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  • Wayward Sons and Failing Fathers:Chaucer's Moralistic Paternalism—And a Possible Source for the Cook's Tale
  • Neil Cartlidge

It has been a long time since anyone has taken seriously the possibility that a literary source might ever be identified for Chaucer's Cook's Tale. The reason for this is not simply that this tale has been preserved only in what appears to be an accidentally truncated form.1 Even at fifty-eight lines long, it remains a substantial "stub," and it provides a number of potential clues to the nature of the story that Chaucer probably intended to tell.2 Indeed, it defines its dramatis personae and its thematic concerns so fully as to create what is actually quite a detailed profile for the identity of its source, and it is perhaps precisely because this profile is so detailed that it has always seemed so difficult to find an exact enough match for it among all the classical or medieval stories that Chaucer is likely to have known. In other words, it is not an absence of [End Page 134] evidence that explains the mysteriousness of the tale's origins, but an absence of suitable suspects—a lack of any text that seems even likely to have inspired what survives of the tale. In his essay on the Cook's Tale for the original Chaucer Sources and Analogues volume, Earl D. Lyon declared that searching for any possible precedent for the tale in the corpus of extant medieval stories "will . . . prove fruitless," a formulation by which he seems to imply not just that his own search had yielded no results, but also that it was never going to do so: or, to put it another way, that it had been a wild goose chase all along.3 This negative conclusion—that there is probably no point even in looking for a literary source for the tale—now seems to be generally accepted by Chaucerian scholars.

However, Lyon's investigation was perhaps unnecessarily circumscribed from the outset by his assumption that the tale Chaucer meant to tell must have been a comical one. "From the tone of the fragment itself," he writes, "we may be sure that the Cook was going to cap the fabliau of the Reeve with another not unlike it. . . . We may look, therefore, for a humorous tale."4 In fact, the juxtaposition of the Cook's Tale's with the Reeve's is no indication in itself that the two tales must have been generically alike, since elsewhere in the Canterbury Tales individual tales are often linked together in such a way as to emphasize the contrasts rather than the continuities between them.5 It is true that some support for Lyon's assumption that the Cook's Tale must have been "humorous" might be sought in the Cook-narrator's own description of his tale as a "litel jape that fil in oure citee" (I 4343).6 Yet "jape" means not just "joke," but also "trick, deceit, fraud, fraudulent excuse";7 and this is a semantic range that leaves plenty of scope for all sorts of narrative twists and turns that are anything but "humorous." In any case, it would perhaps be hazardous to place too much weight on the pilgrim-narrator's own opinion of the story that he tells, given how many [End Page 135] of his fellow travellers offer descriptions of their tales that are misleading.8 There is, in fact, nothing intrinsically light-hearted about the Cook's Tale as it stands, and it is at least susceptible to a much less positive spin. Perkyn is explicitly said to be a "roten appul" (I 4406) whose involvement with gambling, theft, "riot," and prostitution implicitly threaten catastrophe for either himself or his erstwhile master. Indeed, as Helen Cooper points out, after the initial description of Perkyn, the tale's tone becomes "pervasively moral," so that "of the last thirty-two lines of the piece (4391-422), fifteen are proverbs or similar generalizations of practical or moral wisdom." From this perspective, "if this [tale] were to be a fabliau, it would scarcely be a typical one."9

The apparently widespread consensus...


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