Manciple’s Tale, The


Manciple’s Tale, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1396)
   Chaucer’s Manciple’s Tale is the last fictional text in THE CANTERBURY TALES, in most manuscripts coming immediately before the Parson’s sermon on the Seven Deadly Sins that ends the collection.A BEAST FABLE like The NUN’S PRIEST’S TALE, the Manciple’s has neither the charm nor the joy in linguistic play apparent in that tale of Chaunticleer and the fox. But it does raise significant questions, particularly about the use of language. Though it uses a widespread folklore motif of the “tell-tale bird,” the immediate source of Chaucer’s tale may have been the very popular book of the SEVEN SAGES OF ROME, a text Chaucer mentions in the prologue to The WIFE OF BATH’S TALE. But Chaucer also knew a version of the story told in GOWER’s CONFESSIO AMANTIS, and probably the original version in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as well.
   The Manciple’s Tale is the story of Phoebus (Apollo), described in the tale as a great archer who killed the serpent Pithoun, and as the greatest singer and musician on earth.He owns a beautiful white crow with a magnificent singing voice and the ability to speak. He also has a beautiful new wife. The jealous Phoebus keeps his wife under close scrutiny, but the narrator of the tale comments that anyone who thinks he can guard a woman will find himself mistaken. The wife takes a lover, despite Phoebus’s watchful eye, and it is the crow that tells him of his wife’s betrayal. In rage, Phoebus kills his wife. Then, in grief-stricken repentance, he breaks his musical instruments as well as his bow. Then he turns on the crow, cursing it so that it loses its beautiful song as well as its ability to speak, and its feathers turn to black. The tale ends with the moral, “Kepe wel thy tonge, and thenk upon the crowe” (Benson 1987, 286, l. 362). Critics have not always thought highly of The Manciple’s Tale, though more recent scholars have seen a good deal of irony in the tale—for example, in the 54 lines that recommend verbal restraint. Others, considering more specifically the Manciple narrator (a Manciple was a low-level official that purchased provisions for a college), have suggested the story reflects a servant’s dilemma of how to speak the truth without getting into trouble. But others have seen the tale, coming as it does near the end of the Canterbury Tales, as revisiting the theme of proper and improper uses of language, and the “sentence and solaas” (instructiveness and entertainment) that were initially proposed as criteria for judging the tales.
   Bibliography
   ■ Benson, Larry, et al. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
   ■ Ginsberg,Warren. “Chaucer’s Canterbury Poetics: Irony, Allegory, and the Prologue to The Manciple’s Tale,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 18 (1996): 55–89.
   ■ Grudin,Michaela Paasche.“Chaucer’s Manciple’s Tale and the Poetics of Guile,” Chaucer Review 25 (1991): 329–342.
   ■ Storm, Mel. “Speech, Circumspection, and Orthodontics in The Manciple’s Prologue and Tale and the Wife of Bath’s Portrait,” Studies in Philology 96 (1999): 109–126.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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