The laws of community, Margery Kempe, and the "Canon's Yeoman's Tale"
James H Landman. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Durham: Spring 1998.Vol. 28, Iss. 2; pg. 389, 37 pgs
Abstract (Document Summary)
Landman examines the "Canon's Yeoman's Prologue" from "The Canterbury Tales" in the context of Margery Kempe's autobiography, "The Book of Margery Kempe." Medieval notions of community relations are considered.
Full Text (16961 words)
Copyright Duke University Press Spring 1998
Chaucer's "Canon's Yeoman's Prologue" traces a trajectory that quickly moves from a position of alliance between the Canon and his Yeoman, to a rupture of that relationship as the Yeoman prepares to speak out against his master, to the Yeoman's inclusion in the "compaignye" of Canterbury pilgrims. Abandoning his "craft" of alchemy, the Yeoman seeks admission into the "joly compaignye" of pilgrims by disclosing what, as the Canon warns him, "thou sholdest hyde" (696).1 The Host, head of the pilgrims' company, offers his support of the Yeoman's narrative: "telle on, what so bityde. / Of al [the Canon's] thretyng rekke nat a myte!" (697-98). And the Canon, seeing that the Yeoman "wolde telle his pryvetee," flees the Yeoman's new company "for verray sorwe and shame" (701-2).
The "craft" of alchemists and the company of Canterbury pilgrims represent two very different communities, and the difference between them is clearly discernible in the distinct responses of the Canon and the Host to the Yeoman's decision to speak. For this decision both violates and fulfills the laws of community. From the perspective of the alchemists' craft, represented by the Canon, the Yeoman's narrative betrays a code of silence expressed in the Canon's warning that his Yeoman shall "deere abye" his speech (694). From the perspective of the pilgrims' company, however, the Yeoman is offering at least partial satisfaction of the contractual condition of inclusion in their number-the telling of "a myrie tale or tweye" (597) -and for doing so he is brought within the company's protection. These opposing interpretations of the Yeoman's narrative-a betrayal, on the one hand, and satisfaction of an obligation, on the other-point to equally opposing constructions of community, constructions founded on the restraint or encouragement of speech.
That the Canon's Yeoman's voice threatens to fragment one community even as it fulfills the demands of another underscores the ambiguity of the Yeoman's voice, a voice which has proved troubling indeed. Marked by a "knotty intricacy," it is a "claustrophobically subjectivized discourse" and "tissue of double meaning" that desires to tell all while always falling short.2 It is the voice of "a yoman proposing to save a city, or a pilgrim body, by betraying his master's secrets," further complicated by the discomforting "possibility that [the] Yeoman may be a Sinon, a foreigner who betrays a community by joining it belatedly and pretending to save it from ruin."3 Can the Yeoman's voice be trusted? Does he ultimately betray his fellow alchemists or the company of Canterbury pilgrims? Why is the Yeoman unable to declare himself clearly against the craft he has seemingly rejected?
These questions are of course unanswerable, largely because we are unable confidently to associate the Yeoman with one community or another. And some of our difficulties with the Yeoman's narrative may very well lie in this inability to make such an association. For one of the most troubling aspects of the Yeoman's narrative is its representation of the tightly knit craft of alchemists. Far from affirming any conception of the craft as Gemeinschaft, the Yeoman offers a bitter account of a self-deluded community perpetuated by a code of silence that binds its members as it protects their great secret-that none of them knows the secret of alchemy.
The extent to which the Yeoman's estrangement from his former craft defies what have traditionally been regarded as "medieval" notions of the relation between self and community is described by Lee Patterson in a perceptive review of the tale's critical history, a history that has largely tended to read the tale as representative of "all that must be rejected" and of a "dangerous modernity." While Patterson maintains an association between the "socially indefinable" Yeoman and modernity, he calls into question the critical tradition that equates modernity with an unconditional negativity. The Yeoman may be "a figure . . . startlingly 'modern' in his rootlessness and `alienation,"' but he also represents a more positive aspect of modernity, namely, an "emancipated selfhood existing apart from social determinants."4
Patterson argues that this emancipated selfhood is "the enabling fiction of modern culture," a fiction that gives the modern subject "the capacity to imagine oneself as other and more than an integer in a fixed social order, as an autonomous self capable of a variety of social identities."5 It is a fiction of which the Yeoman seems acutely aware. His emancipation is immediately qualified as he recalls his craft's (former?) hold on him ("I koude nevere leve it in no wise" ), and he scrupulously separates his (former?) master from the most damning aspects of his tale ("This chanon was my lord, ye wolden weene? / . . . It was another chanoun, and nat hee" [1088-90]). Indeed, the Canon's insistence that the Yeoman adhere to his craft's code of silence proves extremely difficult for the Yeoman to dismiss; he must remind himself that he is no longer subject to the dictates of his master and his craft ("now he is goon, I dar seyn boldely" ). And even if the Yeoman is struggling to emancipate himself from his craft and its code of silence, he is telling his tale within the protective confines and according to the tale-telling code of a new community, albeit one that is comparatively impersonal and transitory. If the Yeoman resists Burckhardt's classic definition of the medieval man "conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation-only through some general category,"6 he also does not quite fulfill the fiction of a modern, emancipated selfhood. The Book of Margery Kempe does not immediately suggest itself as a companion text to the "Canon's Yeoman's Tale," but like the Yeoman's tale, Margery's story raises complex questions of selfhood and the laws of community. As David Aers argues, the book's "resistance to conventional sublimations" has given Margery's story resonance in the modern world: "This resistance makes it often an extremely moving text, after all these years, across the most thorough transformations of economic systems and mentalities."7 But as Aers and others have well documented, the direction in which Margery's resistance moved many medievalists in the decades following the discovery of her Book in 1934 was against her.8 Having been defined as a peculiar, self-centered aberration, Margery became a figure "easily disregarded by those who look to the past for confirmation of a secular perspective"9-just as the Canon's Yeoman came to represent "all that must be rejected" in the critical history described by Patterson. And insofar as past critical disregard for Margery was justified on the grounds of her singularity and self-centeredness, that disregard was implicated in the same desire for a Middle Ages of stable communities and self-negating sublimation to communal values so troubled by both Margery's and the Yeoman's narratives.
Also like the Yeoman, however, Margery has a difficult time achieving even the fiction of an emancipated selfhood. The community exerting the greatest pressure on Margery is arguably her community of neighbors in Lynn; it is certainly this community which presents one of the greatest threats not only to Margery's attempts at self-definition, but to her very existence. When her husband (living apart from Margery to protect the couple from neighborly gossip questioning the validity of their chaste marriage) slips and falls, the law of this community is exerted with a vengeance. Margery is told she will hang for her "crime"-namely, that "sche myth a kept hym and dede not."10 In effect, Margery is told that should her husband die, men from her neighborhood serving as jurors at her trial will use their "fact-finding" power to find Margery guilty of her husband's death. Margery escapes her neighbors' threatened punishment, but her escape from their law is not complete. She ultimately must devote herself to "keeping" her husband, fulfilling the demands of the law that would have condemned her had her husband died. In the passages documenting Margery's difficult reconciliation with this law, we hear a voice that rivals the Canon's Yeoman's in its complexity and similarly bears the imprint of the law it seeks to evade.
