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The Canterbury Tales | The Canon's Yeoman's Prologue and Tale | Summary

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Summary

After the Second Nun's tale, two strangers approach the company on very tired horses—a Canon and his Yeoman. (A canon is a member of the Roman Catholic clergy who lives communally with his brethren, similar to a monk.) Harry Bailey asks them to tell a tale, and the Yeoman reveals that the Canon is a "joker" who is "capable and sly." As Harry Bailey questions the Yeoman further, it becomes clear that the Canon is an alchemist. The Canon, overhearing his Yeoman give away so many secrets, flees. The Yeoman then begins a story that is based on his own experiences.

Part I

The Yeoman shares how hard his work for the Canon has been and how it has taken a toll on his health and happiness. In addition, he has so much debt he can never hope to repay it. He lists many of the chemicals and preparations the Canon's workers would make—and the dangers they faced—but says that all their expensive efforts have failed.

Part II

The Canon—who is also an alchemist "skilled in trickery"—borrows money from a priest and, in return for the favor, offers to show the priest a "miracle." The priest enthusiastically accepts. Of course, the miracle is a trick, in which a "magic" powder appears to turn mercury, a silver-colored liquid, into real silver. The Canon has the priest place mercury and the powder in a crucible (a pot for melting metal). Then through some sleight of hand, the Canon simply adds real silver to the pot while the mercury boils off. The priest buys the secret powder for a high price. Needless to say, the powder never works for the priest, and the Canon disappears.

The Canon's Yeoman ends his story by warning the company not to become involved in alchemy because clearly God dislikes the practice.

Analysis

Alchemy was a practice forbidden by the church yet practiced primarily by its employees because they knew Latin and therefore could read alchemical texts. Alchemists were supposedly trying to achieve transmutation—the conversion of one chemical into another, with the ultimate goal of transforming less valuable substances into gold. They sought a mysterious substance called Philosopher's Stone that could transform common metals into gold. However, many alchemists were frauds and con men who used their knowledge of chemicals to create the impression that they were performing miracles.

As in other tales, trickery plays an important role in the plot of this story. However, the tricks played upon the priest in Part II tend to overshadow the deception at play in Part I. While the priest in Part II is deceived by the tricky alchemist, the alchemist and his workers of Part I seem equally deceived by alchemy's false promise of unlimited riches. The alchemist and his employees are driven to continue despite financial ruin and risk of bodily harm and despite never having any success. The situational irony that the compulsive pursuit of riches actually leads to financial ruin is not lost on the Yeoman. He ruefully admits that the only transmutations alchemy seems to achieve is transmuting wealth to poverty: "it's easy to be taught/How to transmute and bring your wealth to naught." He then adds that alchemy also creates misery: "one's joy can be transmuted to despair."

In stark contrast with the Second Nun's Tale, in which the sights and scents of Heaven are prominent, the sights and sounds of Hell fill this tale. The Yeoman says that alchemists have a "pungent brimstone smell" and describes the hot fires and dangerous explosions that fill their working hours. He also observes that "although the devil didn't show his face/I'm pretty sure he was about the place." The moral of the Canon's Yeoman's Tale is that practicing alchemy will lead a person to Hell.

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