Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Canon's Yeoman's Tale"

Genre: a nouvelle or short story, infused with alchemical instruction and told in the manner of a thief's confession rather like the "Pardoner's Prologue."  The public fascination with criminal schemes increased with the growth of medieval cities and their attraction of peasants displaced from their traditional lands by economic forces, especially the nobility's enclosures of commons land for large-scale sheep farming.  Those recently arrived peasants, knowing only the traditions of the countryside, were known to London grifters as "coneys" or "rabbits" for the ease with which they could be tricked, trapped, and relieved of the savings they carried with them.

Form: rhyming couplets.

Source: One analogue of a trick in the second section is found in Ramon Lull (RC 947) but no "sources" have survived.  The alchemical background, including the Aristotelian theory underlying both the "humors" physiology used in medicine and the "element" or "vapors" theory used to combine chemicals in pursuit of gold, are summarized nicely in RC (947). 

Characters: [Prologue and Part I] the Canon, a member of an order of priests governed by a common charter, somewhat like the monks in that he would be sworn to poverty, chastity, and obedience, but also he would be expected to celebrate mass, give communion and hear confession--at almost every point, this canon's behavior parodies the priest's moral function in some materialist perversion; the Canon's Yeoman, whose relief at his escape from whatever was pursuing them and his disgust with the Canon's recent lack of success apparently leads him to consider a career change; the Canon's various dupes and patsies (in summary ll. 920 ff.); [Prologue and Part II] "a chanoun of religioun / Amonges us" (VIII.972-3) who seems to be a thinly disguised version of the Canon who rode away; a London chantry priest who has grown wealthy saying prayers for the dead and has his expenses paid by local charity (VIII.1012-18); and a goldsmith who innocently confirms that the gold and silver planted by the Canon to deceive his mark are in fact authentic (VIII.1337 ff.).

Summary: After the Canon and his Yeoman ride up to the pilgrims just outside Boughton (five miles from Canterbury), they bate their heavily sweated horses and ask to join the group,  The Host warns them that to join they must tell a tale, and the Yeoman blurts out that his lord can tell tales with the best of them though he is "a man of high discrecioun" (VIII.613).  Nonetheless, the Yeoman does all the talking and his praise of the Canon's amazing powers, drawn out by Harry's good detective interrogation (VIII.627-39), yields even more of the Canon's secrets, as well as noting that they fear robbers who lurk around the suburbs of Canterbury (as well as other large towns).  The more the Yeoman talks about him, the more worried the Canon becomes until he bolts away "for verray sorwe and shame" (VIII.702). 

    The Yeoman then tells his tale in two parts.   The first part is a general overview of the follies of medieval alchemy, especially viewed with an eye to their moral consequences, as well as the physical discomfort of doing chemical experiments without an OSHA-approved fume hood or proper stoichiometric calculations of reaction speed and energy yield (".  . . The pot tobreketh and farewel, al is go!" / Thise metals been of so greet violence / Oure walles mowe nat make hem resistence, / But if they weren wroght of lym and stoon; / They percen so, and thurgh the wal they goon" (VIII.907-11).  The second part explains how the London chantry priest was deceived multiple times by the Canon (probably the one who ran away but disguised in the telling as in, "I have a friend at Goucher who...but not my roommate you understand!").  In exchange for the Canon's small investment in silver and gold to "salt" the experiments so they'll appear to work, the priest pays him forty pounds for "the secret."  The Yeoman ends with a peroration condemning alchemy and claiming that its secret (if there is one) is the hidden property of Christ, who uses it as he will for his own purposes (perhaps to purify things other than base metals?) (VIII.1463-81).

Interpretive Issues:

1)  The arrival of the Canon and his yeoman is extremely hasty.   See the RC note re: Brewer's calculations on their speed at this point in the pilgrimage (948 re: lines 583-6).  What does Chaucer imply about their haste and how does the Prologue further develop it? 

2)  Note especially this prologue's use of silences and disrupted speech to communicate the unspeakable.  It's a part of the pattern of "attempted silencing" that increasingly has developed since the little "clergeoun" met with such harsh musical criticism in the "Prioress's Tale."  In what other circumstances in the tales of Fragments VII, VIII, and IX can you find speech, tale-telling, and song under attack?  What's Chaucer up to?

