While the structure and organization of The Canterbury Tales permits multiple voices and perspectives to be represented and conveyed to the reader by utilizing a technique known as the frame narrative (Gittes 77), it is not entirely clear upon an initial reading why some tales were included and how their presence influences the thematic intentions of Geoffrey Chaucer’s most ambitious text in The Canterbury Tales. One such tale is that of the Canon’s Yeoman, a narrative that is, at least on the surface, preoccupied with a consideration of alchemy. A more astute interpretation of “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale," however, reveals that the real subjects of the tale are the “vanity of intellectual quest" (Ridley 995), a theme which is repeated throughout the tales, and the baseness of deception. An interesting counterpoint to “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale" in The Canterbury Tales is that of the Wife of Bath who, though brash and bawdy, is viewed favorably by the party and the reader; she is admirable for the intelligence that has developed out of her experience, rather than through her own invention.
Scholars note that the appearance of “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale" seems to have been an afterthought on Chaucer’s part, as the Canon and his Yeoman are not mentioned in the “General Prologue" (Cooper 368). For a short summary of the Canon Yeoman’s Tale both characters in The Canterbury Tales, the Canon and the Yeoman, come riding up alongside the traveling pilgrims and are almost immediately invited by the Host to share a tale, clearly demonstrating that they were not part of the original cast of characters. However, the vigorousness with which Chaucer criticizes alchemy in this tale suggests that that tale had particular interest and meaning for him despite its late addition. Indeed, from the very opening of “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale", there is a sense of intensity and urgency. The narrator of this portion of The Canterbury Tales spends more than twenty lines describing the conditions of the men and their horses, “So sweat that scarcely could it go [on]" (l. 10). Further, when the men are invited to add to the narrative of the pilgrims, the Canon’s Yeoman jumps in without hesitation or reservation, demonstrating an immediate candor by declaring the Canon unfit to tell a tale, for “He knows of mirth and of all jollity/ Not but enough" (ll, 46-47). The Yeoman goes on hurriedly, adding “…also, sir, trust me,/If you but knew him as well as do I,/You’d wonder much how well and craftily/ He can behave, and that in different wise" (ll. 47-50). The Yeoman then alludes to the dark art of alchemy, explaining, in one of the important quotes from The Canon Yeoman’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales that the Canon has “taken on him many an enterprise/That were right hard for anyone that’s here/(Unless he learned it) to effect, I fear" (ll. 50-53).
The Yeoman then launches into his tale in earnest, and his condemnation of his master and the practice of alchemy are so strong that the Canon slinks away in shame. This behavior seems to suggest that the Canon is aware of his own fraudulence, as well as the falseness of alchemic practice. Because he is presented as a non-credible character, the “vanity of the intellectual quest" as described by Ridley (995) is exposed. Once this criticism is shared openly, it can be considered by the other members of the pilgrims’ party, who can share their own opinions and insights about the pseudo-intellectual science of alchemy. In fact, it is before the Canon’s Yeoman ends his tale that members of the party feel compelled to interject and observe that the Canon is a scoundrel. The Host interrupts the Yeoman right away, saying, “His over-garment is not worth a mite/For such a man as he, so may I go!" (ll. 79-80). This is not the only instance in which the Host will interrupt the Yeoman to render judgment on the Canon and his false intellectualism. In fact, the Host is so engaged in the subject of the tale that his interjections are frequent and vigorous.
As Cooper observes, “Chaucer’s own attitude towards alchemy seems decidedly skeptical" (372), and he transfers this perspective onto the Canon’s Yeoman who, while “never claim[ing] the theory behind it to be false", asserts that alchemy “is impossible to realize in practice, and sinful to try" (Cooper 372). Despite the hypocrisy of the Yeoman—who has, after all, allied himself with the Canon until the telling of this tale, and who himself has practiced alchemy—it is the Canon who is portrayed as a man whose attempts to pursue knowledge are a thinly veiled disguise for the pursuit of material wealth. What Chaucerseems to be saying is that the true intellectual on a respectable quest cannot be motivated by underlying desires that are contrary to knowledge and its pursuit. While Chaucer does not provide a counterpoint to the figure of the Canon through the presentation of a predictable character—a scholar, perhaps–, the Wife of Bath and her tale provide an interesting contrast to the Canon and his Yeoman with respect to building the reader’s understanding about what true intelligence and experience are.
The Wife of Bath is, inarguably, a brash and bawdy woman. Her tale is shockingly personal, as she reveals to her listeners the intimate details of her married life and her sexual activities. Her boldness is remarkable, particularly given that she is one of a handful of women in the company of men, and further, that the pilgrims’ party includes a number of religious figures. Yet the Wife of Bath has no shame, and seems to feel that the listeners can benefit from her tale by gaining knowledge that she has acquired through her extensive experience. “Experience," she declares as she launches her tale, “though no authority were in this world/Were good enough for me" (ll. 2-3). This declaration is crucial to the development of the thematic content regarding intellectualism and experience in The Canterbury Tales, for it clearly and unequivocally privileges personal experience as a source of knowledge and wisdom. This is an idea which is reinforced throughout “The Wife of Bath’s Tale".
The implications of this theme cannot be understated. It is important to understand that The Canterbury Tales was written and takes place in the time of the Plague in medieval times, when Europe was ravaged, socially, economically, and culturally. Society was undergoing dramatic shifts and the implications for all institutions and aspects of daily life would be significant. In a world that had become uncertain and where the tenuousness of life was felt constantly, it is not unreasonable to surmise that notions of intellectualism were undergoing revision. While this is not the dominant theme in The Canterbury Tales, it is an important one. Chaucer seemed to have something important to say about what constitutes true knowledge, experience, and wisdom, and he created provocative, passionate characters who conveyed his own ideas by recounting their incredible and entertaining experiences.
A comparative analysis of “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale" and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale" in The Canterbury Tales reveals that despite the obvious differences between the two tales, there are thematic similarities that are important to identify and consider. Chaucer mocks the egotism of traditionally defined intellectualism, and creates characters who insist that true knowledge can only be attained through intense personal experiences. Such a claim seems to be reflected in the overall framework of the narrative. The very fact that the story is constructed as a frame narrative, in which multiple narrators have the opportunity to share their stories, emphasizes the value of individual experience, and privileges each narrator with the opportunity to convey a valuable lesson about life to the reader. While the viewpoints and perspectives of the pilgrims in the Host’s tale-telling party vary dramatically, as do the characters themselves, each of the pilgrims seems to feel expanded and enriched by the experience of telling stories and hearing one another’s tales. While Chaucer never slips into didacticism, he makes it clear, in an entertaining way, that the pilgrims have learned from one another about a vast range of subjects that were important to people in the Middle Ages. The fact that this text has endured for centuries seems to suggest that contemporary readers, too, can walk away from a reading with an expanded intellect and an amplified definition of what true intellectualism is.