The Cook's Tale: Introduction

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The Cook's Tale: Introduction

Breaking off abruptly after only fifty-seven lines, The Cook's Tale offers the first instance of a "loose end" in Chaucer's grand scheme. In the Hengwrt manuscript, probably the earliest attempt at organizing the fragments of the Tales, the scribe left room to fill in the missing conclusion, apparently with the hope that stray pages might turn up among the author's papers. When it was clear that no additional poetry would be delivered, the copyist made a note in the blank: "Of this cokes tale maked Chaucer na moore." Medieval scribes - and modern critics (Kolve 257-96) - have been struggling with this unhappy circumstance ever since.

Twenty-five manuscripts, including the landmark collections Harley 7334 and Corpus Christi 198, remedied the problem by continuing with the 902-line romance Gamelyn (dating probably from the middle of the fourteenth century) sometimes with a brief bridge such as the couplet in Royal 18.C.ii: "But here-of I will passe as now / And of yong Gamelyne I wil telle yow." Since all texts of Gamelyn derive from a single written source (Daniel 34-35) and all of them except one eccentric, mutilated collection place the apocryphal tale in the same position after the Cook's fragment, and since the work survives nowhere else independent of a Canterbury collection, it is possible that Chaucer's literary executors found the work inserted at this point in the poet's final drafts of The Canterbury Tales, put there by him as a potential source for a tale, never written, to replace the abandoned account of Perkyn Revelour. The early scribe who executed both the Harley and Corpus manuscripts elected to include the source-text as a substitute tale, with later derivative manuscripts following his lead.

Manuscripts without Gamelyn were left to manage as best they could. Some scribes pretended The Cook's Tale was complete as it stood, then went on to the next pilgrim, usually the Man of Law, in a few instances the Wife of Bath. The enterprising scribe of Rawlinson Poetry 141 (fol. 29a) patched together a four-line conclusion:
And thus with horedom and bryberye
Togeder thei used till thei honged hye.
For whoso evel byeth shal make a sory sale;
And thus I make an ende of my tale.
In ten manuscripts, the Cook's fragment has simply disappeared altogether.

Only in Bodley 686 has the tale been subjected to a thorough revision to add forty-five new lines padding out Chaucer's narrative, then bringing the story to an apt, if predictable, conclusion almost identical in nature to the four-line outcome printed above. The Bodley manuscript is a deliberately constructed poetic anthology, omitting the prose tales of Melibee and The Parson's Tale, but continuing with eleven moral and religious poems by John Lydgate. The supplemental sections of The Cook's Tale accord with these pious inclinations, although the verses themselves seem to owe less to Chaucer (or even Lydgate) and more to Langland, with longer four-stress lines, heavy alliteration, and the introduction of allegorical personifications such as Light-hand, Lecherous-mouth, and Drink-more. The reviser's delicacy is revealed in other smaller changes, notably in the character of the friend's wife: in this version she pleyed rather than swyved for her sustenance.

The Text

This padded-out version of The Cook's Tale survives only in Bodley MS 686 (fols. 54b-55b). Since this manuscript, dated c. 1430-40, might preserve the text in the anonymous reviser's autograph, I have emended only three substantive errors and have otherwise preserved the accidentals of the scribe's personal dialect rather than normalizing to standard Chaucerian. The entire text of the Bodley Cook's Tale is printed with the supplemental lines and phrases in boldface.


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