Susanne Sara Thomas


There must be a connection between the lust for power and impotentia coeundi.


In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales the Canon’s Yeoman gives an account to the other pilgrims of his endless labors to "multiplie" matter alchemically. Of this project he tells the group: "We blondren evere and pouren in the fir,/ And for al that we faille of our desir,/ For evere we lakken oure conclusion."2 In this passage, whose theme he often repeats, the Yeoman describes the frustration of his and the Canon’s attempts to consummate the "alchemical marriage" of which the texts of alchemy alluringly speak. The whole purpose of the Yeoman’s work has been to realize the reproductive potential of this marriage. However, the Yeoman feels compelled to reveal the shameful secret of alchemy: that alchemists are impotent and the sought-after marriage can never be consummated.

The Yeoman strives to explain to the pilgrims that there has been no potential for material (re)production in his work. While Britton Harwood has argued that the Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale involves "a mystification of work,"3 I argue, rather, that the Yeoman presents a rhetorical de-mystification of alchemy’s textual mystification of work and material production. In the Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale the impotence of alchemy as a process which attempts to (re)produce precious metals is paralleled to the allegorical impotence of alchemical "auctores" and their texts. Ultimately, the Yeoman produces and multiplies nothing but the representation of an elusive potential in his spoken words. Similarly, alchemical texts, in an endless process of self-replication, (re)produce only more and more texts which seduce readers with a held-out potential meaning. In both its physical and textual aspects alchemy is represented in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale as a projection of masculine fears of sexual impotence.

The impotence of the Canon and his Yeoman can be connected with the concept of "counterfeiting," the art of false representation. Harwood has argued that in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale alchemy "is not an allegory of production. It is an exotic instance of it. The Yeoman is apparently the only wage laborer anywhere in Chaucer—the only person hired to make a commodity."4 However, I argue that it is the reverse: the Yeoman presents alchemy as an allegory of non-(re)production. The point the Yeoman repeatedly states is that there has been no (re)production in his work; rather than making a commodity, both he and the Canon failed to (re)produce anything. I argue that Chaucer presents practical alchemy as a counterfeiting operation which pretends to (re)produce precious metals, and alchemical texts as the embodiment of a forged and counterfeit philosophy which only appears to contain meaning. In contrast with the general veneration of texts in medieval culture, the Yeoman points to an anxiety about textual impotence.

The "exposure" of the Yeoman is that alchemy is, at best, the practice of (re)productive fakery. Based on a textual foundation of false representation, the Yeoman’s alchemical quest has failed to produce anything of material value; all is loss and reduction rather than increase and endless (re)production. In the Yeoman’s experience of the alchemical enter-prise, the potential for (re)production could not be realized. While alchemy is fascinated with the potential for material production, the fluidity of base metals exists only on the level of language. The magic of alchemy is, to use Elizabeth Scala’s words "the magic of language" which is pitted in direct opposition to "the logic of reason, cause and effect."5 As a result of its mag-ical use of allegorical language, alchemy was far more (re)productive as a lit-erary project than as an industrial or scientific one.

The fear of counterfeiting and forgery informs a number of pieces of legislation passed in the late Middle Ages. Statutes created in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries represent the first English attempts to legislate standards for coins and precious metals. One impetus behind this legislation is that during the late Middle Ages England was affected by the debasement of coinage on the Continent. Low denomination "deniers" made of heavily alloyed silver were illicitly making their way from Italy and France into the British economy because inflation in England created an intense demand for more coinage. R.S. Lopez estimates that the cost of living in England quad-rupled between 1150 and 1325.6 Added to the demand created by inflation, England’s refusal to debase its silver coinage created an intense need for very small denomination coins such as the deniers to facilitate retail trade trans-actions. No low-value English equivalents were available for use as "small change." A sense of anxiety over the diminishment and scarcity of coinage is evident in English legislation of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.


(This text is only a selection. For the complete essay please see our journal)