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  • "Oure Citee":Illegality and Criminality in Fourteenth-Century London
  • Thomas Carney Forkin

Due to unfamiliarity with medieval English law, a modern reader may pass over a bevy of matters concerning legality and illegality in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. Late medieval cities, including London, were rife with trade and business, affairs of the royal court, travelers, growing populations gradually recovering from the Black Death and recurrent outbreaks of plague, as well as the presence of countless criminals and reprobates. Through a close reading of the Cook's Tales and several specimens included in the Tales that provide further description of Roger the Cook, placed alongside contemporary laws and statutes of the period, the modern reader is able to glimpse the more nefarious underworld of Chaucer's London and how he incorporated the character of the city into his characters.

The description Chaucer provides Roger the Cook in the General Prologue is at first glance rather flattering where the Cook's culinary abilities are concerned:

He koude rooste, and sethe, and broille, and frye,Maken Mortreux, and wel bake a pye.

(I.383-84)1

Chaucer, not content to leave Roger characterized merely as a chef capable of diverse cooking methods, continues his description,

But greet harm was it, as it thoughte me,That on his shyne a mormal hadde he.For blankmanger, that made he with the beste.

(I.385-387)

It is this suggestion that forces the reader to question what sanitary standards Roger maintains in his kitchen, if any. The modern reader who understands a mormal as simply a dry-scabbed ulcer; sore; an abscess,2 neglects the innuendo Chaucer has ascribed to Roger by inflicting him with this particular unsightly excrescence. It is [End Page 31] Lydgate's use of the mormal that offers the best source of comparison to Chaucer's. In the Falle of Princes Lydgate writes:

Of glotonie & riotous excesse..Kometh unkouth feveres...Goutes, mormalles, horrible to the siht.3

Lydgate explicitly states that one will become afflicted with feveres, goutes, and mormalles, by living a life of glotonie & riotous excesse. Chaucer expects his audience to keep these imbalances of the humours in mind while reading the Cook's Prologue where a further perspective into the character of Roger is afforded the reader. The Cook exemplifies that some of Chaucer's most vivid characterization derives not from, as Geoffrey of Vinsauf observed, what is actually said, or in this case written, but what it left unsaid or, more accurately, what is implied.4 Knowing that one becomes afflicted with a mormal through glotonie & riotous excesse, Chaucer assumed that his audience would take these sins as being implicit characteristics of the Cook. It does not require a great stretch of imagination to envisage Roger dipping grimy hands into dishes intended for customers in order to sate his own gluttonous appetite. There are several legal issues raised by Chaucer's description of Roger that the modern reader might easily pass over due to unfamiliarity with medieval English law.

Roger is a "Cook of Londoun" (I.4325) and it is assumable, though not explicitly stated, that the shop he keeps is in London. As such, very specific statues regulating the procuring, preparation, and selling of food would govern his trade. The Judicium Pillorie, thought to be a statute passed during the reign of Henry III, and maintained during Chaucer's lifetime, contains an article that identifies several illegal practices cooks seem often to have engaged in:

Item de Cocis, si qui decoquant carnes vel pisces in pane vel in aqua vel alio modo non sanas corpori hõminis, vel postquam talia tenuerint, ita quod debitam naturam amiserint, ea recalefaciant & vendant: vel si quis emat carnes de Judeis, & eas vendat Christianis.5

Item concerning Cooks, if any do seethe flesh or fish with bread or water, or any otherwise, that is not wholesome for Man's Body, or after that they have kept it so long that it loses its natural wholesomeness, and then seethe it again, and sell it: [or if any do buy flesh of Jews, and then sell it to Christians].6

A sentence to the pillory for a specified period of time would...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4608
Print ISSN
1043-2213
Pages
pp. 31-41
Launched on MUSE
2008-06-13
Open Access
No
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