“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?



The Merchant’s Tale & the Power of Vision

As per our usual 515 greeting – Hello my beautiful “Lords and Ladies, learned and lewed, and all those who reject or object to those stated binaries!”

I hope that everyone loved the CT’s as much as I did this week. I think they are three of Chaucer’s most entertaining, humorous tales (and I think we can all go for a little humour right about now), so I’m excited for class discussion on them tomorrow. I know this post is only supposed to be around 300 words, so I will stick to raising questions about the Merchant’s Tale, partly because it’s the freshest in my mind, but mostly because I think it has a lot we can work with.

Our main focus for this week is the notion of medieval perspective and vision/optics. The Merchant’s Tale of course plays heavily on vision, literally and metaphorically in the sense of a moral shortsightedness. I wonder what everyone thought of the morality within this play? Not only on Januarie and May’s parts, but on Pluto and Prosperina’s? They are gods, but they are behaving immorally by influencing nature in a way to favour either Januarie or May. Does this raise any questions about morality? What I think I’m getting at is how can May and Januarie be seen completely at fault for their moral short-sightedeness when the gods above are just as selfish and shortsighted?

Let’s also not forget the fact that Januarie chooses his wife based on her youthful looks, but this visual goodness doesn’t necessarily translate into moral goodness, as she sleeps with Damyan quite easily. And what do we make of her ability to completely dismiss his logical (rational) response (to seeing her have sex in a pear tree with another guy while standing on his back) by manipulating his vision with her words? What does this say about the hierarchy, or, relationship between speech and sight? Since this is all tied into producing a comedic effect, is Chaucer satirizing the senses and their abilities to be manipulated?

Likewise, can we tie this in to what Hector (and Mandeville) said last week about climates and how they influence people in certain geographical locations? Chaucer references astrology several times in the Tales & it seems to be that mythology, astrology, climates, and vision are all interconnected in Chaucer’s mind (or maybe just a medieval mind).

Ex: Why does Chaucer include the location of the astrological signs when describing their wedding day?

“The moone, that at noon was thilke day / That Januarie hath wedded fresshe May / In two of Tawr, was into Cancre glyden ” (Riverside, 1885-87).

Finally, did anyone else get the sense in The Miller’s Tale and The Merchant’s tale that the main female characters were being described in horse-like terms? I definitely sensed some zoomorphism there..