The tale is a fable. Its moral is that it is often unwise to tell one's friends unpleasant things, even if they are true. The story also explains how crows came to be black and why they cannot sing beautifully as many other birds can do. The story's ultimate source is the collection of Latin verse tales Metamorphoses, written by the poet Ovid in the 1st century CE, although other adaptations of the story were popular in Chaucer's time.
The god Phoebus comes to live on Earth. He uses his bow and arrow to slay the wicked snake Python. He carries the same weapons with him at all times afterwards. He is the most handsome man on Earth and also the world's most accomplished musician. He lives in a small house with his wife and his pet crow. The crow is as white as any swan and sings as beautifully as a nightingale. Phoebus also teaches the crow to speak as well as any man.
Although there is nobody more handsome or more talented than him in the world, Phoebus still fears that his wife will be unfaithful to him. His fears prove to be well founded. One day, while Phoebus is out, his wife makes love to another man. When Phoebus returns home, the crow greets him by crying, "Cuckoo!" When Phoebus asks the bird why it is making that sound, it tells him that someone else, someone vastly inferior to Phoebus in every way, had sex with his wife that day. Phoebus shoots an arrow at his wife and kills her. The heartbroken god then destroys his bow and arrow and his many musical instruments. Afterwards, the angry Phoebus turns on the crow, blaming the bird for having robbed him of all his happiness. As punishment for its rash words, Phoebus declares that the crow will never be able to speak or sing again. Before throwing the crow out of his house, Phoebus plucks out all of its white feathers and turns it black.
The story's narrator, the Manciple, reminds his audience that the crow was punished for saying something that Phoebus did not want to hear. The Manciple says that his mother used to say to him, "Keep well thy tongue and keep thy friend", and advised him to think carefully before saying anything, whether it were false or true. He concludes his tale by telling his listeners, "Wherseo thou come, amonges high or low/Keep well thy tongue, and think upon the crow."
- ↑ A manciple was a person in charge of purchasing and storing food and other provisions for a monastery, a college or a court of law.
- ↑ In "The Manciple's Tale", Phoebus is used to refer to the Greek and Roman sun god Apollo. The names "Phoebus" and "Apollo" are often used interchangeably in Ovid's Metamorphioses, although some stories in the collection suggest that they are two separate deities.
- ↑ By saying, "Cuckoo", the crow is calling Phoebus a cuckold.