The Yeoman Transmuted: An Evaluation of Penitence and Poetry

The Yeoman Transmuted: An Evaluation of Penitence and Poetry

Schleicher, Frank N.

Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 3 (1986)


The relative paucity of commentary on the Canon’ s Yeoman’s Tale has never caused much distress in the critical community. Beginning with Kittredge, modern readers have noted and appreciated the roadside drama played out when the Canon and his servant race onto the Pilgrims’ stage. It is one of the freshest and certainly most entertaining moments in the Canterbury Tales and has modern readers quick to register their delight with this flash of penultimate brilliance. What critical debate there exists around the tale centers on a relatively few points. One particular approach attempts to discern a cause behind the hasty arrival of the alchemical pair. Baldwin, for example, suggests that the Canon has just attempted a particularly unsuccessful bit of transmutation cum con artistry and has been forced to beat a hasty retreat out of town to find cover with the Pilgrims (Baldwin 242). Other approaches concern themselves with the relationship of the teller to the people in his tale in general, but more specifically, with the identity of the mysterious Canon in the Yeoman’s Tale. Some, again like Baldwin, consider him the Yeoman’s former master (236). Others claim that the Canon of Part Two represents the kind of thief that the Canon of the Prologue is on his way to becoming (Reidy, 31-37). Still another point of view holds that the wicked beguiler of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale is none other than the devil himself (Gardner, 1-17). On another level, commentators have indulged in a certain biographical license with the Tale and suggested that Chaucer himself may have been swindled by a neighboring Canon and took his particular literary revenge by writing a tale which damns false canons. Closer to the point are the observations which note the shifted tone at the Tale’ s close. Pointing out that the Yeoman’ s final comments sound much more like Chaucer than they do like that of an untutored servant, many observers have directed attention to one of the work’s genuine cruxes.

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