The description of Margery's near-miss encounter with a panel of local jurymen and the Yeoman's complicated disclosures of the alchemists' "craft" are also of interest because they treat of two institutions-the common law jury and the craft guild-of particular relevance to a study of selfhood and community in late medieval England. From a certain perspective, the English "jury of one's peers" and the craft guild of like-minded artisans seem to embody the communal values we associate with medieval society, and seem to speak for the individual members of the neighborhood or craft community they represent with an authenticity we might hesitate to attribute to, say, members of Parliament claiming to speak for the realm through a statute.11 In other words, such geographically or vocationally localized institutions seem more proximate to the interests and beliefs of their communities' individual members, and we might accordingly tend to privilege such institutions as "truer" to the interests of the individuals they represent.
Neither Margery Kempe nor the Canon's Yeoman offers much to support such a perspective; indeed, their narratives implicitly or explicitly appeal outward to communities markedly less local than the communities they speak against. The Canon's Yeoman speaks out to the company of Canterbury pilgrims; Margery Kempe prays to her God, but she prays that God will give her the opportunity to speak according to the common law of the realm. And both speak out against an easy equation of the laws of a local community with the personal beliefs of those subject to these laws. That such "speakings out" are rare might be as much a testament to the legal force of local communities as to the rarity of figures like the Yeoman or Margery. As we will see, the circumstances surrounding Margery's narrative highlight the improbability that many in her situation would ever have the opportunity to speak out as she does. In the Yeoman's case, we will consider how the more clearly articulated laws of craft communities also attempt to silence unwanted "speakings out" by their members, and how craft laws continue to shape the voices of others like the Yeoman who nonetheless insist on speaking out against the craft culture of silence. A final issue raised by narratives such as Margery's and the Yeoman's is the precariousness not only of individual self-definitions, but of community self-definitions as well. Margery and the Yeoman share a talent for identifying the weaknesses of the communities whose laws they seek to escape and for exploiting the laws (and the suspicions) of other communities to justify, maintain, or fashion their individual identities. Their narratives-"medieval" in their strong sense of community, "modern" in their attempts to define a self apart from a particular community-may point to a distinctively "late medieval" selfhood or, perhaps, to relationships between selfhood and community more complicated than a distinction between "medieval" and "modern" allows. Throughout the period we describe as medieval there was an undeniably strong sense of community, but as Antony Black argues,
in fact people were related to many different kinds of group: universal and local Church, kingdom, feudal domain, city, village, gild, confraternity, family. This very multiplicity told against the absorption of the individual into any one group. There was no single, all-pervasive, over-arching "society," but a wide variety of compulsory and voluntary groups, and a corresponding variety of sentiments about social bonds and societal authority.12
Margery Kempe and the Canon's Yeoman certainly tell against the absorption of the individual into any one community, even as they tell of the pressures that any one community can bring to bear upon individual identity. But they also tell of the pressures a person might bring to bear upon the community he or she speaks against.
The laws of community
Any discussion of community raises the difficult questions of what exactly constitutes a community and how the laws of a particular community are defined and expressed. Susan Reynolds identifies as medieval communities fraternities and guilds, parish communities, villages and rural communities, urban communities, provinces and lordships, and the community of the realm, and she frankly admits that the list is far from exhaustive.13 There obviously are significant differences among these forms of community. Central to Reynolds's definition, however, is the idea of collective activity: "activities which are characteristically determined and controlled less by formal regulations than by shared values and norms."14 It is in these "shared values and norms"-values and norms which, despite their "informal" expression, have both prescriptive and proscriptive effects on the activities of community members-that we can begin to identify the laws of a particular community.
This notion of collective activity as the mark of community also informs Jeannine Quillet's discussion of the medieval understanding of community. "Community," she writes, "refers to a body of individuals who, by their common action based on the existence of bonds between them, constitute a more or less institutionalised group."15 And what these communities seek is juridical status-the power, that is, to enforce the laws of the community defined by the bonds that form the basis of the community's common action:
the basic purpose of the "communities" is to have their collective freedom recognised, with the power of dispensing justice and exercising control over their activities.... [T]he crucial issue is not the insistence on the rights of individuals but the definition of individuals precisely in terms of their participation in the collective entity: it is this that justifies an individual's existence and his social, political and legal rights.16
Community, as described by Reynolds and Quillet, thus defines and is defined by the activities of its members. The collective practices that unite a community give rise to "shared values and norms" that in turn determine and control practices within the community.17 And whether or not communities are institutionalized or express their shared norms as formal regulations, the power of these norms to generate and regulate the practices of community members constitutes a legal force.
The legal significance of practically expressed community laws is taken up in Marianne Constable's recent study of the medieval English "mixed jury" and the jury's subsequent history in Anglo-American law.18 Constable's study is valuable both in its emphasis on community laws often overlooked by legal historians focusing on the history of official acts and legal traditions, and in its ultimate ambivalence toward the laws of communities displaced by an official common law. Attracted to the idea of finding a "personal law" defined by one's membership in a particular community, but cognizant of the tendencies toward an oversimplifying romanticism inherent in such a search, Constable's study offers a particularly productive model for thinking through the complicated relationships between individual and community represented in Margery Kempe's and the Canon's Yeoman's narratives.
