HomeLiterature Study GuidesThe Canterbury TalesThe Manciples Prologue And Tale Summary

The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales | The Manciple's Prologue and Tale | Summary

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Summary

As the pilgrim company rides on, Harry Bailey notices that the Cook is asleep and says he should wake up and tell them a story. However, the Cook has had too much to drink, and the Manciple, whose job it was to purchase and store food for his church, offers to tell a story instead.

The story takes place at a time when the god Phoebus is a man. He is handsome, talented, and chivalrous but jealously loves his wife. He believes that pleasing her with his kind attention is the best way to make sure she does not take other lovers, but she does have a secret lover—a young man of low rank. When Phoebus is away from home, she sends for her lover. Their actions are witnessed by a white crow—it "beheld their work"—who has the ability to talk. When Phoebus gets home, the white crow reveals what happened, and Phoebus reels in sorrow. Then, becoming enraged, he kills his wife. After a while he regrets his rash action and instead turns on the crow, tearing out its white feathers, turning it black, and taking away its ability to speak.

The Manciple then advises everyone to look at the example of the crow and keep their mouths shut, especially if they want to tell a man his wife is cheating on him.

Analysis

This story resembles a French pourquoi story—a folktale that explains the origin, or the "why," of something in nature, such as "How the Camel Got His Hump" by Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936). By including the line "And that's the reason why all crows are black," the Manciple keeps to the conventions of this genre. However, with its noble warrior, his unfaithful wife, and her young lover, the story itself has more in common with other Tales than with a typical pourquoi story. Yet, even in these similarities, the lesson of the story is hard to pin down. On the one hand, the story, like others, stresses the wife's infidelity and the general untrustworthiness of women (though the Manciple later says he didn't mean anything bad about women, only men). Women, the Manciple says, are like birds kept in cages, given an easy life of food and comfort yet longing for freedom, or a like pet cat, which prefers a live mouse to its prepared food. On the other hand, the larger moral of the story is about not giving in to rage lest you make a rash decision such as killing your wife. A final moral of the story is to hold one's tongue and beware of saying too much or bringing bad news where it is not wanted.

Phoebus was the Greek god of music, healing, and light. Though this story does not refer to many of his godlike qualities, besides having unusual power over the crow, it does describe him as a talented musician. It is notable that, in the self-loathing that follows his wife's murder, he smashes all of his musical instruments to pieces.

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