The canterbury tales, p.128
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.128

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  The Latin version of Ibn Umail’s treatise was edited by H. E. Stapleton and M. Hidayat Husain and printed in Three Arabic Treatises on Alchemy by Muhammad bin Umail, ed. M. Turab ‘Ali, Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 12 (Calcutta, 1933). The parts relevant to CYT are on pp. 180 and 183, and are also given in SA, pp. 697–8, but the latter text contains several misprints; the correct forms are given in parentheses in the following translation:

  King Solomon said, ‘Take the stone which is called Thitarios, which is a red, white, yellow, black stone which has many names and different colours.’ … The sage said, ‘Identify it for me.’ He said, ‘It is the noble substance of magnesia, which all the philosophers praise.’ He said, ‘What is magnesia?’ He replied, ‘Magnesia is a congealed, composite water, which is antithetical to [repugnat] fire.’ And Plato said, ‘Everything is one … ’ And this is the secret which they swore they would not reveal [indicarent] in any book. Nor will any of them declare [declarabit] it, attributing it to the glorious God, that he may reveal it to whom he wishes, and withhold it from whom he wishes …

  The scepticism of the disciple in CYT, which is evident in his comment that Plato’s explanation is ‘ignotum per ignocius’ (see n. to CY 1457), is absent from the Latin source, in which the dialogue is taken seriously, whereas in Chaucer it illustrates the failure of alchemical discourse to make contact with concrete reality. See further Headnote to CYT.

  1454 Titanos: A Greek word, which, according to Liddell and Scott’s Greek Lexicon, denotes a white earth – most probably gypsum, but also lime or chalk. The ‘Thitarios’ of the Latin source (see preceding n.) is a meaningless corruption; Chaucer presumably had access to a better text or better information.

  1455 Magnasia: Probably magnesium oxide, a brilliant white powder. In alchemical terms, it is ‘a name for the perfect white earth or matter of the Stone attained at the albedo, the quintessence’ (Abraham, Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery, p. 121); for a quotation from a Greek alchemical treatise extolling the mystic properties of magnesia, see Holmyard, Alchemy, p. 31.

  1457 ignotum per ignocius: The disciple is complaining that Plato explains the unknown (‘ignotum’) by means of something more unknown (‘per ignocius’). The explanation is thus merely a process of verbal substitution rather than real illumination.

  1467 Since Plato lived more than four centuries before Christ, this reference is highly anachronistic. The Latin original (see n. to CY 1448–71) refers only to ‘God’.


  1–3 Although these lines imply that the ‘litel toun’ is well known, it is not easily identifiable. The most likely candidate is Harbledown, two miles north-west of Canterbury, but Up-and-Down Field, in the parish of Thannington Without, and Bobbing, two miles west of Sittingbourne, have also been proposed (D. C. Baker, ed., A Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer: The Manciple’s Tale (Norman, OK, 1984), pp. 79–80). On the Blean forest (‘the Blee’), see n. to CY 556.

  5 ‘Dun’ denotes a dark-coloured horse; ‘dun is in the mire’ is a proverbial expression meaning ‘things have come to a standstill’ (see MED s.vv. don n, and mire n (1); Whiting D434).

  6 for preyere ne for hire: This is an English version of the formulaic Latin expression ‘nec prece nec precio’ (‘neither for entreaty nor for money’).

  11 On the possibility that the Cook is to be identified with a London cook called Roger of Ware, see Co 4336 and n.

  14 nat worth a botel hey: Apparently proverbial. See Whiting B470.

  24 Chepe: See nn. to GP 754, Co 4377 and Pard 564.

  25 Maunciple: See n. to GP 567.

  42 justen atte fan: ‘A reference to a popular game demanding considerable agility. The “fan” was the fan, or vane, of the quintain, a crossbar pivoting atop a post. At one end of the crossbar was the fan, or vane, a board at which the player was to ride or run, like a jousting knight, and strike with a spear or stick in such a way and with such speed that he would be able to dodge the other end of the crossbar swinging around behind his head. To the other end of the crossbar was usually attached some heavy object, a club, a wooden sword, or a bag of sand, to encourage the agility of the player’ (Baker, Variorum: Manciple’s Tale, pp. 86–7). Presumably the Cook is lurching wildly from side to side as if he were making a desperate attempt to hit the ‘fan’.

