mormal in Chaucer
Posted: 06 October 2010 06:14 AM   [ Ignore ]
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I have always felt queasy reading this in The General Prologue especially because of its juxtaposition with blankmanger and all the fine foods:

A COOK they hadde with hem for the nones,
To boille the chiknes with the marybones
And poudre-marchant tart and galyngale;
Wel koude he knowe a draughte of Londoun ale;
He koude rooste and sethe and broille and frye,
Máken mortreux and wel bake a pye.
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.

379. for the nones, for the nonce; for the occasion.
380. chiknes, chickens.
marybones, marrowbones.
381. poudre-marchant tart, a tart, powdered spice mix, possibly made from nutmeg, pepper, etc
galyngale, a sweet spice made from cypress root.
382. Wel koude… Londoun ale, he was a good judge of London ales.
383. rooste… sethe… broille… frye, roast… boil… broil… fry.
384. mortreux, a medieval stew made with chicken and pork. See recipe.
385. greet harm, a great detraction.
as it thoghte me, in my opinion.
386. shyne, chin.
mormal, an oozing sore.
387. blankmanger, blancmanger or blancmange, a dessert made with rice, milk, and sugar. See recipes.
that made he with the beste, he was one of the best at making it.

From here.

Translation here.

Was Chaucer making any point beyond how distasteful the mormal on an otherwise good cook was? Why mention it at all? Is it a comment on the physical failings that can afflict anyone? “Life’s plenty” for good or worse, and so on. Is something lost to modern readers?

Mormal
Mor"mal\, n. [F. mort-mai a deadly evil. Nares.] A bad sore; a gangrene; a cancer. [Obs.] [Written also morrimal and mortmal.] --Chaucer.

Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, © 1996, 1998

Was Chaucer the first to use mormal according to the OED and does its entry shed any further light?

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Posted: 06 October 2010 01:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Benson’s Riverside Chaucer has this to say about mormal:

It is a species of dry scabbed ulcer, gangrenous rather than cancerous. [...] Mann points out that the authorities Curry cites attribute mormals to generally intemperate or unclean habits.

As you point out, the mention of the sore is surprising and dramatic. It sets up the cook as someone of debased moral character. “The Cook’s Tale” is about an apprentice who engages in wild drinking and prostitutes, and the tale is abruptly interrupted after about sixty lines. (There is debate whether Chaucer left the tale incomplete, or deliberately intended it to end suddenly. The Cook’s Tale follows the Miller and the Reeve and is the third in a series of increasingly ribald and offensive tales. Perhaps Chaucer was signaling that there was no where to go with this type of progression.)

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Posted: 06 October 2010 03:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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As Oliver Cromwell said to the painter while sitting for his official portrait, “Paint me, warts and all!”. That’s exactly how Chaucer painted the pilgrims. BTW I always thought one of the funniest parts of the Tales is when The Host breaks in upon Chaucer’s own contribution, refusing to let him finish the saga of Sir Thopas, which is clearly boring everyone to tears, and curtly comments, “Thy drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord!”

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Posted: 07 October 2010 12:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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This is going away from your point, but I’d like to say that blankmanger in Chaucer’s time was emphatically not a “dessert” as stated by the editor of that page, but chopped cooked chicken or fish mixed with cooked rice and almond milk, slightly spiced with sugar. One 15th century recipe for Blamanger of fysshe, from Harl. 279.1.98, suggests ”perch or lopstere” as the main ingredient. At some time between 1500 and 1750 the recipe lost its chicken/fish element and became simply a sweet dish - just as between the 17th and 19th centuries mince pies and plum puddings lost their original meat content.

Weirdly, the recipe linked to in the footnote is indeed a genuine 15th-century one for a chicken blankmanger, suggesting that whoever wrote that web page hadn’t actually looked at his/her own links!

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Posted: 07 October 2010 03:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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I love the “Tale of Sir Thopas.” It’s Chaucer spoofing bad poetry, specifically the genre of tail-rhyme romance. The tale depicts a child-like character playing at being a real knight, all in artfully executed bad tail-rhyme. And then you get Bailey’s interruption.

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Posted: 07 October 2010 03:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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"And then you get Bailey’s interruption. “

Look, Geoffrey, I’m really happy for you, I’m’a let you finish, but the Auchinleck manuscript had one of the earliest tail-rhymes of ALL TIME!

