“Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat,” David Maurer wrote in his linguistic study The Big Con. He dove into the world of the criminal elite, those who did not get rich by threats or violence, but by their wits alone. “It is a point of pride with him that he does not need to steal”; instead “the trusting victim literally thrusts a fat bank roll into his hands” (1). The power of the grift is the power of the story. Chaucer understood the implications of that power; though I won’t go so far as to suggest he ever worked a con, he found the idea appealing in stories at least. The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale (CYT) offers a narrative of crime wrapped in the rhetoric of the storyteller. As in his fabliaux there’s a delight in the spinning of the sucker’s yarn even while his narrator deplores the criminal deception involved. Nonetheless, I will argue that Chaucer reveals a grifter’s appreciation for the “aristocratic” con because he recognises it shares the same engine as his poetry: the power of a good story.
While you may not be familiar with Maurer’s book, a linguistic study of an early twentieth-century criminal argot, a lot of its knowledge has been mainstreamed largely through popular film. In fact the 1973 hit movie The Sting starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford that was lifted a great deal from the accounts and people in The Big Con (IMDB) and borrowed from its glossary of grafter terminology as well as Maurer’s dissections of big cons like The Rag, The Wire and the Payoff. In a more diffuse way, films as varied as Preston Sturges’ hilarious comedy The Lady Eve and the gritty noir of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters have presented the public with an insider’s view of the world Maurer studied in depth, awaking our imaginations to the world that lies just below the surface of respectability. David Mamet has made a career of this obsession, with films like House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner that have delved into this romanticized underworld with its clever tricks and fast-paced patter, which seems made for the big screen. They’ve made the jump to the small screen as well in series like Hustle and its non-fiction follow up, The Real Hustle. Mauer’s academic tome has had a surprisingly popular effect. Perhaps that’s because it’s part of an old story, “the odor of an ancient lust, the lust for easy money” (6). Or as Chaucer’s Pardoner would say, Ralix malorum est cupiditas [The root of all evil is greed].
He also covers some of the notorious short cons that grifters used to get by on between the more elaborate big cons. These ruses could be used without much preparation, run on the fly often without the partners or props the big cons required. They have equally evocative names as the big cons, like the smack, the tat, the tip, the last turn, the huge duke, the mitt store and the money box. It’s a fascinating read and I highly recommend it, but for my purposes I’m going to focus on the last of that list: the money box. It’s a similar scam to what the alchemist canon is running according to his yeoman’s retelling.
“A confidence man prospers only because of the fundamental dishonesty of his victim” (2) Maurer argues. The secrecy of the con man is like the pledged secrecy of the alchemists, for those who know the great hidden truths have been entrusted with a treasure not safe for mere mortals. “The philosophres sworn were everychoon / That they sholden discovere it unto noon” (1464-5) – a sacred promise but one made knowing that its discovery had a huge price. Neither “philosophers” nor grifters could prosper if their secrets were freely available. But the lure of the secret dangled within reach is one few can resist. And if, as W.C. Fields promised, “You can’t cheat an honest man” then it is the work of the grifter and perhaps the unscrupulous alchemist to exploit this loophole. “Confidence men are hardly criminals in the usual sense of the word,” the linguist suggests, “for they prosper through a superb knowledge of human nature” (3). Further, he argues that their methods differ “more in degree than kind from those employed by legitimate forms of business”—and we might add, moral storytelling. If one tells a story to better inform his audience how they may easily go astray—indeed clerics and well-meaning citizens are often led astray in Chaucer’s tales—then can one be absolved of the trickery involved in the tale? The Canon’s Yeoman claims:
For unto shrewes joye it is and ese
To have hir felawes in peyne and disese (746-7)
For rogues it is joy and pleasure
To see their fellows in pain and disease.
And these were words he was taught by a clerk (his master?) which seems hardly surprising given the number of dodgy religious folks Chaucer offers up in the Tales. But it’s also part of the rhetoric of the grift.
Maurer tells us that “all confidence games, big and little, have certain similar underlying principles” (3). The first is putting the mark up or locating a likely, willing and wealthy victim. For the canon and his yeoman, spotting the group of pilgrims who mostly seem solvent if not indeed well-to-do (the Parson and the Ploughman excepted of course). Catching up with the group might be the reason that “He hadde ay priked lik as he were wood” he had spurred [his horse] as if he were crazy (576) though it’s just as easy to imagine the two eluding pursuers for their last big con. “With Canterbury now less than ten miles ahead” the potential marks are within range of the possibility of spending all their wealth at the martyr’s shrine soon (Taylor 382), so it’s essential to work fast to play the con through.
