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

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  • 0:04 Physical Description…
  • 1:19 The Cook's Social Class
  • 3:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
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

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 the 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 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.

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