Chaucer: The Manciple’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE MANCIPLE’S TALE
The previous Fragment A material involving the Cook was clearly meant to be cancelled so that this dramatic quarrel between the Manciple and the Cook could take place. We’re only two miles from Canterbury now, at “Bobbe-up-and-doun,” or Harbledown (1-3). The Host notices that the Cook is dozing off: “Hastow had fleen [fleas] al nyght, or artow dronke? / Or hastow with som quene [whore] al nyght yswonke…?” (17-18). The Cook claims not to know why he is so out of it. The Manciple interrupts and accuses the Cook of drunkenness: “Thy cursed breeth infecte wole us alle” (39). The Cook gets so mad that he is speechless and falls off his horse. The Host decides the Cook would tell a lewd tale, and badly articulated, and he’s got enough to keep him busy just trying to ride his horse. The Manciple can tell one, but, the Host notes, the Cook is likely to get even on another day if the Manciple is too vicious. The Manciple says he “wol nat wratthen hym” (80) and that what he said earlier was just in jest — so he already retracts what he said only a moment ago! The Manciple has some wine with which to patch things up with the Cook if need be, and the Cook does take a swig. The Host sees that liquor “wol turnen rancour and disese / T’acord and love, and many a wrong apese” (97-98). He praises Bacchus, who “kanst turnen ernest into game” (100).
Both the Cook and the Manciple belong to a tightly-knit group of city businessmen, so the Manciple endangers himself by provoking the Cook. The Manicple agrees with the Host that the Cook “brynge me in the snare” (77). And if the Manciple tells a vicious tale about “a” cook, what happens if the pilgrims tell the Cook what happened while he was passed out? The Cook could tattle to the masters. This Manciple, we know from the General Prologue, gets away with cheating over thirty masters since he is beneath their notice. So he’s clever enough to realize the truth about the tale he will tell next. The tale is indeed suited.
The genre is moral apologue and the story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Gower offers a version too in Confessio Amantis (III. 768-817). It’s prudential wisdom: shut up about others’ misbehavior. Getting along in the world involves expediency rather than morality. (Is that the same as the Nun’s Priest’s moral?) “The fact that the moral is not in any real sense moral also suits the Manciple’s character: the story represents purely prudential wisdom, giving instruction on how to get along in the world” (Donaldson 1111).
First, Phebus (Phoebus Apollo) is presented as a “mooste lusty bachiler” (107). In the groundwork for the tale (105-147), we hear that among his credentials as the archer god, “He slow Phitoun [Python], the serpent, as he lay / Slepynge agayn the sonne upon a day; And many another noble worthy dede” (109-110). And he has musical skills. His bird, a crow, is white and can “countrefete the speche of every man” (134). The only potential problem is that Phebus is very jealous concerning his wife.
A good wyf, that is clene of werk and thoght,
Sholde nat been kept in noon awayt, certayn;
And trewely the labour is in vayn
To kepe a shrewe, for it wole nat bee.
This holde I for a verray nycetee,
To spille labour for to kepe wyves:
Thus writen olde clerkes in hir lyves.
The structure of the tale balances narration and amplification (or padding), and after returning ostensibly to the story for a few lines (155-162), the Manciple gives a long diatribe, or exempla, on the treatment and behavior of caged birds, spoiled cats, and she-wolves. He then oddly insists he offers these examples as illustrations of a point about untrue men, not women (187-188).
The Manciple returns to the story for a few more lines (196-204), informing us that Phebus’ wife did have a low-class lover. Then another long diatribe sparked by his reconsidered use of the term “lemman” (204-205). “The word moot cosyn be to the werkyng” (210), and high social status only euphemizes base behavior. A glorious tyrant is just a thief with Ceremony. And back to the tale (237).
Phebus’ wife has her dalliance with her lover and the bird is a silent voyeur. When Phebus comes home (after a long day at work chasing Daphne?) the crow sings, “Cokkow! Cokkow!” (243). When asked to explain, the bird is quite articulate about Phebus’ “blered … ye [blind eye]” (252), “For on thy bed thy wyf I saugh hym swyve” (255). In ire, Phebus draws his bow and kills his wife, after which he breaks his musical and archery instruments. Mourning his dead wife, he then turns on the crow, calling him “Traitour” (271) and “O false theef!” (292). “I wol thee quite anon thy false tale” (293) by turning the crow’s pleasant song into a squawk and its white feathers black; henceforth the crow will be shunned by human society. Phebus plucks the bird and chucks it outside.
Lordynges, by this ensample I yow preye,
Beth war, and taketh kep what that ye seye:
Ne telleth nevere no man in youre lyf
How that another man hath dight his wyf;
He wol yow haten mortally, certeyn.
What follows is what the Manciple’s mother done told him: “My sone, thenk on the crowe” (318). The enormous “my son” harangue amounts to gnomic verse, biblical proverbs, and folk wisdom, supposedly in mockery of Gower’s Confessio Amantis, all repeating the moral: Shut up! The trickster tricked is any tale-teller, whether he tells truth or not. “Kepe wel thy tonge and thenk upon the crowe” (362). How bizarre for the penultimate “tale.”
The last tales capture earlier themes and collapse the structure. The vanity of earthly pursuits, the mutibility of human deeds, the uselessness of striving, the corruptness of human nature — all these are presented again but through a new point of view, one largely influenced perhaps by our realization that the pilgrimage is about to end. After this tale whose point, driven home repeatedly, amounts to “Shut up,” we have left only a penitential tract and a complete retraction.