Alchemy in The Second Nun’s Tale and The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer

Alchemy in The Second Nun’s Tale and The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer.

Outline for research paper on alchemy as a theme in Chaucer�s The Second Nun�s Tale and The Canon�s Yeoman�s Tale.

There is quite a bit of analysis regarding Chaucer’s use of the motif of alchemy throughout the Canterbury Tales, obviously the majority of thinkers focus on The Second Nun’s Tale and The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale as the examples of explicit use of alchemy as an important theme. �Much of what I have read thus far seems to focus on the fact that the Second Nun’s Tale is primarily oriented toward a morally charged exposition of the ideas of ‘esoteric alchemy’ or spiritual alchemy in which the potential for the salvation of the soul is the critical issue. On the other hand, the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale is clearly employing the idea of ‘exoteric alchemy’ to look into base and thwarted desires for material gain.

Most studies on this subject seem to focus on the following:

1) Questioning Chaucer’s understanding of alchemical processes or attempting to isolate his sources.
2) Many have seen the Yeoman�s invective against alchemy as a sign of Chaucer’s actual disillusionment with this early science.
3) More recently, scholarship has focused on the dynamics of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale itself and have largely agreed that it reveals Chaucer’s view of alchemy as a heretical practice.
4) Many have argued that the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale condemns the abuse (exoteric) of alchemy as opposed to the science itself.

Most agree that Chaucer had a rather extensive knowledge of alchemy.

What I am interested in looking into is the relationship between exoteric and esoteric alchemy in the two tales and if studies which position Chaucer as more supportive of the latter are not shortsighted.

The Second Nun�s Tale is concerned with conversion. Everyone whom Cecilia converts tends to be executed by the Romans quite rapidly. That seems the point of the Tale: the Canon�s Yeoman�s Tale is about the obsessive focus on the material; the Second Nun�s is about an equally obsessive focus on the ideal. I think Chaucer is equally suspicious about both obsessions.

some possibly important contexts to consider:
-The vita sancti is one of the most popular medieval genres. Attention should be paid to its (The Second Nun�s Tale) deployment of the conventions of this genre. It is a tale which is suggestive (to me) of an emphasis on the personal journey, one taken individually, requiring one’s own spiritual merit and courage, perhaps emblematic of a kind of pure idealism, an otherworldly goal or a static vision of perfection i.e., perfect immortality through transmuting the base elements of the human soul until it is renewed as the uncorrupted gold of godliness, a fixed and unchanging principle. These elements seem to set the Tale apart considerably from The Canon�s Yeoman�s Tale.

The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale certainly says much about the corruption of basic avaricious material gain however, it seems that Chaucer is problematizing the notions of spiritual perfection, salvation, or conversion as perhaps part of an old order which has become unrealistic in a dynamic political world no longer configured according to medieval socio-political orthodoxies, i.e., following the Peasant Revolts (social revolt in this context is the important backdrop for this whole course in medieval literature). �We see, for instance, that the chantry priest enlists the help of the crooked cannon as alchemist by whom he is swindled. (I am putting weight on the relational and pluralistic aspects here in the Canon�s Yeoman�s Tale and its connection to worldly endeavours as opposed to the private and individual sense of striving toward spiritual rewards in the Second Nun�s Tale). These last ideas are just suggestions for ways into the main topic.

Are we to come away thinking that the Yeoman (of the frame tale) has learned his lesson about the vanity of alchemy and that he finally gets revenge on his old boss, the Canon of the frame tale? �
�Also, what are we to make of the fact that the crooked Canon (in the actual tale ) makes out rather well in the end by manipulating the desires of the chantry priest. What does this suggest about how lofty ideas are received in a radically changing period?

Most important points:
-Worldly success in the Canon�s Yeoman�s Tale is a product of a con-game. Successful conversion in the Second Nun�s Tale leads invariably to death. This relationship is what I want to compare and contrast.
-Again, it is important that these questions are contextualized in terms of the radical social transformations of Chaucer�s period.
-We have been using the most current Norton edition of The Canterbury Tales for the course.
When referring to passages to The Canterbury Tales, the professor prefers it if we engage with them in the original Middle English.

(Potentially) Important reading:
R. Longsworth,� �Cecilia and the alchemist of the Canon�s Yeoman�s Tale.� Chaucer Review 27 (1992).

George Keiser,��The Conclusion of CYT: readings and (mis)readings.� Chaucer Review 35 (2000).
(these first two references should be rather important for the paper, the following are suggestions�)

Bruhn, Mark J. �Art, Anxiety, and Alchemy in the �Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale�.�
The Chaucer Review, Vol. 33, No. 3 (1999), pp. 288-315

Gray, Douglas., ed. The Oxford Companion to Chaucer. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

Boenig, Robert. Chaucer and the Mystics: The Canterbury Tales and the Genre of Devotional Prose. London: Bucknell UP, 1995. Print.

Darke Hierogliphicks:Alchemy in English Literature from Chaucer to the Restoration – Stanton J. Linden

Hitchcox, Kathryn Langford. Alchemical discourse in the �Canterbury Tales� : Signs of gnosis and transmutation. Rice University, 1988.

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