Society and Nature in the 'Cook's Tale.' (Chaucer)

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With a few notable exceptions,(1) critical attention to the Cook's Tale has been brief, focusing principally on whether Chaucer chose to end it where he did. Given the limited evidence, we can not answer that question with certainty. We can, however, search for ways in which the Cook's narrative answers the other tales of Fragment I, offering variations of their devices and suggesting a further development, or perhaps an attenuation of their themes. I am going to argue that the portrait of Perkyn Revelour and his London ambiance reflects in miniature, as it were, and in an urban context, the interanimation of society and nature that informed the earlier tales, anatomizing motives and shaping the action. In this tale, of course, there is no action, no sequence of events to fill the narrative frame of Perkyn's descriptio, the account of his typical activities, and his move from a good place of business to a bad one. Teeming with urban life and the oddly compelling energy of Perkyn's vices, the Cook's opening promises a vigorous storyline, but since its narrative potential is never realized, it remains, in essence, an historical emblem of the eternal conflict of nature and society, as that conflict manifests itself within the common trade of Chaucer's London.

Roger of Ware begins his prologue by recalling, with low delight, some key terms from the Reeve's Tale. He cites Symkyn's "argument of herbergage," and the sensitive matter of "pryvetee," both of which express the bourgeois preoccupation with making and maintaining one's separate place in the social world. These terms also have a bearing on the central themes of Fragment I because they suggest how a town-dweller might restate Arcite's profound questions about fate and free will: "What is this world? What asketh men to have?" The echo of these great questions in the Cook's Prologue predicts their reappearance in his tale, where a predatory urban hunger for sensation provides less comforting an answer than even the parasitic, expansionist rural greed in the Reeves Tale. What sets the Cook laughing for joy -- a compulsive, unsettling laughter not unlike his excessive drinking later in the tales -- is the revenge on Symkyn, the "jape of malice in the derk" (4338)(2) which leads to his being thrice beaten, and thus robbed and defamed. It is apparently such an amoral, sensationalist pursuit of satisfaction that Roger means to recount in his own tale ("God forbede that we stynte heere" [4339]), where it will unfold, not in a rural university town, but in the familiar streets of London, "in oure citee."

The change of setting from country to city accompanies a substitution of shopkeeper for householder and apprentices for clerks. Missing in this secular urban context is the stabilizing framework of church hierarchy and the moral imperatives Implicit in the clerks' offices in the church, if not in their conduct. The bureaucratic structure of the church casts a shadow, at least, of overarching values, but the Cook's prologue and tale offer merely the social structure defined by commerce. Man's service to God, and his duties toward other men (as in a host-guest relationship), give way here to the reciprocal duties of commercial exchange.(3)

The locus of this exchange is the Master Victualer's shop, its nexus the cash box. The flow of cash from hand to hand suggests the larger world of urban commercial transactions in much the same way that the mill and "grinding" suggest rural commerce In the Reeve's Tale. But before we are told about the victualer's shop in the tale, we encounter Roger's own shop in the Prologue. This is a shop in the poor district of Southwerk, full of flies and stale or tainted food. The Reeve's maundering introduction about aging is matched here by the equally suggestive vision of decaying meat pies served up by a cook with an open leg ulcer. The Reeve's initial remarks prepared us for a tale of avarice and its companion, "lack," where social needs -- both sexual and economic, familial and regional -- are denied by Symkyn's theft and the boundless greed that drives it. …