The canterbury tales, p.126
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.126

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  H. G. Richardson (Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th series, 5 (1922), 28–51, at pp. 38–40) drew attention to a case in the Plea Rolls for January 1375, in which a chaplain called William de Brumley confessed to having made four counterfeit pieces of gold, following the teaching given to him by William Shuchirch, canon of St George’s chapel at Windsor. Hartung (p. 120) concurs with Manly’s suggestion (New Light, pp. 244–8; Manly and Rickert IV, 521) that the apology to ‘worshipful chanones religious’ at CY 992 suggests that the canons of St George’s (where Chaucer, in his capacity as Clerk of the King’s Works, was overseeing repairs in the spring of 1390; see Life-Records, pp. 408–10), or the canons of one of the other collegiate churches in the London area, might have been the original audience of Part Two. However, there are similar direct addresses in CT (see, for example, Phys 72 ff., NP 3325 ff.), and the apology to a social group which might consider itself slandered by a narrative or remark, with a claim that it is only the guilty members of the group who are aimed at, is a conventional literary motif; there is no need therefore to interpret the address to canons as delivered in the flesh rather than on the page.

  These problems by no means exhaust the difficulties of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale. There is, for example, the question of whether the Canon of the Prologue and Part One is to be identified with the swindling canon of Part Two, even though the Yeoman firmly asserts that he is not (CY 1088–90). R. G. Baldwin’s attempt to argue that they are identical is over-elaborate and generally unconvincing (JEGP, 61 (1962), 232–43), but he is right to point out (p. 234) that if the two canons are not identical, we have no warrant for thinking the first one to be guilty of the trickery of the second, and therefore cannot easily explain why the first one suddenly departs when his Yeoman begins to reveal his lack of success. The Yeoman’s own sudden switch from boasting about his master’s powers to withering scorn is equally hard to explain; he could have answered the Host’s question as to why the Canon is so poorly dressed if he commands such wealth in the conventional way, by explaining that he disguises his riches in order to avoid exciting envy and enmity (cf. CY 1370–74). Another puzzle is why the Canon and his Yeoman needed to ride five miles at a gallop before overtaking a company, presumably travelling at walking-pace, which they had seen leaving the hostelry where they had all spent the night.

  These puzzles suggest that the autobiographical mode in the Prologue and Tale is adopted not so much from an interest in personal psychology or history, as from a desire to give the paraphernalia and jargon of alchemy the immediacy of first-hand narration. If the General Prologue portraits immerse the reader in a series of specialized worlds founded in work (see Headnote to GP), the Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale conjure up a specialized world par excellence, with its own discourse, tools, materials and beliefs. As with the clerk’s removal of the rocks in the Franklin’s Tale, it is hard to tell where advanced technology turns into magical sleight of hand.

  556 ‘Blean Wood(s), forming the NE part of an extensive forest belt which once covered the greater part of Kent, formerly commenced at Boughton (Boghtoun) and reached almost to the walls of Canterbury; it still crosses W of Canterbury through parts of Harbledown’ (Magoun, p. 32). Boughton is about five miles from Canterbury, and also somewhat less than five miles down the road from Ospring, a favourite overnight stop on the way to Canterbury (ibid., pp. 34, 119).

  558 hadde a whit surplis*] wered a surplis El. The main point of mentioning the surplice seems to be identifying it as white, and thus indicating that its wearer is a canon (see n. to CY 573).

  562 yeman: The term here simply denotes a personal servant; see L. Patterson, SAC, 15 (1993), 25–57, at p. 30, n. 14, and cf. n. to GP 101.

  564–5 These lines are omitted in El (through eyeskip to the initial A of line 566?), but they seem authentically Chaucerian.

