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The Canterbury Tales | The Physician's Tale | Summary

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Summary

The Physician's tale occurs in different positions in various editions, reflecting uncertainty among scholars about Chaucer's intended arrangement. The tale begins without a prologue. The Physician says the tale comes from Livy, the first-century Roman historian.

A knight of noble birth named Virginius had a beautiful and virtuous daughter, Virginia. One morning Virginia goes into town with her mother. A judge named Appius sees and desires her, so he hires a man named Claudius to accuse Virginius of stealing his young female servant and raising her as his daughter.

The judge immediately rules in favor of Claudius and orders Virginia to be taken from Virginius's home. Virginius, rather than give her over to the judge's lust, kills Virginia and cuts off her head, giving the head to the judge, who orders that the knight be hanged. But knowing Appius is lecherous and Virginius is trustworthy, the men of the town rise up. They throw Appius into jail, send Claudius into exile, and hang anyone else who was involved in the plot.

The Physician ends by warning the company, "Forsake your sins before your sins forsake you." Harry Bailey points out that some gifts of fate, such as great beauty, are those that sometimes "least befriend us." Then he says he needs someone to tell a more cheerful story and calls on the Pardoner. Some members of the company demand a tale with a moral. The Pardoner says he will think of a good tale while he has a drink.

Analysis

This tale includes extreme examples of ideas seen throughout The Canterbury Tales. Virginia, the beautiful and obedient young woman whose virtue is of more importance than her life, is not unlike other passively suffering women in other tales. The corrupt and lecherous judge is similar to other men of high rank who prey on the helpless, and Virginius is an extreme example of a noble whose sense of righteousness trumps more sentimental human emotions.

The main ethical conflict of the tale provides readers with insight into the attitudes and values of the Middle Ages. A daughter at this time was essentially the property of her father until she wed her husband, who would then become both authority and protector. Appius's plan disrupts this order; he does not ask for Virginia's hand in marriage but simply wants her for sex. Going along with Appius's scheme would be disastrous for the aptly named Virginia. Medieval society placed a high value on the chastity of unmarried women; stories of female saints who committed suicide to avoid rape were popular at the time. In this context Virginius's solution has a certain logic. Dorigen, the faithful wife of the Franklin's tale, is in a situation very similar to Virginia's—and Dorigen considers suicide as a way to avoid having to commit adultery.

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