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Posted: 13 October 2010 07:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Many thanks. This explains a lot.
Wel koude he knowe a draughte of Londoun ale - I have wondered about this too having read somewhere that water quality was so bad in those days that people drank enormous amounts of safer ale, even monks, hence the tradition of their running breweries out of monasteries. I think it is fair to say Chaucer was not referring to any drunkenness?

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Posted: 13 October 2010 12:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Not so much the water quality (poor thought that probably was) as the fact that there simply wasn’t anything else to drink: no tea or coffee, obviously, no fruit juice, no milk (went sour too quickly) … the average allowance in a monastry was four to eight pints of ale a day, and that included breakfast …

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Posted: 13 October 2010 01:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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In many medieval towns there was no public water supply. Water would be drawn from wells, often inside private homes. There might be wells at occasional street corners.There was no organized sewage disposal either (solid sewage would go into a pit beneath the privy - liquid waste, into the street). It would be easy for the well water to be contaminated with sewage, by underground seepage. Outside of towns, the likelihood of pollution of well water would be very much less.

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Posted: 13 October 2010 03:37 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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It’s probably a reference to his skills as a victualer. Larry Benson in The Riverside Chaucer notes:

London ale was stronger and more expensive than other varieties. It was “famous as early as the time of Henry III. In 1504 it was higher priced than Kentish ale by five shillings a barrel” (A.J. Wyatt, ed., CT:GP and SqT, 1904). An ability to judge its quality was important and each London ward elected “the Aleconners of the ward” to determine if each batch brewed was “so good as it was wont to be” (Liber Albus, 277, 312).

Judith Bennett in her Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England (1996) notes:

The Assisa allowed urban brewers to sell ale at much higher prices than their counterparts in the countryside—perhaps because they faced more expenses, or perhaps because they brewed stronger drink. According to the Assisa, if an urban brewer bought barley at 20d. or 2s. per quarter, the ale brewed from it should sell at a rate of 2 gallons for a penny. A rural brewer who bought barley at the same price had to sell for 3 (or even 4) gallons of ale for a penny. (21)

Bennett notes that prices were set by local juries and could vary from that specified by the law.

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Posted: 14 October 2010 08:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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In the Middle Ages the majority of ale was brewed domestically. Just about all large households and institutions had brew-houses on the premises to supply their needs, and in villages when a housewife brewed a batch of ale she hung out an ale-bush (a green branch) above her door to signify that she had ale to sell. (Lacking hops, which weren’t introduced to England till the late 15th century, medieval ale went sour very quickly, so if you didn’t have a large household you needed to sell the surplus pronto.) It was illegal to sell ale without hanging out an ale-bush, which was was the forerunner of the pub sign.

When you had made a batch of ale you could it pour it off the mash into barrels, then add fresh water to the mash and brew again. The resulting brew was thinly flavoured and only slightly alcoholic, but the brewing process killed the bugs in the water and made it safe to drink. This was “small beer”, and that was what even children were given to drink if the water supply was dodgy, and what workers in hot trades (e.g. glassworkers, blacksmiths) drank by the quart. In apple-growing areas, small cider was made in the same way.

In addition to small beer, there was pure water to drink in medieval London - but you had to buy it from a water carrier, who brought it into the city from springs outside. The water carriers were a feature of London life into the 17th century, when a piped water supply was finally constructed.

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Posted: 14 October 2010 08:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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in villages when a housewife brewed a batch of ale she hung out an ale-bush (a green branch) above her door to signify that she had ale to sell.

Thank you for that informative post, Syntinen Laulu - I did some checking, which cleared up the meaning of the saying “good wine needs no bush” (seems that vintners and taverners also used a bush or branch to advertise)

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Posted: 14 October 2010 09:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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17th century, when a piped water supply was finally constructed.

I believe many of the pipes were laid down when London was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 - they were probably as much (if not more) for fire prevention as to provide good drinking water (I doubt if insurance companies care much if the drinking water tastes foul ;-). I read in an English newspaper some 40 years ago (sorry, can’t give a citation) about an area in central London where the water pipes needed enlarging, and the digging exposed the original pipes of elmwood, still in use after 300 years!

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Posted: 14 October 2010 10:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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While it is true that beer brewing and large-scale brewing took firm hold in England in the late fifteenth century, beer and hops were introduced at the beginning of that century. Bennett notes that beer was first imported into England in the late fourteenth century, largely for consumption by continental expats living on the island. A beer brewery is documented in Shrewsbury in 1409, York in 1416, and in 1424-25 London ale brewers began complaining about illegal beer brewing in that city. (80)

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