Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Physician's Tale"

Genre: a moral tale.  Its source probably was the Roman de la Rose, but its original source was Livy's history.

Form:  Rhyming couplets.

Characters:  Virginius, the Roman knight; Virginia, his 14-year-old daughter; Apius, the governor and judge of their province; Claudius, the "cherl" who serves Apius; the crowd that storms the court after Virginia's death; and "the remenant [. . . ] / "that were consentant of this cursednesse" (VI.275-6).

Summary:  Apius sees the beautiful Virginia and lusts for her. His "cherl," Claudius, invents the fiction that Virginia is a thrall or slave, rather than Virginius' daughter, and that she is Claudius' slave, unlawfully denied him. Virginius tells his daughter she has only two options, death or shame, and says "My pitous hand moot smyten of thyn heed" (VI.226). After lamenting her fate and swooning, she begs her father to slay her. He cuts off her head and presents it to Apius, who orders Virginius hanged. The mob prevents this. Apius kills himself in jail. Claudius is sentenced to hang but Virginius asks that his sentence be communted to exile "of his pitee," and the "rememant" are all hung.

Harry is so overcome with "pitee of this mayde" that he says he's nearly having a heart attack and asks for either a drink of ale or a "myrie tale" (VI.317, 316). Seeing the Pardoner, he invites him to tell a tale but the "gentils" protest that the tale should not be "ribaudye" (VI.323, 324).


Interpretive Issues:

1)  The RC notes say it well: "For many years the majority view of the critics, expressed most eloquently in silence, has been that the tale is poorly written and motivated" (902). Even E.T. Donaldson, one of Chaucer's foremost defenders as a canonical genius, admits to feeling let down. Efforts to claim the tale has rhetorical or dramatic beauty have not convinced many. This suggests that, unless Geoffrey seriously misjudged his material, the tale's deficiencies are its teller's, rather than Chaucer's. Given the General Prologue portrait (I.411-44), what moral and ethical problems would you expect to see in this teller's tale?

2) The Physician's use of a Roman historical event, like the Man of Law's "Custance," is an attempt to claim status due to high learning. The English took seriously the notion that the Romans were in some sense their forebears, though the full extent of their imperial ambition did not flower until Elizabeth's time. What Roman virtues does the Physician attempt to attribute to his characters, and how does he interpret them? Compare Harry Bailey's response after the tale as an "inscribed reader" of the tale.  How does this tale's value system compare with those of the other pilgrims?  With whom would the Physician most nearly be at home, and who would be his natural antagonist?

3)  The advice to governesses and parents about their children's upbringing seems, to modern readers, a rather lengthy interruption of the narrative (VI.72-117).  The odd last line ("The Doctour maketh this descripcioun") is a formula that may be found in Malory in places where the narrator digresses to offer moral judgment.  If you were to compare this to a sermon, you'd see that Virginius' relationship with his daughter functions as the "exemplum" or narrative example upon which the sermon, proper, is based.  The key elements of the doctor's sermon concern the appropriateness of governesses who either never have fallen into sin or who know it so well that they make good "keepers," and the danger of parents' "necligence in chastisynge" their children (VI.98).  The latter proposition is specifically said not to apply to Virginia because she's so perfect.   So what could have saved her other than her father's more complete knowledge of corruption, the better to prepare him to resist Claudius and Apius?  How might this reflect medical thinking about cures and causes of disease in Chaucer's day?

4)  The plot's theme of the false judge plays naturally into the story telling game, since Apius hears stories all day long and is supposed to judge them truely.  How does the story Claudius invents appeal to Apius, and what might that mean for the Physician's story's attempt to appeal to some of the pilgrims?  Especially see Harry's response.  Note that Apius will not hear Virginius' story before reaching judgment.  What might that mean about the multiplicity of stories Chaucer gives us?

5)  Virginia's question is an excellent one: " . . . 'Goode fader, shal I dye? / Is ther no grace, is ther no remedye?" (VI.235-6).  Why doesn't Virginius challenge the justice system?  Considerable comment might have been expected in Chaucer's day if a tale involved "a thousand peple" who break into a courtroom and release the defendant, while locking up his judge and accusers.  The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 involved several incidents in which that precise sequences of events happened for real.  Could this be a tale wherein Chaucer had to suppress some of the content to make it palatable to public opinion?   For a contemporary legal description of the actions of the Canterbury mob in July 1381, click here.   The relevant parallels are in red near the bottom.