The process of roping the mark generally requires steering him toward the “insideman” the one with a story to tell. If the Canon is the bait for the trap, clearly it is the Yeoman who gains the confidence of the pilgrims and begins roping them into a potential confidence. Of course it’s all at one remove, only as a tale told—or a series of tales. Harry Bailey asks for the Canon to “telle a myrie tale or tweye” tell a merry tale or two and the Yeoman assures that not only can his lord tell “withouten lye, He kan of murthe and eek of jolitee” without a lie, he knows of mirth and of jolliness (599-600) but also that he could turn the road upside down “And pave it al of silver and of gold” and pave it all with silver and gold (626). The observant Host finds it strange that a man with such rich powers rides so humbly amongst them “al baudy and totore” all filthy and torn in appearance “If that his dede accorde with thy speche?” whether his actions accord with your speech (635, 638). The disparity is certainly one central to Chaucer’s work—indeed to the Middle Ages to a great extent, as it harkens all the way back to the coast warden’s speech to Beowulf—in this moment, it raises suspicion only to quiet it with the telling of the tale.
Chaucer’s rhetorical strategy appropriates the format typical to roping the mark yet switches it to an avowed wholly fictional context. Not only is the tale about some other canon and not his master, he further tells Harry Bailey, “But I wol nat avowe that I seye, And therfore keepe it secree, I yow preye” But I will not verify what I say and therefore keep it secret, I pray you (642-3). The Yeoman manages a complex tension of truth about lies and double dealing that seems to have the space to be a true confession (like the Pardoner’s and the Wife of Bath’s) but also to undercut that truth with a complicated rhetoric (like the Pardoner and like the Wife). The more truthful the Yeoman seeks to be, the more suspicious we are inclined to become. He relates sad details: they live “Lurkynge in hernes and in lanes blynde /Whereas thise robbours and thise theves by kynde” lurking in corners and blind alleys where robbers and thieves are by nature [to be found] (658-9) and his face is discoloured from the constant work of blowing on the fire to make it hotter and yet “We blondren evere and pouren in the fir” we blunder ever and stare into the fire without result. Yes, “To muchel folk we doon illusioun” to many people we make illusions (673) but only because they continually fail at “knowledge” “but ay we han good hope” but ever we have good hope (678) that one day the outcome will be more positive. He manages to make their lot sound both pathetic and yet underneath it, honorable at least as far as intent. They are seeking knowledge even if they live among thieves; they might “doon illusioun” but only because they hope to achieve their goals.
The step of telling him the tale works on two levels at once. On one level, the Yeoman speaks to the Host and (potentially) the other pilgrims; on another he tells a tale of a past swindle with “a chanoun of religioun” (972) who may or may not be his own master. Maurer explains that for the con man, telling the tale is a way of letting the mark know how much money there is to be made. While the Yeoman tells a tale of a swindle with the stated purpose of demonstrating the duplicity of the bad canon, it offers the good potential of demonstrating both how to avoid such scams yet also how alchemy can be used to swindle people who see it as a short cut to wealth.
There is doubling throughout the tale: the canon and his yeoman, the two canons, the canon/alchemist and the priest—and they are at once both the knowledgeable and the ignorant, the “fals” and the “trewe” as well as the “wys” and the “nyce”—extremes that cannot logically both be true. The tale is a warning but also a kind of advertisement for swindlers; the Yeoman claims to be offering insider information on the conundrum that the alchemist is both incredibly knowledgeable about esoteric arts yet dressed in rags as evidence of his poverty, as the Host asks, how “his dede accorde with thy speche?” how his deeds accord with your speech? (638)
It’s the central conceit of the tale and Chaucer’s depiction of the Yeoman. He is a non-stop construction of conundrums. His too-wise master is nonetheless dirt poor. The Yeoman says that he would “dar leye in balaunce /Al that I have in my possessioun” dare lay in wager al that I own (611-2) that it was worthwhile to know his master, then makes clear that he is penniless. The Yeoman claims “of his craft somwhat I wol yow shewe” of his craft I will show you something then backtracks to say “al his craft ye may nat wite at me” all his craft you may not know from me (619, 621). He claims like the Franklin to be unlearned before launching into a detailed background of the herbs and elements used in alchemy. When the Canon rides off in a huff accusing the Yeoman of slandering him, he also says that he “discoverest that thou sholdest hyde” reveals what you should hide (696). If we take this at face value, the Yeoman is telling tales out of school; if we look at the careful construction of doubled “truths” then one possibility is the revelations are not solely the Canon’s but potentially the Yeoman’s too. Further, if this is all a put-up job between them, the Canon could be seen as the roper steering the gullible marks to the Yeoman’s inside man, who in the guise of “exposing” the Canon, is setting up the marks for his own swindling by way of telling them this tale.