Like Reynolds and Quillet, Constable emphasizes the importance of a shared body of custom or practice as a means by which the "in some ways amorphous" communities of medieval England were able "to distinguish their members from one another."19 A positivist focus on law as "the imposition of official will upon the members of a society that admittedly had its own `social structure' of primary rules of obligation"20 neglects the legal significance of "unofficial" community practices. In the mixed jury of medieval England-an institution made "official" by statute in 1353 after a long history of "unofficial" use-Constable identifies a concept of personal law defined "according to the laws and customs of that person's community," with judgment determined "by those with knowledge of those customs orwhat amounts to the same thing-by those who share in the customs and belong to the same community."21 But the 1353 statute which officially assigns the mixed jury a place in the common law also marks a watershed in the history traced by Constable, the beginning of a process in which the personal law defined by association with a particular community is gradually displaced by a common law indifferently applied to all English subjects-a common law eventually marked by its absence of community.22
One of Constable's key insights is the vulnerability of a community's law and the community itself to pressure from an externally imposed law. As a self-governing community whose law is practically expressed comes under the governance of an authority whose law is propositionally expressed, the community's practices are demoted to the level of "mere custom or fact." Law becomes "what others should do"; "what others in fact do"-what constituted the now governed community's law-becomes an "old law" or a "morality."23 To focus only on what, from the governor's perspective, should be done while disregarding what might still in fact be done (and done differently in different communities) is potentially to overlook a highly complex legal landscape. At the same time, Constable's work displays a certain ambivalence toward what has been lost and what has been gained in the shift from the complex legal landscape of community law to what she sees as the relative sterility of positivist state law. Through the process she describes, "fairness and the rule of law supplanted the harshness and violence of early communities," even though "under state law the richness and complexity of persons and their law has given way to the sterility and fungibility of individuals." Moreover, she cautions that "the warning against forgetting that positivist state law is one possibility of law ought not be construed as calling for a return . . . to the so-called 'communitarianism' that some will find in the early mixed jury."24
This ambivalence is not misplaced. For if a community's law could offer its members at least some protection against another, hostile law, it could also, as Constable observes, display a "harshness and violence" of its own toward groups or individuals that did not conform to its dictates. First, the vulnerability of communities to the force of an externally imposed "official" law can be observed in more local, "unofficial" contexts in late medieval England. Communities given the right to judge their members (in whole or in part) may not have been "official," but they had attained the juridical status central to the medieval ideal of community described by Quillet, as well as recognition of their status as communities. And while the juridical status and legal authority of such communities might be subject to pressure from an external, "official" law, these communities could exert pressures of their own against smaller groups that challenged or contravened their laws. There are, in other words, countervailing tendencies in the creation of a community's identity and the enforcement of a community's law. The different beliefs or practices that define a community and its law are not necessarily tolerant of other differences, and the law of a specific community might be more interested in maintaining a community's hard-won identity than in tolerating a "richness and complexity of persons" within its jurisdiction.25
In addition, to assert, as Constable does, that an individual's personal law is defined "according to the laws and customs of that person's community," and that an individual's behavior in a community-based legal system is judged "by those who share in those customs and belong to the same community," is to the assume that an individual voluntarily shares in the judging community's laws and customs. To be sure, membership in a community such as a parish guild and submission to its laws may well have been voluntary. Ben McRee has shown that religious guilds with extensive behavioral regulations often drew their membership from the social elite of medieval towns-citizens who were eager to establish or protect their reputations by voluntarily and publicly associating themselves with such guilds.26 Membership may be too strong a term, however, for the position of persons who had little or no opportunity to participate in, or were compelled to submit to, a particular community's governance. For example, Heather Swanson's work on provincial craft guilds argues that, for the majority of late medieval artisans, "craft guild structures imposing a one-trade definition on [these artisans]" restricted their ability to work across a range of related crafts and brought them under the effective control of ruling mercantile elites.27 And in village or county communities, the local juries that were the principal organ for the expression and enforcement of the community's law systematically excluded women and less prosperous townsmen (a fact of no small significance for Margery Kempe).28
Defining an individual's personal law by that individual's association with a particular community thus does not get us away from the problem of an "imposed" law unless we are sure that the individual is an active, willing participant in the community in question and in the production and enforcement of that community's law. Often, of course, this problem is impossible to resolve: those being judged by a particular law typically are not asked whether they would prefer to be judged by another. But the very complexity of late medieval communities and their overlapping laws could afford an individual some negotiating space. If we are sensitive to this complexity, we can at times perceive individual attempts to fashion a personal law from the overlapping laws of different communities. A particularly striking example of such an effort is precipitated by John Kempe's near-fatal fall.
Slip and fall: Margery Kempe's legal negotiations
Fairly late in the account of Margery Kempe's life, her elderly husband, attempting to come down the stairs from his chamber "bar-foot & barlegge," slips or missteps and falls to the ground, seriously injuring himself. Margery and her husband are no longer living in the same house because cohabitation had subjected them to neighborly suspicion that, despite their professed vow to live chaste, "pei vsyd her lust & her likyng as Pei dedyn beforn her vow makyng." The couple has even stopped going to visit "oper gostly creaturys" because "many euyl folke whos tongys wer her owyn hurt, faylyng pe dreed & lofe of owr Lord Ihesu Crist, demtyn & seydyn pat pei went roar to woodys, grouys, er valeys to vsyn pe lust of her bodijs Pat Pe pepil xuld not aspyin it ne wetyn it." Yet because Margery, trying to avoid such allegations, was not living with (and looking after) her husband at the time of the fall, "pe pepil seyd, 3yf he deyd, hys wyfe was worthy to ben hangyn for hys deth, for-as-meche as sche myth a kept hym & dede not." Margery "pan . . . preyid to owr Lord pat hir husbond myth leuyn a 3er & sche to be deliueryd owt slawndyr."29 Margery's prayers are answered, and even exceeded, as her husband survives well past the requested year.
John Kempe's fall-nearly fatal to both husband and wife-also precipitates a densely structured legal encounter in which the laws of several communities alternately approve, exculpate, condemn, and punish Margery's behavior. The dominant law in this passage is the law of Margery's local community, a law that explicitly condemns and punishes Margery for what it defines as Margery's violation of her duties to her husband. But if Margery's husband had died, and the Book of Margery Kempe had not been written, the local community's law would not be so readily discernible. It would appear as a jury's guilty verdict in a common law prosecution for homicide, a local community's statement of "fact" made in response to a question of "law." Only because Margery survives to tell her tale is she able to describe the law of her local community that would have been expressed in the jury's statement of "fact," the law that would have held Margery guilty of her husband's death because she was not keeping him as she should have done according to the local community's law. That is to say, the local jury's power to state the facts would give it the opportunity to manipulate the common law of homicide. Although Margery had not in fact killed her husband according to the common law's definition of homicide, the jury could use that law to condemn Margery by stating a version of the "facts" that satisfied the common law.30
Indeed, Margery's peculiarly time-specific prayer for her husband's survival demonstrates her legal savvy as much as her conjugal solicitude. Her prayer that her husband survive for a year is also a bid to gain standing to speak under the law with which her local jurymen would purportedly condemn her, but which actually is distinct from the law that would in fact condemn her. The English common law did not, as a matter of law, recognize as a homicide a death resulting from an injury received more than a year before the victim's death.31 While felony defendants had no right of appeal on an issue of fact (including the jury's "factual" verdict), they could appeal a point of law arising on the indictment.32 Margery's prayer seeks not only her husband's survival but also the standing to raise a point of common law by which she might escape condemnation under her local community's law. Because the local community would be enforcing its law under cover of the common law of homicide, and would have to formally indict Margery of homicide before it could pass judgment on her at trial, Margery would need a point of common law to appeal her indictment before she went to trial. Without this point of law, Margery would be effectively silenced; at her trial, the twelve jurymen speaking for a community of which Margery seems only nominally a member would have the right to tell their version of her story, and to impose their law against her under cover of a guilty verdict in a case of common law homicide.
The law of Margery's local community also works in less explicitly legal ways in this account of her husband's accident. Margery and her husband's practice of celibacy, a practice presumably supported by the dispersed community of "oper gostly creaturys" whom she and her husband try to visit, also contravenes the law of the local community. And this contravention is met with a relentless verbal assault by townspeople "whos tongys wer her own [and Margery's] hurt."33 Allegations of secret couplings in the woods literally drive Margery and her husband apart, forcing them to prove their fidelity to their vow by maintaining physical separation and keeping them from joint visitations to the "gostly creaturys" whose shared belief would affirm the validity of their celibate practices. These behavioral modifications of course offer no solution from the perspective of the local community. Instead, they lead to a more serious violation of this community's law by keeping Margery from her "lawful" duty of attending to her aging husband, and thus furnish the basis that legitimates in her community's eyes her threatened punishment by hanging. There is, in other words, an impassable distance between Margery's celibate practices-her attempts to live the law she shares with her spiritual community-and the law of her local community. Moreover, Margery's attempts to maintain celibacy while addressing her neighbors' suspicions only worsen her position among her neighbors and effectively isolate her from the community of like-minded believers who might offer her support.
