Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 778
The Canon: clergyman, generally in charge of a cathedral
The Canon's Yeoman: servant to the Canon
Shortly after the tale of St. Cecelia is finished, two riders, one of whom is dressed like a canon, approach the party. They have observed the jolly group and have ridden very hard to catch up and join the party. The Host bids them welcome if the Canon is able to tell a merry tale or two. The Canon's Yeoman replies that the Canon is a very important person and certainly able to contribute to the entertainment. In fact, it is hinted that he somehow knows a very great deal about a great many things. The Host is impatient with the Yeoman's mysterious and roundabout way of speaking and tells him to come right out and say whether the man he serves is indeed a cleric. The Yeoman responds that his master is much greater than any cleric for he can turn silver into gold.
Harry Bailley does not believe the Yeoman because the two are dressed so shabbily. This comment leads the Yeoman to air his complaints against his master, the Canon, and to reveal that the man is really an alchemist. His master tries to shut him up, but the Yeoman will not stop talking. The furious Canon rides off in a huff. Then the Yeoman promises to tell all, at the same time lamenting his own involvement in this business of changing base metal into gold and bemoaning his inability to extricate himself from the business.
There once was an alchemist disguised as a canon who was terribly evil. He supported his attempts to change base metals into gold by duping innocent people out of their money.
On the occasion of this story, the alchemist talks an old and gullible priest into buying copper and quicksilver (mercury) for him and then pretends to turn them into a sheet of sterling silver. The so-called canon pretends to allow the priest to talk him into selling his magic formula for 40 pounds. The wicked alchemist then takes off with the money.
Of course, the priest has been tricked. Two times in the fake chemical processes, the quicksilver evaporated unbeknownst to the priest and the canon replaced it with liquid silver. One time, the trickster goes through the motions of turning a copper ingot (bar of metal) into silver. He actually has a silver ingot up his sleeve which he substitutes for the copper when the priest is not looking. In this way, the old clergyman, ignorant of chemistry, is convinced that the alchemist actually can turn silver into gold and is eager to buy the secret formula.
Finally, the Yeoman explains all the false efforts of his Canon and confides that they are always unsuccessful in their attempts. The only definite thing they have accomplished is the ruin of the Yeoman's complexion because his job is always to blow on the fire to make it grow hotter and hotter. The heat and noxious vapors have ruined his skin. In his heart of hearts, the Yeoman realizes that he and his master can never turn base metal to gold, yet he and his master both persist in the attempt.
Discussion and Analysis
In this prologue, for the first time in the links between the tales, something besides conversation actually transpires. New characters come riding in; one stays; the other leaves. The Canon's Yeoman, who remains, reveals himself and his master to be outlaws of sorts, as well as complete shams. Yet, he is congenial and anxious to participate in the fun. He tells a biographical tale which appears to be about the Canon.
The Canon's Yeoman's Tale is not a typical medieval story. It seems to be a combination of the learning of the day about alchemy, preaching against alchemy, and biography/autobiography about the teller and his master. It is certain that alchemy was widely practiced in England at the time of The Canterbury Tales and that the church was strongly opposed to this pseudo-science. Ironically, alchemy was practiced almost exclusively by monks, the only ones with an adequate education in Latin to decipher the ancient texts on the subject.
It should also be noted that the narrator reveals his own complicity in the forbidden practice at the same time that he condemns it. He is a man torn. This Yeoman is so deeply involved and fascinated by alchemy that he cannot extricate himself from this secret sin. At the same time, he realizes that alchemy is probably a false and futile effort and despises himself for his persistent slavery to the slender hope that it might prove real.
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