Chaucer: The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE CANON’S YEOMAN’S TALE
We move from Cecilia’s holiness to the infernal, but also from empirical evidence to hope, authority to experience, library to lab knowledge. So the stories of the G Group (or Fragment VIII) seem unrelated, but there is a unity even in imagery here (fire, smells) and of theme (busyness, converting, “multiplying”!). Obviously there’s a break in the pattern, an intrusion into the pilgrimage (with an increase in the dramatic side), but there’s also an inclusiveness finally — chaos is also part of the order.
“As Chaucer approached the end of his literary activity his interests apparently became increasingly dramatic, a tendency that is itself dramatized by this disruption of the symmetry of the original plan” (Donaldson 1109). The drama is also intense because of the urgency of the Canon’s Yeoman’s moment of life-crisis. And we’re only five miles from Canterbury — at “Boghton under Blee” (556).
The narrator’s observations are somewhat “scientific” as he introduces a character who overtakes the pilgrims with such speed that the horse sweat “wonder was to see” (560). He even makes careful deductions (570f). The physical itself has become interesting, engaging, and dynamic:
But it was joye for to seen hym swete!
His forheed dropped as a stillatorie
Were ful of plantayne and of paritorie.
This Canon courteously ingratiates himself, as does his Yeoman who claims to have seen the pilgrimage ride forth and to have reported this “daliaunce” (592) to the Canon — although it’s called a “warnyng” (593; cf. 590). The Host asks the Yeoman if the Canon could tell a tale or two, and the Yeoman sings the Canon’s praises. Is the Canon’s Yeoman intentionally “laying the foundation for some fraud to be practiced upon the pilgrims” (Donaldon 1109)? Are the two of them on the lam? The sweating and overtaking explanation doesn’t make any sense. Or has there been a falling out and the Yeoman is being ironic? He claims, regarding the road to Canterbury, that the Canon “koude al clene turnen up-so-doun, / And pave it al of silver and of gold” (625-626). The Host is, or feigns to be, astonished. Since this Canon is so extraordinary, why is he so slovenly, or “sluttish” (636)?
Perhaps the Host catches the Yeoman off guard for a moment, but he parries the question. The Host asks where they live, and the Yeoman admits it’s a slum and thieves’ den. On the third try, the Host hits home: “lat me talke to the. / Why artow so discoloured of thy face?” (663-664). Here the Yeoman explains that he blows the fire in the attempts to “multiplie” or transmute base metals to silver or gold (669), and he expresses dispair of ever succeeding in the endeavor, blaming “science” for being “so fer us biforn, / We mowen nat, although we hadden it sworn, / It overtake, it slit awey so faste” (680-682). The Canon’s Yeoman’s facial discoloration “is the only genuine transmutation that years of alchemical experimentation have been able to effect” (Donaldson 1110).
We’re in the real, acoustically imperfect world now, for the Canon, whom we now hear is suspicious, even paranoid, draws nearer to hear what the Yeoman is saying (685f). He tells the Yeoman to shut up: “Thou sclaundrest me heere in this compaignye, / And eek discoverest that thou sholdest hyde” (695-696). As the Host did with the Friar, he offers protection to the Yeoman. The Canon realizes that the Yeoman will make revelations, so he “fledde awey for verray sorwe and shame” (702). Is there symbolic significance to leaving the pilgrimage?
The Yeoman immediately vows to tell all — “I wol nat spare” (718) — and curses the Canon (but not the science of alchemy for his own addiction). This turnabout happens why? It’s a key question. Did the Host spark something (a transformation)? Awareness?
The Yeoman “quites” the Canon on the spot. All is dramatic monologue, although technically one could call the genre “process-analysis,” like a “conie-skinning pamphlet” (or, “How to Con a Sucker”) — it’s a Renaissance genre and this is the only medieval instance.
William Shuchurch was a canon of King’s Chapel at Windsor, teaching the skills of counterfeiting gold in 1374. Chaucer in 1390 was repairing King’s Chapel as Clerk of the Works. Did Chaucer lose money? The phrase “Before I go” (970) and the direct address (992-1011) seem inappropriate, so was there another purpose originally for composition? How much does Chaucer know and/or respect this pseudoscience? Catalogues of pharmacopoeia show the Yeoman, and therefore Chaucer, to be a virtuoso. There was Chaucerian zeal for the materials of the Physician in the General Prologue and for the astrological instruments in the Franklin’s Tale. But whether Chaucer’s “knowledge of alchemy came from the laboratory or the library has not been determined” (Donaldson 1110).