Although the full force of the local community's law is averted by her husband's prolonged survival, Margery is nonetheless unable to avoid it completely. Attempting to negotiate between two laws-the law expressed in her spiritual practices and the law of her local community-Margery again seeks divine assistance. In this instance, "owr Lord" speaks "to her mende" and bids Margery to take her husband home and "kepe hym for my lofe," assuring her that "ku xalt haue as meche mede for to kepyn hym & helpyn hym in hys nede at home as 3yf ku wer in chirche to makyn Pi preyerys" (180). But just as the jury's statement of "fact" would have seemingly bridged the distance between the community's law and the common law while actually asserting the community's law, here the Lord's voice seemingly bridges a gap between two laws while actually directing Margery to submit to the law of her local community, to stay at home and look after her husband.
Margery's difficulty in making this move-in abandoning the law of her beliefs for the law of her local community-is echoed in the confusing voice of the Lord. Assuring Margery that her less-than-full devotion to him will not be missed, the Lord states:
pu hast seyd many tymys Pat ku woldist fawyn kepyn me. I prey pe now kepe hym for Pe lofe of me, for he hath sumtyme fulfillyd pi wil & my wil bope, and he hath mad pi body fre to me pat pu xuldist seruyn me & leuyn chast & clene, and perfor I wil pat pu be fre to helpyn hym at hys nede in my name. (180)
It is difficult to identify whom Margery is to serve because this voice collapses the duty to her husband demanded by the local community into her devotion to the Lord; the law of the local community is resisted by being redefined as a request from the Lord. Margery maintains this resistance, even as the punishing force of the law she must follow threatens to stifle her devotional practices. As her husband's senile, incontinent, and remarkably durable body threatens to keep her from her contemplation, she redefines this punishing body as a site for her devotion, and "glad to be ponischyd wyth pe same person [she] toke it mech Pe mor esily & seruyd hym & helpyd hym, as hir thowt, as sche wolde a don Crist hym-self" ( 181).
If Margery's experiences demonstrate the importance of recognizing the laws of community that may be expressed "in fact" or in practice, they also highlight the inadequacy of using any one community's law to define an individual's personal law. Moreover, they warn against the temptation to privilege the more local community as the truer representative of the individual. Resisting the law of her local community, Margery practices the law of a dispersed community of "gostly creaturys" and seeks legal salvation in a point of "official" law that will help her evade the law of her neighbors. Her resistance to the force of her local community's law is expressed in voices, first the Lord's and then her own, asserting her continued association with the community of "oper gostly creaturys" even if her practices must conform to the law of her "gostly enmys." As we shall see, the Canon's Yeoman's voice differs from these voices in that it actively seeks the acceptance of a new community. It resembles these voices, however, in that it continues to carry the mark of a law of community that proves difficult to abandon completely.
Finally, Margery's experiences suggest how suspicions of others' practices can define a community around a perceived threat to its identity. Margery's willful separation from her husband provokes an outburst of rumor and allegation within her local community, binding Margery's neighbors together in their suspicions and disapproval of her behavior. Margery answers her neighbors' allegations by enforcing her separation more strongly; she has no interest in crossing the line between herself and her neighbors until the Lord's voice instructs her-and the force of her neighbors' law compels her-to do so. For those more actively negotiating the laws of different communities, such lines of suspicion can offer a toehold easing the passage from one community to another.
"This cursed craft": Craft communities and alchemy
The Canon's Yeoman's voice issues from a community as dimly perceptible as the community of "gostly creaturys" with whom Margery Kempe identifies herself The Yeoman and his Canon dwell "in the suburbes of a toun . . . / Lurkynge in hernes and in lanes blynde" among those "that dar not shewen hir presence" (657-58, 661). The Yeoman describes his situation and his master's "craft" in a first-person plural voice, but exactly who is included in this "we" is unclear: the Yeoman and his master, certainly, but presumably also the group of associates described in the first part of the Yeoman's tale. Whatever their number, this "we" is united in its pursuit of a "science" that keeps sliding out of reach.
Lines of suspicion dividing the pilgrims' company from the "we" represented by the Canon and his Yeoman develop quickly. The Host, alert to discrepancies between the Yeoman's description of his master and the Canon's "sluttissh" appearance, gently interrogates the Yeoman, who is quick to tell a different story about his master while praying that this alternative account be kept secret. And the Canon, beset by "suspecioun / Of mennes speche" (686-87), approaches to overhear the Yeoman's words to the Host, advising the Yeoman to "spek no wordes mo" when he learns the content of the Yeoman's speech. The Yeoman continues to speak, however, and the disclosure of his master's "pryvetee" drives the Canon from the scene, leaving the Yeoman alone in his new "compaignye." What we learn as the Yeoman continues his tale is that the "slidynge science" pursued by the Canon and his "craft" is alchemy, the "multiplying" of base metals into gold.
The tale's alchemical discourse has received much critical attention but recent studies have also pointed to another discourse that "adheres remarkably closely to depositions heard in the London Guildhall."34 And indeed, the tale is shot through with the language of the London companies and craft guilds. The Yeoman alludes to his seven-year term of service with the Canon (the minimum term of service for London apprentices), and his disclosures are described as his master's "pryvetee," a word often used by the crafts to describe their trade secrets.35 The Canon himself, "so crafty and so sly" (655), is often defined by his craftiness; alchemy is described as an "elvysshe craft" (751); and the end of the tale's first part brings us into the company of alchemists struggling "to bryngen oure craft al in another plite" (952).36 The Yeoman's apology to canons at the beginning of the tale's second part shows a heightened sensitivity to the harm one "singuleer mannes folye" can bring to "al a compaignye" (956-57),37 and in this second part, in language again suggestive of the bond between apprentice and master, the beguiled priest pledges to be the alchemist/canon's "in al that evere [he] may" if the canon pledges to teach him "this noble craft and this subtiltee" (1246-48).
There was, of course, no craft of alchemists registered at the London Guildhall, nor should we look to the records of a specific company as a source for Chaucer's tale.38 What we do see, however, is an appropriation within the "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" of a specific discourse associated with a specific and highly visible form of community in late medieval Englandthe urban guilds of merchants and artisans.39 In particular, we see in the tale's imbrication of alchemical and craft discourses the exploration of a strategy of community definition and protection common to both the tale's alchemists and the craft culture to which the tale repeatedly refers. This strategy is the carefully regulated use of speech and silence: speech that establishes relations within the craft and with the larger community on which the craft depends, and silence that maintains the integrity of the craft community and defines the position of individuals within the craft.