  44–5 This appears to be ‘a reference to one of the degrees of drunkenness that one might successively attain, signified by the fabulous behavior of four animals: the lamb, the lion, the ape and the swine’ (Baker, Variorum: Manciple’s Tale, p. 87). For literary references to this idea, see Skeat V, 436–8. The ‘ape’ stage seems to have manifested itself in playfulness of various kinds, of which playing with a straw is one (ibid.).

  72 Reclaime … lure: These are hawking terms. To ‘reclaim’ a hawk is to call it back from flight by means of the lure (see n. to WB 415).


  The story of a talking bird which is punished for telling the truth about a wife’s adultery is widespread in various forms (SA, p. 699). Chaucer certainly knew the version in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (II.534–632), but this contains only the skeletal outline of the Manciple’s Tale: the raven (despite being warned by the crow of the penalties of telling tales) informs Phoebus that his mistress Coronis is unfaithful. Overcome with anger, Phoebus kills Coronis with his bow and arrows; as she dies, she reveals that she is pregnant with his child. The repentant Phoebus tries in vain to revive her, and then builds a funeral pyre for her, but snatches the unborn child from her womb and gives it to the centaur Chiron for safe-keeping. (The child becomes Aesculapius, the god of medicine.) Meanwhile, the raven is changed from black to white (nothing is said of his losing the ability to sing). Chaucer omits the inset story told by the crow about its own punishment for truthtelling (and makes the crow, rather than the raven, the subject of the outer tale), and also omits any reference to the pregnancy. He prefaces the story with an account of the paradisal relations between the god and his talking bird, both of whom are distinguished by their verbal and musical skills, and he emphasizes the bleak loss of this paradisal harmony at the end of the tale, with the bird’s blackness, loss of speech and separation from human contact. He also adds to the tale a number of moralizing reflections, on the ineradicability of nature, on ‘newefangelnesse’, on the relation between words and deeds, and on the virtue of holding one’s tongue; for the sources of these passages, see nn. to Mcp 311–60.

  Chaucer may have known the medieval French version of Ovid’s story in the Ovide moralisé (most accessible in SA, pp. 702–9, or in SA2 II), which expands the crow’s warnings against talking too much, and concludes with a lengthy passage on the evils of gossip and slander. Gower’s retelling of the story in CA (III.768–835), like the Manciple’s Tale, omits the crow’s advice to the raven and the pregnancy of Coronis, but it is not clear whether it predates or postdates Chaucer’s version (on possible echoes of Gower, see n. to Mcp 318 ff.). Other tales that have been compared with this tale are the version of Ovid in Machaut’s Livre du voir dit (ed. D. Leech-Wilkinson, tr. R. B. Palmer (New York and London, 1998), lines 7793–8130), and the rather different story in The Seven Sages of Rome, in which the unfaithful wife outwits the bird so that the husband kills it instead of her (ed. K. Brunner, EETS o.s. 191 (London, 1933), lines 2193–2292; cf. n. to WB 232). Relevant sections of all these sources are printed in SA, pp. 699–722, and in SA2 II; for a discussion, see Baker, Variorum: Manciple’s Tale, pp. 4–11.

  Whatever imaginative stimulus these different versions gave to Chaucer, his own moralizing additions, with their insistence on the delusions and dangers involved in rhetorical elaborations of any kind, give the Manciple’s Tale a quite distinctive meaning, particularly when placed in context in CT; the tale’s rejection of ‘tidinges’ (360) leads quite naturally into the Parson’s rejection of ‘fable’ (Pars 31) and the ending of tale-telling altogether (see A. C. Spearing, in The Cambridge Companion to Chauce
r, ed. P. Boitani and J. Mann, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2003), 195–213, at p. 211).

  109–10 Phitoun: Ovid gives a brief account of this exploit (Metamorphoses I.438–44), but he does not mention that the mighty snake (Python) was sleeping in the sun when it was slain.

  116–18 For Amphion’s construction of the walls of Thebes through the magical power of music, see nn. to Kn 1546 and Mch 1716.

  131 In the Ovidian version of the story, the raven (who is replaced by the crow in McpT) is not caged, and flies about freely. The image of the caged (that is, domesticated or ‘civilized’) bird reappears in Mcp 163–74 (see n.).

  143–5 In the Ovidian versions of the story, Phoebus and Coronis are lovers rather than a married couple. In these lines, Phoebus is assimilated to the jealous husband of fabliau, a surprising development after the romantic opening description of this ‘flour of bachelrye’ (125). Cf. Mil 3224, where the jealous husband is said, significantly, to keep his young wife ‘in cage’ (and see nn. to Mcp 131 and 163–74).