  573 som chanoun: Canons were (and are) of two kinds: (1) secular canons, who (as their name implies) lived ‘in the world’ (‘in saeculo’), serving a cathedral or collegiate church by singing the church services and looking after its upkeep; (2) regular canons, who (again, as their name implies) lived a communal life in conformity with the Rule of St Augustine (tr. R. Canning, with Introduction and Commentary by T. J. van Bavel (London, 1984)), or one of its derivatives. This Canon’s clothing shows that he is a regular or Augustinian canon; he wears a black cloak and hood over a white surplice (under which is a black cassock, the ‘oversloppe’ of line 633), as was prescribed for canons going outside their convent (see M. P. Hamilton, Speculum, 16 (1941), 103–8); hence they were also often called ‘black canons’. Like monks and friars, regular canons recited the eight daily services that make up the Divine Office (see n. to Mil 3655), but they differed from monks in that they were not vowed to strict claustration (see n. to GP 165), and from friars in that they were not vowed to mendicancy (see n. to GP 209).

  611–12 The suspicion that there is a double meaning here (the Yeoman is willing to bet all he possesses because he in fact possesses nothing) is confirmed by lines 733–6, where he confesses himself destitute and in debt.

  645–6 Proverbial; see Whiting E199, 200, 203 and Walther 19859.

  669 multiplye: This is the term used to describe the final stage of the alchemist’s work, the transmutation of metals, but it is also used of other alchemical processes, and ‘some looseness of application can be detected in every period’ (J. E. Grennen, Classica et Mediaevalia, 26 (1965), 306–33, at p. 321). ‘To say that the word “multiply” is an important word in alchemy is to understate the case. There is hardly a treatise in which it does not figure prominently’ (ibid., p. 320). See further Headnote to CYT.

  688–9 Catoun: The reference is to the Latin proverb-collection known as the Distichs of Cato (see n. to Mil 3227), I.17: ‘Ne cures, si quis tacito sermone loquatur: | conscius ipse sibi de se putat omnia dici’ (‘Pay no attention if someone speaks sotto voce; a self-conscious person thinks that he is the subject of every conversation’).

  704 Riverside puts a full stop at the end of this line, but it seems logically connected with 705.


  The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale falls into two parts, designated ‘prima pars’ and ‘pars secunda’ by a rubric in El following line 972. It is not until Part Two that the narrative proper, the story of the tricks played by the swindling canon on the gullible priest, is reached. There are no known sources or close analogues for these particular instances of deception, though there are similar stories of alchemical confidencetricks; see SA, pp. 688, 694–5, and SA2 II.

  Part One is not a tale at all but a long and confused description of alchemical practice. Alchemy in the Middle Ages was a serious pursuit, which ‘can be seen as the Prelude to Chemistry and hence to modern science as a whole’; see Patterson, SAC, 15 (1993), p. 48. Prelude to Chemistry: An Outline of Alchemy is the title of a book by J. Read, 2nd edn (Cambridge, MA, 1966). The practical experiments that alchemists carried out contributed to knowledge of chemical elements and the possibilities for their modification; unfortunately, however, the theories on which alchemy was based were fundamentally mistaken, and the descriptions of its procedures in alchemical treatises were often deliberately mystifying.

  Patterson (pp. 42–3) describes the principles of alchemy as follows:

  The alchemical project relies on a radically monist view of the world. According to The Visions of Zosimus, a founding text of Western alchemy composed probably about 300 B.C.E., all natural generation, including animal, vegetable, and mineral, proceeds from ‘one single nature reacting on itself, a single species.’ … This monism was underwritten by a physics derived from Aristotle and then modified by Islamic science. For Aristotle, metals, like all other substances, consist of a prime matter ‘formed’ according to the proportion in which the four basic qualities – heat, cold, dryness, and moistness – are mixed. Minerals and metals are created through the interaction of the sun with water and with earth, i
nteractions that generate either vaporous exhalations, which are cold and moist, or smoky exhalations, which are hot and dry. When shut in and compressed, these exhalations form all minerals and metals. Islamic alchemists subsequently identified the vaporous exhalation with sulfur, which was cold and moist, and the smoky exhalation with mercury, which was correspondingly hot and dry. Since these two ‘spirits’ were the constituent elements of all metals, transmutation could be accomplished by altering the proportions between them in any individual substance. Hence, as Albertus Magnus said, since ‘nature could transform sulphur and mercury into metals by the aid of the sun and stars, it seemed reasonable that the alchemist should be able to do the same in his vessel.’ Just as the human body becomes ill from an imbalance of the four elements (the humors), so does a metal: it can be ‘cured’ (that is, promoted from base to pure) by the addition of a medicine – an elixir – that readjusts the proportions of the four elements. In this sense the alchemist does not violate but perfects nature … And the elixir that accomplishes this completion of nature’s work is the philosopher’s stone: it embodies the divine pneuma or spiritus from which the world is constituted, the quintessence that [a] late-medieval English text called ‘Gods Prevetie’.

