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THE TALES: SUMMARIES AND NOTES
The Manciple’s Tale: Prologue
The group of pilgrims continued on their way to Canterbury and the Host began to crack jokes at the Cook who had fallen asleep and was swaying dangerously on his saddle. The Host’s efforts to wake him up were unsuccessful. Suddenly the Cook’s horse threw him off. The pilgrims had to stop and with great effort they managed to put him back on his saddle. The Host then requested the Manciple to tell a story.
The Manciple’s Tale
There once lived a handsome young Knight named Phoebus who was an accomplished archer. He was also a skilled singer and could play any instrument. He was a model of flawless nobility and honor. Phoebus had a snow-white crow that could imitate anybody’s speech and sing more sweetly than a nightingale. Phoebus had a wife who was dearer to him than his own life. He did his very best to keep her satisfied and treated her with respect. But Phoebus was also extremely jealous and kept a strict vigilance over his wife to ensure that he would not be deceived.
However Phoebus’ wife had a secret lover. One day when Phoebus went out of town on business, his wife sent for her lover and made passionate love with him. The crow witnessed this event but kept quiet.
When Phoebus returned home the crow revealed that his wife had betrayed him and gave ample proof to substantiate the charge. Phoebus was heart-broken and in a fury killed his wife. But soon enough he was filled with remorse and began to repent that he had acted hastily on flimsy evidence. He angrily spurned the crow calling it a betrayer and a villainous wretch for telling a false tale. In a fit of rage Phoebus plucked out all the white feathers of the crow and replaced them with black ones. He also took away the crow’s power of speech and song. Further he cursed the crow that all its descendants would be black and would have a harsh voice.
The Manciple warns the pilgrims that great evil springs from verbosity when a few words are sufficient. Nothing that has already been said can ever be made unsaid. He advises the pilgrims to restrain and exercise control over their tongues and to think before they spread malicious stories.
The Manciple tells the familiar story of the tattle - tale bird found in ‘The Seven Sages of Rome’. However Chaucer has adapted his tale from the tale of Apollo and Coronis in Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’.
The Manciple’s Tale is the last tale before the Parson’s sermon. The moral of the story is quite clear: one must keep one’s mouth shut and not spread malicious scandal.
The Tale suits the Manciple’s character perfectly. In the ‘General Prologue’ the readers are told that the Manciple was able to hoodwink his thirty-odd masters who were learned lawyers and financial wizards. Hence the Manciple has a lot to hide and the tale’s moral is equally applicable to him.
The Manciple’s Tale is interwoven with lively digressions in which he makes philosophical observations. In the first digression after the reader has been informed of Phoebus’s jealousy and fear of being deceived, Chaucer remarks that it is vain to keep wives under observation. In the second digression after the Manciple has related Phoebus’ efforts to please his wife and keep her satisfied, Chaucer comments philosophically that nobody can destroy a creature’s natural instincts. Thus one can give a caged bird all the comforts but it will still prefer the forest. Similarly humans cannot derive any pleasure from a virtuous life. The third digression comes after the Manciple informs the reader that Phoebus’ wife sleeps with her secret lover. The Manciple apologizes for his bawdy speech and goes on to say that there is no difference between a noble woman and a poor woman if they are unfaithful and lecherous. But still one is called lady in love while the poor woman is insultingly called a wench. The Manciple makes an important point here that there should not be any class distinctions in moralistic considerations. In the fourth and final digression after Phoebus has slain his wife and angrily spurns the crow, the Manciple moralizes that it is best to keep quiet and hold one’s tongue.