‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer are a collection of stories about a group of pilgrims traveling from London to the shrine of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.
The pilgrims pass their time on the journey by telling stories that, despite the pious nature of their adventure, are often bawdy and rely on strong vernacular language that would have shocked many readers at the time.
‘The Cook’s Tale’ is typical of many of Chaucer’s stories in the Tales with earthy language, content and characters but it is set apart by its very abrupt ending.
Chaucer allows the Cook to begin his story but it stops at what appears to be an odd moment.
In the General Prologue to the Tales we meet the Cook, he’s a lively character with a taste for ale and sporting a ‘mormal’ or lesion on his shin.
‘The Cook’s Tale’ is introduced by the innkeeper who links the tales together and he expands upon the character of the Cook claiming that he sells pies that are drained of gravy, are constantly reheated and sold for days on end and that his shop is infested with flies.
The Cook laughs off these accusations and threatens to tell a story about an innkeeper but instead begins the tale of Perkyn, an apprentice to a cook in London.
A prentys whilom dwelled in oure citee
An apprentice once dwelt in our city
And of a craft of vitaillers was hee
And of a craft of food merchants was he
Perkyn is quickly taken by the temptations of London and is distracted from his work by drinking, dancing and women.
That he was cleped Perkyn Revelour
That he was called Perkyn Reveller
He was as ful of love and paramour
He was as full of love and womanizing
As is the hyve ful of hony sweete;
As is the hive full of honey sweet;
Wel was the wenche with hym myghte meete
Happy was the woman who with him might meet
At every bridale wolde he synge and hoppe;
At every wedding party he would sing and dance;
He loved bet the taverne than the shoppe.
He loved the tavern better than the shop.
His preference for the tavern to the shop does not go unnoticed and Perkyn is soon released by his master.
Therfore his maister yaf hym acquitance,
Therefore his master gave him his certificate,
And bad hym go, with sorwe and with meschance!
And ordered him to go, with sorrow and with bad luck!
So Perkyn moves in with a friend whose wife is a prostitute.
Unto a compeer of his owene sort,
Unto a companion of his own sort,
That lovede dys, and revel, and disport,
Who loved dicing, and revelling, and having fun,
And hadde a wyf that heeld for contenance
And had a wife that kept for the sake of appearances
A shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance.
A shop, and screwed for her living.
The tale ends here, a sudden stop that confused many scribes although the critic Richard Embs makes a compelling argument for the tale being complete.
He contends that the Cook’s Tale is autobiographical and that if we imagine the other pilgrims hearing the story, seeing the scab on the shin of the Cook and believing it to be venereal in origin and being disgusted by the whole affair the tale has served its purpose.
In defence of this theory, Chaucer later gives the Cook an opportunity to expand on his tale or tell another.
Unfortunately by this time the Cook is too drunk and instead falls off his horse.
It seems likely then that Chaucer never wanted any more of this tale to be told.
This was not helpful to the scribes and copyists that put together the various editions of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ and they developed some creative solutions to this apparent omission.
There are 83 known manuscripts of the Tales with 55 believed to have been complete at one time and the remaining 23 being so fragmentary that it is difficult to know if they were individually copied or were once part of a larger set.
No unarguably complete version of the Tales exists and no consensus on the order Chaucer wanted the Tales told in has been agreed upon.
Editors and copyists have used this confusion to their advantage when attempting to place The Cook’s Tale in their editions.
In the Hengwrt manuscript, probably the earliest attempt to organise the fragments of the Tales, the scribe made a note in the margin:
‘Of this cokes tale maked Chaucer na moore.’
25 manuscripts, including Harley 7334 and Corpus Christi 198, continued on from the Cook’s Tale with the 902 line romance ‘Gamelyn’, sometimes with a bridge such as the couplet in Royal 18.C.ii:
‘But here-off I will passe as now
And of yong Gamelyn I will tell yow’
Manuscripts without Gamelyn did the best they could.
Many accepted the Cook’s Tale as complete and moved on to the next pilgrim’s tale.
The creative scribe who completed the Rawlinson Poetry141 (fol 29a) edition placed a four line conclusion at the end of the Cook’s Tale to tidy things up:
‘And thus with horedom and bryberye
Togeder thei used till they honged hye.
For whoso evel byeth shal make a sory sale;
And thus I make an ende of my tale.’
The Bodley 686 manuscript took the most trouble to act upon the incomplete nature of the work, both in terms of content and moral teaching.
An extra forty-five lines were added to the end of the Tale along the same instructional lines as the Rawlinson edition above.
The prudish nature of the scribe responsible of these additions can also be seen in his transcription of the Tale itself, particularly in the actions of Perkyn’s friends wife.
In this edition she pleyed rather than swyved for her sustenance...