Geoffrey Chaucer: The Cook's Tale

(2231 words)
  • Craig Bertolet (Auburn University )

The fourth story begun in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is told by the London Cook whom the Host, Harry Bailey calls Roger of Ware. The Cook’s Tale is also the first incomplete tale in The Canterbury Tales. Three other pilgrims do not complete their tales: the Squire, the Monk, and Chaucer himself with his “Tale of Sir Thopas”. Each of these tale-tellers are interrupted by another pilgrim, but the Cook is not. The scribe who wrote the Hengwrt Manuscript (the earliest manuscript containing the tales) noted that “Of this Cokes tale maked Chaucer no moore”, recognizing that the tale breaks off, rather than concludes. In this manuscript, space appears at the end of the last line as if awaiting the rest of the tale to be found and added.

Later in The Canterbury Tales, the Cook, the Host, and the Manciple (a food buyer for a group of law students) have an argument in which the Host appears to suggest that the Cook has not told a tale yet, leading some scholars to believe that Chaucer had decided to cancel what remained of the fragmentary Cook’s Tale. But no other tale by the Cook seems to have survive, leaving readers to puzzle over what the story would have been. In the fifteenth century, the Tale of Gamelyn (a version of the story which comprises the plot of Shakespeare’s As You Like It) was considered to be one told by the Cook. But Gamelyn, having nothing of Chaucer’s style, is assuredly not by Chaucer. It is, instead, a bizarre attribution for an uneducated urban Cook to recount a romance about country gentry.

City records reveal that a man named Roger of Ware lived in London around the same time as Chaucer. Roger was arrested for walking at night after curfew. However, no clear evidence exists to link Chaucer’s Cook with this man. Whilst the Cook may have been unsanitary, Chaucer does not suggest he has a criminal record. Indeed, Roger was a fairly common name late fourteenth-century London, and Ware is situated not far from the city. The name Harry Bailey also appears in the city records. As the proprietor of the Tabard Inn in Southwark where the pilgrims begin their journey to Canterbury, there is a more tenable connection between Chaucer’s character and this man.

Chaucer introduces the Cook in the General Prologue as the hired servant of the Five Guildsmen. The Cook’s portrait is unique among the descriptions of the Canterbury pilgrims as it consists almost entirely of a catalogue of all the foods that the Cook can produce. As such, it reads like an advertisement. This is, perhaps, unsurprising in that the Cook was hired for the pilgrimage, rather than attending because of his own pious devotion. Only one line is devoted to the Cook’s physical attributes. What is described in this line spoils the pleasure embodied in the list of foods. The Cook has a “mormal”, or a weeping sore, on his leg. Whether the sore weeps because of the Cook’s indifference, or because he is unable to afford medical treatment, it is an inappropriate feature for someone who sells food. The “mormal” makes any food he produces repulsive and must have dissuaded potential customers.

Some scholars have read the “mormal” as a punishment for the sin of gluttony. The Cook is certainly a drunkard. When he appears in the Prologue to the Manciple’s Tale (where he is asked to tell a tale), he is so drunk he falls off his horse and the pilgrims must stop and put him back in his saddle. Both the Host and the Manciple condemn him for being drunk and having foul breath. Chaucer introduces this pilgrim by virtue of his trade and his sore, the rest of the Cook’s body is hidden from the reader. The Cook wishes to be identified by his trade with the reference to the sore hinting at, perhaps, the reality of his produce.

Bailey supports the opinion that the Cook’s trade may not be as wonderful as the Cook says it is. He alleges that the Cook’s food should be eaten with care, or avoided altogether. The meat pies which the Cook sells in his fly-blown shop are raw, reheated, or filled with questionable substances (ll. 4345-52). One of these substances is goose meat, a filler that the guild of the pasty-bakers of London forbade their members to use in pie-making. Many have read the Host’s comments as being indicative of the commercial rivalry between the professions of innkeeper and cook. Both the Host and the Cook would be “victuallers”, or food-sellers. Since the Host has made all the pilgrims agree to return to his inn at the end of the pilgrimage for supper, the Cook’s canvassing for business is potential competition. The Host’s words to the pilgrims about the Cook’s dubious business practices and unsanitary conditions of his shop are probably intended to counteract this rivalry. Even though Bailey does not provide any evidence to support these assertions, taken alongside the physical description of the Cook’s weeping sore, he has sewn seeds of doubt amongst his listeners.

The Host ends his catalogue of the Cook’s culinary abuses saying that he is just playing with the Cook. Considering the seriousness of the allegations, these words seem entirely disingenuous. And yet, the Cook’s response is equally light-hearted. He laughs off the charges as if they do not matter. But they do. When the Host claims he was not serious, the Cook appears to accept this explanation with a curious proverb: “Sooth pley, quaad pley,” or “true jest is a poor jest” (l. 4357). Whilst many pilgrims (for example, the Pardoner) provide morals, this one is significant because it is not in English and the Cook does not offer a translation. The language is Flemish, the tongue of Flanders in modern Belgium. It is not a language associated with moral wisdom, as Latin or French would have been in Chaucer’s time. For most English speakers, particularly Londoners, it was a language spoken by poor immigrants and prostitutes.

