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The Canons in The Canterbury Tales

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

''The Canterbury Tales'' includes two canons, both of whom are associated with 'The Canon's Yeoman's Tale'. These canons are depicted as untrustworthy and intentionally deceitful, which can be considered part of Chaucer's agenda of critiquing the clergy, as well as making the general point that people are not always what you would expect them to be.

The Canon Traveling with the Yeoman

Of the two canons (or Church officers who are attached to a Cathedral) in The Canterbury Tales, the only one that the reader 'meets' -- that is, who exists outside of a tale -- is the Canon who is accompanying the Yeoman. When we meet the Canon and his Yeoman, they are immediately suspicious: these two characters are the only ones who join the company just before their tale, and they are not known to anyone in the group. Moreover, they have approached the group drenched in sweat, as though they have been traveling quickly and possibly running from someone or something.

The Canon's Appearance

When we first meet the Canon and his Yeoman, we are offered this description of the former: 'A man, that clothed was in clothes black, And underneath he wore a white surplice. His hackenay (nag), which was all pomely-gris (dapple-gray) So sweated, that it wonder was to see; It seem'd as he had pricked (spurred) miles three.' The fact that he is clothed in black adds to the element of mystery that surrounds him, appearing out of nowhere to join the company. Further along in the description of the Canon, we are told that his clothes are in poor shape; the Host asks the Yeoman why the Canon is not able to buy 'better clothes'. This detail, taken alongside the sorry description of his horse, lets us know that the Canon has little money. The reason behind his lack of funds is given in the story that follows.

The First Canon's Character

The Yeoman starts to describe the activities of the Canon, and 'when this Canon saw it would not be But his Yeoman would tell his privity (secrets) He fled away for very sorry and shame.' Therefore, even before the tale begins, the reader can see that the Canon has much to be embarrassed about, and that his tale will probably include some shameful details. The Yeoman proceeds to tell the story of his life with the Canon, which largely consists of failed experiments in alchemy, the practice of transforming base metals into precious ones. We learn that the Canon has never succeeded in these experiments, and in fact has caused great financial loss and destruction in his attempts.

The Second Canon

The second Canon makes his appearance in the second story within 'The Canon's Yeoman's Tale'. The Yeoman has just told the story of his experiences with his Canon, and now he has moved on to tell a second story about a different canon, whom we learn is worse than the previous. The Yeoman tells us that 'Too simple is my tongue to pronounce, As minister of my wit, the doubleness Of this canon, root of all cursedness. He friendly seem'd to them that knew him not; But he was fiendly, both in work and thought.' Following this description, the Yeoman describes specifically the way that this canon tricked his clients, including a priest, into paying him large sums of money for alchemy transformations which were nothing more than trickery.

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