The Manciple's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

The Manciple's Tale from Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales'' resembles one of Aesop's fables in that it provides a moral about human behavior. When Phoebus acts before taking careful consideration of a situation, it leads to unfortunate results.

The Manciple and the Cook

Getting stuck in the mud is no fun. It is even worse when you are drunk and sitting atop a horse. This is the position the Cook finds himself in when he is called upon to tell a story. Obviously he is in no shape to tell a story, much less stand, and the Manciple decides to take this opportunity to insult the Cook, mentioning how bad he smells and his overall poor appearance.

The Manciple in the Canterbury Tales, from the Ellesmere manuscript

The host of the traveling group to which the Manciple and Cook belong recommends that the Manciple make amends to the Cook to avoid future retaliation. The Manciple, a person in charge of purchasing food, only meant to play a joke on the cook, and based on the words of their host, realizes that ''he wouldn't want to make him angry.'' To make peace with the cook, the Manciple offers him a drink as an apology and then takes the Cook's place in telling a story to the group.


The Manciple tells a story about Phoebus, a god better known as Apollo. The Manciple describes how wonderful a person Phoebus is: how handsome he is, how strong and kind. Phoebus has a pet crow which is completely white and has such a melodious voice that it puts all other birds to shame. One thing Phoebus holds above all else is his wife, who is ''dearer by far to him than his own life.'' Unfortunately, he is extremely jealous and feels the need to keep constant watch over her. She essentially becomes a prisoner in her own home.

The Manciple indicates that this is a mistake on the part of Phoebus. If his wife wishes to be unfaithful, she will find a way. In addition, she is like any creature kept in a cage: ''never will it cease to try/Escaping from its cage.'' Despite the preventive measures taken by Phoebus, his wife still manages to find another man with whom to have an affair. She forgets that the crow observes her extra-marital activities. It sits in its cage and remains silent.

The Crow Tells All

Phoebus returns home, and the crow is no longer silent. It tells Phoebus that he has been deceived, and goes into explicit detail regarding his wife's activity with her paramour. Hearing this news from the crow, Phoebus is shocked that his wife could betray him in this manner. Phoebus ''at length began to turn away;/He felt his heart must break in two for sorrow.'' His emotions boil up and without pausing, he goes straight into the bedroom and kills his wife.

His anger does not end here. He sees what he has done and recognizes that his emotions controlled his actions. He then turns on the messenger. Phoebus goes after the crow and rips out all of its white feathers. As he attacks the bird, he also takes his anger out on its voice, ''never again to make a pleasing sound.'' With this one act, the beauty of the white crow is forever taken away, replaced with a grating ''caw'' and black feathers.


Phoebus acts in anger after hearing the crow describe his wife's illicit interactions with another man. In doing so, he makes a bad situation worse. The Manciple reiterates the lesson that if you hear gossip, it is best not to repeat it: Not only was Phoebus mad at his wife for her adultery, but he turned on the crow as well for bringing him to ''ruin and confusion.''

The Manciple continues to describe the dangers of running one's tongue without regard for the harm the words may cause. While you may think you are helping someone by telling them the truth, it can cause more harm than good, especially in regard to your relationship with that individual. The crow learned this lesson the hard way, and paid a very high price for telling Phoebus the truth.

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