Prologue to the Canon's Yeoman's Tale
With the story of Saint Cecilia finished, the company continues on its journey until two men overtake them. One was clad all in black but with a white gown underneath – a Canon - and his horse sweated as if it ridden for three miles. The horse that rides underneath the Canon’s Yeoman similarly sweated so much that it could hardly go further. The Canon (the first man) greets the company warmly, and explains that he had hoped to join them; his Yeoman too is extremely courteous.
The Host asks if the Canon can tell a tale, and his Yeoman responds that he knows more than enough about mirth and jollity – and adds that, if the Host knew the Canon as well as he does, he would wonder how he could do some of the things he can. The Canon is, the Yeoman says, a “passyng man” (an outstanding, [or sur-passyng] man). The Host guesses that his master is a clerk, but the Yeoman says that he is something greater, telling him that he could pave all of the ground from here to Canterbury in silver and gold.
The Host is quite amazed, but then asks why – if the Canon is so important - he cares so little for his honor, and dresses so shabbily. The Yeoman seems initially horrified at the question, but then adds in secret that the Canon believes that overdone dress-sense is a vice. The Host asks where the Canon lives, and the Yeoman tells him that it is in hiding places and the back lanes of the suburbs of a town. The Host then turns to the Yeoman himself, asking why his face is so discolored. The Yeoman explains that is because he spends his time blowing in the fire – and then reveals that the Canon and he spend most of their time doing “illusioun”, borrowing money, promising profit and then slipping away.
While the Yeoman was talking, the Canon drew near and heard everything – and chastised
him, telling him to hold his peace, and warning him that he was revealing things that should not be revealed. The Host bids the Yeoman to tell on, and when the Canon realized that the Yeoman would not be silenced, he fled. Since his lord is gone, the Yeoman concludes, he will tell the company everything he knows.
The Canon Yeoman's Tale
With this Canon, the narrator begins, I have lived for seven years, and yet I am no closer to understanding his science. The “slidynge science”, as he calls it, has made him only poor – and, so he argues, it will do to anyone who applies himself to it. The narrator then expounds in detail the processes of alchemy, with reams of scientific terminology, rehearsing an inventory of vessels made of pottery and glass, apparatus like curcurbites and alembics, and minerals like arsenic and brimstone.
The narrator then recites the four spirits (volatile substances – which are easily evaporated by heat) and the seven bodies (metals) which, in medieval alchemy, were an almost forerunner to the periodic table. No-one who practices alchemy, the narrator concludes, will profit: he will lose everything he puts into it. No matter how long he sits and learns the terms, he will never gain from it. The narrator then turns on God, saying that though God had given them hope and they had worked hard to discover the philosopher’s stone, they had had no luck.
Alchemists, the narrator continues, are liars. The narrator then tells of the reactions some of the metals produce - shattering pots, sinking into the ground, and leaping into the roof; and, he says, when a pot explodes, his master just throws away the elements (even when someone points out that some of the metal has survived) and starts again, despite the money that people have spent to buy the goods. The narrator reveals that – despite any arguments about why the pot might have shattered – the alchemists always seem to get it wrong. Finally, the narrator claims that nothing is what it themes: apples which look nice are not good, men that seem the wisest are the most foolish, and the man who seems most trustworthy is a thief.
Et sequitur pars secunda
This is the tale proper of the Canon’s Yeoman, and it tells of a Canon whose infinite falsehood and slyness cannot be written. He makes anyone he communicates with behave foolishly, and yet people ride for miles to make his acquaintance, not knowing or suspecting that he is a charlatan.
The narrator then makes a slight aside to apologise to canons in general, claiming that his tale is of one bad canon, but is not representative of all canons, just as Judas was the one traitor among the apostles.
In London, there lived a priest who sung masses for the dead – and one day he was visited by the false Canon, who begged him to lend him a certain amount of gold. The priest obliged him, and, three days later, the Canon returned to pay him back. Expressing gratitude that the Canon has paid him back on time, the priest prompts a speech from the Canon about the importance of “trouthe” and keeping one’s word. The Canon then promises to show the priest some of his “maistrie” before he goes. The narrator then comments on the falsehood and dissimulation of the Canon, before apparently addressing the audience of the pilgrimage: “This chanon was my lord, ye wolden weene?” (This canon was my master, you think?). No – this Canon, the narrator tells us, is another Canon, and, even in describing him, the Yeoman’s cheeks blush red.
The Canon sent the priest’s servant to bring quicksilver and coals, and then took a crucible and showed it to the priest, telling him to put an ounce of quicksilver in there. The priest did as he asked, and they put the crucible into the fire. Yet the false Canon took a fake coal, unseen, which had a hole in it, stopped with wax, which held silver filings. While the priest was wiping the sweat from his face, laid the coal in the furnace just above the crucible. Naturally, the wax melted and the silver filings ran out over the crucible.
