Knights, Peasants, and Alchemists, Oh My!

The Knight’s, Miller’s, and Canon’s Yeoman’s Tales

 

 

Knights

 

In class this week, the three tales we read from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales were the Knight’s Tale, the Miller’s Tale, and the Canon’s Yeoman Tale.  The first of these, the Knight’s Tale, tells of Palamon and Arcite, two cousins from the royal family of Thebes, who struggle against each other in hopes of winning the heart of the fair Emily. The story follows these two from their defeat on the battlefield at Thebes, to their imprisonment by Theseus of Athens, and finally, through a turn of Fortune’s wheel, to a duel which will determine which of them is worthy of Emily, the sister of Theseus himself. In discussing this tale, it was brought up that while this would seem to bear the markings of a classical Greek tale, including the meddling of the gods in mortal affairs, the ancient Greece of Chaucer’s tale is one that is distinctly English in its own way, involving the medieval ideas of chivalry and the influence of Fortune on everyday life. Beyond this, the gods in the tale also behave in more the same fashion as a Christian god, meaning that they take a somewhat more hands-off approach than that of the classical Greek gods, whose affairs and Fates are constantly intertwined with those of mortals. By writing his tale in such a contemporary style, however, Chaucer effectively brings the genre of classical literature to his English audience in such a way that they can easily understand it and interpret the story in terms of their own medieval world.

Palamon and Arcite discovered in the grove by Theseus,
as portrayed by Francesco Bartolozzi.
(Wikipedia, “Palamon and Arcite”, Palamon and Arcite)

 

 Peasants

 

Following the Knights Tale, which somewhat represents the artful, lofty kind of storytelling which was enjoyed by the nobility, we read the Miller’s tale, which more-or-less embodies everything that the Knight’s Tale is not. This tale, as told by the drunken Miller, is a crude, impolite tale filled with scatological humor and adultery, meant to contrast with the very proper, sophisticated tale that the Knight tells. This contrast very clearly highlights the class divide that existed within the society at this time. Not only this, but the fact that the Miller interrupts the host and places himself behind the Knight in the storytelling order, disrupting what would be the normal social order, reflects events such as the Peasant’s Revolt which demonstrated the friction between the upper and lower classes. The Miller’s tale, however, does have its own merits, despite one’s first impression of it. The tale, which tells of a married woman and the two men who conspire against each other to win her from her husband, is a remarkably clever and amusing tale.

Absalom at the window
(Page Pulp, http://www.pagepulp.com/wp-content/21575110.jpeg)

On top of all of this, it is interesting that the Miller’s tale, because of his interruption, is presented as a sort of challenging of the Knight’s tale. Whereas the Knight told a tale of chivalry, duels, and romantic love, the Miller told a very similar tale, but with all these lofty traits being replaced by mischief, deceit, and lust. The lord Theseus is replaced with an average carpenter, the fair princess is replaced with the carpenter’s adulterous wife, and the two noble knights are replaced by, essentially, a trickster and a fool competing for the wife by means of tricks and treachery. In this way, the Miller attempts to denigrate the Knight’s well-written tale and assert his own story in its place. This, in its own way, is once again like a replay of the Peasant’s Revolt, only placed into the framework of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

 

Alchemists

 

But of all of the tales we’ve heard so far, none of them are quite like the Canon’s Yeoman’s tale. To start, it’s not even told by a member of the pilgrims’ party, but rather by a stranger who comes riding up to the party, having ridden full speed for quite a ways with the intention of catching up to them. He was so intent on catching the party, in fact, that the horse he rides is described as having “sweated so that it could scarcely walk.”(Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale)  He reveals himself to be a yeoman in the service of a canon who practices the art of alchemy, and proceeds to tell the party all that he knows about this trade. He confesses that he is sick of his master’s art, and explains the manner by which it has stripped him of all his worldly possessions, as everything he owned was sold to pay for materials which were lost in the process of multiplying. He then proceeds to tell a tale of a canon, one different from his own master, who by deceit and trickery convinced a priest that his art was indeed true and, in exchange for “teaching” his art to the priest, conned him out of a decent sum of money.

The Canon’s Yeoman
(Geoffrey Chaucer Page, “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale”, http://www.people.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/canttales/canonyeo/canonyeo1.gif)

Overall, this tale seems to be a piece of wisdom by Chaucer, meant for and directed at his audience, that warns the people against buying-in to the false science of alchemy. He warns in the tale that it does not matter how much money you already have when you enter into this practice, for you will lose it all before you ever see your labors come to fruition. He says that, truly, the secrets which alchemists pine after are secrets belonging to only God, and that any mortal man who attempts to discover these secrets will never see success while they live because no man can succeed in an endeavor if it places him against the will of God. The character of the yeoman also, in telling his tale of the canon, says that he prays that the Devil will someday flay the canon out of his skin as punishment for his lies and tricks. This also could be seen as a warning by Chaucer that not only will a man be punished by God in life for pursuing this course, but in the afterlife as well. Therefore, in writing this tale, I would find it hard to believe that Chaucer felt anything but contempt for the subject of alchemy.

As a whole, however, I find it interesting that of the three tales which we read this week, none of them seem to have a very strong connection to Christianity. The Knight’s tale had no mention of a Christian god, and the only Christian ties to really be seen in the Miller’s tale came in the form of allusions to the story of Noah and the great flood. The Canon’s Yeoman’s tale does have a slightly stronger connection to Christianity, but only by way of the fact that Chaucer is using this connection to demonstrate to his audience the futility of attempting to learn and pursue the art of alchemy. All three of them, however, are much more secular tales than the last few that we’ve heard, specifically the Clerk’s tale and the Man of Laws’ tale(more on these tales here). They also differ from these last two tales in the sense that, while the Clerk’s tale and the Man of Laws’ tale extol the virtues of living a modest, pious life before God, none of the three tales which we’ve read this week really present any kind of outstanding moral advice to the audience. Granted, I do believe that the Canon’s Yeoman’s tale is meant to warn the audience of the follies of pursuing alchemy, but it, along with the Knight’s and Miller’s tales, never approaches the question of how one should go about living a moral life. In this sense, each of these texts is far more secular than either the Clerk’s or Man of Laws’ tales, and in a way that goes beyond the simple asking of “Was God mentioned or not?”

 

Questions for the Reader to consider:

1. If the Knight’s tale represents the nobility of Chaucer’s day, and the Miller’s tale represents the lower classes, is it significant at all that these tales are more-or-less secular tales?

2. Why might Chaucer have decided to add the Canon’s Yeoman to the Canterbury Tales, considering that he was not included in the original party?

3. In terms of the political turmoil reflected by the interaction between the Knight and the Miller, is it possible that the Reeve may also play a role in this metaphor?

 

Sources:

The Knight’s Tale:

EChaucer, The Knight’s Tale Translation

 

The Miller’s Tale:

EChaucer, The Miller’s Tale Translation

 

The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale:

EChaucer, The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale Translation

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