Physician’s Tale, The

Physician’s Tale, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1386)
   The Physician’s Tale is one of the least admired of CHAUCER’s CANTERBURY TALES. Coming directly before the universally admired PARDONER’S TALE in what is generally called “Fragment VI” of the Tales, the Physician’s Tale may suffer by comparison. It is a short and rather disturbing story of a father who kills his daughter to protect her virginity, first told by the classical Latin historian Livy, and retold in various versions during the Middle Ages, including a brief version in the ROMAN DE LA ROSE and a version by Chaucer’s friend John GOWER in his CONFESSIO AMANTIS. Chaucer’s tale seems to have been written prior to Gower’s, but Chaucer probably knew Livy’s account as well as that in the Roman. In the story the evil judge Appius lusts after 14-year-old Virginia, the beautiful and virtuous daughter of Virginius. Appius hatches a plot with his lackey Claudius, in which Claudius brings a suit against Virginius, saying that Virginia is not his daughter but rather Claudius’s slave.After a travesty of justice in court, during which Appius awards Virginia to Claudius, Virginius perceives the plot and its motive.He goes home and informs Virginia that he must kill her to protect her chastity. She laments, but sees there is no other way. Virginius strikes off her head, and brings the head to Appius. The people, who learn of the atrocity, rebel. Appius is thrown in prison where he commits suicide, while Claudius, condemned to hang, is saved when Virginius pleads for his life. The narrator expresses the moral of the story as “forsaketh synne, er synne yow forsake” (Besnon 1987, 193, l. 285). Most readers have found the tale unsatisfying, and have been confused by the “moral” at the end. In other medieval versions of the tale, it has been used to illustrate the results of bad government, but Chaucer sidesteps this implication. Some have suggested that Chaucer deliberately avoided the political themes, especially anything involving popular uprising, in a tale written so soon after the PEASANTS’ REVOLT.Others have suggested that the narrator displays a spiritual blindness, and oversimplifies the moral, not realizing the complexity of the tale he tells. Further, Chaucer may have seen the tale as far more problematic than previous authors—indeed, he deliberately complicates things by expanding the character of Virginia, and thus our sympathies for her, in a scene of utmost pathos with her father.Nor is Virginius depicted in a particularly positive way— he is, after all, a child murderer. Thus the narrator’s own oversimplification of the moral may reflect Chaucer’s belief in the inadequacy of previous interpretations of the morally complex story.
   ■ Collette, Carolyn P. “ ‘Peyntyng with Greet Cost’:Virginia as Image in the ‘Physician’s Tale,’ ” Chaucer Yearbook 2 (1995): 49–62.
   ■ Delany, Sheila.“Politics and the Paralysis of the Poetic Imagination in the Physician’s Tale,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 3 (1981): 47–60.
   ■ Fletcher, Angus. “The Sentencing of Virginia in the Physician’s Tale,” Chaucer Review 34 (2000): 300–308.
   ■ Ramsey, Lee C. “ ‘The Sentence of It Sooth Is’: Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale,” Chaucer Review 6 (1972): 185–197.
   ■ Ruud, Jay. “Natural Law and Chaucer’s ‘Physician’s Tale,’” Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association 9 (1988): 29–45.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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