  Compare Jean de Meun’s account of alchemy in the Romance of the Rose, 16083–118 (tr. Horgan, pp. 248–9), which is prefaced by a reference to the transformation of fern ashes into glass (cited at Sq 253–5):

  The same could be done with metals, if one could manage to do it, by removing impurities from the impure metals and refining them into a pure state; they are of similar complexion and have great affinities with one another, for they are all of one substance, no matter how Nature may modify it. Books tell us that they were all born in different ways, in mines down in the earth, from sulphur and quicksilver. And so, if anyone had the skill to prepare spirits in such a way that they had the power to enter bodies but were unable to fly away once they had entered, provided they found the bodies to be well purified, and provided the sulphur, whether white or red, did not burn, a man with such knowledge might do what he liked with metals. The masters of alchemy produce pure gold from pure silver, using things that cost almost nothing to add weight and colour to them; with pure gold they make precious stones, bright and desirable, and they strip other metals of their forms, using potions that are white and penetrating and pure to transform them into pure silver. But such things will never be achieved by those who indulge in trickery: even if they labour all their lives, they will never catch up with Nature.

  Gower also gives a brief but accurate account of alchemy at CA IV.2457–2632.

  For historical accounts of alchemy, see F. S. Taylor, The Alchemists: Founders of Modern Chemistry (New York, 1949), and E. J. Holmyard, Alchemy (Harmondsworth, 1957). For attitudes to alchemy in the medieval West, see W. H. L. Ogrine, Journal of Medieval History, 6 (1980), 103–32. Medieval alchemical treatises which may be conveniently consulted are The Works of Geber, Englished by RichardRussell, 1678, ed. E. J. Holmyard (London, 1928), hereafter cited as Geber (the earliest manuscripts of the Latin text translated by Russell date from the thirteenth century, and it purportedly derives from an eighth-century Arabic original by Jabir ibn Hayyan, known as ‘Geber’ in the West); the translated extracts from Albertus Magnus in Grant, Source Book, pp. 586–603; and Thomas Norton’s Ordinal of Alchemy (late fifteenth century), ed. J. Reidy, EETS o.s. 272 (London, 1975). Also useful is L. Abraham, A Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery (Cambridge, 1998). Although the Yeoman, as befits a mere layman (see CY 787), gives only a confused account of alchemical theory and practice, the tale nevertheless presents evidence of Chaucer’s considerable knowledge of alchemy, as E. H. Duncan has shown in a detailed comparison with medieval alchemical treatises (MP, 37 (1940), 241–62: cited as ‘Duncan’ in subsequent notes).

  Whatever Chaucer’s attitude to the serious practice of alchemy, there is no doubt that the canon is an out-and-out trickster. The bewildering terminology that proliferates in the first part of the tale suggests that such trickery is facilitated by the specialized language of the craft (‘termes’), which makes it impossible for the layman to distinguish science from gibberish. Language takes on a life of its own, constructing a kind of alternative reality which cannot be empirically tested and has to be taken on trust. ‘Chaucer … suggests that the multiplication of metals and the multiplication of words are analogous phenomena: the alchemist’s nostalgia, from his world of confusion, proliferative materials, and opaque jargon, is in some part a longing for a world of transparent language before Babel’ (J. Fyler, ELH, 55 (1988), 1–26, at p. 12; see also n. to CY 669). In contrast to the etymological explanation of Cecilia’s name (SN 85–119 and n.), which seeks to demonstrate the unity of words and meaning, the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale ‘raises the problem of the verbal representation of truth with a special intensity and sophistication’ (Patterson, p. 39; cf. pp. 32–3). The tale concludes with an anecdote that shows verbal definitions leading, not to understanding, but to an apparently endless chain of linguistic substitution which never makes contact with the physical world. In Patterson’s words (p. 48), alchemy discloses ‘not the secrets of nature but the guilty secrets of language’. For a poet, this notion of the power of words to create a substitute reality must have been empowering and disabling in roughly equal measure.

