“The Manciple’s Tale” and Self-Knowledge

I guess I can’t break the chain now so “hello my beautiful “Lords and Ladies, learned and lewed, and all those who reject or object to those stated binaries!” I hope you enjoyed this weeks readings as much as I did. The theme for this week is a continuation of self-knowledge, so I will focus on how “The Manciple’s Tale” deals with what we conceive makes us human.

The moral of “The Manciple’s Tale” is to hold your tongue and not to act rashly. These lessons are imparted to the reader through the interactions between Phebus, his pet crow, and his wife. There are two themes that caught my attention while reading: speech and the nature of being. What does it mean for Phebus to give the crow speech? In his article, “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages” Jeffrey Cohen reminds us that God allowed Adam to name the animals around him in order to exercise his dominion over them. It is his power of speech that allows Adam to elevate himself and have control over the natural world (Cohen 42). So what does it mean when Phebus gives his crow the power of speech? Speech elevates the crows status, making him what Cohen calls a “proximate strange[r]” (41), where we derive what it means to be human through a body who is similar but vastly different from our own.

What does it mean for an animal body to perform a human trait? If human tongues are “walled..with teeth and lips” (MT 323) to help us keep to our moral obligation of holding our tongue, how can a crow be expected to exercise the same restraint when he is not afforded those same bodily apparati? Phebus alters the nature of the crow by giving him speech, forcing him to live in a mixed-species role where he is expected to hold the same moral values. The crow’s downfall is foreshadowed by the return to nature that is presented through the description of the bird, cat, and wolf. Each of the animals depicted in the tale abscond from their domestic, human attachments, such as fine dining and silk pillows (175-176) in favour of their inherent wildness. The reader expects that the crow will find a way to lose his human privilege of speech and return to the animal he is supposed to be.

But what about Phebus? The crow shows restraint, loyalty, and reason– all arguably human traits before his punishment. But Phebus’ actions embody the opposite; he is rash, reactionary, and violent– truly animalistic qualities that lead him to commit murder. For me, the big takeaway from this tale is not just the importance of keeping mum and seeking evidence before making decisions, but rather the question: what nature does Phebus return too? What nature do humans return to when we lose what we consider makes us human?