Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Cook's Fragment"

Genre:  Fabliau?  See the explanatory note (853) which discusses the three main lines of critical thinking: it's a fragment, but Chaucer meant to finish it and died before he could do so; it's a fragment, but Chaucer never meant to finish it (unless by writing an interruption for the Man of Law--consider the Reeve's Prologue as motive?); it's complete (Stanley) , or it's not a fabliau at all, but might be a "prodigal son" type of fable (which I doubt unless the Cook has an aneurysm).  The fabliau is a short, salacious tale about members of the bourgeois (town-dwelling) non-aristocratic characters.  Fabliaux (plural) typically involve deception to acquire money or goods, to get sexual gratification, or to get revenge.   "Cook's Fragment" fits its general character type, with the tendency toward deception and dissipated behavior, but it lacks any clear "bourgeois target" whose comfortable pretensions will be overturned by the apprentices' behavior. 

        Many excellent studies of the fabliau have been published because of the genre's relation to the modern short story, and because of its interesting problem of audience.   For a page listing studies of fabiaux in the Julia Rogers Library, click here.   This would be especially helpful for English 330 students planning papers or tale presentations, or for advanced English 211 student planning midterm or final papers.

Form:  Rhyming couplets, the most common poetic form in the tales, and the form of all Chaucer's fabliaux.  Couplets allow him to write more idiomatic speech and prevents any accumulation of unnecessary dignity in a stanzaic form.  In fact, here they achieve a kind of brutal directness which is hard to find in any other authentically Chaucerian poetry.

Characters:  The riotous apprentice, Perkyn Revelour, his master, who wises up rather late in the game, various members of Perkyn's "meynee" or pseudo-aristocratic band of followers, his "peer," another apprentice who has lost his place, and his "peer"'s wife, the only openly identified prostitute in the Chaucerian canon.  (It's not like they didn't exist, but Chaucer's reluctance to populate even his lowest tales with them suggests something about the audience he was addressing.)

Summary:  Perkyn parties hard, is fired after looting his master's cash box for years, shacks up with his buddy and his buddy's wife, who is a prostitute, and . . . we don't know.   Is that all there is?

Interpretive Issues:

1)  If, as many critics take it, the tale telling cycle is concerned with marriage and love, how would you trace the progress of conjugal relationships described in the tales of the Knight, Miller, Reeve, and Cook?  Could this pattern continue much further?  How would you have handled the next tale?  (Note that, in our current order [Ellesmere, also other "type a manuscripts"] it's the Man of Law's Tale" about faithful Custance who endures so many bad relationships with kings and their Mommas that she becomes a kind of saint of marriage.)

2)  The Cook draws a lesson from the "Reeve's Tale" which suggests some dangerous things about his own tale's content: "Wel oughte a man avysed for to be / Whom that he broghte into his pryvetee" (4333-4).  This use of the Miller's keyword (l. 3164 & l. 3454) puts it in direct opposition to the unbuckling of the "male" which the "Knight's Tale" began, according to the Hoste.  How are the notions of "pryvetee" and tale telling related, and how can one succeed at the latter without sacrificing the former?

3)   In the course of naming Roger of Ware, the cook, and Harry Bailey, "oure Hoste," the prologue starts a satire on innkeepers and those who sell them food that tells us several things about daily dining in Chaucer's England.  Do you see why we need a Health Code?   Do you see any reason why a cook might not love a miller, and might applaud a tale in which a miller were deceived?

4)  Harry's caution to Roger raises again the issue of how to interpret statements made in "game" or "pleye" (4354).  Roger responds with a Flemish proverb, "sooth pley, quaad pley" (4357).  What does that do to the exculpatory gesture Chaucer the Pilgrim attempts to make in the prologue to "Miller's Tale" (3186)?  Both of these attitudes toward non-serious speech address the ambiguous quality of fiction, in general, and of the tale-telling game's main rule, in specific: "And which of yow that bereth hym best of alle-- / That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas / Tales of best sentence and mooste solass-- / Shal have a soper at oure aller cost..." (796-9).   "Sentence" is serious wisdom, but "solass" is the entertaining play of meaning that draws hearers' attention willingly to the wisdom in the tale.   How might we rank the tales of the first fragment on a scale of "sentence vs. solass"?

5)  "Hodge" (also the name of Samuel Johnson's cat) threatens to tell a tale about innkeepers at some future time, but contents himself with savaging apprentices in the person of "Perkyn Revelour."  Apprentices had a bad reputation throughout the medieval period--almost as bad as students!  They represent the youth of the "working class" as they attempted to break into the emerging middle class by finding a trade whose mysteries might add leverage to their bodies' labor.  Why might the cook have little affection for apprentices?

6)  This party boy leads a parody of the nobleman's "meynee" through the streets of Cheapside (4381-2) seeking dancing, drinking, processions, and gambling.  How does Perkyn's ambition compare with that of his modern equivalents?  Are you more offended by his behavior, or by the behavior of the four clerks we've just seen?  That may be conditioned by your own sense of class identity.

7)  The master's belated discovery of the "rotten apple" proverb results in a real, if unstated problem for this culture.  If you throw the "rotten apples" out of the apprenticeships, which were supposed to form their minds and habits, you toss them into society, at large, which has not many effective defenses against them.  What happens to London if it's a bad year for "apples"?

8)  The "Cook's Fragment" concludes the "first fragment" of the whole cycle we call the Canterbury Tales.   (You made it!)  In the "a" and "b" groups of manuscript types, this tale is followed by the "Man of Law's Tale," but in the "c" and "d" families of manuscripts, the spurious, fifteenth-century "Cooks Tale of Gamelyn" was incorporated.  How does the reader's experience of an "a" or "b" group manuscript differ from that of a reader of "c" or "d" manuscripts because we go to Custance's saint-like chastity and faithfulness from the Cook's pimp and prostitute?  In what is generally acknowledged to be the oldest manuscript, and the one closest to the form circulating in Chaucer's own day (Hengwyrt), the Cook's unsavory menage is followed by the "Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale"!  How might that affect your reading?   To see the main tale orders based on surviving manuscripts, click here.  See the textual notes on this vexatious section if you're feeling bold (1118-22).  If not, just keep in mind that we're reading a "fluid" text that can be rearranged by its author in a number of logical orders.

9)  Click here to read the spurious "Cookes Tale of Gamelyn," a tale based on the tale type known as the "rebel romance" (Ramsey 1983).  Click here to read the introductory essay at the Rochester U.-hosted site for the TEAMS texts, an invaluable resource for impoverished students which you should bookmark immediately!  Here's the basic URL:  If you get serious about Middle English literature, you can buy printed editions from TEAMS at very reasonable prices.

10)  If Chaucer had written an "endlink" to this tale, describing one of the pilgrims interrupting the Cook's tale, who would interrupt and why?  Roger of Ware has had plenty of chances to offend other pilgrims.  In fact, the whole Fragment I sequence might be said to articulate an "Offense-Interruption Theory of Narrative Development," not unlike the way nuclear fission was explained by Disney's "Our Friend the Atom" (1950) by dropping a single ping-pong ball onto a table crammed with armed mousetraps, each of which contained another ping-pong ball.

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