6.1 The Physician's Tale

The "urinal" that the doctor is examining comes from Harry Bailey's words in the Introduction to the Pardoner's Tale, the richness of his attire from the General Prologue:

 In sangwyn and in pers he clad was al,
        Lyned with taffata and with sendal.
        And yet he was but esy of dispence;
        He kepte that he wan in pestilence.
        For gold in phisik is a cordial,
        Therefore he lovede gold in special.


Short Summary:

Virginia, the daughter of Virginius, is fourteen years old, beautiful, and virtuous. You who have charge of lords' daughters, see that you teach them virtue. Assent unto no vice. You fathers and mothers must give good examples by your own living. Appius, a wicked judge, conceives a lecherous desire for Virginia; He gets his churl Claudius to bring a suit, swearing she is his slave. Virginius is summoned; Appius awards Virginia to Claudius. Virginius goes home, strikes off Virginia's head and takes it to Appius. The people rebel, throwing Appius in prison, where he slays himself. Claudius, the churl, is condemned to be hanged, but Virginius pleads for his life and he is exiled. Here one may see the reward of sin.

Students reading this tale for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful.


Contextual Information:

Chaucer attributes his story of Virginia and Appius to Titus Livius, the historian of Rome, but his principal source is the version in the Romance of the Rose:

            Livy's Account of Appius and Virginia
            Appius and Virginia in Le Roman de la rose.

Chaucer's friend, John Gower, also includes a version of this tale in his Confessio amantisAppius and Virginia in Gower's Confessio.

Chaucer's tale shows no traces of Gower's version, and this has been offered as an argument that the Physician's Tale is an early work. Early critics had the habit of assuming that any tale they did not much like (especially moral and religious tales) must be an early work. As usual in The Canterbury Tales, there is no way of determining the date of composition of an individual tale.

Certainly the tale has had few admirers. John Gardner (to name one example), in The Poetry of Chaucer, 1977, pp. 293-08, claimed the Physician's Tale is an example of Chaucer's intentionally "bad art"; Chaucer, so the assumption runs, disliked the Physician and so gave him a bad tale by way of punishing him. Why he should thereby also punish his readers is not clear.

The Physician's Tale is not among Chaucer's finest works; the long digression on governesses and parents seems to have no function; the relevance of the tale to its stated moral -- "Forsaketh synne, er synne yow forsake" (VI.286) -- is obscure at best. All the other versions of the tale use it to exemplify the perversion of justice; Chaucer supplies no clear replacement for that theme; even so general a theme as "sin" does not very clearly apply to Claudius (who escapes hanging).  Yet the tale is not without merit; the tenderness of the scene between Virginia and Virginius -- when the father, ashen faced, looks upon his doomed child -- is in Chaucer's best pathetic vein.

For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Physician's Tale click here.