Week 9: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

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The Tale of the Manciple

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 700 words.

Your final story is also about a bird, the crow. This is a story from Ovid's Metamorphoses, which explains how the crow was transformed from being a bird with white feathers to being a bird with black feathers. As the story begins, you meet Phoebus Apollo, the Greek god who is described here as "the lustiest of bachelors." Phoebus, in turn, has a wife - and she is also lusty in her appetites! Phoebus tries to keep his wife locked in at home, but this is futile, says the manciple: you can give your cat a lovely saucer of milk, but if she sees a mouse run by, she is bound to chase it!

When Phoebus once on earth was dwelling, here,
As in the ancient books it is made clear,
He was the lustiest of bachelors
In all this world, and even the best archer;
He slew Python, the serpent, as he lay
Sleeping within the sunlight, on a day;
And many another noble, worthy deed
He with his bow wrought, as all men may read.
He played all instruments of minstrelsy,
And sang so that it made great harmony
To hear his clear voice in the joyous sun.
Truly the king of Thebes, that Amphion
Who, by his singing, walled that great city,
Could never sing one half so well as he.
Therewith he was the handsomest young man
That is or was since first the world began.
What needs it that his features I revive?
For in the world was none so fair alive.
Compact of honour and of nobleness,
Perfect he was in every worthiness.
This Phoebus, of all youthful knights the flower,
Whom generous chivalry did richly dower,
For his amusement (sign of victory
Over that Python, says the old story),
Was wont to bear in hand a golden bow.

Now Phoebus had within his house a crow,
Which in a cage he'd fostered many a day,
And taught to speak, as men may teach a jay.
White was this crow as is a snow white swan,
And counterfeit the speech of any man
He could, when he desired to tell a tale.
Therewith, in all this world, no nightingale
Could, by a hundred-thousandth part, they tell,
Carol and sing so merrily and well.

Now had this Phoebus in his house a wife,
Whom he loved better than he loved his life,
And night and day he used much diligence
To please her and to do her reverence,
Save only, if it's truth that I shall say,
Jealous he was and so did guard her aye;
For he was very loath befooled to be.
And so is everyone in such degree;
But all in vain, for it avails one naught.
A good wife, who is clean in deed and thought,
Should not be kept a prisoner, that's plain;
And certainly the labour is in vain
That guards a slut, for, sirs, it just won't be.
This hold I for an utter idiocy,
That men should lose their labour guarding wives;
So say these wise old writers in their lives.

But now to purpose, as I first began:
This worthy Phoebus did all that a man
Could do to please, thinking that by such pleasures,
And by his manhood and his other measures
To make her love him and keep faithful, too.
But God knows well that nothing man may do
Will ever keep restrained a thing that nature
Has made innate in any human creature.
Take any bird and put it in a cage
And do your best affection to engage
And rear it tenderly with meat and drink
Of all the dainties that you can bethink,
And always keep it cleanly as you may;
Although its cage of gold be never so gay,
Yet would this bird, by twenty thousand-fold,
Rather, within a forest dark and cold,
Go to eat worms and all such wretchedness.
For ever this bird will do his business
To find some way to get outside the wires.
Above all things his freedom he desires.
Or take a cat, and feed him well with milk
And tender flesh, and make his bed of silk,
And let him see a mouse go by the wall;
Anon he leaves the milk and flesh and all
And every dainty that is in that house,
Such appetite has he to eat a mouse.
Desire has here its mighty power shown,
And inborn appetite reclaims its own.
A she-wolf also has a vulgar mind;
The wretchedest he-wolf that she may find,
Or least of reputation, she'll not hate
Whenever she's desirous of a mate.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what personality does the Greek god Phoebus have?
  • what kind of bird did he keep at home?
  • what problem does Phoebus have with his wife?

Source: The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. Modern English translation (name of translator not given). Website: Litrix Reading Room

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM