The Yeoman's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

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.

A late addition to Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales,'' the yeoman's tale is a confessional as well as a cautionary tale regarding the works of alchemists and how this obsession will bring a man to ruin, both morally and economically.

A Secret Revealed, Accidentally

Imagine: A canon and his yeoman arrive on horseback. Upon arrival, their horses are tired and frothing from the hard journey. The yeoman and canon are poorly dressed, yet the host of the travelers greets these new guests and asks after their health. The yeoman returns the greeting and mentions that the canon 'loves to have a gossip.' This comment inspires the host to ask if the canon would be willing to tell a tale and bring cheer to everyone.

The yeoman, servant to the canon (a member of the clergy) indicates that the canon has had many adventures: 'you gentlemen would find right difficult/To carry out.' This piques the curiosity of the host, who encourages the yeoman to reveal more about his master. The yeoman inadvertently shares that the canon is an alchemist, which angers the canon and forces him to leave discreetly. With his departure, the yeoman confesses that he is ashamed and destitute because of his role in this obsessive quest, one he intends to abandon, but only after he tells his tale.


Biography of an Alchemist

The yeoman describes his seven years as a servant to the canon and how it has affected him. His clothes stink. He has become destitute, since all his money and time are spent assisting the canon on his quest for gold. Any precious metals they do obtain are done so through deceptive means and used in their con jobs. All of this to try and find the philosopher's stone, the magic stone that will change any metal to gold.

The toll on the yeoman is not only economical but also physical. He mentions that 'where my colour was once fresh and red,/Now it is wan, and of a leaden hue.' Not only is his physical appearance altered from this work, but when things go wrong in the laboratory, they all 'feel ill done by and begin to squabble.' There is the mental anguish and stress of encountering nothing but failure. The yeoman leaves this biographical insight and tells a tale of the deceitful nature of the alchemists.

How to Swindle a Priest

Having provided a brief glimpse into the life of an alchemist, the yeoman begins his tale about a different canon who swindled a priest. The canon begins his con by borrowing money from a priest and returning it in full within three days. This establishes trust between the canon and the priest. The canon further emphasizes his honor when he states how 'in my make-up there's no deceit whatever.' He then subtly mentions his occupation.

The canon elaborates how one can create silver from mercury, a silver, liquid metal. He offers an example, but it is all smoke and flash. In this first example, the canon has a piece of coal, inside of which is a sliver of silver. The coal is sealed with wax, so when he throws it on the fire, the wax melts and the silver is found amidst the ashes. The canon does this two more times, once with a piece of chalk and then with a stick. A sliver of metal is inside each hollowed-out object, which is sealed shut with wax. As before, when the wax melts, the metal is found at the bottom of the container. He now begins to reel the priest in.

The priest is fascinated by this process and wants to know more. He tells the canon to let him in on the secret. The canon hems and haws a bit, but tells him that for forty pounds, he will reveal all. If they had not established such a relationship, the cost would have been greater. The canon emphasizes that everything he reveals must remain secret. No one can know, for it would be great peril upon the canon's life. Upon receiving the money, the canon quickly departs. The priest receives no receipt of payment and eventually learns that the process was nothing more than a trick.

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