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Alchemical discourse in the "Canterbury Tales": Signs of gnosis and transmutation

By Kathryn Langford Hitchcox


Although most critics of the "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" agree that the tale's striking realism and wealth of detail suggest that Chaucer had an extensive knowledge of alchemical lore, they disagree about whether Chaucer condemned alchemy as a heresy or esteemed it as a divine science compatible with Christianity. For, the Canon's Yeoman begins his tale by asserting the impossibility of achieving the Philosopher's Stone, only to end his tale by affirming the Stone's existence, and describing it as a gift from Christ. In the past, most critics have investigated Chaucer's use of alchemical signs in the "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" by discussing medieval alchemy as an obscure laboratory procedure in which Chaucer did or did not have any faith. This study, however, proposes not only to reexamine the significance of Chaucer's references to alchemical apparati, procedures, and philosophy in the "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" but also to show that Chaucer was primarily interested in alchemy as a symbolic language, and that he utilized alchemical signs in both the "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" and the "Second Nun's Tale," which are linked by the prologue of the "Canon's Yeoman's Tale," to explore how discourse itself is a kind of alchemy which mediates between man and God, or physical reality and spiritual reality, to communicate truth and enable the individual to convert from the "old man of Adam" to the "new man in Christ." Both tales begin with references to the baseness of matter, and end with alchemical allusions to the perfection of matter. Since Chaucer presented the alchemical allusions in the "Second Nun's Tale" and the "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" within a penitential framework, he also implied that both alchemy and Christianity seek salvation, which may be understood as the reconciliation of spiritual and physical nature. Chaucer's Parson defines salvation in these terms when he explains, "Than shal men understonde what is the fruyt of penaunce, dots ther as the body of man that whilom was foul and derk is moore cleer than the sonne" (ParsT 1. 1078)

Topics: English literature
Year: 1988
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