History Contra Poetics in The Physician’s Tale

There is no introduction to “The Physician’s Tale.” We begin en media 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.

Pity and Promises in The Franklin’s Tale

The test of a great story is whether or not it carries a true representation of reality. The various themes explored in The Canterbury Tales point us to enduring questions: what is a good marriage? What is the most fitting employment in life? What is the nature of knowledge, and can a good clerk also be a good person? How should we understand justice? Is it better to serve the demands of the city or instead focus on personal and familial matters? Should all oaths be honored? These and many other questions point us in the direction of the true, the good, and the beautiful. In the Tales we are invited to consider which story, and its corresponding poet, is best above all others.

In old England, a Franklin was a lower-class freeman. He may have owned land but was certainly inferior to the gentry or the aristocracy. Chaucer’s Franklin has a beard ‘white as a daisy’ and is generally considered a sanguine man, living in delight, dipping his morning bread in wine. He is an Epicurean. He is a model of hospitality, like Saint Julian, with great supplies of food and wine at his home. The Franklin has also worked a variety of jobs, including being elected to Parliament many times. Perhaps that is where he learned the art of interruption when he previously interrupted “The Squire’s Tale.”

“The Franklin’s Tale” is the twelfth tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and it proceeds as follows: The Franklin begins his tale with a brief praise of the old and “gentill” Britons, and he asks for a pardon because he is, ironically, poorly educated having never slept on Mount Parnassus, nor has he read the writings of Marcus Tullius Cicero.

In “Armorica,” or the land that is called “Brittany,” not far from coastal town of “pendmark” -the old region of western France populated by the English, there lives a noble knight and his lady. She takes pity on his many sufferings so she marries him. Their marriage is founded on pity. Privately, he agrees to serve and care for her in marriage, while publicly he maintains the image of sovereignty to protect his status as a knight. Thus, in the dialectic on marriage that occurs throughout The Canterbury Tales, the Franklin has introduced a distinction between private and public goods, political tensions in marriage (in other words the Franklin disagrees with the Wife of Bath). Marriage requires submission and the sweet release of freedom from both parties privately, according to the Franklin.

The knight’s name is Arveragus of Kayrrud. He goes to England for a year or two to seek a good reputation in battle, in being a knight -for ‘the book says thus’ (implying the Franklin is recalling a book. Perhaps he is more educated than his false humility shows). Arveragus’s wife is named Dorigen. She remains at home in grief because her husband is gone. She prays to God (not to any of the Greek or Roman gods as other characters will later do) and she laments the many treacherous rocks along the coastline, which may prevent men from returning home.

One day, on the sixth of May she travels to a beautiful garden party where a lively squire called Aurelius, ‘a servant of Venus,’ confesses his love for Dorigen. In taking pity, she tells Aurelius that she will give to him her heart, only if he can remove all the rocks that line the shoreline. It is a nonsensical offer, but in making this bet she avoids hurting Aurelius, thus likely causing him to commit suicide. In torment at the absurdity of the promise, Aurelius prays to Apollo, Lord Phoebus, and with a little help from his brother, Aurelius goes to Orleans to consult a scholar about how to make the all the coastal rocks disappear. Upon arrival, they are immediately greeted by a wandering clerk who says hello in Latin. The clerk takes pity on Aurelius (again, “pity” serves a pivotal role in the story) and he digs deep into his astronomical study to create an illusion that the rocks of Brittany have been removed. His work is akin to “magic” and “astrology,” according to the Franklin. And when all the rocks appear to be removed, Aurelius goes to his love, Dorigen.

In the end, all the characters forgive one another: Arveragus returns from England and he forgives his wife and instructs her to fulfill her promise, but when Aurelius hears this, he forgives her oath, and the wily clerk from Orleans also forgives Dorigen for his mounting debts in exchange for the astrological trick. The Franklin closes his tale by asking fellow travelers which character is the most free in their opinion. Thus concludes “The Franklin’s Tale.”

According to the Franklin, scholars are, at best, clever tricksters. Also a good marriage requires mutual submission to one another, while publicly giving a different impression, and oaths are meant to be honored, but forgiveness, rather than debt, is the path of the superior man. In an attempt to answer the Franklin’s question to the group, perhaps the least free of the characters is Dorigen, because she makes her oaths based on “pity” -she chooses to marry Arveragus as a result of pity, and she offers a nonsensical chance to Aurelius also because of pity. However, in the end pity is what leads to forgiveness granted to each character. There is a combined defense of courtly love (a la “The Knight’s Tale”) as well as a demonstration of trickery (a la “The Miller’s Tale”) being used for noble ends.