The jarring tone of the Yeoman's speech within the guild-dominated society of late medieval London has been noted on several occasions. The Yeoman's proposal "to save a city, or a pilgrim body, by betraying his master's secrets . . . turns the operative assumptions of the Guildhall on its head."40 His speech "violat[es] two of the prohibitions central to the strict discipline of London society: that a man should not slander his superior, that an apprentice should not reveal trade secrets."41 His speech certainly contrasts with the silence of the five Canterbury pilgrims most closely associated with London's craft culture. That the five liveried craftsmen introduced in the "General Prologue" never tell a tale might, of course, be attributed to the Canterbury Tales' unfinished form. Nonetheless, it is difficult to imagine anything resembling the Yeoman's narrative issuing from any of these five craftsmen, "ech of hem a fair burgeys / To sitten in a yeldehalle on a deys" (369-70). For to speak so openly of craft matters-to disclose craft "pryvetees" to those not in the craft-is to contravene one of the most fundamental laws of the craft community.
By the end of the fourteenth century, many of the London crafts had gained extensive privileges of self-regulation over matters concerning their trades. Many of the great companies of London-primarily the victualling trades and high-status crafts like the goldsmiths-had secured charters from the Crown giving them rights of self-governance independent of the city. Even the lesser crafts, however, had begun to benefit from delegations of power from city authorities enabling them to assert jurisdiction over craft-related matters.42 Among the foremost concerns expressed in the ordinances registered in London's Guildhall and in other guild documents is the need to keep craft matters secret, even as the crafts simultaneously profess their commitment to the common profit of the larger community of the city or the realm. Craft secrecy and city-wide common profit are not necessarily incompatible goals; as we shall see, the London horners make a specific point of showing how protection of their trade secrets benefits the London economy as a whole by drawing in foreign purchasers who cannot obtain the horners' wares elsewhere. Nonetheless, the walls of secrecy erected by the crafts to guard their communities' secrets could also create suspicion among those outside the crafts-suspicion, for example, that the crafts' secret practices might not accord with their professed interest in the larger community's common profit.
Royal charters and introductions to craft ordinances typically justify craft existence in terms of the city's or realm's common profit. For example, the scriveners pray that their ordinances, submitted to the mayor and aldermen of London in 1373, might be "granted [to the scriveners] and established for the common profit of the said city,"43 and Edward III grants his charter to the goldsmiths in 1327 "for the common profit of us and of our people."44 Yet professed concern for the common profit of the city did not translate into a desire to involve the city as a whole in the niceties of craft business, and the guilds consistently demonstrate a desire to screen goingson within the guild from the scrutiny of the larger community
By the late fourteenth century, "a severely punished class of offense [among the goldsmiths] was that which betrayed the skills and methods, `che privities,' of the craft."45 As the fifteenth century progressed, the goldsmiths' concern with craft secrecy did not diminish. A 1469 ordinance directs craft members to take only literate individuals as apprentices, given that "the lack of literacy causes members of the fellowship to have recourse daily to lettered men outside the fellowship, or else to take on strange servants to do their written work for them, with the result that the secrets of the fellowship are imparted to such men and strangers to the damage of the Company."46
When the horners submitted their ordinances to the mayor and aldermen of London in 1391, their expressed purpose was to "distroye the dissentis, greuawncis, and vnable werkis withinne the forseide Crafte" and quite literally to silence the craft within London by eliminating the "anoyawnce and grevaunce to their neyghbouris and straungeris that hath be doon by cause of the gret noys that thei maken doyng her Craft."47 The noises of "doyng her Craft" were not, however, the only sounds that the horners wished to keep contained. Like the goldsmiths, the horners in their 1391 ordinances also prohibit giving "knowleche of the said science of the same craft" to anyone "but if he haue ben apprentice and freman made by apprenticehode of the same craft."48 In the fifteenth century, the horners justify this prohibition in detail:
In asmoche as the makyng of hornes and other werke perteignyng vnto their seid mystier beth not perfitely had nor konned in eny Region or place of the world except in this lond onely which causeth the poeple of other londes and places to resorte and repaire vnto this Cite for hornes yerly vnto the grete proff te and worship of the same Cite, where as yef suche poeple of straunge londes myght clerly and parfitely vnderstond the konnyng and fete of makyng of such englissh hornes wold not hyder repaire yerely to bye such englissh chaffare. In consideracion wherof it can plese your sad wysdome to ordeigne and graunt that no manere of persone of the seid craft within this Cite or the libertees of the same from hensforth do make nor werke eny werke belengyng vnto the seid craft to eny other persone to geve hym knowleche and lernyng of the feet and science of the same craft but yef he have been apprentice and freman made by apprenticialite of the same craft.49
This ordinance not only reconciles craft confidentiality and citywide common profit-it asserts their interdependence. The craft's secret "science" profits the city as much as the craft by drawing into London "poeple of straunge londes" eager to purchase wares they do not have the "science" to manufacture for themselves. But this common profit will continue only as long as the "science" remains the craft's secret, passed exclusively to apprentices and freemen "made by apprenticialite of the same craft." The existence of a secret-sharing community of horners within London, in other words, is claimed to be in London's best interests. At the same time, this ordinance implicitly acknowledges that "science" is a commodity as valuable to the craft as the horns it produces. If this "science" escapes the craft's confines, so does the monopoly which the craft enjoys in the production of horns and the profits that monopoly produces.
Common profit and craft confidentiality were not always so easily reconciled. As Antony Black argues, "guilds were `concerned that a good product should be sold at a fair price" but the line between protecting producers and exploiting consumers was obviously fine."50 Accusations that this line had been crossed were not uncommon: for example, a complaint of the Commons in the 1363 Parliament alleges that the grocers have stockpiled a variety of goods "and those who have the merchandise raise the price suddenly by a covin. . called a fraternity and by counsel and assent keep the goods for sale till they are dearer."51 The author of "The Grete Sentence of Curs Expouned" (an anonymous Lollard tract) similarly alleges that members of the craft and victualling guilds "conspiren wickedly togidre . . . a3enst treuthe, charite, and comyn profit" to manipulate the prices of labor and goods. Moreover, the author compares the actions of these conspiratorial guildsmen to "parische prestis [who] conspiren togidre to selle sacramentis for a certeyn pris, and to lette [i.e., forbid] trewe men to preche the gospel, for drede last thei tellen out here cursed ypocrisie and symonye and heresie."52 To carry through the logic of the Lollard author's comparison, the priests' suppression of speech detrimental to their sacramental price-fixing scheme can be equated with guilds' schemes secretly to conspire against the common profit they claim to serve.