The Canon’s now ex-Yeoman reflects on his own transformation over the past seven years, nostalgically recalling his former self and what “That slidynge science” (732) has done to him. He sees interest in alchemy as an addiction and a contagion. He starts to condemn the elitist lingo of the pseudo-science, but enthusiasm seems to take hold of him as he catalogues alchemical inventory (making for clunky but impressive poetry). The inanimate “stuff” is animated at least by his imagination. The Canon’s Yeoman (or Chaucer through him) does give the “occultis occultorum” — the secret of secrets — the alchemical formula (819ff)! The problem, of course, is that no one knows how to translate it.
It’s obvious the Canon’s Yeoman is still obsessed, so the “quiting” backfires somewhat. The Yeoman’s disgust and hope are in tension (Donaldson 1111). It seems to be the investment not of his money and time but of his own idealism that annoys the Canon’s Yeoman most. He describes the typical experiment, ending in some fluke such as “The pot tobreketh, and farewel, al is go!” (907), and everyone quibbling about the cause for the disaster. If only all these factors were adjusted…. There’s still hope among the ruins, and the failure is blamed on peripheral weaknesses in the experiment, despite the Yeoman’s deeper pessimism.
The problem of unity arises. Is Chaucer developing a two-part pattern of confessional tales? In this case the second part specifically concerns the con-art of alchemy.
Ther is a chanoun of religioun
Amonges us, wolde infecte al a toun….
Is this another Canon? The same one? Perhaps this part of the tale was composed separately, before the Canon’s Yeoman was ever conceived. But the anger is directed at the Canon, not alchemy, again.
A London priest is introduced, and we may first ask if there is any indication that this guy deserves to be conned. Part of the con is gaining faith, or confidence, as the Yeoman describes. As a narrator, the Canon’s Yeoman has gotten a grip. He objectifies now, but there’s an increasing violence in his apostrophes, starting with “O sely preest!” (1076).
The tricks themselves degenerate. The first (1102ff) is involved and intricate, with the priest blowing on the fire just as the Yeoman had had to do for years. The priest gets addicted, and the second trick (1249ff), somewhat disappointingly, is just a variation on the first: same trick, different technique involving a stick. The third is just sleight-of-hand, and the Yeoman narrator seems outraged at the commonness of the con — that there’s no magic involved, no secret knowledge. But notice this passage:
This sotted preest, who was gladder than he?
Was nevere brid gladder agayn the day,
Ne nyghtyngale, in the sesoun of May,
Was nevere noon that luste bet to synge;
Ne lady lustier in carolynge,
Or for to speke of love and wommanhede,
Ne knyght in armes to doon an hardy dede,
To stonden in grace of his lady deere,
Than hadde this preest this soory craft to leere.
The Yeoman is making a bitter point about the priest’s foolishness, but he’s using the most attractive and enchanting similes for it, unintentionally expressing his own zeal. He’s describing science as love!
The priest is ready now to purchase the recipe. But of course alchemy is a perpetual struggle really. So the Yeoman has had his revenge by revealing the tricks of the trade and making the pilgrims cautious. But the Yeoman continues his monologue, pointing out a new problem with the old Chaucerian issue of old authorities (1428ff). He provides the alchemical formula (1435ff), but again we don’t know how to translate or interpret it. The unknown is explained with something more unknkown (1457), and the Yeoman ends his narration dismissing the possibility of achieving the philosopher’s stone. Does he intend to follow his own advice? Will he let go? He still believes that the “stone” exists, but that knowledge about it has been hidden and lost. “He is like the confirmed gambler who, while aware that he can never really win, even suspecting that the whole game is crooked in the first place, still hopes someday to make a fortune” (Donaldson 1111).
The tale has been called “unconsciously prophetic in warning against an incipient dehumanizing technology.” For the Middle Ages, all knowledge is essentially theological, so how can a dissevered science be created? How can proto-scientists exist self-sufficiently? The Canon’s Yeoman retreats to religion for a traditionally pious ending, but he has been to the brink.