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The Manciple's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

The Manciple's Tale is about the god Phoebus, his wife, and his white crow who lives with them and is punished for telling Phoebus about his wife's adultery. This lesson looks at the tendency to blame the messenger, the way social class dictates how people discuss adultery, and the occasionally destructive nature of poetry itself.

Plot Summary

When Phoebus lived on earth, he owned a white crow who could speak with a human voice. Phoebus married a woman whom he cared for lovingly, except that he was jealous and suspicious of her. One day, when he was away from the house, his wife met her lover inside the house in the presence of the crow. The white crow tells Phoebus, who murders his wife with his bow and arrow. Then, he punishes the crow by taking all the crow's white feathers, turning him black, and removing his ability to speak. The narrator tells us that the moral of the story is to hold your tongue. Chaucer writes, 'My son, keep well thy tongue, and keep thy friend; A wicked tongue is worse than is a fiend.'

Genre

Fabliau

The Manciple's Tale in some ways falls into the genre of fabliau, which is a short, comic story told in poetry rather than prose, and usually about some indecent subject matter. In this case, the subject matter is the wife's adultery.

Beast Fable

This tale is in part a beast fable in that it involves an animal acting out the behavior of a person. It is different in some ways from a traditional beast fable, insofar as the central figures are Phoebus and his wife, rather than beasts. The crow, however, plays a key role as the bearer of bad news, and the figure who is punished for this.

Contrasts with the Other Beast Fable

Since this is a beast fable, it might bring to mind another beast fable within The Canterbury Tales, which is The Nun's Priest's Tale. This stands in stark contrast to that tale, however, because the Manciple's Tale has tragic elements, such as Phoebus's murder of his wife, whereas the Nun's Priest's tale provides comic relief in the midst of more serious stories in the collection.

Themes

Blaming the Messenger

Although the crow was telling the truth, and did nothing wrong himself, he ends up being punished at the end of the tale. The point is that it is often the messenger of bad news who receives the brunt of the anger that the news evokes. Clearly, the wife was also punished, and more severely than the crow, but that does not save the messenger from absorbing some of the blame.

Unfairness of Language

Chaucer also explores the idea that the language people use about sexual immorality can be quite unfair, and determined by social class rather than behavior. Phoebus' wife takes a lover outside of marriage, but convention still dictates that she be called a lady, because of her high social status. Chaucer writes, 'But, for (because) the gentle is in estate above, She shall be call'd his lady and his love; And, for that other is a poor woman, She shall be call'd his wench and his leman (unlawful lover).' This is an interesting point in the tale, but beyond this comment, it is not explored further.

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