The Yeoman in The Canterbury Tales: Description & Characterization

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  • 0:03 The Yeoman Introduces Himself
  • 1:09 The Result of an…
  • 2:08 Guilt
  • 3:19 Road to Recovery
  • 4:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

The Yeoman joins the caravan to Canterbury late in Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales.'' The only description of this character comes from the Yeoman himself, and it proves to be more of a confessional as he tells all his sins.

The Yeoman Introduces himself

In Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the Yeoman is an unhappy person. He is a young man who serves as an assistant in a job he does not like. His work has ruined him physically and financially. He knows that if he doesn't leave it soon, it will cause him further harm. He assists an alchemist in a search for the philosopher's stone, an item that supposedly changes any metal into precious metal. After seven years, the Yeoman has learned that this quest is a false dream, and it has ruined too many people. So, while among the travelers to Canterbury, the Yeoman reveals their secrets.

The Yeoman notices the travelers leaving 'very early in the morning from (this) inn', so he and his master ride their horses hard to catch up. When they finally came up to the group, the Yeoman begins to talk about his master with the host of the group. During their conversation, the Yeoman reveals that he considers his master 'an idiot and an ass.' These words reveal how miserable the Yeoman must be if he is willing to disparage his master in such a way before strangers. He holds himself in the same regard as his master.

The Result of an Unfortunate Decision

The minute the Yeoman goes to work for the alchemist, his life begins to change for the worse. The color and smell of the Yeoman's face has become unnatural. Instead of 'fresh and red/Now it is wan, and of a leaden hue'. His skin color has been altered due to exposure to a great number of chemicals, and 'blowing up the fire'. The dramatic changes to his appearance caused by this work also affect his future prospects.

What was once a nice, quiet, happy life has taken a turn for the worse. The Yeoman explains that seven years prior, he had nice clothes and wasn't hungry, and his skin had a healthy glow to it. Now, his skin has become ashen, and his clothes are worn and heavily mended. Worse is the burden he must carry that he is 'so deep in debt…I'll never pay it back.' This is the crux of the Yeoman's tale: the guilt that he carries around with him regarding his work. He tells his tale about alchemy not only to relieve some of the guilt, but to help warn others so they don't fall prey to these criminal schemes.


The life of an alchemist involves more than laboratory work. An alchemist also need money, since their job is searching for fool's gold. As the Yeoman reveals, there is only one way to make money besides borrowing: con games. When the Yeoman begins to reveal these secrets, his service to the alchemist is over, yet he continues with his revelation anyway. He needs to unburden these sins from his soul. He needs to prevent others from falling prey, and does so through his story, which also serves as a confession.

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