  720–21 Seven years was the minimum term of service for apprentices; in lamenting that he has learned nothing during that time, the Yeoman ‘echoes the frequent complaints by apprentices of the failure of their masters to teach them their craft’ (Patterson, SAC, 15 (1993), p. 30, n. 14).

  726 Although it is not independently attested until the late sixteenth century, the Yeoman is evidently referring to the proverb ‘A man is a man though he have but a hose on his head’ (see Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs3, pp. 504–5, and Tilley M244). Presumably one leg of a pair of hose made a warm piece of headgear for those who could not afford a hat.

  750 ff. The Yeoman’s account of his ‘elvisshe craft’ is ‘a confused conglomeration of materials, animal, vegetable and mineral, of apparatus and of processes, coming helter-skelter from his bedazzled brain’ (Duncan, p. 245). Nevertheless, comparison with medieval alchemical treatises makes it possible to piece together the processes in which many of these elements were involved, as Duncan explains. The alchemist’s aim was to transmute a lower or baser metal to a higher one by altering the proportions of their constituent elements (see Headnote to CYT).

  In order that the work of transmutation might be carried out, two sorts of operations were required: one set designed to remove the impurities of the metals to be transmuted to a purer state, another set designed to supply the deficiencies, by means of an Elixir, Philosopher’s Stone, or Medicine, which, joined to the outwardly purified lower metal, would raise it to the nature of the higher one.

  (Duncan, p. 243)

  The first operation involves sublimation (referred to at 770, 774), which ‘consists in heating a substance until it vaporizes and then condensing the vapour directly back to the solid state by rapid cooling’ (Holmyard, Alchemy, p. 46; cf. Geber, pp. 74–5). The material to be sublimated is placed in the bottom of a vessel; the fire separates the ‘impure’ elements from the higher ‘spiritual’ ones, which are deposited as crystals in the cool upper part of the vessel (Read, Prelude to Chemistry, p. 138). The impure elements are assimilated into other substances (known as ‘feces’) – such as the burned bones and iron flakes mentioned at 759, or the salt mentioned at 762 – which are introduced into the pot at the same time as the metal to be purified. Also used as feces are chalk, alkali (impure sodium carbonate) and metal filings (‘limaille’); see CY 806, 810, 853, and Duncan, p. 256. The vessel used for this process was a sublimatory (793), a solid vessel in two parts. The lower part was a large round dish or bowl made of earthenware (761), heavily glazed inside; the upper part was a conical lid made of glass (Geber, pp. 90–91; for an illustration of such a vessel, see Geber, p. 233, repro
duced in Holmyard as Figure 8). The joins of the vessel were luted (cf. the reference to ‘enluting’ at 766) – that is, daubed with clay so as to make it airtight (Duncan, pp. 250–51). The clay made of human or horse’s hair (812) was probably used for luting (Duncan, p. 257; cf. Holmyard, p. 49).

  According to Duncan’s analysis, over half the alchemical items mentioned by the Yeoman can be connected with the process mentioned at line 816, the ‘citrination’ of silver, which Duncan (p. 249), paraphrasing Geber’s alchemical treatise, describes as follows: ‘It is possible to transmute silver into gold, or at least to color it so that it looks like gold, by projecting upon the metal, or fusing into the metal, under extreme heat, the carefully prepared and refined substance of certain red- or yellow-colored compounds of sulphur or mercury.’ (For the fundamental importance of sulphur and mercury in alchemical thinking, see Headnote to CYT.) The starting-point of the experiment is thus the ‘five or sixe ounces … of silver’ mentioned at CY 756–7. The Yeoman refers to two ‘medicines’ suitable for the transmuting process: the first is ‘sublimed mercurye’ (774) – that is, a red powder produced from ‘mercurye crude’ (771–2) by ‘calcening’ or ‘calcinacioun’ (771, 804), the reduction of a substance to powder by heat. The second is ‘orpiment’ (759, 774), ‘a yellow powder known to modern chemistry as the trisulphide of arsenic’ (Duncan, p. 252); cf. the reference to arsenic at line 798.

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