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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canon’s Yeoman’s Summary

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Last Updated November 10, 2022.

The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue

As the company rides along, two men come up to them. Their horses have been ridden hard. One of the men wears black clothing and a white surplice, and Chaucer judges him to be a canon. The other is a yeoman, his companion. They have been trying to catch up with the pilgrims and join their fellowship.

The Yeoman says that his lord is a remarkable man who practices alchemy. The Host is impressed but also wonders why the Canon is dressed so poorly if he can change metal into gold. The Yeoman says, in full confidentiality, that his lord is foolish and ignorant. He has helped him in his alchemy for a long time, and the Canon has never been successful yet. They blunder constantly in their efforts.

The Canon overhears the Yeoman and tells him to be quiet, but the Host encourages him to speak. The Canon flees as the Yeoman continues to reveal his secrets. The Yeoman will explain alchemy in more detail in his tale, he assures.

The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale

The Yeoman has been with the Canon for seven years, but the latter’s alchemy has never worked once. The Yeoman is poor and pale due to the Canon’s failed efforts, but the Canon continues to try to trick others into believing that alchemy works.

The Yeoman offers a summary of the alchemical method, listing the tools and materials used and talking about how alchemists try to turn base metals into gold even though they never succeed. This explanation turns technical as he lists the seven metals and four spirits alchemists use, but it is all foolishness according to the Yeoman. Next, he speaks of the philosopher’s stone, the Elixir, that is the goal of alchemy, a goal that he has never seen. Try as they might, they have not made this stone, nor has anyone else. Alchemists merely end up poor and stinky, and they always argue and make excuses about why their efforts do not succeed.

Now that the Canon has gone, the Yeoman can openly say all this and also tell his tale. A canon who is an alchemist, he narrates, likes to deceive people. The Yeoman assures his hearers that he is not trying to denounce all canons, just the corrupt ones. The canon in his tale meets a priest in London and deceives him into thinking that alchemy really works. His trick is to slip little pieces of silver into the crucible so that the priest thinks that the mercury or copper is actually being turned into silver. When the procedure “works” three times, the priest is ready to pay a large sum for the alchemist canon’s recipe.

The priest hands over the money after he borrows it from the nobles, but he can never get the recipe to work again. He has been led to destruction. The Yeoman warns his hearers never to try alchemy or be deceived by alchemists.

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