That may seem a little convoluted, but in the first place this is Chaucer, who gives us characters like the enigmatic Franklin as well as the Man of Law, who “semed bisier than he was” seemed busier than he was (322). In the second place, it’s actually easy to draw a parallel about the vexed question of whether “dede accorde with speche” with the Pardoner who likewise spills all his tricks yet still expects them to work on the pilgrims in general and the Host in particular. This kind of chutzpah springs from a conviction in the inherent power of a good story well told. For the grifter it is the way to gain the confidence of the mark, to get him past the feeling of something being too good to be true to where it is too profitable to pass up: a sure thing. The Yeoman claims he’s only telling this tale to reveal the “pryvetee” privacy/secrets of his master (701), but Chaucer leaves space for him to also practice his expertise (which he claims not to have) on those whose eyes glitter with avarice at the simplicity of the swindle which he uses to mask his other expertise: the art of the grift.
As the Prologue ends and the Tale proper begins, the Yeoman loops back to gaining the listener’s confidence by restarting the story, appealing to sympathy by speaking of the seven years he has worked for the Canon yet “of his science am I never the neer” about his science I am never nearer knowing (721). Alchemy “that slidynge science” that slippery science is too complicated for his poor thin wit (732) and further it has emptied his purse and lost his possessions: “Lat every man be war by me for evere!” Let every one be warned by me forever! (737) Yet his tales of woe with “oure elvysshe crafte” our elvish craft (751) soon turn to tales of wonder as he details the vessels and substances that make up their art or science. Though he claims to be only a “lewed man” unlearned man (787) he goes on in great detail for another hundred lines about the “The foure spirites and the bodies sevene” the four spirits and seven bodies [metals] before getting on to the philosopher’s stone, all the while disparaging “this cursed craft” (830). The rhetoric shifts here from eliciting the years spent learning the craft and all the knowledge gained from that time (despite his constant avowals that it has profited nothing) to a new focus on the miraculous stone.
The transition is eased because it’s just as impossible as everything else in the cursed craft, but the appeal of the search for it is rendered in more romantic terms even as the force of the warnings rises too: if only we had it, the Yeoman says, we would be better off. But “For al oure craft” and “al oure sleighte” all our skill he will not come though the alchemists expend all their money and time and skills, for which they “wexen wood” go mad [with frustration] (866, 867, 869). “I warne yow wel, it is to seken evere” I warn you seriously, it is an unending search (874) the valiant Yeoman warns: hope will prey upon you and you will not be able to resist the search. Alchemists will spend every bit of money and sell the very clothes they stand up in to seek the philosopher’s stone, stinking of chemicals like a goat. However, he twists this picture of poverty at the end, making it a disguise. If the alchemist were to be recognized “Men wolde hem slee by cause of hir science” People would slay him for his knowledge (896). Far from being pitiable, the alchemist is valuable.
Focusing on the storytelling aspects of the Yeoman’s dialogue, Patricia Clare Ingham argues that the tale “suggest[s] the poet’s superiority over the alchemist as artisan-craftsman on moral as well as epistemological grounds…yet the tale urges us to look toward alchemists, not poets, as those profiting unjustly from a tricky use of language” (153). However, this is only because it is the poet who makes the alchemist speak and places all the approbation upon him. Of course we might well remember Edgar Duncan’s assertion that “Chaucer may have had personal and perhaps extensive and unfortunate acquaintance with one or more practicing alchemists of his day” (633), though it seems the upshot of that acquaintance may have been a sense of admiration for the eloquence of the art more so than the science. What if instead of “the Chaucerian performer as public servant” (Koff 37) we allow Chaucer at least as a fictional performer to be the grifter? He might only work the con on his audience, allowing his characters to accomplish the real swindle, claiming a moral purpose, but he enjoys the effects of the payoff which are anything but moral. “Grifters,” Maurer reminds us, “like to talk and tell merry tales among themselves” (281) and Chaucer is no different.
