I was going to write about all the pilgrims, but when a friend got me talking about the Cook, writing about him was irresistible. No Canterbury Pilgrim is more creative. What fun the poet must have had! We'll ignore editors "improvements" that actually distort Chaucer's own words.
First we'll talk about the introduction of the Cook and his companions in the General Prologue. Then we'll look at the Cook's Tale. The Cook is the astrological sign of Cancer. This is clear from Chaucer's description of the "mormal," the oozing, incurable sore on the Cook's leg. That's about as close as you can get to simply using the word cancer.
This sign has no prominent stars, so the poet mainly concentrates on the figure of a crab. The one visual heavenly endowment, however, is a modest star cluster called Praesepe which has two meanings: Manger and Beehive. Chaucer capitalizes on both these images.
At the end of this pilgrim's description, when the mormal is announced, the Cook's expertise in making a fish pudding immediately follows. The dish is called Blank Manger. Such close association is unsavory! The unsavoriness is meant to be noticed. And the chosen recipe is an opportunity to mention the star cluster.
If these lines indicate the sign's identity, then who are the Guildsmen and why are they necessary? I think they are "necessary" mainly because of Chaucer's wit. A Biblical tradition says, "The body is one, and hath many members." And an Aesop fable popular in the Middle Ages is called, "The Belly and Its Members." This is the picture Chaucer brings to life. One of Chaucer's contemporaries even refers to the belly (stomach) as the "cook" for the entire body.
Now, if the Cook is the belly, the five Guildsmen must be its members. A group of five--5 pairs of legs--is, again, a "necessity."
And they were clothed all in one livery
Of a solemn and a great fraternity.
When we are told that these five men are clothed all in one livery, Chaucer means exactly that: five men inside one suit. This is another line meant to get our attention. "Clothed" can mean covered, as incarnation expressed as "to clothe in flesh." And Chaucer's use of livery can be seen as ambiguous where the 14th-century "livery" can refer to a living being. Then the line can be understood to say, "the Guildsmen were enveloped as one living being" in the great fraternity of Crustaceans.
Although confident that I had properly recognized the sign of Cancer the crab, the remainder of the introduction of the Guildsmen confused me. Why did Chaucer say their "wives" have cloaks "carried royally"? That is, their garments had trains. The answer to the question, thank goodness, came from a picture of a doorjamb at Notre Dame in Paris. The twelve signs of the zodiac are carved there as heavenly bodies created by God. Surprisingly, Cancer is not a crab but a lobster, a figure with a substantial part trailing behind. Why? Because in Latin, which was common knowledge among the educated, both crab and lobster are expressed by the word cancer.
There is an abiding problem regarding pilgrims who tell no tale, the five Guildsmen, for example. Here's the answer to that problem: It's not Chaucer's failure. Their only function is to complete the picture of the sign! During the pilgrimage, the five men never utter a word. They are never spoken to or about. The Cook and his companions function as one. The Cook alone represents Cancer throughout the Tales.
To amuse his fellow Canterbury Pilgrims, the Cook tells a "litel jape," a little joke. Remember the star cluster Praesepe that means Manger also means Beehive. That's what the joke is about. The humor relies on the fun of a beast fable, in which correspondences are found between the behavior of animals and behavior or men. Clues abound. The Cook speaks not of an apprentice cook but of a victualler, a gatherer of foodstuffs. The apprentice is brown as a berry, a proper short fellow who is like a hive full of honey and merry as a bird in the woods. That's a great description of a medieval English brown bee. But he's not just any bee--he's a good-for-nothing drone. He's called "Perkyn Revelour" (Perkin Reveler) because he enjoys reveling with his kin; the story bears this out. (Picture a swarm.)
How appropriate for a cook to joke about a bee! Honey was a coveted cooking ingredient in Chaucer's day. Everyone knew about industrious worker bees, worthless drones, the normal--but sometimes temperamental--movements of swarms. Lazy drones and robber-bees consume disproportionate amounts of honey and spend their days in carefree living and thievery. Chaucer doesn't hesitate to describe actual bee activity when he says Perkyn and his accomplice suck whatever they could steal or borrow!
The story ends abruptly with the introduction of the accomplice's wife who had a shop and "swyved" for her sustenance. Her "swyving" identifies her as a prostitute. An alternate 14th-century term would be quene. That's a strong clue for a "queen" bee and is enough to give away the point of the joke.
All that's lacking is the reaction, the laughter, of another pilgrim who has caught on to the joke.