jokes, jests, pranks, and play in “THE cook’s tale”
craig e. Bertolet
ESSAY CHAPTER FOR THE OPEN ACCESS COMPANION TO THE CANTERBURY TALES, DRAFT POSTED FOR OPEN REVIEW AUGUST 2016
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 While everyone loves a good joke, knowing when and how to tell one is the challenge of comedy. If someone plays a joke on someone else, the stakes are so much higher because the object of the joke could be hurt physically or emotionally by it. Chaucer’s Cook in his prologue and tale shows how jokes or pranks can hurt. The innkeeper, Harry Bailey, goads his professional rival, Hodge (Roger) the Cook of Ware, with criticism of the food he prepares. Hodge responds in Flemish, “sooth pley, quaad pley,” which is often glossed as a “true jest is a bad jest.” He then begins a tale that he suggests is a “jape” that occurred in “oure citee.” The city is London and the term “jape” can be defined as a trick or fraud. “Jape” could also be a joke, or even a word that covers “play.” As a descriptive term for his tale, the Cook’s word is well chosen. While he apparently never finishes his tale (it breaks off in the manuscript after 82 lines), the Cook shows in what exists of it how jokes and pranks, while they may be entertaining in tales, are decidedly not so in the serious world of shopkeeping where they can hurt people and their livelihoods.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Before examining the text, we need to understand the situation behind the jokes or pranks played by its characters. There are two issues to make clear first. Appreciating the occasion for the jokes requires some background on the shopkeeping world that the Host and the Cook inhabit. The other issue is to recognize how we as humans approach jokes themselves.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Jests, jokes, and pranks make cruelty (either physical, emotional, or fiscal) part of their structure. A trickster is always harming someone else in order to outwit that person. We readers give license to the prank if we believe the recipient deserves it. In so doing, we agree that the cruelty is justified. This agreement says as much about us, the readers, as it does about the trickster. For instance, we may find enjoyable a prank that humbles a proud character, by convincing ourselves that this person “had it coming.” Conversely, we may find disturbing a prank played on someone who is sick, injured, or infirm. In other words, the pompous jerk slipping on a banana peel in the middle of a self-righteous rant may seem hilarious to us. But the elderly woman with a walker who slips on a banana peel while crying over how she just had to put her beloved dog to sleep should not. I say “should” because some people may find all pranks hilarious regardless of the harm they do. The Cook’s tale describes such a concern.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Pranks can also be seen as substitutions for work, especially by characters devoted more toward play than toward legitimate or “honest” labor. The diversity and size of urban spaces can attract individuals who want to take advantage of others. Some stories in Boccaccio’s Decameron, and about the late-medieval German trickster Till Eulenspiegel, and even in The Canterbury Tales detail how tricksters obtain things by playing a prank on an honest (if gullible) tradesman. These stories also allow greater opportunities for play, which could be competitions with or distractions from work. Sometimes the teller judges the trickster’s actions as a way to instruct the reader on the proper response to the trick. Often, though, the teller of the tale does not judge whether the trickster’s behavior is good or bad but leaves it to the reader or hearer to decide. The fragmentary nature of his tale makes it unclear exactly whether the Cook condemns Perkyn Revellour’s choices, but enough of the tale remains to show that he does.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 To accept whether the recipient of the trick “has it coming,” one needs to know the context in which the trickster plays the joke or prank. In the Cook’s prologue and tale, all four characters (the Host, the Cook, Perkyn Revellour, and his unnamed master) sell food. This trade, as with any other major trade in medieval London, had a guild to which all practitioners of that trade needed to belong in order to sell their wares in the city legally. Guild membership provided a society that would support each member and his family, especially when that member was sick, injured, or otherwise unable to work. In exchange, the guilds expected all their members to produce a quality craft, contribute to the guild’s upkeep, and follow a common code of behavior that we might call a “professional code of ethics.” If a member of a guild was found to have cheated a customer or committed fraud, the guild could fine that member or even bar him entirely from trading.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In order to become a member of a guild, a person needed to complete an apprenticeship of usually seven years. During this time, the apprentice would live in his master’s house with his master’s family. The master would be responsible to feed, clothe, house, and instruct his apprentices. In many ways, he functioned as a surrogate father and was responsible for any damage or trouble any of his apprentices caused. When the contractual period of the apprenticeship ended, the master presented his apprentice to the guild for evaluation and membership. In all things, the master served as the apprentice’s benefactor. Once accepted into a London guild, a former apprentice would become a citizen of the city, could open a shop, and could marry. He could also train apprentices himself in his trade. Consequently, being a good apprentice made thriving in London much easier. A failed apprentice, in contrast, would obtain more than just a poor reference. He could never join a guild and could never become an enfranchised member of London society.