The Cooks of the Canterbury Tales: The Backstage of Bourgeois Social Drama
By Oya Bayiltmis Ogutcu
DTCF Dergisi, Vol. 56:2 (2016)
Abstract: Despite their rise in the social ladder, the newly emerging bourgeoisie of late medieval England needed to display their wealth not only to secure their place in the social hierarchy, but also to receive acceptance from noble people in their communities. Hence, the public and private lives of the medieval English bourgeoisie turned out to be arenas for social drama, as conceptualized by Victor Turner, in which their cooks and kitchens were important as backstage elements as exemplified by the cook of the Franklin and the Cook of the Guildsmen in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Therefore, this article aims at analysing Chaucer’s depiction of the cooks in the Canterbury Tales, and to discuss their function in contributing to the social changes as figures at the backstage of bourgeois social drama. In line with this, this article argues that the cooks were indispensable for the medieval bourgeoisie to sustain their social drama through the use of food culture.
Introduction: Food has always been not only an element of nutrition, but something fundamental for survival. Food is also a social marker revealing class distinctions. Food choices – what one likes (not) to eat, when one likes (not) to eat, how one likes (not) to eat – and food allowances – what one is allowed (not) to eat – display specific information about individual consumers. It is due to such regulations and/or preferences that the phrase ‘tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are’ stands out. Food is, thus, an important component of individual identities as in the case of fasting and feasting. It was related to this idea that the Sumptuary Laws in the Middle Ages were also expected to regulate estate distinctions aiming at classifying food and drink items according to people’s estates.
Top Image: Cooks depicted in a 14th century manuscript. HAB Cod. Guelf. 3.1 Aug. 2° fol. 19v