The Manciple in ”The Canterbury Tales” draws a lot of attention to the folly of others, which he most likely tries to avoid himself. In this lesson, we’ll learn about the Manciple’s physical appearance and personality.
The Manciple’s Appearance
In medieval times, a manciple was in charge of buying and storing food for an institution. Poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s use of this term in his story collection The Canterbury Tales appears to be one of the first in the English language. While we don’t get a physical description of the Manciple in the General Prologue or his own prologue, a painting in the Ellesmere manuscript (an illustrated medieval manuscript of the Canterbury Tales) depicts him as a rosy-skinned man with light brown hair and beard. He wears blue robes and has a red cap.
The Manciple’s Personality
The Manciple apparently doesn’t mind drawing attention to the flaws of others, as we find out in the prologue to his tale.
The Host asks Roger the Cook to tell a tale, but as the Manciple explains, Roger is too drunk and sleepy to do so. Rather than putting this politely or succinctly, the Manciple comically dramatizes the Cook’s drunkenness. Exaggerating, he says that Roger’s yawn is so big it will swallow them all and claims that his smelly breath will spread disease. He also calls Roger a swine and an ape, and makes him drink even more wine to mock him.
From this display, we might reasonably guess that the Manciple doesn’t often get drunk himself, and probably doesn’t act like a fool in public. However, the Host alludes to some dubious dealings on the Manciple’s part, so it seems that this character may be both dishonest and crafty. We don’t know exactly what he’s done, but one possibility is that he may have reported some food supplies as being more expensive than they really were. He might have made an illicit profit somehow in the course of his work.The Host tells the Manciple he shouldn’t mock Roger lest the Cook find out about and/or report his dishonest dealings.
We know that the Manciple is anxious not to let this happen, and he promises not to make Roger angry.The Manciple calls himself a vulgar man and ”not textual,” which means that he’s not well-educated. Rather than a tale of chivalry, such as his audience would expect of an upper middle class man or nobleman, his tale concerns adultery. Part of the tale’s moral is that sinful behavior exists across all social classes and levels of wealth and power. He says that a noble lady who commits adultery is no better than a wench from the peasantry who does the same.
The other part of his moral is that ”a wicked tongue is worse than any fiend.” He means two things by this: one, that someone will always ”shoot the messenger” even if he’s telling the truth about bad news. Second, he says that men should be careful of what they say and not gossip or tell secrets. From this, we can guess that the Manciple probably observes things he doesn’t tell others about, or that he’s tight-lipped in general.
In general, the Manciple appears to be concerned about what others think of him, and is a cautious man. He doesn’t get drunk and says he will make sure Roger doesn’t blab about his petty deceptions, whatever they are. He doesn’t gossip and avoids making himself the bearer of bad news. This means that he is prudent and calculating, even if he’s also a little dishonest.
Let’s review;There’s no real physical description of the Manciple in the Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, but the illustration of him in the Ellesmere manuscript depicts him as a rosy-skinned man with light brown hair and beard. Judging by his mockery of Roger the Cook’s drunken state, the Manciple probably doesn’t get drunk himself and probably doesn’t act like a fool in public. However, the Host suggests that the Manciple has had some illicit dealings and may be dishonest and crafty.
The Manciple calls himself a vulgar man, which means he’s not well-educated, but his tale reveals the virtue of refraining from gossip, telling secrets, or being the bearer of bad news. This likely means that he is somewhat tight-lipped himself. Finally, when we add all these characteristics together, we get the sense that the Manciple is a cautious man overall.