Trickery and Alchemy in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale

“But al thyng which that shineth as the gold
Nis nat gold, as that I have herd it told;” (962-963)

Neither the Canon (a priestly administrator of a cathedral) nor his Yeoman are mentioned in Chaucer’s “General Prologue.” Instead, they ride quickly from the previous town and meet up with the traveling group of storytellers at Boughton under Bleam (an English village located between Faversham and about five miles from Canterbury). From here, the riders can see the towers of Canterbury Cathedral. Thus, their pilgrimage has nearly reached its destination.

The newly arrived Yeoman initially describes his master as a most powerful man, capable of painting the road to Canterbury silver and gold, but the Host is skeptical, noting their shabby clothing. In ‘shame and sorrow,’ the Canon flees and the Yeoman decides to be a little more honest and tell a story exposing his master’s trickery and the deceitful art of alchemy. The Yeoman describes his lord (the Canon) as ignorant and incapable as a result of spending too much time as a failed alchemist. He wears unrefined clothing (even a sock over his head instead of a proper hood), and he spends his time lurking down alleys with robbers and thieves. The Yeoman says his lord is “crafty” and “sly” (655), not unlike Homer’s Odysseus or the Serpent in the Bible. His lord’s absurd quest into alchemy has forced them to live like beggars.

The Yeoman proclaims not to be a learned man, but he offers a prolonged description of the various chemicals and absurd experiments performed by the Canon in an effort to discover the elixir of life, or the ‘philosopher’s stone.’ Like Chaucer (the pilgrim) and his first tale, the initial part of the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” is hardly a tale at all, but rather a lengthy diatribe against the art of alchemy and deceitful people. He is a sorely unhappy and disillusioned man.

In his tale, which begins halfway through the section, the Yeoman describes a viciously evil canon (though he claims this is not his lord because there are evil people in every profession). It is about a shifty canon who claims to pursue the fabled ‘philosopher’s stone.’ One day, he tricks a good-natured priest into lending him money and repaying him with an illusion that a lump of coal (dung) can easily be converted into silver. The canon tricks the feeble-minded priest several times, and the tale ends with a series of cautionary warnings from the Yeoman at this “lusty game” which turn a man’s “myrthe it wol turne unto grame (sorrow),” and curiously he concludes with an account of a wholly anachronistic conversation between Plato and a disciple. Perhaps we should be skeptical of story-tellers like the Yeoman, as well. He has been blinded (literally) and jaded by his master’s various plots to grow rich.

On the surface the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” is an attack on the station of alchemy, but also it is a commentary on certain type of story, namely an exposé. In the context of the greater ‘Tales of Canterbury’ (a story about storytellers) we are tasked with discovering which tale, and therefore which poet, is superior. In order to understand the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” we require a great deal of context. What is alchemy? Why are alchemists evil people? And what better way to defame a self-proclaimed man of education and mystery than through the medium of literature. Throughout The Canterbury Tales, we discover certain boundaries for good and bad literature, and the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” is like other resentful story-tellers (such as the Miller, the Reeve, the Friar, or the Summoner) who weaponize tales to defame their enemies. Poetics offers the opportunity for the poet to conceal himself behind the facade of merely telling a story.

Though the Yeoman is a stranger to the group, his tale shares kinship with many of themes touched upon thus far throughout the tales, highlighting both the interconnectedness and the universality of literature.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

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