The craft community thus occupied a finely delineated space within the larger urban community. Dependent on the larger community's belief that the individual craft supported the city's common profit, the craft community was also subject to suspicions that its secrets concealed conspiracies injurious to the common profit. Within the "Canon's Yeoman's Prologue," we see a similar tension arise. Promises of profit to the pilgrim company if they bring the Canon and his Yeoman into their midst evaporate as the Yeoman reveals to the Host the true cost of the Canon's secretive craft. After the Canon's "suspecioun of mennes speche" has alerted him to his Yeoman's words, he attempts to repair the wall of silence breached by his Yeoman. In doing so, however, he only renders himself and his craft more suspect. And the Yeoman's speech now finds a receptive audience among an increasingly suspicious company.
The Canon and his Yeoman appear eager to fulfill the demands of the pilgrim company, but they also hint at even greater advantages that might accrue to the company through its association with these "crafty men. The Canon's ability to "tellen a myrie tale or tweye," the fundamental obligation of each company member, is quickly affirmed by his Yeoman: "Who sire? My lord? Ye, ye, withouten lye, / He kan of murthe and eek of jolitee / Nat but ynough" (599-601). This is not all the Canon can offer. He can work so "wel and craftily" at enterprises unknown (as yet) to the company members that, as the Yeoman assures the Host, "if ye hym knewe, it wolde be for your prow" (603-9). This "prow," or profit, seems great indeed: if he wished, the Canon could turn the ground on which the company rides upside down and transform it to silver and gold.
This potential profit proves too good to be true: the Host suspects from the Canon's slovenly appearance that "his dede" might not "accorde with [his Yeoman's] speche" (638). The Host, that is, suspects that the promised profit to his company might not be worth the apparent price of the Canon's craft, and as he draws a less glowing account of alchemy from the Yeoman, his suspicions are justified. "To muchel folk we doon illusioun," the Yeoman confides. The alchemists who "grope" after their "science" have the best intentions ("we han good hope"), but the profits they seemingly produce for those who support their craft are false (673- 83).
These disclosures are undeniably damaging to the alchemists' craft. As with the horners, the "science" of alchemy is itself a valuable commodity. In the second part of the Yeoman's tale, it is the promise of gaining this "science"-of being initiated into alchemy's "noble craft"-that tempts the beguiled priest to give his money to the fraudulent alchemist/canon. But alchemy differs from the horners' craft in that it has nothing but its "science," and an imperfect one at that. In other words, alchemy is a craft that survives wholly on the perpetuation of secrets; maintaining a craft culture of silence is not just a way of enhancing the value of this craft's product, it is the only thing of value to the craft.
The Yeoman's disclosure violates the craft culture of silence even as it speaks to suspicions of the community of pilgrims. By giving the Yeoman an opportunity to speak (an opportunity Margery Kempe can only pray for), the pilgrim company has seemingly found its way around the wall of silence defining the alchemists as a distinct community, following a code of practices potentially injurious to the pilgrims' own "prow" or common profit. Yet the Yeoman's subsequent disclosures, the stuff of his tale itself, ultimately tell us little more about his craft, and even seem to rehabilitate the potential of its "science." Having made his break with the alchemists, the Yeoman seems oddly reluctant to tell us more of their craft. His tale seems constrained both by an inability to articulate fully his craft's profoundly secret privities and by a lingering attachment to his master and associates in alchemy. At the moment of ultimate betrayal, the point at which we expect the Yeoman to identify the fraudulent alchemist/canon of his tale with his master, the Yeoman backs away, explicitly stating that this fraudulent canon is not his master.
The "Canon's Yeoman's Tale," in other words, is something of a paradox: a narrative of craft betrayal that backs away from the ultimate betrayal, and a disclosure of craft privities that nonetheless remain secret to the Yeoman's audience. It is also one of the Canterbury Tales that expresses a keen sense of its teller and his position, and the Yeoman's position is disturbingly uncertain. Estranged from his craft of alchemists and protected by a company that will last only as long as its Canterbury pilgrimage, the Yeoman faces not a future of "emancipated selfhood," but one of social isolation. As recognition of this predicament creeps into the Yeoman's narrative, so do the constraints of the community he has seemingly abandoned.
Of his craft somwhat I wol yow shewe": The constraints of community
The Yeoman's disclosure of alchemy's illusory (or elusive) "science," as damaging as it is, actually precedes his break with the Canon. It is only after the Canon has fled, seeing that "his Yeman wolde telle his pryvetee," that the Yeoman promises to tell all he knows of the craft, creating an expectation that the worst is yet to come. But within a few lines of the Canon's departure, immediately following the Yeoman's bitter denunciation of the master "that me broghte first unto that game," the Yeoman acknowledges how difficult it has been to leave that game: "And yet, for al my smert and al my grief, / For al my sorwe, labour, and meschief, / I koude nevere leve it in no wise" (712-14 ). And even with his master gone, the Yeoman has a difficult time shaking his presence. In the first part of his tale, as he is about to describe the Canon's role in the alchemists' craft, the Yeoman reminds himself that "now [the Canon] is goon, I dar seyn boldely" (902). In the tale's second part, as we inevitably associate the fraudulent alchemist/canon with the departed Canon, the Yeoman disabuses us of this notion: "This chanon was my lord, ye wolden weene? / . . . It was another chanoun, and not he" (1088-90).
Having willfully negotiated a move from the alchemists' craft to the the company of pilgrims, taking advantage of the company's suspicions of his crafty master, the Yeoman finds himself in an uncertain position. Not only his master, but also the debts of his abandoned craft continue to haunt him: "I am endetted so therby / Of gold that I have borwed, trewely, / That while I live I shal it quite nevere" (734-36). At the same time, his new company's protections are transitory. About to begin the second and, for his master, most potentially damning portion of his tale, the Yeoman looks forward to the time "that I fro yow wende" (970); cautions us not to attribute "o singuleer mannes folye" to "al a compaignye" (996-97); and then assures us that the "singuleer man" in question bears no relation to the master or colleagues he has left behind. The Yeoman, that is, finds himself positioned between two communities, but he is not fully of either. Consequently, he is caught between these communities' conflicting demands. The Canon's threatening command that the Yeoman "spek no wordes mo / for if thou do, thou shalt it deere abye" (693-94) is opposed to the Host's imperative to "telle on, what so bityde" (697 ).
If we return to the craft culture informing the tale's depiction of alchemy, we find other narratives similarly negotiating between conflicting laws, seeking the assistance of one while attempting to avoid the penalties of the other. With one exception, these narratives are Chancery petitions from the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries; the exception is also a petition, but to the 1377 Parliament. The petitioners' positions vary widely: two petitioners are apprentices seeking redress in Chancery for the alleged abuses of their masters; one is an individual petitioning against a guild of which he is not a member; and one is a London goldsmith who unsuccessfully alleges a price-fixing scheme within his own craft. Again, these petitions are not presented as sources for Chaucer's tale. Instead, they demonstrate how the conflicting imperatives of different laws-one demanding silence and the other encouraging speech-can both enable and constrain narratives of craft betrayal.53
We have thus far considered how the craft culture of silence protected craft secrets while defining the craft as a distinct community within the larger urban community. But within the craft, both speech and silence were relied upon to keep the craft's masters informed of goings-on and to regulate relations among craft members. Indeed, the desire of Chaucer's Host to learn the secrets of the Canon and his Yeoman is matched by the desire of craft masters to expose secret "covins" within their craft and to gain powers to search the premises of anyone practicing the craft. In countering perceived threats to their own communities, however, the crafts produce a language of unlawful association that certain petitioners use to question the legitimacy of the crafts. At the same time, the crafts' power to make a member "deere abye" illicit actions or speech is a forceful deterrent against pressing such questions too strongly.