3)  The alchemist's fraud contains many elements of theatrical performance.  In fact, if we consider the tale-telling game of the Canterbury Tales as a playful incitement to belief in mostly unbelievable stories, Chaucer could be telling us something important about how fiction works with its audiences as a kind of "magic."  Magicians long have known that mere tricks, including the most ingenious apparatus involving mirrors and hidden assistants, do not, in themselves, cause audiences to believe magic has been performed.  Belief in supernatural causation depends upon the audience's willing participation (and resistance to) the drama surrounding the tricks.  Jim Steinmeyer, a historian of magicians and magic's technology, describes the "art" which induces belief:  "The success of a magician lies in making a human connection [between the audience and] the magic, the precise focus that creates a fully realized illusion in the minds of the audience.  [ . . . ]  A great magic performance consists of a collection of tiny lies, in words and deeds, that are stacked and arranged ingeniously to form the battlement for an illusion.  It's a delicate battle of wits--an audience that welcomes being deceived, then dares to be fooled, alternately questioning, prodding, and surrendering.  A great magician seems always to play catch-up to their thoughts but secretly must stay two steps ahead--not only solicitous and anticipating, but suggesting" (Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear.  N.Y.: Carroll & Graff, 2003, p. 17).  Examine the alchemist-canon's method carefully and notice how he creates the drama which makes the chantry priest a willingly deceived audience.  Can you extract from the alchemist's practices some rules for making magic?

        If that seems too easy, perhaps we can increase the scope of this inquiry into what Coleridge called "the willing suspension of disbelief" (Biographia Literaria, Volume 1, Chapter 14, 1817). Can you see how Chaucer has deceived his audience by similar methods?  (Remember--there is no canon, no priest, no gold, even no single pilgrimage like this one, represented to us by Chaucer-the-Pilgrim as a historical event he merely witnessed.)  How and why does the pilgrimage tale-telling game please us, convince us, make us doubt, and bring us back to belief again?  One place to start might be the influence of what Roland Barthes called "inscribed audiences," pilgrims who respond to tales being told in ways that model our resistances or enthusiastic acceptances.  What happens to those pilgrims who interrupt?  What kinds of events are they interrupting?  Especially pay attention to the long prologues ("Man of Laws Pro," "Wife of Bath's Pro," "Pardoner's Pro," etc.), including, of course, the "General Prologue."   To read Norman Holland's provocative psychoanalytic explanation of this phenomenon (2002, 2003), click here.

4)  The Yeoman's face goes through the reverse of the color progression that indicated purification (black, white, red) toward the philosopher's stone that would transmute base elements into gold (VIII.727-8).  Also, consider what this underlying Aristotelian emphasis on "balance of opposites" does for all kinds of medieval assumptions about what produces good and bad results in systems.  They even wrench the physical facts of chemistry by interpreting it allegorically to make Aristotle's theory appear to describe reality (re: sulpher and mercury combining to make the highly corrosive and poisonous mercuric sulfide, not "philosopher's stone").   For Meghan Milburn's 1999 seminar note explaining the chemistry of the Canon's Yeoman's dangerous experiments, click here.

5)  The recurrent theme of the Yeoman's critique of alchemy is that it "multiplies" the precious things by imitations that necessarily are faulty, contaminated, and/or corrupting.  (VIII.669 is the first mention of it, and VIII.1401 is the last, with many more in between.)  This theme (though the RC notes don't mention it in 1987!) would have been well-known to Chaucer from Dante's Inferno, Cantos XXIX and XXX, in which that pilgrim-poet meets the falsifiers of gold, words, coinage, and personality in the damned souls of an alchemist, a perjurer, a counterfeiter, and an imposter.  All are condemned for multiplying falsely God's true creations (pure gold, the truth, true currency, and identity).  When Dante-the-pilgrim listens raptly to a quarrel between the perjurer, whose false tales betrayed others, and the coiner, whose false currency debased the economy of a city, Dante's spiritual guide, Virgil, rebukes him harshly for trifling with them and the poet's criticism renders Dante speechless.  Why did Dante's spiritual and poetic master chastise him for listening to this debate, and why did that leave a poet like Dante "speechless"?   What is the relationship between "uttering" words and "uttering" (minting) coins?  Both forms are an artificial product that can be true or false, both can be circulated among others who are unwitting of their truth or falsehood, both can be redeemed for real/true things (behavior, goods), both can be "broken" by being discovered and disavowed.  What kinds of damage does such "counterfeiting" do to the world of human discourse and the social fabric of the economy, especially to the trust that underpins story-telling and other forms of exchange?   Can you see any similar "false coinings" in previous tales or prologues?   What is the "unit of exchange" and what is it being redeemed for?   Is it discovered or does it appear to pass for truth?

