The Canon Yeoman’s Tale is one of Chaucer’s strangest and most surprising texts
The Canon Yeoman’s Tale is one of Chaucer’s strangest and most surprising texts. It pulls together a moral narrative with detailed recitations of alchemical science, warning against duplicity with exact directions on how to deceive. The Prologue and two sections of the Tale move fluidly between a specificity of identities (this Canon, this Yeoman) to a depersonalized generalization (other canons, other assistants) as they tell story after story of how those who aspire to the science of alchemy will suffer the consequences of their unnatural ambition and sinful avarice. In this chapter, I treat the Canon Yeoman’s Tale as a broad critique of new scientific ways of knowing and of creating in order to tease out the moral boundaries he draws between intellectual innovation and human perversity.
In “The Canterbury Tales,” we are introduced to one of Chaucer’s greatest concerns about the human condition, a recurring theme in many of the stories we have read. Chaucer is very concerned about a person’s pureness of heart–he believes that whatever a person professes to be, that person should be, regardless if that person is a knight, peasant, or priest. In Chaucer’s time, the Church served as the social, religious, and moral center of English society, employing roughly a third of all English citizens; in such a large group of people, there were bound to be a few unsaintly persons who were not the godly people they professed to be. The Canon is one of them. In “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale,” we find a canon of the church who slanders the name of God by cheating a priest and many others.He does the opposite of what he is supposed to do by profession, and this clearly angers Chaucer. We also discover that the canon is an unredeemable soul; like the Pardoner, the canon knows his sin and enjoys sinning. His entire life has been consumed by alchemy, and he more greatly enjoys practicing this useless art and cheating others with it than he enjoys carrying out the godly responsibilities of a canon. Because he wants to criticize, but not offend, the Church, Chaucer tries to hide the seriousness of the tale by having the Yeoman tell it. He chooses the lower-status Yeoman to be the narrator so the Church will hopefully laugh at the Yeoman’s story before it begins to take offense by it. The Yeoman’s foolish indecisiveness at the beginning of the tale really helps Chaucer to quietly criticize the Church.
The “Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” is a great example of Chaucer’s concern for those who are not “honest men of good profession,” regardless of what their profession may be. Chaucer implies the question, “If a person is not true to others, then how can he be true to himself?” More importantly, how can he be true to God? Of all people, the Canon should be a Canon because he professes to be a worker of God, and by Chaucer’s rule, he has to be a godly person