Perceived threats to the craft community from intracraft "covins" were met by regulations designed to expose and regulate such threats: in the words of the horners' ordinances, "forto distroye the dissentis, greuawncis and vnable werkis with inne the . . . Crafte." Antony Black has described the "moral language" of association used by the early craft-guilds to define their communities: words such as fraternity, brother, fellowship, or company that "indicate a special conception of social solidarity."54 Yet fourteenthand fifteenth-century English craft materials also define a countering "immoral language" of association used against groups posing a threat to the craft community.
For example, a fifteenth-century Chancery petition by the master of a disintegrating "feliship" of the combined crafts of tailors, shearmen, and fullers accuses the "secte" of persons moving to separate the crafts of the "making of diuers assembles" and of "maliciously and riottesly . . . willing to rebelle agains the [craft's] gouernance and to vndoo and subuerte the good and commendable rule had with in the seid craftes."55 Similarly, a 1381 entry in the London Plea and Memoranda Rolls exposes a "covin and confederacy" of journeyman spurriers who have joined together to establish a minimum wage for "covin" members and to exchange craft information potentially injurious to the journeymen's interests.56 If compaignye or feliship signify legitimate craft communities, words such as secte and covin signify the point at which association threatens to undermine dominant interests within these communities.
Fears of such association and other illicit behavior within the crafts also produced ordinances encouraging certain forms of speech and discouraging others. The goldsmiths request the aid of all members in keeping the wardens informed of craft matters: new members pledge under oath to "warn the wardens straightway of any deceit which shall come to [their] knowledge for amendment of the same."57 But those governing the crafts did not wish to have craft matters subjected to endless discussion, especially after they had acted on them. The plumbers ordain that "no maner of persone of the saide Craft . . . reherse any olde maters the wiche the wardens . . . haue made an ende betwene the parties greved in tymes past."58 The weavers provide that if "any man or woman rebill of the seid Guylde ayens the Baillifs or ayens any of the Bretheren of the Crafte or go fro place to place to bere evill tales to the hurt of the forseid baillifs or bretheren . . . such rebill [or] euell tale berer" shall be fined and prohibited from employing journeymen until he or she has been "greed with the Baillifs and bretheren."59
Finally, regulation of speech within the craft could be used to isolate offending craft members. Item A in the appendix is a fifteenth-century ordinance of the Grocers' Company. Like the horners' ordinance discussed earlier in this essay, this ordinance mandates the retention of craft secrets within the "feleshepe." But this ordinance also turns its attention to the regulation of speech among craft members, instructing members to maintain silence toward any brother who has "doon offens ayens the hool feleshepe or any brother of the same crafte wherefore he owghte to be corected." The penalty for violating this injunction is expulsion from the craft. As for the brother who unknowingly awaits correction, a wall of silence separates him from his company until correction brings him back within the company's fellowship.
Such ordinances do not necessarily describe conditions actually imposed on craft members, although they do "provide a running commentary on what . . . was most concerning the craft."60 On the evidence of petitions emerging from this craft culture, it nonetheless seems as if craft ordinances regulating speech were indeed put into practice. Although certain of these petitions exploit the crafts' own sense of their vulnerability as self-governing communities, turning the language of "immoral association" against the crafts, such petitions are made at considerable risk. Equally evident in these petitions is the constraining force of the craft communities' laws.
The petitions of John Pye and William Wright (items B.1 and B.2 in the appendix) are spoken from positions more or less within their respective crafts, although far down the hierarchy of power. Both are narratives of betrayal by masters who allegedly have exploited their apprentices for their own benefit. But neither apprentice wishes to abandon the craft for which he has been trained, and accordingly both avoid criticism of the craft itself. At the same time, these petitioners have been forced to speak outside their crafts: the very fact that their petitions are being heard in Chancery suggests the failure of their craft communities to redress their complaints against their masters.
John Pye's petition is notable in several respects, not least in the shift of narrative voice which occurs halfway through the petition when "youre pouere orator" John Pye is revealed as "your pouere oratrice his moder." Such a shift points to John's adherence to the narrative strictures of craft culture. He is a petitioner who does not speak, who is defined by his observance of his duties to his master (he has "never offended ne trespassed to hym"). It is only when his mother is identified as the "oratrice" that the specific allegation of Pye's underage enrollment as an apprentice is made against his master, John Hylle. Unlike John Pye, William Wright must speak for himself, but he is careful to balance his allegations against his master with praise of the guild which he presumably hopes to join. Wright alleges that his master, Richard Wrenne, is violating the rules of his craft, but he points to the craft's willingness to step in when these violations are brought to its attention.
Nonetheless, the isolation of these two petitioners within their craft communities is made painfully apparent. John Pye is described as without friends to help him, and William Wright, for all his praise of the coopers' assistance, is marginally positioned in the coopers' craft, both of the craft in his self-identification as a "couper" and outside it for lack of official company status. Consequently, Wright is unable to rely on the craft's protections. Both Pye and Wright must speak outside their crafts because of their lack of position or influence within the craft, but because both seek a more secure position within the craft community, criticisms of that community have no place in their petitions. Instead, the petitioners assert that harms suffered at the hands of abusive masters are shared by the crafts, and their reluctant voicings of complaint carefully negotiate the line between one "singuleer mannes folye" and that of "al a compaignye."
Such careful negotiations are not a feature of William Lovesdale's petition (item B.3 in the appendix). With Lovesdale, we move to a petitioner who does not belong to the guild described in his petition. Freed from the constraints of this community, Lovesdale appropriates the language of guild self-definition and legitimate association and turns it against a "covin" of merchants in the Huntingdonshire village of Yaxley. Describing himself as a particularly unfortunate victim of this covin's practices, Lovesdale-the sole Yorkshire merchant-associates himself with the larger community in and around the village, validating his undercutting of the Yaxley merchants' prices in terms of his service to this community. He is the means by which the village can be "relieved" of the covin's price-fixing scheme. Lovesdale's petition, in other words, pushes back the boundaries of legitimate association, and from the broader vantage point of the village community, he is able to represent what appears to be a guild of Yaxley merchants as a covin working against the common profit of the village community.
Perhaps the most striking petition is that of the goldsmith William FitzHugh in the 1377 Parliament (item B.4 in the appendix). Combining an allegation against the most powerful segment of his craft with a position within that craft, FitzHugh dares to expose craft secrets in the forum of Parliament. FitzHugh purports to speak for the poor goldsmiths who, he claims, have been forcibly subjected to a price-fixing scheme by more powerful members of the craft. Like Lovesdale's petition, FitzHugh's petition exploits suspicions of illegitimate activity carried on within the closed community of the craft, and manipulates the language of legitimate community to separate out those against whom he directs his petition. The poor goldsmiths are the "commons"; they are "compaignons" menaced and exploited by the faction of "grantz et riches" goldsmiths-themselves deprived of an associative label beyond their shared socioeconomic position. The associative acts in which the rich goldsmiths do engage are represented as perversions: exploiting the signs of craft fellowship by joining in a public display of reconciliatory kisses, this faction masks its intent to disregard the terms of its apparent reconCI. .lation.
