear from you again .... I've been wondering about you. Honestly (and I should say this quietly), I think Chaucer does better characterizations than Shakespeare, and that's saying something! Thanks for the new blog link! I'll check it out!