Next, the Canon told the priest to bring him a chalk stone, promising to make a gold ingot of the same shape. The Canon slyly inserted a metal rod into the chalk, and, when he threw into a bowl of water, the chalk melted away leaving only the silver rod. The priest was delighted, but the Canon decided to prove himself once more. Taking another ounce of quicksilver, the Canon took up a hollow stick, filled at one end with silver filings, and, putting it above the bowl of quicksilver, made it seem as if the silver (from the stick) had been translated from the quicksilver.
Thus by various tricks and schemes, the Canon filches the money from his unsuspecting audience, and charges them huge amounts for his wisdom and his trickery. Moreover, by telling the priest that, if he (the Canon) were caught, he would be killed as a sorcerer, the Canon secured still higher prices for his services.
It is easy, the narrator concludes, for men to take the gold they have and turn it into nothing. Moreover, after cataloguing some authorities (including Arnaldus of Villanova, Hermes Trismegistus, and Plato) who wrote of the philosopher’s stone, the narrator firmly concludes that God does not want men to know how to get it – and therefore, we should “let it goon”. If God does not want it discovered, so it should remain.
The Second Nun’s Tale is hardly over, when two new characters arrive on the pilgrimage, sweatily riding up behind the pilgrimage and eventually overtaking them. The arrival of the Canon and his Yeoman is such an unusual event – particularly at this point of the Canterbury Tales – that the compiler of the Hengwrt manuscript (see “The texts of the Tales” for more information on the manuscripts) actually left it out altogether. It is an unusual construction, and one with “transformation” and “change” as its central themes - not surprisingly, then, it pins down a change already starting to occur within the fabric of the Tales as a whole.
Alchemy is the subject of the Canon Yeoman’s tale, as he calls it, the “sliding” science: and alchemy argues that all things are in a state of perpetual change, slipping from one thing to another. Coals can become the philosopher’s stone, metal melts to become a false covering for a crucifix, and thanks to the trickery of the tale’s false Canon, we are never quite sure what substance it is we are examining. Can we ever tell what it is we are looking at – can we ever know the difference between true and false?
The Canon himself is a mysterious, imposing and peripheral figure, and one who, at the very moment his falsehood appears to be rumbled, runs away from the company, and from the Tales – for good. He is almost silent, and yet his silence is not (like Chaucer’s) from shyness, or from high-status - clad in a hooded black robe, with a glimpse of white underneath, he even physically appears shrouded and covered up. Moreover, we never actually ascertain whether the Yeoman’s tale is about this Canon, or – as he claims – about another Canon. It seems hugely improbable, even to take the Yeoman’s words at face value (and the tale offers other warnings about doing that!), that the Yeoman would have this amount of knowledge about an entirely different Canon. The Canon then is a liminal figure, sitting somewhere on the border between reality and fiction, between true and false.
His Yeoman too starts his literary life as his advocate: praising the Canon as an extraordinary, wonderful, skilled man, before immediately retracting all that praise (almost without any provocation) to unmask his master as the tricky charlatan he is. Yet this casts huge doubt on the veracity of what the Yeoman actually utters - there is a big difference between his initial claim that the Canon could pave the way to Canterbury with gold, and the portrait of the Canon built up in his tale. Moreover, the sweating arrival of the pair (their horses are so wet that they can hardly move), combined with the all-black Canon and blushing-red Yeoman suggests that even the characters within the frame narrative of the Tales are undergoing some sort of alchemical transformation. There is a sliding transformation in what the characters actually say and think – but this is backed up in the visual metaphor of them being physically “slydinge.”
The central image of the Canon Yeoman’s tale is the devilish furnace at the center of their back-street workshop, and (rather like the alchemical/furnace imagery in Jonson’s The Alchemist) it is a complex metaphor: for hell, for devilish behavior – and falseness, but also for money. As the Pardoner argued in his tale, money is the root of all evil: and yet, unlike the slight comeuppance the Pardoner is served with by the Host at the end of his tale, justice is entirely absent from the denouement of the Canon Yeoman’s tale. The last furnace we saw in the Tales was Gervays’ in The Miller’s Tale – a timely reminder, perhaps, of the neat interclicking justice of Absolon’s branding Nicholas. Neither the Canon nor his Yeoman receive any sort of narrative punishment.
Yet the way that this timely reminder of the profitability of falsehood intrudes upon the Tale also points to the complex narrative problem of the Pardoner’s tale: just in the way that the Pardoner’s hollow words and empty bones could bring people to salvation, so too can the Canon’s trickery actually make him money – and, moreover, the Canon’s Yeoman can supposedly turn this experience into a moral tale for the company to listen to. Of what substance is a tale made? Can a tale acknowledge the desire for gold and the ingenuity of the misdemeanors of those who pursue gold without endorsing them? As it is reaching its conclusion, the pilgrimage is waylaid by another pertinent reminder of the tale-telling project and its questionable substance. Tales, as Chaucer will admit in the retraction, and language, are not always innocent.