The short con which offers an analogue is “the money box” which requires “an honest man to finance a dishonest project” (271). In 20th century cons, this required an actual box with the con artist telling a tale of its one-of-a-kind origin and then producing the convincer: having the money spit out genuine cash. The box could produce an endless stream of cash, if only one had the right kind of paper. Having given the box to the mark for safekeeping, the grifter takes his cash and goes off in search of paper, never to return of course and the mark eventually discovers his box is phony. The con works because of the mark’s larcenous heart and willingness to cheat.
Likewise the Yeoman offers plenty of disclaimers that make plain their mark has been well warned (and the pilgrims now too). “But al thyng which that shineth as the gold / Nis nat gold, as that I have herd told” But all things that shine like gold are not gold, as I have heard told (962-3). After all, it is not the tale-teller who is the cheat but the certain canon whose “sleightes and his infinite falsnesse” tricks and falseness “wol make hym doten anonright” will make him a fool at once and like a fiend “Ful many a man hath he bigiled er this” full many a man he has beguiled before this time (976-85). The canon puts the mark up by borrowing money with a great show of drama, then returning it at the agreed upon time, offers “Somwhat to quyte with youre kyndenesse” Somewhat repay your kindness by giving away the secrets of alchemy that allowed him to multiply the borrowed wealth.
The Yeoman ramps up the disparaging rhetoric about the canon as he gets closer to the revelation of his secret, building the suspense, including a denial that it was his canon at all, but another one “That kan an hundred foold moore subtiltee” who knows a hundred-fold more tricks (1091). Like the modern grifter, the canon tells the priest “Ther been ful fewe to whiche I wolde profre” there are very few to whom I would offer these secrets (1123) and literally hides an ingot up his sleeve for the convincer. The special powder that supposedly creates precious metal operates as the money box in this grift. The canon demonstrates its amazing capability, verified by the goldsmith, then the priest implores him for the recipe. Just as Maurer demonstrated, the mark is begging to be swindled out of his forty pounds. Best of all, there’s less of a risk in cooling out the mark, or keeping him from realizing he’s been swindled because the failure to produce precious metal is not the fault of the glorious powder but rather the poor practitioner of the art. The priest needs more “soutiltee” in his technique, which is to say, failure is his own fault.
In the final lines Chaucer is cooling the mark out too, or should we say, his Yeoman is. He rails against the uselessness of alchemy while just having demonstrated that it has one very clear application: swindling. He goes overboard warning enigmatically, “If that youre eyen kan nat seen aright, Looke that youre mynde lakke noght his sight” If your eyes can not see rightly, look that your mind lack nothing in its insight (1418-9) and dazzles his audience with a recitation of experts, concluding that “that God of hevene / Ne wil nat that the philosophres nevene / How that a man shal come unto this stoon” that god in heaven does not wish that philosophers ever tell how one should discover this stone (1472-4). The subtlety of this assertion is easy to miss. As George Keiser has argued, many readers have overlooked their context within “the obvious satirical purposes of the tale”: the Yeoman suggests not that the secret is unknowable, but that alchemists (and he may include himself among them despite all his avowals) probably shouldn’t offer the information up. But as a grifter, he knows he’s already roped the mark. It won’t matter to him if people want alchemy for its true knowledge or for a shortcut to riches, as long as he gets his forty pounds. For the author, leaving his audience feeling both satisfied and fleeced—of their attention if nothing else—is grift enough.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale.” The Riverside Chaucer ed. L Benson. Oxford UP, 2008. Interlinear text available online: http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/teachslf/cyt-par.htm
Duncan, Edgar H. “The Literature of Alchemy and Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale: Framework, Theme, and Characters.” Speculum 43.4 (1968): 633-56. Web.
Ingham, Patricia Clare. The Medieval New: Ambivalence in an Age of Innovation. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.
Keiser, George R. “The Conclusion of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale: Readings and (Mis)readings.” Chaucer Review 35.1 (2000) 1-21. Web.
Koff, Leonard Michael. Chaucer and the Art of Storytelling. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Maurer, David W. The Big Con. NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1999.
Maurer, David W. The Big Con. NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1999.
Taylor, Paul B. “Canon’s Yeoman’s Breath Emanations Of A Metaphor.” English Studies 60.4 (1979): 380. Academic Search Premier. Web. 27 June 2016.