6)  In the light of #4 above, the tale's sudden swerve toward religious significance in lines 1428 ff. is not as unprepared for as it might at first appear.  Nevertheless, the Yeoman's quotation from "Arnold of the Newe Toun" allows me to note that I, myself, lived in Newton Upper Falls (Mass.) during 1984-5, and that I have worked in a laboratory synthesizing flavor and fragrance chemicals, so I feel uniquely qualified to speak to the significance of this tale.  What do people seek when they try to manipulate the natural world, including their neighbors' minds and wallets?  What does synthesis transform, what does it imitate, and how are the outcomes different from the original?  As an example, I offer you this case from recent consumer experiments in the "vitamin and supplement" racket.  Scientists proved that a naturally occurring substance in the human body, l-tryptophan, was positively correlated with the ability to sleep.   As an alternative to barbiturate- and opiate-based sleep aides, people whose lives made them sleepless began taking a synthetically produced version of the amino acid that turned out to contain a byproduct of the artificial synthesis that killed a few  folks.   The synthetic l-tryptophan was banned, but the supplement business is still going strong.  What went wrong?  Was it only a sloppy manufacturing process, or is there something fundamentally incorrect about the "modern" consumer's attitude toward manipulation of the natural world by artificial synthesis that is as flawed and dangerous as the medieval world's reliance on Aristotle's doctrine of the humors and seeking the "good" in a balance between extremes?  Could most of modern science and medicine be infected with this error?

7)  This tale challenges the basic premise of the entire Canterbury Tales scheme, that it is a tale-telling game in which a known group of pilgrims compete by tale-telling to win a celebratory dinner.  The premise was radical enough, challenging traditional social hierarchies by forming the "forward" or agreement among the pilgrims by popular vote, and further disrupting Harry Bailey's attempt to restore those hierarchies (by controlling the tale succession from Knight to Monk) by allowing a drunken Miller to commandeer the game.  Then Chaucer-the-poet allowed his own works to be subjected to the Man of Law's dubious literary criticism, and he let his pilgrim persona (Donaldson's "Chaucer the Pilgrim") be drawn into the tale telling game with a spectacularly failure ("Sir Thopas") and a ponderously moral success ("Melibee").  He developed Harry Bailey's character's independence until Harry seemed to be telling a serial tale of his wife's manipulation of his dangerous temper, and he let Harry interrupt tellers several times, twice violently (the Pardoner and Chaucer-the-Pilgrim).  All these were original innovations upon previous authors' use of the "nested tale" narrative, including John Gower's Confessio Amantis and Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron.  With the Canon's and the Canon's Yeoman's arrival, and the Yeoman's entry into the tale-telling, the "frame" narrative has been pierced by a potentially endless flow of narrative entering from characters who were not the Tabard-Inn pilgrims, but who encounter the group on the road.  What does this new rule of narrative construction do to the Canterbury Tales as a "work," and where does Chaucer appear to leading English narrative tradition?

8)  Elias Ashmole’s Theatrum chemicum Britannicum (published from 1651 to 1652) reprinted "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" as part of a compendium of alchemical treatises, and Ashmole's introduction makes it clear that he invokes Chaucer as one of England's greatest alchemists.  S. Foster Damon's 1927 PMLA article argued that Chaucer not only was an alchemist but also that Chaucer knew the great alchemical secret for turning base metals into gold ("Chaucer and Alchemy," PMLA , Vol. 39, No. 4 (Dec., 1924), pp. 782-788).  Can you see any way to read "CYT" competently and to arrive at the conclusion that Chaucer approved, much less practiced, alchemy?  A facsimile of Ashmole is available at the Library under the title The Ordinall of Alchimy  (540.1 N88), and I have a reprint of Ashmole if more than one of you want to work with this odd text.

9)  Mike Stanfill's Flash Animation to accompany Tom Lehrer singing his composition, "The Elements."  Don't ask questions--just play it.

Critical Articles:

Bruhn, Mark J.  "Art, Anxiety, and Alchemy in the Canon's Yeoman's Tale"  Chaucer Review 33:3 (1999) 28-315.

        Bruhn studies the relationship between alchemy and Chaucer's own art of narrative, seeing in CYT a pattern of metaphoric self-reference to the artist's ultimately doomed attempt to utter a aesthetically complete work.   Both experiments are doomed, and (says Bruhn) Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman effectively revokes the process of alchemy in the tale's final lines just as Chaucer will retract "the tales of Canterbury thilke that sownen into synne" (X.1085; RC 328).    Bruhn's article also begins with a good, recent review of the scholarship on CYT which can be a real time-saver to those writing papers under deadline pressure.

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