23: The Manciple's Tale Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552

The Cook had so much to drink that he has fallen asleep in the saddle. The Manciple derides and insults him for this, whereupon the Cook's drunken agitation causes him to fall off his horse. The Manciple doubles his insults. He then reconsiders his position, since he and the Cook are apparently professionally associated and the Cook could retaliate by revealing things the Manciple does not want known. He therefore suggests that they placate the Cook with more wine. This tactic works, and the Manciple then tells his tale.

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When the ancient Phoebus lived on the earth, he was a wonderous man, greatly to be admired. He kept a pet crow which he taught to speak. This crow was snow white and sang beautifully.

Phoebus also had a gorgeous wife whom he loved and tried to please, but he did not trust her. There was something in her personality which warned the young god that his wife might prove unfaithful.

(After giving this background information, the Manciple digresses to remind the listeners that anyone who is naturally evil, licentious, or untrustworthy will behave that way no matter what is done for him. He tries to prove with classical examples that a person's nature cannot be changed.)

The wife of Phoebus did have an unfaithful nature; she had a lover whom she entertained frequently. One day she took the man into her marriage bed while Phoebus was away. However, the white crow saw everything. When Phoebus returned the crow revealed the entire sordid episode. In his rage, Phoebus murdered his wife.

Phoebus at once regretted his rash action. In his grief, he turned on the crow, cursing him. Phoebus plucked out all the white feathers and condemned him to be black; he took away the bird's lovely song and his ability to speak and threw him to the devil. Ever since then, all crows have been black and can utter only a single ugly sound.

As a conclusion, the Manciple warns the company to keep silence; never to tell all they know lest it come back to ruin them. No man, he says, has ever been hurt by saying too little, but many have been ruined by talking too much.

Discussion and Analysis
Unlike the Miller and the Reeve, or the Friar and the Summoner, the Manciple and the Cook do not take their feud beyond the prologue itself. This segment functions merely as an amusing interlude.

The story of Phoebus, his unfaithful wife, and the transformation of the crow comes from an ancient origin myth Chaucer must have encountered in the writings of Ovid. As in most myths, the central character is divine. The origin of the modern crow is explained by the god's actions upon the crow of the myth, changing him from white to black.

The theme of the story as it originated dealt with the terrible consequences of marital infidelity; but as in so many of the tales, Chaucer makes a profound change here. As the Manciple concludes, the theme of the tale becomes the foolishness to revealing all and the wisdom of keeping silent. It is appropriate to convey this theme from the mouth of the Manciple when one remembers that the Manciple stopped taunting the Cook for fear of what the Cook could reveal about him.

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