The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canon's Yeoman’s Tale Summary

As the Second Nun’s Tale ends, the company is joined by two men. One is a Canon (a priest who lived communally with others and followed rules set down by St. Augustine), and the other is the Canon’s yeoman (servant). Both of them are riding sweating, tired horses, and both are very polite.

The Host asks if the Canon wants to tell a tale, and the Yeoman volunteers to tell one, saying that if the Host knew the Canon as well as the Yeoman does, he would be astonished at the Canon’s various abilities. The Host asks why, if the Canon is so important, he is dressed so shabbily – the Canon is wearing the black robe with white gown common to his position. The Yeoman says that the Canon thinks overdressing is a sin. He also lets slip that he and the Canon spend most of their time doing “illusioun” – in other words, borrowing money and then disappearing rather than repaying it. The Canon initially tells the Yeoman to shut up, then flees when he realizes the Yeoman won’t keep their secrets. The Yeoman decides that since the Canon is gone, he will tell the company everything he knows.

In the first part of his Tale, the Yeoman describes his life with the Canon. The Yeoman says he has lived with the Canon for seven years, during which time he has attempted to learn alchemy, the processes of which he describes in some length. The Yeoman recites the four spirits (volatile substances) and seven bodies (metals) that form alchemy’s “periodic table.”

Then, the Yeoman notes, anyone who practices alchemy will lose everything he has. He says that although God has given him and the Canon hope and perseverance, they have had no luck in discovering the philosopher’s stone. He concludes that alchemists are liars and describes some of the results of his alchemical experiments: shattering pots, explosions, and corrosive compounds that eat through the bottoms of vessels. When the Canon would fail at an experiment, the Yeoman says, he would throw everything out and start over, even if some of the equipment or materials were salvageable and expensive.

Finally, the Yeoman states that nothing is what it seems to be: nice-looking apples are rotten, seemingly-wise men are fools, and men who seem trustworthy are thieves.

In the second part of his tale, the Yeoman tells of a canon so sly and false he cannot be described in writing. He can make anyone he talks to behave foolishly, yet he is so charismatic that people will ride for miles to be in his presence, not realizing he is making fools of them. (The Yeoman apologizes, saying he is not describing all canons, just this one – just as not all the apostles were traitors, but only Judas.)

One day, the canon visits a London priest who sings masses for the dead and asks him to lend the canon some gold. The priest agrees, and three days later, the canon returns to pay him back. The canon then offers to show the priest his “maistrie” – in essence, a magic trick. (The Yeoman explains that this canon was not his Canon, but another one who was so bad it makes the Yeoman blush to describe him.)

The canon puts a small amount of quicksilver (mercury) in a crucible and puts it on some hot coals. When the priest isn’t looking, however, he sneaks a fake wax coal full of silver into the fire. When the fake coal melts, the silver spills over the top of the crucible, making it look like the canon has changed the quicksilver into real silver. Then, the canon pretends to make gold out of chalk by sneaking a metal bar into a piece of chalk and then placing the chalk in water. The canon then tells the priest that if he were caught, he would be killed as a sorcerer. This so impresses the priest that he pays the canon even more than he ordinarily would have.

The Yeoman ends by pointing out how easy it is to lose money once you have it. He also cites some authorities who have written about the philosopher’s stone, but concludes that if God wanted man to have such a thing, man would have discovered it by now.