The Yeoman's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Moral & Analysis

Instructor: Catherine Smith

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

'The Yeoman's Tale' covers two separate stories about alchemists, each of which drives home the point that alchemy does not actually work, and that people and things are not always what they appear to be.

Plot Summary

'The Yeoman's Tale' is told by the Yeoman who joins the pilgrimage just at the end of 'The Second Nun's Tale', and it is told in two parts: the first is about the Canon, an alchemist travelling with the Yeoman, someone who can transform base metals into precious metals. The second part of the tale is about a different alchemist, who is not a character in The Canterbury Tales. In the first of the two stories, the Yeoman details briefly what materials are used in alchemy and goes on to explain that it is not possible to succeed in alchemy -- he cites several experiments that have ended in disaster and destruction. The second part of the tale focuses on a different alchemist who is worse than the previous -- he uses trickery to deceive a priest into believing that he has transformed cheap substances into expensive metals. The Yeoman ends his tale by discussing the philosopher's stone, a mythical object that can turn substances to gold and can offer its users immortality. He suggests that God does not want man to have such an item, which is why it has not been found.

Moral of 'The Yeoman's Tale'

The Yeoman tells us quite plainly that the moral of his story is that things are not always what they seem. He says at the end of the first story, 'But all thing, which that shineth as the gold, It is not gold, as I have heard it told; Nor every apple that is fair at eye, It is not good, what so men clap (assert) or cry.' This comment is made in between the two stories of the alchemists, who are not actually able to change cheap metals into valuable ones and take advantage of people who believe that they can. The moral also generally refers to the Canon and the Yeoman themselves who might have seemed like trustworthy characters when they first approached the pilgrimage, but appear less so as their story is told.

Second Moral

Since the second of the two tales involves a priest losing his money to the deceitful alchemist, there is also the second lesson that it is easy to be separated from one's money. This lesson can also be seen in the first story, where the alchemist himself loses his wealth through his expensive and fruitless experiments.

Relationship to Previous Tale

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer often intends that a story be understood in relation to the one that came before it. In this case, the previous story is 'The Second Nun's Tale', which is about the holy life of Saint Cecilia and her martyrdom. It is possible that the moral of 'things are not always as they seem' is intended to raise questions about the veracity of the previous story; for example, was Cecilia's life as pure and her martyrdom as miraculous, as the Second Nun suggests in her story? Indeed, the moral of 'The Yeoman's Tale' suggests that we should ask how much any of the stories should be taken at face value.

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