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What caused the ulcer on the cook's leg in The Canterbury Tales?

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katie73197 | eNotes Newbie

Posted October 7, 2013 at 7:57 AM via web

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What caused the ulcer on the cook's leg in The Canterbury Tales?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted October 7, 2013 at 1:05 PM (Answer #1)

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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.

This is the relevant quotation regarding the cook and the unfortunate mormal ("deadly sore") on his "shyne": shin, the front bony area of the lower leg. We are not told the cause of it, but we are told the ironical continuance of it. First, let's review what we are told to confirm that no cause is noted.

What the narrator tells us is that the cook can:

  • boil chicken with the delicacy of marrow bones
  • he could flavor this chicken with tart herbs and with "galingale": ginger root
  • he had a discerning palette and could tell London beer from lesser quality beers (lesser in the narrator's opinion)
  • his culinary skills included roasting, saute ("sethe," like boiling up), broiling and frying, each requiring differing skills with utilizing fire
  • he can prepare a "mortreux" (cross between a pate and a stew) and bake a pie

These are all the things we are told about before the narrator says: "But greet harm was it, as it thoughte me,...." In this we find no cause. Is there a cause named after this "greet harm" remark? No, there is not. We are told the location of the wound, "on his shyne," then we are told--seemingly inexplicably to us--about "blankmanger." The real question here is why does the narrator bring up "blankmanger":

Blancmange [usually white] is a sweet dessert [of] milk or cream and sugar thickened with gelatin, cornstarch or [carrageenan] ... often flavored with almonds, set in a mould and served cold.

The mention of "blankmanger" becomes even more puzzling when we know "blankmanger" is a sweet dessert, something like a custard or a Bavarian cream. Once we know a little about Middle Ages remedies for the sick (like chicken soup for a cold) it all becomes clear and the irony recognized by the narrator also becomes clear ... though we still have no cause.

Blankmange, the current spelling, was used in the Middle Ages as a health remedy for the sick. The irony is that, while the cook made the best "blankmanger" and while "blankmanger" is used to cure those that are ill, the cook had a seemingly incurable wound on his own leg. The narrator does not tell us the cause though he does lament the ironic tragedy of excellence being unable to cure itself.

blancmange originated some time in the Middle Ages and ... was considered to be an ideal food for the sick.

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