Equally remarkable in FitzHugh's petition is the ultimate absence of "compaignons" supporting his position. At the end of FitzHugh's narrative, the accused goldsmiths arrive in a group, and the common goldsmiths for whom FitzHugh purportedly speak do not themselves volunteer to speak for him. Confronted by the accused, FitzHugh expresses his intention to carry through with his petition; unable to find anyone to speak with him, his petition is "utterly abandoned" and he is consigned to the Tower. Having moved outside his craft community to speak against it, FitzHugh finds the craft closed behind him and his isolated position clearly demarcated by the goldsmiths' wall of silence. William Lovesdale, already outside the "covin" he critiques, has little to lose. FitzHugh's narrative footing is significantly more treacherous, and he ultimately missteps.
These four narratives span a range of positions, from the silent apprentice to the outspoken craft member. They also suggest the possibilities for, and potential costs of, a dissenting voice within craft culture. The culture of silence that constrains the voices of John Pye and William Wright is also alleged, in the petitions of William Lovesdale and William FitzHugh, to conceal price-fixing schemes that contradict the crafts' professed concerns with community and common profit. But as FitzHugh's petition most dramatically represents, the dissenting voice can be an isolated voice, and the costs of speaking are potentially high-exclusion from the community upon which one's livelihood depends.
Returning to the "Canon's Yeoman's Tale," we find another narrator ready to violate his own craft's culture of silence. The shifting dynamics of the tale's prologue have given him the opportunity to speak, and have also defined the limits of the associational impulses of the Canon and his craft. Even as the Yeoman moves away from his alliance with the Canon, the Host invites him into a company that offers its protections against the Canon's threats. And with his threats, the Canon betrays his commitment to the company of pilgrims. By referring to a body of secrets that the Yeoman should hide, the Canon defines himself and his craft as a group separate from the pilgrim company, just as the speech-based regulations of the guilds define their separateness from the larger urban community. The Canon has, in other words, exposed his craft to charges of illegitimate association, to redefinition in the terms of covin and conspiracy that contradict a professed concern with the company's "prow."
The Yeoman does not fully exploit the opportunity to condemn his craft inadvertently offered by his master. The force of his narrative rather derives more from his decision to speak against his craft's culture of silence than from anything he actually says. Arguably, of course, the Yeoman does not disclose the secret of his craft because there is no identifiable secret to disclose. But this in itself is damaging to his craft. The alchemists' maintenance of a culture of silence is not just a way of enhancing the value of this craft's product; it is the only thing of value to the craft. And in this respect the Yeoman speaks the unspeakable: the craft of alchemy is a mess of secrets that no one can untangle, and ultimately there is nothing of value behind those secrets. If alchemy is read as a craft that has fully realized the potential of the craft culture of silence, the Yeoman has seemingly joined Lovesdale and FitzHugh in a critique of his craft. This argument is undercut by the Yeoman himself, as he pulls back from the full implications of the disclosure he makes in his prologue. Hopes of finding the philosopher's stone, the knowledge that would bring his "craft al in another plite," seem to resurface in his tale's first part. And the Yeoman proves unable directly to condemn his master and former companions. Within his narrative, we can perceive the Yeoman's awareness of the instability of his position and the transitory protections of his new "compaignye.' Accordingly, as the allegations of the Yeoman's tale become increasingly damning, the distance he places between his narrative and the master and craft he has abandoned becomes increasingly wide. For as FitzHugh's petition so vividly demonstrates, the dissenting voice is a potentially isolated voice. As the Yeoman's narrative approaches its own point of no return, it refuses to make the identification of the fraudulent alchemist/canon that would completely sever the tie between the Yeoman and his master (and forge a link between the Yeoman, Lovesdale, and FitzHugh).
The "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" thus represents a complex negotiation between the laws of two communities, one encouraging full disclosure and the other requiring silence. In his acceptance of the opportunity to speak against his craft, the Yeoman has risked isolation. Unsure of his place in either community, he fashions a narrative which addresses both but can satisfy neither. But his narrative also suggests an ambivalence toward the very idea of community. On the one hand, bringing the Yeoman into the pilgrims company affirms the company's identity as a "community of willing tale tellers," a community maintained by tolerating, even encouraging, the open expression of different voices.61 On the other hand, the "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" speaks to a suspicion of communities, especially those communities that resist giving up their secrets. Sharing the logic of William Lovesdale's petition, the Yeoman's narrative takes the perspective of a larger community threatened by the unknown activities of the alchemists' craft. From this perspective, the craft's identity as a legitimate community is at best suspect.
As the boundaries of "legitimate" communities roll outward, subsuming and rendering suspect smaller social groupings left in their wake, the very concept of community weakens. Steven Justice's recent reading of the Canterbury Tales suggests precisely such a process at work in Chaucer's text. For Justice, the company of pilgrims is formed "at this particular price: anyone may speak, but no ones may speak together."62 We can perhaps see an awareness of this price settling on Chaucer's Yeoman as he tells his tale. Freed from the constraints of silence imposed on him by his craft, he is also separated from the company of his fellow craftsmen, a company united in what may be a futile pursuit, but united all the same. And with this analysis, we return to the issue of the Yeoman's modernity, defined in the fuller sense of an "emancipated sense of selfhood" balanced (but not cancelled) by an "overwhelming sense of loss."63 The Yeoman might fit this definition of the modern condition; his narrative, however, still raises puzzling questions as to what exactly has been lost. For if we see a modern nostalgia for a lost medieval sense of community emerging in this tale, we might also see that nostalgia dramatically qualified in light of the particular lost community the Yeoman has described. No ones may speak together in the community the Yeoman has joined, but no one could speak out in the community he has left behind.
What the Yeoman's tale suggests, in other words, is that a nostalgic sense of loss might be as much one of modernity's (and Chaucer's) fictions as an emancipated sense of selfhood. That fiction is betrayed in the tale's juxtaposition of bitter delusion and wishful illusion, and it is further betrayed by reading the tale with other contemporary accounts of community. A world of communities defined and bound by shared beliefs and practices is certainly not a world that Margery Kempe is allowed to enjoy; it is a world that appeals to the Yeoman only in retrospect. The world that the Yeoman has gained in Chaucer's fiction-a community tolerant of different voices, hardly a community at all-is a world of which Margery can only dream as she keeps her husband John. We may need these fictions of medieval and modern, of tightly knit communities and emancipated selfhood, but heeding the voices of the Canon's Yeoman and Margery Kempe-and those of Pye, Wright, Lovesdale, and FitzHugh-reminds us that they are fictions nonetheless.