England was Flanders’ ally during the Hundred Year War with France. Flanders was also an importer of England’s wool—the realm’s premier export in this period—and Flemish weavers were judged to be among the finest in the cloth trade. King Edward III had encouraged many of these weavers to emigrate to England in order to boost the English domestic cloth trade. Native weavers however, did not share the King’s enthusiasm for this idea, viewing these newcomers with suspicion. London’s Mayor issued proclamations to protect the Flemish in the City from angry or fearful Londoners. In any case, the Flemish occupied the lowest rung of London’s society, and about two dozen of them were slain in London during the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. Because the Cook’s status would not have been very high in London, the Flemish population may have been among his regular customers. They may also have been among the Host’s, since he appears to understand the Cook’s untranslated proverb. Other Canterbury pilgrims would probably not have understood it. As a result, the Cook may have outwardly laughed off the Host’s allegation, but at the same time sends him a coded message which points to more negative feelings. The Cook’s threat to tell a story about the innkeeper later on suggests that he does not appreciate the Host’s comments.

The tale the Cook tells, or at least begins, is not his promised one about an innkeeper. It concerns a food-seller (unnamed in the surviving fragment) and his riotous apprentice, the appropriately named Perkyn Revellour. Revellour is a lodger in the food-seller’s house and in this one respect, it connects with the tales that precede the Cook’s. All these tales concern young men lodging with an older man: the Knight told of Palamon and Arcite as prisoners of Theseus, the Miller’s Nicholas rents a room in John the Carpenter’s house, and John and Aleyn stay the night with Symkin in The Reeve’s Tale. This is also where the connections with the previous tales begin to break down however. Revellour lodges with an older man because he is the man’s apprentice. As such, he is part of the highly regulated apprenticeship system in London at this time.

Apprenticeship was one acceptable way of obtaining citizenship in medieval London. It consisted of a term of service (usually around seven years) in which a young man learned a trade from a master. At the end of this term, the master presented his new apprentice to the members of his guild. London’s Mayor then admitted him as a master in his own right, and thus a citizen of London. During the term of apprenticeship, the apprentice lived with the master and his family. Because of the closeness of the working relationship and the duration of the service term, strong bonds would develop between master and apprentice.

The Cook’s Tale portrays how this relationship goes wrong. What survives of the tale describes Revellour nearly ruining his master’s business and he is turned out of the house without his paperwork for citizenship. Throughout his term, Revellour has evidently learned nothing, but he also does not seem to care. Scholars have sometimes considered this tale a “fabliau”, a low comic tale involving sex or excrement. Whilst the Miller’s and Reeve’s tales both fall into this category, so little of The Cook’s Tale survives to make a strong case for this theory. The Cook claims that he is telling a “jape that fil in oure citee”, a joke or trick that had occurred in London (l. 4343). His words seem to indicate that he is telling a true story of an event. But this is not the case and, if it were, no evidence survives to corroborate the Cook’s admission. In this sense, The Cook’s Tale appears to be moving towards a moral exemplum of what a young man should not do in the city.

The apprentice’s basic charge was to be diligent in learning his trade and to be obedient to his master. City records describe bad experiences where masters were abusive or negligent, forcing their apprentices to go about without food or clothing, or wasting their time. City officials appeared quick to punish negligent masters. After all, the health of their commonalty rested on honoring the civic ordinances and producing good citizens who would not be a drain on the City’s resources. When apprentices could demonstrate (usually with the assistance of family or guild members) that they were serving a bad master, they were freed from their contract and given to another master. The bad master would receive fines or other types of punishment for abusing his important role in the training of future guild members.

Revellour’s master seems to have upheld his end of the contract. Revellour, however, has not. He prefers to be in the tavern or with his friends than work in the shop. Often he and his friends play dice in the streets, or play musical instruments when they should be at work. The Cook makes these activities antithetical to the life expected of the city apprentice, especially because they reflect badly on Revellour’s master who seems incapable of controlling him. The Cook reveals that Revellour’s behavior did sometimes land him in Newgate Prison, a notorious London jail and a place where rebellious apprentices may find themselves. Revellour does not appear to learn his lesson though. The only thing that his master can do is dismiss him without enrolling him as a citizen and master of his trade. The Cook’s negligent apprentice is so wrapped up in his own pleasure that he does not recognise his own responsibilities as a contributing member of urban society.

Revellour’s dismissal is the only action that takes place in the remainder of the story. He leaves the victualler’s legitimate society, moving in with a friend who is also a thief. Since Revellour has elected not to become a member of society, he finds himself outside of it. What is more revealing about his new choice of household is that the thief’s wife is a prostitute, who holds a shop as a front for her trade. The woman shows a brazen disregard of the city’s laws—brothels were illegal inside London’s walls—in much the same way as Revellour disregards the rules of his apprenticeship. For the Cook, Revellour’s relocation is a fitting symbol of his downward spiral, aligning him with thieves and prostitutes. Two later scribes in different manuscripts apparently agreed that Revellour’s choices were poor ones: the scribes both add text in which Revellour, the thief, and his wife are punished. Evidently, as early readers the scribes of this fragment were not satisfied with its absence of a fitting end to such reprehensible behavior. Similarly, subsequent readers have wondered what Chaucer planned for Revellour, who gives up his apprenticeship without really finishing it, or his Cook, who gives up his tale without really starting it.

Work Cited

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, Larry D. Benson, ed., 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987).

Bertolet, Craig. "The Cook's Tale". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 09 October 2006
[, accessed 24 May 2016.]