Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, The

Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1395)
   Well into The CANTERBURY TALES, CHAUCER presents his readers with a surprise. Breaking from the pattern that gives each of the original pilgrims introduced in the GENERAL PROLOGUE a turn to tell a story, Chaucer suddenly introduces a dramatic variation when he depicts a Canon (a cleric bound by the Augustinian rule) and his servant Yeoman riding hard to catch up to the group of pilgrims to join them on their route to Canterbury.
   After the Yeoman has greeted the company, he begins to boast about his master’s skill and knowledge, saying the Canon could pave the road to Canterbury with gold if he desired.When the Host asks why, if that is true, the Canon is dressed in such ragged clothes, the question seems to draw the Yeoman into a true revelation of how his master’s obsession with alchemy has destroyed him. The Canon tries to stop the Yeoman’s tongue, but when this proves impossible, he rides off, leaving the company. The Yeoman, now released from any inhibitions, tells all his master’s frustrated attempts to find the Philosopher’s Stone. The Yeoman also chastises his own foolishness for sharing the Canon’s obsessions.
   In the second part of his tale, the Yeoman tells the story of a different canon (he swears it is not his own master) who uses alchemy to dupe ignorant and greedy people. In the story the canon convinces a priest in London that he has actually found the secret of turning base metals into silver (though in fact it is all a trick).He sells the “secret” to the unwitting priest for 40 pounds, and the priest never sees him again. The Yeoman ends by admonishing his audience to leave the black art before it destroys them. Only divine revelation, not alchemy, will reveal ultimate truth. There are no specific sources for Chaucer’s tale, and his portrait of the dishonest alchemist was an unusual one for his time. Early critics thought the vehemence of the Yeoman’s condemnation of alchemy to be evidence of Chaucer’s personal antipathy toward the subject. Other scholars have discussed thematic parallels and contrasts between The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale and The SECOND NUN’S TALE, which always precedes it in Fragment VIII of The Canterbury Tales— particularly the contrast of God’s Creation with the pseudo-creation of the alchemist, and the parallel between the hellish fire of the alchemist and the divine fire of St. Cecilia in The Second Nun’s Tale. Other scholars have focused on explaining the relationship between the first, autobiographical part of The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale and the second part concerning the devious canon and the London priest, a relationship that depicts a kind of degeneration from obsession to deliberate deception.
   ■ Cowgill, Bruce Kent. “Sweetness and Sweat: The Extraordinary Emanations in Fragment Eight of the Canterbury Tales,” Philological Quarterly 74 (Fall 1995): 343–357.
   ■ Duncan, Edgar H. “The Literature of Alchemy and Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale: Framework, Theme, and Characters,” Speculum 43 (1968): 633–656.
   ■ Grennen, Joseph.“Saint Cecilia’s ‘Chemical Wedding’: the Unity of the Canterbury Tales, Fragment VIII,” JEGP 65 (1966): 466–481.
   ■ Harwood, Britton J. “Chaucer and the Silence of History: Situating the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale,” PMLA 102 (1987): 338–350.
   ■ Patterson, Lee. “Perpetual Motion: Alchemy and the Technology of the Self,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 15 (1993): 25–57.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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