History Contra Poetics in The Physician’s Tale

There is no introduction to “The Physician’s Tale.” We begin en medias res. The tale cites its source as Titius Livius (“Livy”) the great Roman historian, though Chaucer likely borrowed sections from The Romance of the Rose, a poem which Chaucer partially translated from French into Middle English. Unlike other tales, “The Physician’s Tale” is not about unrequited love or the foibles of marriage. Instead we are offered an allegorical tale about lust and chastity.

We are introduced to a powerful and honorable knight named Virginius who has one beautiful daughter named Virginia. She is formed in ‘excellence’ in accord with ‘Nature’ in such a way that none (not even Pygmalion as recounted in Ovid) might create a forgery. Her age is ‘twelve years and two,’ and she is the flower of virtue, moderation, and honor. As in “The Knight’s Tale” we are dealing explicitly with high-born themes of chastity but the “The Physician’s Tale” is somewhat superficial and unbelievable, like a morality play, despite the Physician’s explicit claim that his tale is a perfectly true “history,” not a morality story nor a “fable.”

One day Virginia comes to the city and passes by the judge and governor of the region (the location is unnamed though we are led to believe it is a region in ancient Rome). This judge, named Apius, decides he will win over her body by means of trickery in a lawful way (i.e. not by force). He calls upon a churl named Claudius from the village (a man of evil-doing). Claudius brings a false claim against Virginius before the court – that Virginius stole one of Claudius’s young servants long ago and raised her as his daughter. Apius quickly convicts Virginius, and he orders that Virginia be turned over to Apius as part of the plot.

Distraught, Virginius returns home. He offers his daughter two choices: the live a life of lechery with Apius, or else face death immediately. She takes some time, just as Jephtha’s father offered his daughter time to reflect, as recounted in the Biblical Book of Judges, Chapter 11 (the Biblical story is about a judge named Jephtha who leads the Israelites in battle against the Ammonites and after a victory celebration he vows to sacrifice the first person to walk through his door which, lamentably, turns out to be his own daughter). At any rate, Virginia chooses the latter (death) at the recommendation of her father and so Virginius executes his own daughter by beheading. He presents her severed head to Apius who then condemns Virginius to death by hanging, however Virginius is rescued by ‘thousands’ of people who come to his defense and banish the lecherous Apius.

The Physician closes his story with a lesson – his tale is intended to show that sin always yields evil. Various schemes to gain a lover, as recounted in the other tales, are flatly rejected by the Physician. Untruth is always evil to him. He has nothing to say about love or marriage, only bodily instincts. He sees licentiousness as a malady that is in need of correction, not in accord with ‘Nature.’ “The Physician’s Tale” is appropriate for a medical doctor – he sees an ill that needs curing, and so he offers a lesson to the group, contra the desires of someone like the Wife of Bath. His tale offers a moral but it is not the most amusing of tales, and therefore it falls short of the criterion to be the winner.

In the “General Prologue” the Physician is described as someone “who knew the cause of everich maladye,” and a moderate eater, drinker, and spender of money. We are not given his name because it is not important. He represents a certain type of character, one who diagnoses problems. Although he is little studied in the Bible compared to his vast knowledge of astronomy, he has, ironically, read enough to reference the somewhat obscure tale of Jephtha in his tale. With his story, the Physician instructs people to protect the innocence of young maidenhood. However he explicitly states that the tale is not a “fable,” but it is intended to be a true history. Thus, he wishes to make the leap from a story that might have happened, to a story that did, in fact, occur (per the classical Aristotelian model, as discussed the Poetics). However, “The Physician’s Tale” reads more like a Christian allegory, or a tragic fable, and perhaps, in some ways, there is a certain degree of moral allegory latent in all historical writing. In claiming to present an authentic history, “The Physician’s Tale,” therefore, does not fall into the category of classical poetics, and can be discarded from the competition, as Chaucer has subtly indicated.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

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