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What is a Manciple?

By Susan Barwick
Updated May 23, 2024
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In the Middle Ages, a manciple was the person in charge of purchasing and storing food for an institution, such as a college or monastery. He might also have had a role in food preparation. The word arises most notably in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which seems to be one of the first instances of its usage. Manciple Street, in one of the oldest sections of London, is one among a group of streets, including Prioress Street and Pilgrimage Street, named with Chaucer's work in mind. Its archaic origins notwithstanding, the word is occasionally still used to describe some food management jobs.

Some of the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge have employees called manciples. In 2010, Saint Edmund's College at Cambridge advertised an opening for a manciple who would be responsible for overseeing the provision of regular meals and the catering of special events. The job duties also included supervision of general housekeeping and maintenance and assistance in the development of health and safety policies.

In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a manciple for one of the inns of court belongs to the company of pilgrims who are telling stories as they travel. In the prologue to the work, the manciple is revealed as an intelligent but unscrupulous man. He is able to cheat the lawyers who employ him because they fail to notice a man whom they believe inferior to themselves. He tells the story of a crow who told the god Apollo that his wife was being unfaithful to him. Apollo's final response is to curse the crow whose gossip has caused him such grief.

The manciple tells his story following a dispute with the drunken cook, whom the leader of the company warns the manciple against offending. The host reminds the manciple that the cook could make trouble for him if the manciple were to tell an unkind tale about cooks. The tale seems to warn of the dangers of vicious storytelling, whether or not the stories are true.

The English word manciple is derived from the Middle English word maunciple, which is the form of the word used by Chaucer. Its earliest recorded usage is in the 13th century Ancrene Riwle or Guide for Anchoresses. The word is ultimately derived from the classical Latin mancipium, which referred to a slave, a person who had been purchased. Mancipium became the medieval Latin manceps which added the concept of the purchaser of provisions to the definition.

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Discussion Comments
By jcraig — On Sep 22, 2011

@stl156 - I completely understand what you mean. In the Middle Ages Europe had a short agricultural season and it was vital for anyone, just for survival purposes, to be able to preserve food for the long winter months and for places, that had many people living in them, say like a monastery, the manciple was a very important individual who was in a way charged with keeping many people alive.

I have absolutely no idea what they would do to preserve dairy products, but they could salt the meat and be able to do this through winter. With vegetables I imagine that they would store them in the cellar. One question I have though is whether or not they simply what could they eat in winter besides the preserved meat, which would be high in salt content?

I am sure they could hunt animals but they could only do that so often and how would they be able to preserve vegetables for the winter months?

By stl156 — On Sep 21, 2011

@TreeMan - I am unsure as to how long meat would be preserved under this method would be, but I do know that people used this method when stocking up meat for a winter, so it has to be for at least a few months.

I know that in order to make sure the meat stays good and preserved it has to be very very salted. I cannot imagine that this tastes very good, but back in the Middle Ages I am sure that they were more concerned with survival than taste and that made the manciple's job that much more important if they were in charge of preserving food in a heavily populated place that had to stock up before winter.

By TreeMan — On Sep 21, 2011

@cardsfan27 - As far as preserving meat goes, the process of using edible salt in order to do so has been around for several centuries and was was the primary use for preserving meat until technology was developed in order to do so.

I am sure that the manciple engaged readily in storing the meat using this particular method and my question would be how long would the salt be able to preserve the meat so that it would still be safe to eat?

By cardsfan27 — On Sep 21, 2011

@lovealot - That is true but there are ways to save meat for a long period of time. I am not aware of the specific process of storing meat back then, but I do know that it involved salting the meat to a degree that it preserves the meat and is safe to eat long after originally buying it.

Also, as far as dairy products go I imagine that that drank a lot of water, which they could get anywhere, ate as well as some alcohol, like wine which can be stored for a very long time. I imagine that if they were to want some dairy product they would get whatever they need directly from the cow. This is something I find interesting as there would be almost no way to keep the milk in a cold environment, so I figure they only drank it so often as opposed to water, which I'm sure they drank quite often.

By lovealot — On Sep 20, 2011

I wouldn't think that the manciple hired by a monastery or college back in the middle ages would be able to buy very much food that could be stored.

So maybe he was busy going to market quite often,and may not have had the time to do much of the cooking. They could store some of the fruits and vegetables in the ground. But meat and dairy products would need to be purchased often.

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