  148–54 These lines translate part of Theophrastus’s Liber aureolus (Golden Book), as quoted in Jerome, Against Jov. I.47. A gloss in the margin of Hg (but not El) quotes the Latin original and continues with the immediately succeeding lines: ‘For necessity is an unreliable [infida; Hg’s ‘feda’ is an error] keeper of chastity … A beautiful woman is the object of desire, an ugly one is quick to desire. What many desire is difficult to guard.’ Cf. WB 253–6, 265–8, and n. to WB 248–302.

  160–62 A well-known version of this idea was the line in Horace’s Epistles (I.x.24): ‘Naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret’ (‘You can thrust Nature out with a pitchfork, but she’ll always be back again’). This saying of Horace is quoted at RR 13987–94 (tr. Horgan, p. 216), in between the comparisons to the caged bird and the pampered cat which are used by Chaucer at Mcp 163–80.

  163–74 This image of the ineradicability of Nature originates in Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy (Boece III m.2.21–31). However, in Boethius it refers to man’s instinctual longing for the perfect bliss of heaven; more relevant to McpT is its use by Jean de Meun at RR 13911–36 (tr. Horgan, p. 215), where it illustrates women’s inextinguishable desire for sexual freedom. See also next n.

  Chaucer had already used the bird-in-the-cage simile as an illustration both of the power of Nature and of ‘newfangelnesse’ at Sq 607–20 (see n.); cf. Mcp 193–5.

  175–80 This comparison with the natural world, like the preceding one, forms part of the speech of the Old Woman (La Vieille) in the Romance of the Rose (14009–22, tr. Horgan, p. 216), and is likewise used to illustrate the impossibility of restraining sexual appetite in women. It recalls the traditional tale of the cat and the candle (see E. Cosquin, Romania, 40 (1911), 371–430, 481–531, and W. L. Braekman and P. S. Macaulay, NM, 70 (1969), 690–702).

  183–6 The comparison with the she-wolf’s behaviour forms part of the Friend’s advice to the Lover in RR (7731–6, tr. Horgan, p. 119); it was also a proverbial exemplum in wide circulation (see T. B. W. Reid, MÆ, 24 (1955), 16–19, and Whiting W448).

  187–8 Given that the preceding examples are used by Jean de Meun and other writers to illustrate the sexual rapaciousness of women, it comes as a surprise to find Chaucer suddenly reversing the apparently inevitable direction of his remarks and insisting that they apply to men rather than women. For a comparable switch, see his insistence at the end of Troilus and Criseyde (V.1779–85) that the story of Criseyde’s betrayal is meant to teach women to beware of male treachery (and see Mann, Feminizing Chaucer, pp. 15–17).

  207–10 For the sources of this saying, see n. to GP 741–2. It is also quoted at RR 15161–2 (tr. Horgan, p. 235) where, however, the source is Sallust not Plato.

  222 Riverside claims ‘an obvious pun on “lay” meaning “to have sexual intercourse”’, but there is no evidence for this use of the verb ‘lay’ in MED, and according to OED (Supplement), it is first recorded in the twentieth century and originates in US English. The literal meaning ‘to place in a recumbent posture’ (MED2a) already has plenty of sexual connotations in this context, so that a pun might in any case be regarded as redundant.

  226–34 Alisandre: The story of Alexander and the pirate (who gave this answer when asked to account for his depredations) was well known, and Chaucer could have encountered it in a number of places. See, for example, Augustine, City of God IV.4; John of Salisbury, Policraticus III.14; Gesta Romanorum, ed. H. Oesterley (Berlin, 1872), ch. 146.

  243 The bird’s jeering cry evidently implies the word ‘cuckold’ (ME cokewold); for this traditional implication of the cuckoo’s call, see Jean de Condé, La messe des oiseaux, ed. J. Ribard (Geneva, 1970), lines 301–11, and the ME poem ‘The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’ attributed to John Clanvowe, Middle English Debate Poetry, ed. J. W. Conlee (East Lansing, 1991), p. 260.183–5.

  256 swive: Both El and Hg avoid writing this word, though both had copied it on numerous earlier occasions (Mil 3850; Rv 4178, 4266, 4317; Co 4422; Mch 2378). Hg writes ‘&c’, and El writes ‘sw&c’, adding the comment, ‘Nota malum quid’ (‘Notice something bad’).

