Week 9: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

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The Tale of the Manciple, cont.

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

The manciple goes on to explain that the woman brought her lover ("leman") into the house. There is a digression about whether it is correct to use this vulgar term "leman," but in the end the manciple decides that language is just a kind of social game: whether you are called "tyrant" or "outlaw" is just a matter of your social status, since they are all just the same thing in the end. Well, since the crow saw what happened, he told Phoebus all about it. Phoebus, needless to say, is not happy!

All these examples speak I of these men
Who are untrue, and not of sweet women.
For men have aye a lickerish appetite
On lower things to do their base delight
Than on their wives, though they be ne'er so fair
And ne'er so true and ne'er so debonair.
Flesh is so fickle, lusting beyond measure,
That we in no one thing can long have pleasure
Or virtuous keep more than a little while.
This Phoebus, who was thinking of no guile,
He was deceived, for all his quality;
For under him a substitute had she,
A man of little reputation, one
Worth naught to Phoebus, by comparison.
The more harm that; it often happens so,
Whereof there come so much of harm and woe.

And so befell, when Phoebus was absent,
His wife has quickly for her leman sent.
Her leman? Truly, 'tis a knavish speech!
Forgive it me, I do indeed beseech.
The wise old Plato says, as you may read,
The word must needs accord well with the deed.
And if a man tell properly a thing,
The word must suited be to the acting.
But I'm a vulgar man, and thus say I,
There is no smallest difference, truly,
Between a wife who is of high degree,
If of her body she dishonest be,
And a poor unknown wench, other than this -
If it be true that both do what's amiss -
The gentlewoman, in her state above,
She shall be called his lady, in their love;
And since the other's but a poor woman,
She shall be called his wench or his leman.

And God knows very well, my own dear brother,
Men lay the one as low as lies the other.
Between a tyrant or usurping chief
And any outlawed man or errant thief,
It's just the same, there is no difference.
One told to Alexander this sentence:
That, since the tyrant is of greater might,
By force of numbers, to slay men outright
And burn down house and home even as a plane,
Lot for that he's a captain, that's certain;
And since the outlaw has small company
And may not do so great a harm as he,
Nor bring a nation into such great grief,
Why, he's called but an outlaw or a thief.
But since I'm not a man the texts to spell,
Nothing at all from texts now will I tell;
I'll go on with my tale as I began.

When Phoebus' wife had sent for her leman,
At once they wrought all of their libertinage.
And the white crow, aye hanging in the cage,
Saw what they did, and never said a word.
And when again came Phoebus home, the lord,
This crow sang loud "Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!"

"What, bird?" asked Phoebus, "What song now sing you?
Were you not wont so merrily to sing
That in my heart it was a joyful thing
To hear your voice? Alas! What song is this?"

"By God," said he, "I do not sing amiss;
Phoebus," said he, "for all your worthiness,
For all your beauty and your nobleness,
For all your song and all your minstrelsy,
For all your watching, bleared is your bright eye
By one of small repute, as well is known,
Not worth, when I compare it with your own,
The value of a gnat, as I may thrive.
For on your bed your wife I saw him swive."

What will you more? The crow thereafter told,
In sober fashion, giving witness bold,
How that his wife had done her lechery
To his great shame and with great villainy;
Repeating that he'd seen it with his eyes.
Then Phoebus turned away in sad surprise;
He thought his wretched heart would break for woe;
His bow he bent and set there an arrow,
And in his angry mood his wife did slay.
This the result; there is no more to say;
For grief of which he ceased his minstrelsy,
Broke harp and lute, gittern and psaltery;
And, too, he broke his arrows and his bow.
And after that he spoke thus to the crow.

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

  • what kind of man had the wife taken as a lover?
  • who told Phoebus that his wife had taken a lover?
  • what did Phoebus do when he found out his wife had taken a lover?

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