Chaucer\'s Canterbury Tales - Reeve Vs. Manciple

Alex Clifford
February 13, 2000

On Chaucer’s Placement and Description of the Manciple and the Reeve in the General Prologue

In the general prologue of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the manciple and the reeve are described one after the other. Given the proximity of characters such as the prioress, the friar and the monk to each other, while the parson is hundred of lines away, Chaucer clearly grouped characters not only by social standing, but by character and attitude as well. This is shown in Chaucer’s placement of the manciple and the reeve, as these two characters have similar occupations, social standing, though these are contrasted through their urban and rural viewpoints. However, each has similar attitudes towards their professions. They are crafty, but ultimately scrupulous. This ultimately accounts for the placement of their descriptions in the general prologue one after the other.
Both the manciple and the reeve fall somewhere within the small, poorly defined middle class of 15th century England. The manciple is described by Chaucer as “ay biforn and in good state (574),” meaning that his was on sound financial footing. The reeve was also well-off, and Chaucer reveals that “ful riche he was astored prively, His lorde wel coulde he plesen subtilly, to yive and lene him of his owene good (612).” In essence, the reeve was so well-off that he was able to give the lord of the manor, whose estate he was in charge of, gifts out of the reeve’s own pocket.
Though inarguably both men were well-to-do, neither had any recognizable social standing in 15th century society. For though the manciple, “a lewed mannes, (576)” may have made fools of the lawyers and men of learning in London, he was still not a lerned man, and not entitled to that level of respect. The manciple, too, may have made every “bailiff, herde [or] other hine…/ as afreed of him as the deeth (605, 607),” with his craftiness and excellent managerial skills, yet he was still in a position where he had to bestow gifts on his lord to curry favor. Indeed, the manciple was “a wel good wrighte, a carpenter (616)” before he became a reeve, showing that he had no real education. Clearly, both men are more than peasants, but neither lords nor men of learning. Thus, they fall somewhere in the nebulous middle class.
One clear difference between the reeve and the manciple is the difference in locations. The manciple lives and works in London, a business agent who deals not only with his clients, an enclave of lawyers, but also with a variety of food providers on a daily basis. His is an urban lifestyle. The reeve, on the other hand, encounters a fairly fixed group of people every day. However, these lifestyle differences seem to have little effect on Chaucer’s portrayal of the similarities between the two characters.
The manciple and the reeve perform similar duties. Each cares for the needs of another of higher social status more adeptly than their superiors could do for themselves. Their most basic similarity, and the one which Chaucer highlights in most detail, is the excellence in which they perform their labors. They are each hard-working, effective, and, when compared to most of the other pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, morally sound as well.
The manciple had “maistres… mo than thries ten / that were of lawe experte and curious…/ and yit this Manciple sette hir alle cappe! (578-9, 589)” According to Chaucer, the manciple was more skilled at his duties than even the lawyers he worked for, who were to “worthy to be stewards of rente and lond / of any lord that is in Engelonde (583-4).”
The reeve is charged with controlling much more than his lord’s foodstuffs. Indeed, “His lordes sheepe, his neet, and his dayerye, his swin, his hors and his pultrye was hoolly in this Reeves governinge (599-601).” He performed his duties so well that “Sin that his lord was twenty-yeer of age,/ there coude no man bring him in areerage (603-604).” In addition, if he showed himself to be somewhat unscrupulous in his knowledge of the every “sleight and … covine (606)” of the people under him, he certainly did not tinker with the his masters accounts,