Saturday, July 14, 2018

It's a Joke -- Really!

More than one hundred years ago, a scholar involved in the renewed interest in Chaucer, read a little story told by the Cook as being vulgar. ‘Tain’t so! The surface impression of a "licentious…apprentice" is only a humorous fa├žade.

The Cook, an ordinary guy, states he will tell a “litel jape”—a little joke. His hero is an apprentice, but not an apprentice cook. He’s a victualler, a gatherer of foodstuffs.  That’s significant!
     He’s brown as a berry, a proper short fellow, like a hive full of honey and merry as a bird in the woods. His name is Perkyn Revelour which leads us to believe he enjoyed reveling with his kin. Aside from his color, we’re given only one other physical detail: he has neatly combed black hair. The picture I get from Chaucer’s details is a medieval English brown bee. And, as one beekeeper charmingly put it, he wears a "round velvet cap."

So how is his apprenticeship going? Perkyn hopped and sang at weddings, played stringed instruments, and preferred the tavern to the shop. If he saw a group riding out, he'd be sure to join them to play at "dys," implying dice! But these “dyes” refer to the great attraction of colorful flowers! The "riding" he joined mentions no horses. Bees would have no need. The omitted details are part of the jape.

That group (swarm) could engulf a blossomy bough or a new gate. Chaucer teases with a “Newgate” because it’s the name of a building in London.

It’s obvious that Perkyn is not a worker bee but a good-for-nothing drone. He guzzles honey stored in the hive and invites another drone to join him. Chaucer records the beekeeper’s lament: oft times he found his box full bare. Chaucer uses straightforward bee vocabulary to say the two rascals, Perkyn and his accomplice (lowke) would suck (sowke) what they could steal or borrow.

 At the end of the honey-making season (which parallels the end of apprenticeship), misfits are actually driven from the hive and perish. Some drones may find temporary shelter in another hive; that is a fact. When Perkyn is put out, his accomplice offers hospitality for a time.
      Chaucer’s last lines tell us his rascal friend has a wife. She ran “a shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance." "Swyving" (“copulating”) is the word that offended the 19th-century scholar. But the word is a clue to the joke! It identifies her as a prostitute—in 14th-century terms, a quene —which is a very strong clue for a "queen" bee. Though the 14th century did not understand life in a hive the way we do, they assumed a hive had a queen bee.
         The story seems to “end” abruptly, but with the identification of a quean/quene, no more need be said! The Cook’s Pilgrim companions would have caught on and had a good laugh.