Prologue to the Manciple's Tale
The Host turns to the sleeping cook, and asks whether any man might be able to wake him. Awaking, pale and unalert, the Cook proclaims that he would rather sleep than have some of the best wine in Cheapside. The Manciple steps in courteously, excusing the cook, and then mocking him – his open mouth, which the devil could put his foot in, his stinking breath – to his face for his drunkenness. The Cook is furious, but too drunk to speak, and promptly falls off his horse. Everyone lifts him up out of the mud, and the Host addresses the Manciple, telling him that the Cook is too drunk to tell a tale, and has more than enough to do keeping himself out of the mud and on his horse.
However, adds the Host, it is a folly to openly mock the Cook to his face, for one day he might have his revenge, and “quit” the Manciple’s words. “No”, says the Manciple, and produces a draught of wine, which he gives to the Cook to drink, with the result that the Cook thanks him generously. Everyone is much amused, and the Host comments that good drink turns rancor into love, blessing Bacchus, god of wine. He then asks the Manciple to tell his tale.
The Manciple’s Tale
When Phoebus, god of poetry, lived on earth, he was the lustiest of bachelors, a superior archer and the envy of all for his singing and playing on his musical instruments. Phoebus kept in his house a white crow, which could imitate the speech of any man, and who could sing more beautifully than a nightingale.
Phebus also had a wife, whom he loved more than his own life, and did his best to please her and treat her courteously – except that he was extremely jealous, and so would watch her suspiciously. Guarding a wife so closely, the narrator reminds us cynically, is pointless if she is faithful, there is no need to do so, but if she is unfaithful no amount of monitoring will keep her faithful. Take any bird, he says, and put it in a cage – and no matter how gilded the cage and how good the treatment, the bird would still twenty thousand times rather go and eat worms in a forest. Animals, the narrator insists, can never be trained to be unanimalistic. So do men, the logic continues, always have a lecherous appetite to sleep with someone socially lower than their wives. Flesh is fond of novelty.
This Phoebus, though he had no idea of it, was deceived: his wife had another man, “of litel reputacioun”, hardly worth comparing with Phoebus himself. One day when Pheobus was away, she sent for her “lemman” (lover – a word the narrator takes some pains to reject having said). The white crow saw their “working” together, and said nothing until Phoebus returned home, when the crow sang “Cokkow! Cokkow!” (Cuckold! Cuckold!). Pheobus initially thought the bird sang a song he did not recognize, but the crow clarified that his wife had had sex with a man of little reputation on his bed.
Phoebus thought his heart burst in two – he took his bow, set an arrow to it and murdered his wife, and for sorrow of that, destroyed his harp, lute, cithern and psaltry, snapping too his arrows and his bow. Then he turned to the crow, calling it a traitor, mourning his wife, and accused the crow of lying to him - and then, to “quite anon thy false tale”, pulled out every one of the crow’s white feathers, made him black and took away his song and his speech, slinging him out of the door and leaving him to the devil. It is for this reason that all crows are black.
The narrator turns to his audience, and tells them to be aware of what they say - never tell a man that he is a cuckold because he will hate the messenger. One must think on the crow and hold one’s tongue.
There is something hugely destructive – and self-destructive – about this tale, and particularly the way it takes the god of poetry, himself a plausible representative for the whole idea of the Tales themselves, and turns him into a petty, jealous murderer. The Manciple’s Tale is almost painfully brief - not given to flights of fancy, we are given the simple information – jealous husband, unfaithful wife, talking crow, and then destruction, of wife, of crow, and of poetry.
The Manciple’s Tale is also a cousin, though a darker cousin, of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and it seems likely, at least, at first, that a tale about a talking crow and the mythical god of poetry will be another fantastical beast fable – the genre leads us to expect the happily ending exploits of another Chaunticleer. Yet what actually happens is a bitter shift in tone - the happy, metaphorical beginning of the tale falls through into a painful reality. The god of poetry is a jealous human, and the white-feathered beautiful-voiced talking crow becomes the black, hollow-voiced harbinger of doom of reality. The tale brings the reader back to earth with a bump, and its reminder is clear: know when to fall silent. Know when not to speak, when not to tell.
And “tell” is an appropriate verb to raise - like Chaucer himself, the crow can counterfeit the speech of every man. The crow, in other words, is a veritable Canterbury poet himself - and what this tale teaches him, through physical suffering, is that some subjects are simply not to be told. Chaucer, in the Retraction, raises the worry that the Tales are sinful or blasphemous, and the moral “hold your tongue” could not simply be the message of the final Tales, but a thought a nervously religious Chaucer was increasingly coming to find in his own mind. Telling, in other words, has its limits - and it is better to stop before there are real consequences to it. As the final real “tale” (discounting the Parson’s sermon) of the Tales, it makes for a bleak, but unmistakable end.