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Both the Cook’s prologue and his tale show the conflict between playing pranks or making jokes and the potential harm they can cause. Inspired by the Reeve’s Tale’s account of how two young men tricked their host by sleeping with his daughter and wife without his knowledge, the Cook observes that one should “bryng nat every man into thyn hous” because harboring people at night is “perilous.” These strangers could play similar tricks on the householder, or worse. Indeed, the City of London had an ordinance that stipulated that any person harboring a stranger for more than one night was responsible for any mischief that person got up to while in the city. Harry Bailey takes offense from the Cook’s statement, since his profession relies on harboring strangers all the time. The Host responds to the Cook’s offer to tell his “jape” by attacking his character and then saying it was all a joke. His attacks get reflected in the Cook’s tale as another food-seller potentially suffers the loss of his business by the pranks and jokes of someone else.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The prologue and tale ask what makes a “true jest.” Those words come from the Cook after the Host has alleged that the Cook routinely practices fraud. Frauds themselves are pranks played on those who cannot tell a true product from a fake one. The Host telling a large party of perfect strangers, such as the Canterbury pilgrims, that the Cook is terrible at what he does (and this after he has convinced them all to return to his inn for a celebratory dinner after they come back from the pilgrimage) could hurt the Cook’s own business. The Host uses the term “game” to mean that he is joking, and yet a joke that destroys someone’s life is rather more serious than a game.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 What complicates this question of the “true jest” is that Chaucer gives us two contradictory accounts of the Cook. First, we learn from the Cook’s portrait in the General Prologue almost nothing about him except that he is alleged to be good at making many kinds of food (perhaps according to his own testimony) and that he has a weeping sore or “mormal” on his shin. The list of food is presented as an advertisement for his services. The weeping sore on his shin shows his vulnerability in the precarious world of London commerce. While some readers may see the sore as evidence that he is unsanitary, its presence could also mean that he is too poor to afford a physician’s care. The list of food then seems to hide the person of the Cook because, for the Cook, his work needs to be his life. He is, in essence, the sum of his abilities, not the defects of his body. He may, though, believe that the sore’s appearance could take down his entire livelihood because it may convince people that he is unsanitary.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 But what the Host claims is just “for game” is giving an opposite account of the Cook’s business practices and attacking the Cook’s vulnerability. According to the Host, the Cook is the one playing jokes on his customers because no one is able to inspect the contents of his pies before the Cook sells them. The Host claims that the Cook’s pies are “twies-hoot and twies coold.” He implies that the pies are not fresh because they have been reheated. In the centuries before refrigeration, meat went bad quickly and meat that was a day or two old could be potentially harmful to anyone eating it, even if it were reheated. The Host also claims that the Cook’s pies are filled with rotten parsley and meat from geese, which were not allowed in pies sold in London, according to a statute from the Guild of the Pastelers (or pasty-makers). The potential customer only has the Cook’s word for it, just as the reader of the General Prologue portrait of the Cook only has the narrator’s word that the Cook is really good at what he says he does. These charges, even if they were jokes, threaten the Cook’s business because they show him as a cheat. As such, they are worse than the appearance of the sore.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The Host’s words put the Cook at a disadvantage because the Host is the governor of the pilgrims and as such, the Cook may not be powerful enough to defend himself. The Cook’s enigmatic cries that the Host says “ful sooth” and his words in Flemish to him are codes that he intends the Host alone to understand, creating a situation where the Host would deserve any trick that would get played on him. The Flemish proverb “sooth pley, quaad pley” argues that a “true jest is a bad jest,” meaning perhaps that a joke that is true is not funny. He says this in Flemish, which was not a prestige language in London, unlike Latin or French, because the Flemings were among the poorest group of aliens inhabiting London. The Cook admits to being a “povre” or poor man himself. In speaking Flemish to the Host, the Cook is probably assuming that none of the other pilgrims would have known it. Therefore, the Cook has perhaps admitted that the Host’s words may be true, but only to him. In any case, saying that the Host’s words are jokes does not make them any less damaging.