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.

A Story of “Joy after Woe” in The Man of Law’s Tale

The Man of Law’s Tale is an episodic story of “Custance” (or Constance) that can trace its literary origins to the Anglo chronicles of Nicholas Trivet, as well as in the poetry of John Gower. In his tale, The Man of Law presents the group with a more noble tale than the bawdy stories from both the Miller and the Reeve. The Man of Law agrees with the Knight to an extent, as both men’s tales reaffirm “joy after woe” and defend the virtues of Western Civilization, however whereas “The Knight’s Tale” delivers a classically-rooted narrative of love and chivalry which is set in ancient Athens, “The Man of Law’s Tale” presents an early pre-modern Christian story about a pitiable yet saintly woman who has been wronged and sent away from her home in Rome to marry a Sultan in Syria, only for him to be murdered by his own mother. Custance, our saintly protagonist, is then cast adrift in a boat that leads her from Northumberland, to Spain, and eventually back to Rome. Though she is a long-suffering princess, Custance endures it all for the sake of her noble Christian faith and the belief that “Joy after Woe govern us in his grace.” The tale is like a picaresque adventure, only unlike Don Quixote or Gulliver’s Travels, Custance is a somber, noble, and more dignified main character who endures various episodes of great suffering only to find joy at the end of her woes. She is a somewhat wooden character whom the Man of Law offers as the perfect figure of early Christian womanliness. His tale is a life-affirming story that echoes the Knight’s in many ways, while also drawing swords with the Knight’s lack of Christian ethos. In his tale, the Man of Law reaffirms contemporary traditions and divisions between East and West, Christian and Muslim, Pagan and Faithful, Peace and War, and Good and Evil.

The Man of Law is a promise-keeper. He holds oaths as sacred and he is willing to suffer for the sake of joy. He is a Christian, and pities those in poverty most of all. In marriage, he advises spouses to be of the same religion, and to be wary of their mother-in-laws. He is a believer in ‘miracles and wonders’ as they are evidence of divine promises kept. Justice, to the Man of Law, is a man who pays his debts and fulfills his contractual obligations.

In Chaucer’s “General Prologue” the ‘Sergeant of the Lawe’ is described as a prudent and wise attorney who spends much of his time with other attorneys at St. Paul’s in London. He exudes great dignity and honor, and he is a successful investor in land as well as a near perfect writer. He is austere, to say the least, and gives the impression of being very busy. Both the Host and the Narrator have great admiration for the Man of Law, and Chaucer spends little time discussing his garb, because the Man of Law is a conceptual, abstract man. He wears a colored coat and a silk belt.

The introduction to the “Man of Law’s Tale” begins with the Host noticing the close of day on April 18th. He cites Seneca in remembering that time is a great thief, and he calls upon the “man of lawe” to tell a tale. The man of law, abiding by his promise, agrees to tell a new tale because ‘a promise is debt’ and he is nothing if not a debt-keeper. Amusingly, Chaucer breaks the fourth-wall with the Man of Law, who hopes to tell a new tale never told by Chaucer before, even though Chaucer is ‘ignorant of meters and rhyming’ and has told of ‘lovers up and down, more than Ovid made mention of.’ The Man of Law lists a variety of classical mythological stories that Chaucer has already written about:

Ceyx and Alcyone, the ancient Greek spouses who incurred the wrath of Zeus by impiously referring to each other as “Zeus” and “Hera” (Chaucer wrote about this tale in “The Book of the Duchess,” his earliest known surviving complete poetic work).

Pyramus and Thisbe, the ancient Greek lovers who shared a wall in Babylon, but their family’s rivalry forbid them from being together. They whisper their secret love to one another through a hole in the wall and arrange for a secret trist outside of town under a mulberry bush, However, when Thisbe arrives she sees a lioness with a bloody mouth so flees in fear leaving behind her veil. Pyramus arrives soon after to find her veil and a trail of blood, so he kills himself by falling on his sword, splattering the mulberry bush red. When Thisbe finds out, she does the same. This is the story of why the mulberry bush leaves are red (Ovid wrote about this story, and Chaucer reworked it in the 1380s in his “The Legend of Good Women”).

