A gentil MAUNCIPLE was ther of a temple,
Of which achatours myghte take exemple
For to be wise in byynge of vitaille;
For wheither that he payde or took by taille,
Algate he wayted so in his achaat
That he was ay biforn and in good staat.
Phoebus, who slew Phitoun with his bow, was the greatest musician and singer on earth. He had a crow white as a swan, which sang beautifully and could speak. He had a beautiful wife whom he deeply loved and of whom he was very jealous. It is a mistake to think one can guard a woman. Birds, cats, she-wolves follow their nature. Phoebus' wife had a leman (nay; that is knavish speech!) The crow tells Phoebus of his wife's infidelity. Phoebus kills the woman. Then he repents his hasty deed, and for sorrow he breaks his musical instruments and his bow. He turns on the crow, takes away its beautiful song and turns its lovely white feathers black. The moral: think on the crow; guard your tongue; be author of no new tidings.
Students reading this text for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful.
Stories of "the tell-tale bird" are widespread and take a variety of forms. See The Riverside Chaucer p. 952 , and Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales, ed. W. F, Bryan and Germaine Dempster (New York, 1958), for examples. For a very simple version see: The Tell-Tale Bird in The Book of the Knight of Latour Landry.
One of the best known versions of the tale is that which appears in the popular Book of the Seven Sages of Rome, a work that Chaucer knew (cf. Wife of Bath's Prologue III.232 and note); in this version the bird is a magpie rather than a crow: The Tale of a Merchant and his Magpie. The ultimate source of Chaucer's tale is Ovid's account of Phoebus and the Crow in the Metamorphoses: Ovid's tale of Coronis and the Birth of Esculapius.
Chaucer may have known the versions of Ovid's story in the French Ovid moralisé and in Machaut's Voir dit; he almost certainly knew the version in John Gower's Confessio amantis: Phoebus and the Crow.
The Manciple's Tale is the last work of fiction in The Canterbury Tales ; "And sithe th'ende is every tales strengthe" (Troilus 2 260), this brief tale may have an important function in the structure of the whole work.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Manciple's Tale click here.