  275–7 Phoebus does not just repent his rashness, he convinces himself his wife was innocent. Cf. his words to the crow in Machaut, Le livre du voir dit (lines 8119–20; my translation): ‘And it could be that she was innocent of this deed, and that you have lied to me.’

  311–12 As T. F. Mustanoja pointed out (Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr, ed. J. B. Bessinger and R. P. Creed (London, 1965), pp. 250–54), these lines echo a Latin couplet found in Peter Abelard’s admonitory poem to his son Astralabe (PL 178, col. 1764, lines 217–18): ‘Nolo virum doceas uxoris crimen amatae, | Quod sciri potius quam fieri gravat hunc’ (‘Don’t tell a man of the wrongdoing of his beloved wife, for it will hurt him more that the deed should be known than that it should be committed’). The couplet also circulated separately; see Walther 17154. Cf. the Ovide moralisé, lines 2542–6 (SA, p. 709):

  Nulz homs, por plere a son seignor,

  Ne doit de sa dame desdire,

  Et s’ele veult faire avoultire,

  Il ne s’i doit pas consentir

  N’encuser la …

  (‘No man, to please his lord, should speak ill of his lady, and if she wants to commit adultery, he ought neither to consent to that nor accuse her … ’)

  314–15 See Proverbs 21:23.

  318 ff. My sone: This phrase is repeated numerous times from this point to the end of the tale. It is justified in context by the supposition that the Manciple is quoting his mother, but the effect is strongly reminiscent of wisdom literature (see Headnote to Mel), which is often cast in the form of a father’s or teacher’s address to a son or pupil. It has also been suggested that Chaucer is parodying Gower’s Confessio Amantis, in which the ‘fatherconfessor’ Genius frequently addresses the Lover as ‘my sone’ (see R. Hazelton, JEGP, 62 (1963), 1–31, at p. 24, and Baker, Variorum: Manciple’s Tale, p. 122).

  319 Proverbial; see Whiting T373.

  322–4 Proverbial, though other examples are post-medieval; see Tilley T424.

  325–8 These lines paraphrase the Distichs of Cato I.12b: ‘nam nulli tacuisse nocet, nocet esse locutum’ (‘For it harms no one to have kept silence; it is harmful to have spoken’).

  329–31 This maxim is found in the list of aphorisms in the preface to Gerard of Cremona’s Latin translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest; see K. Young, SP, 34 (1937), 1–7, at n. 32, and cf. n. to WB 180–83. It is cited at RR 7007–13 (tr. Horgan, p. 107).

  332–4 This is a quotation from the Distichs of Cato, I.3: ‘Virtutem primam esse puto, compescere linguam’ (‘I think that the first virtue is to restrain one’s tongue’). As line 334 implies, this text was used as an elementary reader for young students learning Latin (see n. to Mil 3227). This proverb is also quoted in Albertano of Brescia, Liber de doctrina dicendi et tacendi I.23, and in RR 7023–7, 12149–53 (tr. Horgan, pp. 107, 187). Cf. TC III.292–4.

  338 Proverbs 10:19; quoted in Albertano’s Liber de doctrina dicendi et tacendi V.50, and also in the Ovide moralisé, line 2522. Cf. Whiting S608.

  340–42 Cf. Psalm 56:5 (AV 57:4): ‘and their tongue a sharp sword’. Cf. Whiting T385 and 388.

  343 Apparently a reference to Proverbs 6:16–19.

  344–5 Salomon … David … Senekke: Chaucer may have been thinking of the many quotations in Albertano of Brescia’s Liber de doctrina dicendi et tacendi from ‘Solomon’ (that is, the biblical books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus) and from Seneca’s Moral Epistles, as well as works incorrectly attributed to Seneca, such as the De moribus and the Formula honestae vitae (see Headnote to Mel and n. to Mel 1071); for a list of examples, see the index of authors cited in P. Navone’s edition (pp. 59–62). The Psalms are also cited twice, although David’s name is not mentioned.

  349–50 Cf. the Flemish proverb: ‘Luttel onderwinds maakt groote rust’ (J. Grauls and J. F. Vanderheijden, Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, 13 (1934), 745–9).

  355–6 An echo of Horace, Epistles I.xviii.71: ‘semel emissum volat irrevocabile verbum’ (‘a word once uttered flies away and cannot be recalled’). Horace is quoted in Albertano, Liber de doctrina dicendi et tacendi I.40, and translated at RR 16515–16 (tr. Horgan, p. 255).

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