On The Wisdom of Silence in The Manciple’s Tale

After the close of the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” the Host merrily asks the embarrassingly drunkard Cook to tell a tale (recall that his earlier tale was left unfinished). However, the Cook can barely sit up straight on his horse, much less tell a tale delightful and informative tale. We find his character laughable because of his immoderate alcohol consumption and his physical ridiculousness –he is widely yawning and falling off his horse. An immoderate character cannot yield a successful poet though perhaps he can be a successful comedian. With the Cook indisposed, the Host now turns to the Manciple to tell a tale (the Manciple agrees and offers a gourd filled with wine to satiate the Cook’s appetite).

A Manciple is a purchaser for a law court. In the “General Prologue,” the Manciple is described as a worthy businessman, and a moderate man without debts. Remarkably, we are not given a physical description of the Manciple. The formal presentation of the Manciple is subordinate to the content of his tale. “The Manciple’s Tale” is the penultimate tale in The Canterbury Tales. It is about Phoebus Apollo, a most “lusty bachiler” (107), who once dwelled on earth as ancient books say (i.e. Ovid). He is a skilled archer and minstrel with a pet crow who is white-colored and sings beautifully from his cage. The crow can also accurately mimic humans. However, Apollo has a beautiful wife whom he imprisons in his house.

The Manciple pauses for a moment to comment on the nature of men, or natural law. He believes that men have uncontrollable appetites and a ‘lust for domination’ not unlike a cat chasing a mouse or even a she-wolf. In other words, he disagrees with Aristotle to an extent in that man’s inherently unjust nature cannot be habituated (in Aristotelian terms), or changed for the better.

At any rate, as a result of her imprisonment and neglect, Apollo’s wife pursues an affair and his white crow watches the lechery and shares his observations with Apollo, however Apollo, in turn, remarkably takes out his vengeance on the crow. He curses the crow, turning his feathers black (hence explaining why crows appear black). The lesson is that it is best to mind one’s own business and hold one’s tongue, as wise Solomon instructs. It is an injunction against gossip. Evil exists and it is best not to meddle with it. In addition, continuing with the recurring theme of marriage and the quest for a successful partnership throughout The Canterbury Tales, the practice of marriage is private and should not be interfered with, no matter the intimate details, according to the Manciple. In other words, it is better for a wife to cheat and for the husband to remain aloof than inform him of the treachery. A lie is better than the truth in some circumstances.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

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