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 have arrived quickly from the previous town and have met up with the traveling group of storytellers at Boughton under Bleam (an English village located between Faversham about five miles from Canterbury). From here, the pilgrims can see the towers of Canterbury Cathedral. Thus, their pilgrimage has nearly reached its destination (or the halfway mark of the tales).

The newly arrived Yeoman initially describes his master (the Canon) 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 soon flees from the group and the Yeoman remains. As he speaks, he decides to be a little more honest and tell a story exposing his master’s trickery –the deceitful art of alchemy. The Yeoman now describes his lord (the Canon) as an ignorant and incapable man resulting from his efforts to practice alchemy. The Canon 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. The Canon’s absurd quest into the art of alchemy has unfortunately forced both he and his Yeoman to live like beggars.

The Yeoman proclaims not to be a learned man, but he offers a prolonged description of the various chemicals and odd experiments performed by the Canon in an effort to discover the true elixir of life, or the ‘philosopher’s stone.’ Like Chaucer (the pilgrim), 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 a cautionary warning against deceitful people. He is a sorely unhappy and disillusioned man.

In his tale, which begins halfway through his portion of the tales, the Yeoman describes a vicious and evil Canon (though he claims this person is not in any way representative of his lord because there are evil people in every profession). The Canon, in the story, claims to pursue the fabled ‘philosopher’s stone.’ One day, he tricks a good-natured priest into lending him money and he repays the priest with a lump of coal (dung) that he claims 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. 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 art of alchemy, but it is also a reflection on certain types of story-telling, namely a journalistic exposé. In the context of the greater ‘Tales of Canterbury’ (a story about storytellers) we are tasked with judging each tale, and therefore also 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 uncover certain boundaries for good and bad literature, and the “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” comes to light as a reflection of its author’s own character –he is similar to other resentful story-tellers (such as the Miller, the Reeve, the Friar, or the Summoner) who weaponize their tales in order to defame their enemies. Poetry offers the unique opportunity for a poet to conceal himself behind the facade of mere story-telling. However, in the quest to create a well-balanced story that both informs and delights, the Yeoman offers an excess of education but a dearth of delight.

Though the Yeoman is a stranger to the group, his tale shares kinship with many of the other themes which have been 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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