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 When he turns to his tale, the Cook presents his “jape” initially about a “hostileer” or innkeeper. What he tells, though, is the story instead about the threat to the shop of an apparently honest food seller from a lazy apprentice who wants to do no work and instead plays pranks on his master. Perkyn Revellour is a figure of play who is antagonistic to honest work and, as such, shows how pranks can hurt an honest tradesman. As someone who likes parties, games, and jokes, a reveler is poorly suited for the relatively mundane tasks of serving in a victualing shop, or basically working in a catering business. The Cook describes Perkyn as dancing, playing the guitar or fiddle, playing dice, hanging out at the tavern when he should be working, running out of the shop when any distractions went by it, and always hanging out with a “meynee of his sort,” meaning a group of young men who behave as he does. All these examples are different kinds of play, and each is opposed to work. The implication is that Perkyn would rather waste time than help with the shop.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 But Perkyn also steals from his master, taking money from the “box” or till. His wild play and pranks cause him to be thrown in Newgate prison. These inappropriate behaviors can further damage the business of the shop. Perkyn cannot be any help to his master or learn anything about his trade while he is in prison. His riotous “meynee” may be driving customers away. Rifling the till wastes the substance of the shop as well as the master’s time. Taken one at a time, Perkyn’s actions are playful; taken together, they seem to be a concerted campaign to destroy his master’s substance. Since the master appears to be a good person, Perkyn’s need to play pranks on him is basically cruel.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 As the Cook describes him, the master does not appear to deserve the treatment that Perkyn has given him. The master has brought this stranger into his house and the stranger is destroying it through his play and his pranks. The master attempts to reprimand Perkyn, but Perkyn ignores him. The only power that the master has is to deny Perkyn membership in the victualing guild, refusing to give him his “papir” formally releasing him. It is functionally the master’s recommendation for Perkyn to join the guild. Without it, Perkyn loses the ability to become a member of the legitimate society of London as a tradesman with a shop and, presumably, a clientele. Given the amount of time that Perkyn has appeared to waste, he may not have learned much about the trade during this apprenticeship. As such, the Cook’s tale seems to support his response to the Reeve that one should be wary of bringing any stranger into one’s household. It also shows how a shopkeeper undeserving of a trick gets needlessly harmed by it.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 The end of the tale as it appears in the manuscript seems to show the punishment for Perkyn’s bad jokes at the expense of his undeserving master. When Perkyn leaves his master’s shop and joins the household of a thief and his prostitute wife, he leaves the world of legitimate work for the life of tricks and pranks. The wife, the Cook says, tricks the city authorities by having a shop as her cover for her trade because prostitution was illegal in London. Similarly, her husband the thief needs to rely on stealth or tricks in order to steal anything. Perkyn, who can do nothing but play, can bring nothing to this false shop except to add one other person to it who wastes time cheating people. Since the story breaks off at this point, we are unsure how the Cook would have ended the story. What there is of the tale does show what can happen to individuals who play jokes, deceive, or trick others when they do not deserve it. Like Perkyn, people devoted to jokes and play can harm others and potentially also themselves. In short, jokes can harm in the tale that the Cook is telling as well as with the goods that he is selling.
- ¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
- The Cook says that his tale will “quit” the Host, meaning it will pay back the Host. How does this tale “pay back” the Host?
- What do we learn about Harry Bailey from his words with the Cook?
- How does this tale work as a “jape”?
- How might Perkyn’s pranks at the expense of his master compare with the pranks played by John and Aleyn against Symkyn in the Reeve’s Tale, since the Cook claims that he is inspired by that tale to tell his?
- Why is it significant that the rivals here (Innkeeper, Cook, Victualler) are all food-sellers and not, for instance, sellers of clothing or workers in construction? Are jokes of a different degree of severity or fun when dealing with food?
- Why might the Cook want to condemn play in his tale?
- Have you ever worked with a person like Perkyn? How does/did this person’s behavior affect the work environment? How might that experience help to understand what the Cook is saying?
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Sharpe, Reginald R., ed., Calendar of Letter-Books Preserved Among the Archives of the Corporation of the City of London at the Guildhall, Letter-Books, A–L, 1275–1498, 11 vols. (London: John Edward Francis, 1899–1912).
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Thomas, A. H., and P. E. Jones, eds., Calendar of Plea and Memoranda Rolls Preserved Among the Archives of the Corporation of the City of London at the Guildhall, A. D. 1323–1482, 6 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926–1961).
¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Rosser, Gervase, “Communities of Parish and Guild in the Late Middle Ages,” in Parish, Church and People: Local Studies in Lay Religion 1350–1750, ed. S. J. Wright (London: Hutchinson, 1988), 29–55.