Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Manciple's Tale"

Genre: beast fable ("why the crow is black").

Form: rhyming couplets.

Source: lots of predecessor versions, including Gower's Confessio Amantis 3.768-817.  To see Gower's version, click here.

Characters: The "Prologue" involves the drunken pilgrim Cook, the Host, the Manciple; the tale tells of the Crow (formerly white and melodious), Phebus (Sun God, but here not too bright), Phebus' wife and her lover.

Summary: In the Prologue, we rejoin the pilgrimage shortly after the pilgrims reach the town of Harbledown (nick-named "Bobbe-up-and-doun," perhaps for the quality of the road there).    The Host notices the Cook's drunkenness has led him to sleep on his horse at the back of the line, and he notes that thieves may attack him there, much like the straggling impala being picked off by the lions on the Serengeti Plain.  The Cook grows so sleepy that he's almost falling off his horse, and the Manciple offers a rather specific criticism of his physical appearance, smell, etc.  The now-angry Cook finally does fall off his horse, "For lakke of speche," and all the male pilgrims help hoist him back into the saddle.    The Host warns the Manciple not to anger the Cook with open criticism lest the Cook tell about the Manciple's corrupt book-keeping methods, which have enabled him to enrich himself by stealing from the household funds of the lawyers for whom he works--see "General Prologue" lI.567-586.  The Manciple hastily withdraws his criticisms, saying they were jokes (81) and the Cook obligingly drinks a good deal more until "he hadde pouped in his horn" (IX.90--you look it up: RC 953).

    The tale mixes classical myth with the beast-fable tale type to describe how Phebus (Apollo) tried jealously to keep his beloved wife imprisoned in the house to prevent her infidelity.  The wife sent for her lover while Phebus was out (perhaps lighting John Donne's bed-world in "The Sun Rising"?), but the crow, which at the time was white and sang beautifully, observed their love-making.  The bird revealed all to Phebus, and the angry god killed his wife and her lover.  Then he destroyed his musical instruments and took vengeance upon the crow for telling the tale that awoke his ire.  The crow's white feathers are pulled out and he is turned black , and his speech becomes harsh and unpleasing.  The Manciple offers this as proof one should never tell another man of that man's wife's adultery, and reproduces the speech that his "dame" (mother) taught him, which takes 44 lines to tell the pilgrims not to talk too much (IX.317-61)

Interpretive Issues:

1)  What cause would Manciples and Cooks have for professional jealousy?  Based on this tale, who does the Manciple think will have the upper hand in this rivalry, the Cook, because of his inside information about the Manciple's fraud, or the Manciple, because of what he knows about the Cook's unhygienic cuisine?  Or is our teller telling himself and his rival to shut up?

2)  The conduct of one's horse ("manage") was thought to indicate one's character.  What can we conclude about the Cook, especially his spiritual state?  What might this mean for the Canterbury Tales as a work of literature, or as works of literature?  Remember, this is the next to last tale in all the major tale orders.

3)  How do the pilgrims' responses to the Cook's accident work with the tale-telling game and the other events of the frame narrative to suggest Chaucer's long-term intentions about depicting pilgrimage as a metaphor for social life

4)  The Host praises the Manciple's and Cook's reconciliation with the rhetorical apostrophe, "O Bacus, yblesed be thy name, / That so kanst turnen ernest into game!" (IX.99-100).  How does the tale-telling contest depend on the delicate balance between "ernest" and "game"?  What does the deficiency of either "ernest" or "game" do to our speech?

5)  The tale, itself, occurs in three forms readily available to Chaucer, the most obvious being Gower, but also in Ovid's Metamorphoses and Beusire's French adaptation with moralizing allegorical interpretation, the Ovide moralise, as well as in Machaut's Voir Dit and the popular romance cycle, The Seven Sages.  Given this era's reliance on oral testimony, and its emphasis on the sanctity of oaths, why would this tale be so popular?  Compare a few versions of it to "Manciple's Tale" and consider what difference it makes that Chaucer has set the tale into the end of this long tale-telling contest, especially at this particular point.  What's Chaucer up to?

6)  In the middle of the tale, the Manciple has trouble with the elementary tale-teller's task of naming things, especially when it comes to calling Phebus' wife's lover "Hir lemman" (her lover, in a courtly sense).  He then launches upon a thirty-line excursus upon accuracy in naming, citing Plato and giving as his example the varying reputations attributed to Alexander (IX.207-37).  What tales does this issue connect to and what does its eruption at the "Manciple's Tale"'s midpoint say about the teller's current difficulties?  What kind of message is he trying to send here, and to whom is he trying to send it?

7)  The last lines of "Mom's advice" say that "He is thral [slave] to whom that he hath sayd / A tale of which he is now yvele apayd / [ . . . ] be noon auctour newe / Of tidynges, wheither they been false or trewe" (IX.357-60).  If true, what effect would you expect this advice to have on the tale-telling game?  What is its actual effect?   What does Chaucer mean by doing this?


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