Chaucer also wrote of Dido and Aenaeus (in allusion to Virgil), as well as Demophon, ancient Greek king who marries Phyllis en route to the Trojan War; and Deianire, wife of Heracles and unwitting killer of her husband (see Euripides The Women of Trachis); and Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and betrothed to Orestes as a girl, but whom Menelaus promised to Achilles to send to his son Neoptolemus in Phthia after the end of the war. Eventually she married Orestes. The Man of Law goes on to cite many other classical stories: Ariadne, Hypsipyle, Leander, Hero, Helen, Briseis, Laodamia, Medea and Jason, Hypermnestra, Penelope, Alcestis, Canace, Apollonius, Antiochus. He amusingly ends his high-minded introduction by concluding that all these stories are ‘not worth a bean’ and that he will tell something completely different.

After the close of his introduction, The Man of Law delivers a prologue: a lament about poverty before he begins his tale, and a reminder not to blame Christ for suffering. The Man of Law mentions that a merchant once taught him this tale.

His tale is about a Syrian merchant company that learns of a renowned beauty: Lady Custance, daughter of the emperor of Rome. The Sultan of Syria regularly hosts these Syrian merchants when they return home from business. After hearing of Custance’s noble qualities he orchestrates to have her brought to Syria. They discuss magic and deception, eventually arriving at marriage, but there is a flaw: Custance is Christian and he is Muslim. So the Sultan decides to christen his whole house and become a Christian. Custance painstakingly marries him, and lamentably he is sent away to Syria, a foreign land.

Consider Chaucer’s beautifully crafted lines about the sultan’s lament for not possessing his lover:

Paraventure in thilke large book
Perhaps in that large book
Which that men clepe the hevene ywriten was
Which men call the heaven was written
With sterres, whan that he his birthe took,
In stars, when he was born,
That he for love sholde han his deeth, allas!
That he because of love should have his death, alas!
For in the sterres, clerer than is glas,
For in the stars, clearer than is glass,
Is writen, God woot, whoso koude it rede,
Is written, God knows, whoever could read it,
The deeth of every man, withouten drede.
The death of every man, without doubt.
In sterres, many a wynter therbiforn,
In stars, many a winter before then,
Was writen the deeth of Ector, Achilles,
Was written the death of Hector, Achilles,
Of Pompei, Julius, er they were born;
Of Pompey, Julius, before they were born;
The strif of Thebes; and of Ercules,
The strife of Thebes; and of Hercules,
Of Sampson, Turnus, and of Socrates
Of Sampson, Turnus, and of Socrates
The deeth; but mennes wittes ben so dulle
The death; but men’s wits are so dull
That no wight kan wel rede it atte fulle.
That no person can well interpret it fully” (190-203)

During Custance’s marriage celebration to the Sultan, his mother becomes angry about his conversion to Christianity. During the wedding feast she hatches a plan to massacre her son and all his newly Christened compatriots. She only spares Custance, whom she sets adrift in a boat loaded with treasure sailing for the Strait of Gibraltar. At this point in the story, the religious imagery turns exclusively toward Christianity as Custance looks to the cross of Jesus to guide her to safety. Custance washes ashore in Northumberland.

At this time, Northumberland is a pagan land, and Custance converts her caretakers to Christianity. However, two miraculous events occur: the wife of Custance’s rescuer, Hermengyld, heals a blind person; and an evil Knight murders Hermengyld (out of a sick and lustful desire for Custance) and he tries to frame Custance. The evil knight is then suddenly struck dead when he swears upon holy books, attesting to Custance’s guilt. Based on these two miraculous events, the regional king “Alla” (based on Chaucer’s knowledge of Ælla, the first known Anglican king of Daella), decides to convert to Christianity and they are married. Custance gives birth to a son. However, Alla’s evil mother, Donegild, does not approve of his conversion (a parallel mother-in-law to the Sultan of Syria’s mother) so she fabricates letters between Custance and Alla, while he is away at war. Horrified at these messages, Custance again sails away with their son. Upon learning of this loss, Alla has his mother executed.

Custance returns to her boat and sails away, landing in Spain. She narrowly avoids an abusive man, until she is rescued by a Roman Senator sailing for Rome en route from “Barbary” (Syria). He was avenging the Sultan’s murderous mother at the behest of Custance’s father. Later, King Alla, lamenting the loss of Custance, goes on pilgrimage to Rome and he miraculously reunites with his wife and child. Custance and Alla return to Northumberland, but he dies shortly thereafter. Custance then returns to Rome where, upon the death of her father, her son, Maurice, becomes the future emperor of Rome.

The Host concludes by praising the tale and asking the Parson to ‘preach’ a story to the group next.


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.