6)  This fragment contains only the Physician's tale and the Pardoner's, but the latter is so important that the location of the fragment becomes a very interesting problem. Without a "Physician's Prologue" there is no clear authority for linking it to the Franklin's Tale," and only the "a" group MSS do so. All other manuscript groups ("b," "c," and "d") locate it after Fragment VIII, containing the "Second Nun's Tale" (a saint's life) and "Canon's Yeoman's Tale" (deceptions of an alchemist). If we were to look at it in that order, it would nicely fit into a "false-judgment-and-deception sequence" that draws attention to the power of greed and lust to blind us to sin. The divine intervention of the "Second Nun's Tale" does not save the saint from her martyrdom, just as Virginius' strange sense of strategy does not save his daughter, so in both those tales innocence is sacrificed to enhance some higher value or authority. Both the Pardoner and the Canon's reveal how lower orders of corruption are practiced, and there is precious little innocence left after they're done. Could you make connections between these tales and others of the "moral tale" types (MoLT, ClT, etc.)? How does Chaucer appear to be treating earthly justice and divine order?

Critical Sources:

Brown, Emerson Jr. "What is Chaucer Doing with the Physician and His Tale?" Philological Quarterly. 60:2 (1981) 129-144.

Brown reads the tale as Chaucer's continuation of the theme of the pilgrimage as a journey toward a moral cure, one which only can be found at its end.   The moral disorder of this tale thus becomes a motive for looking beyond mere mortal justice in the search for the reasons why things happen.  Brown's pilgrims, and Virginia, herself, represent "humanity, sick beyond its own capacities for healing and stumbling towards a cure" (144).  Thus, the Doctor's failure is Chaucer's success.  For more, consult Rebecca Yenawine's annotation on the Goucher College Chaucer Seminar Annotated Bibliographies (10/31/94).

Dillon, Janette. "Chaucer's Game in Pardoner's Tale." Essays in Criticism. 41:3 (July 1991) 208-214.

        Though not explicitly about Phys.T., Dillon's argument about Pard.T. depends upon the immediate juxtaposition of Phys.T. before Pard.T. to establish the indeterminate style of dialogue practiced by the Pardoner, as opposed to the Physician's moral homelies which somewhat overburden his tale.  For more, see James Sawyer's annotation on the Goucher College Chaucer Seminar Annotated Bibliographies (9/30/94).

Lancashire, Anne.  "Chaucer and the Sacrifice of Isaac."  The Chaucer Review. (1975) Vol. 9 No.4.320-26
        Lancashire accepts Thomas Hanson's assertion (ChR 7 [1977]) that certain keywords in the tale identify it as referring to Christian religious concepts, and then identifies Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac as the structural type the tale refers to.  This late-New-Critical attempt to bring this troubling tale into a Robertsonian coherence with an overall theological unity for CT has not persuaded many readers.  However, it also is a sign of the tale's continuing irritation of the readers' interpretive practices.  The Physician has given us a dangerous tale, it would seem.   See Judy Cook's annotation on the Goucher College Chaucer Seminar Annotated Bibliographies (10/28/96).

Mandel, Jerome. "Governance in the Physician’s Tale." The Chaucer Review 10:4 (1979) 316-325.

        Mandel tries to save the tale's "sentence" by treating the tale as a case study in "wicked government" and how to respond to it.  He reads Virginia as a pagan "saint" whose obedience and chastity lead her to sacrifice herself rather than to allow a sinful thing to occur.  Once again, we have to be convinced that it should be read as a Christian tale though Christ and Christian doctrine are nowhere explicitly invoked.  Thomas Zorc's annotation reveals that he was not entirely persuaded on the Goucher College Chaucer Seminar Annotated Bibliographies (October 10, 1996).

Ramsey, Lee C. "'The Sentence Of It Sooth Is': Chaucer's Physician's Tale." The Chaucer Review.  6:3 (Winter 1972).
        This study treats the tale as the Physician's failed attempt to dramatize Virginia's pathetic sacrifice, a shift in meaning from the tale's sources which emphasized the corrupt male officials who plot against her.  This reading accounts for many of the facts about the tale's relationship with its sources, but it doesn't satisfyingly deal with what Chaucer means by setting the Physician up as the tale's teller.  See Judy Cook's insightful speculations on why this might have been doneon the Goucher College Chaucer Seminar Annotated Bibliographies (also 10/28/96).

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