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AlchemistByPeterBrueghelTheElder

The Alchemist, 16th century illustration by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

"The Canon's Yeoman's Tale" (Middle English: "The Canouns Yeemannes Tale"; also known as "The Canon's Servant's Tale") is a short story in verse from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The tale's narrator is the servant[1] of a canon[2] who also considers himself to be an alchemist. In the tale's prologue, the canon and his servant join the other pilgrims on the way to Canterbury. The servant begins to speak of his master's work but the canon, unhappy with what the servant has said, rides away. The servant goes on to say more about his master's unsuccessful attempts to find the philosopher's stone, which it was believed would change base metals into silver or gold, and tells a story about another canon (whom he says is not his master) who pretends to be an alchemist in order to defraud another priest.

Plot

Prologue

In the tale's prologue, Chaucer describes how two more men on horseback join the pilgrims on their journey to Canterbury. Chaucer realizes that one of the men is a canon from his clothes, the other is his servant.

The Canon's Yeoman - Ellesmere Chaucer

The Canon's Yeoman from an early manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. The manuscript is now in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

The Host remarks that the canon is surely intelligent and must be able to tell an interesting tale. His servant replies that his master is so clever that he can turn all of the ground from their current location to Canterbury into silver and gold. The Host aks why, if that is the case, the canon is wearing shabby old clothes. The servant explains that, so far, their attempts to transform base metals into gold have not been successful. However, they have been able to convince people that they can double any quantity of gold, in reality, a trick simply achieved by borrowing more gold. The canon overhears this and angrily rides off.

The servant anounces that he will never go back to his master again, explaining that alchemy has only caused him misery and that the substances he has been exposed to have caused him to lose all the color from his face. His master having gone, the servant promises to tell all that he can about the canon's work.

Part I

In the first part of his tale, the servant, although he is not an educated man, tries to explain everything that he knows about alchemy. He, the canon and his other servants have been attempting for seven years to uncover the secret of alchemy but the servant is now convinced that it is impossible. All that the servant has to show for his work is a face which has become completely pale and debts, due to borrowing gold to give the false impression that their attempts are producing some results, which he can never hope to repay.

The servant says that an alchemist is easily recognizable by his shabby clothes and his strong smell of sulphur. If anybody asks an alchemist why he is so poor, he will claim that he is pretending to be poor in order to avoid drawing attention to himself, claiming that people would kill him for his secrets if they knew the truth.

The first part of "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale" concludes with the servant saying that explosions are common in their workshop. He believes that the Devil may be responsible for them.

Part II

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Detail from The Alchymist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone, 1775 painting by Joseph Wright.

The second part of "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale" concerns a canon who pretends to know the secret of alchemy in order to cheat another priest out of his money. The narrator points out that the canon in his story is not his master, adding that, although wicked, the canon in the story is more intelligent than his master is. He also explains that he is not suggesting that all priests are wicked but that good and bad people can be found everywhere.

One day, a priest in London is approached by a canon who asks to borrow some money. To the priest's surprise, the canon is able to pay him back quickly. The canon explains that he was able to do so because he has mastered the secret of alchemy. He demonstrates to the priest that he is able to change mercury and copper into silver. The canon's demonstration of alchemy is merely a trick achieved by using worthless powders and sleight of hand, the canon brings concealed small quantities of silver with him and introduces them when the priest is not looking. The amazed priest asks to be taught the secret of alchemy too. The canon agrees but demands payment of forty pounds. The canon also makes the priest promise to tell nobody about it. The priest is able to borrow forty pouns but, of course, the powders which the canon gives him do not work.

"The Canon's Yeoman's Tale" concludes with the narrator saying that the secret of alchemy is something that God does not want people to know and, for that reason, they should not try to pursue it.

Footnotes

  1. The word "yeoman" could mean servant, assistant or subordinate. It could also mean any man who was not a member of the nobility and was not a slave
  2. In Chaucer's time, a canon was a priest who lived in a community of other priests, unless he had been granted special permission to live alone.

External links

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