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The Cook in The Canterbury Tales: Physical Description & Social Class

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Medieval cooks led a difficult life, which involved years of training, hard work, and often low pay. In this lesson, we'll learn about Chaucer's Cook, his appearance, and his social class.

Physical Description of the Cook in The Canterbury Tales

The Cook in The Canterbury Tales is named Roger of Ware (Ware is a town north of London). We know that he's skilled in his trade, but the narrator gives us very few details as to his physical description. The General Prologue tells us that he has an open sore on his shin. In a cringeworthy, stomach-turning fashion, the narrator juxtaposes the description of this sore with that of the blancmange the Cook makes. (Blancmange is a French firm pudding-like dessert; in English, it translates as white food.) This juxtaposition seems to call his personal hygiene into question, since all wounds should be covered in a kitchen. Today, cooks and other kitchen employees in restaurants are often required to cover their head and facial hair with a net to prevent it from getting into the food.

The Cook in The Canterbury Tales, from the Ellesmere manuscript
The Cook in The Canterbury Tales, from the Ellesmere manuscript

The Ellesmere manuscript (an illustrated medieval manuscript of The Canterbury Tales) depicts the Cook as being slightly rotund, with dark skin and hair. He wears a hat and an apron, but doesn't appear to have much covering his legs in the Ellesmere painting.

In The Cook's Prologue, Roger seems to have a good sense of humor, patting his back as he enjoys the Reeve's tale that precedes his.

The Cook's Social Class

Wealthy households in Chaucer's time could afford to employ professional or master cooks. Poorer households entrusted the cooking to maids or housewives, who were also responsible for many other domestic tasks. Professional cooks were members of the newly emerged medieval middle class. However, most received relatively low pay. This was likely partly because medieval society valued intellectual and spiritual occupations over those pertaining to basic physical needs. Thus, unlike the Franklin or Physician in The Canterbury Tales, Roger would probably be in the lower middle class.

Like many other members of the mercantile or middle class, cooks weren't born into their profession; they worked their way up a professional hierarchy. For example, someone aspiring to be a cook in Paris would first enter into an apprenticeship (much like an internship), then become a journeyman (skilled worker) before qualifying as a master cook. Professional cooks could open their own businesses, work for another master cook, or work in a wealthy household.

A medieval cook and roasting specialist in The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
A medieval cook and roasting specialist in The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

If he was employed in a noble or wealthy merchant household, a master cook was essentially the kitchen manager. He was in charge of purchasing groceries, meat, and spices, and he kept track of their cost and quantity. He might supervise as many as twenty-five kitchen specialists and helpers, including roasters, saucers (sauce cooks), and larderers (meat and fish managers). He also worked with bakers, pastry chefs, and butchers. Cooks additionally worked closely with physicians and were expected to prepare food according to medieval theories pertaining to a healthy diet. They might or might not be able to read Latin, but most likely relied on training and memory more than on recipe books. This was because books were expensive and consulted mainly by the clergy and nobility.

Painting of medieval kitchen by Circle of Jan Baptist Saive II (1563)
Painting of medieval kitchen by Circle of Jan Baptist Saive II (1563)

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