This is a domestic drama about the relationship between a daughter and her father and it is one of the earliest extant poems in English about such subjects and relationships. The tale comes from the Histories of Titus Livius and is retold in The Romance of the Rose, John Gower's Confessio Amantis which Chaucer drew on for inspiration along with the biblical story of Jephtha. Most of the other versions of the story focused on the cruel and arbitrary officials but Chaucer was far more concerned with the daughter as the central figure.
Virginius, a nobleman of Rome, has a beautiful, fourteen-year-old daughter. She is spotted one day by a judge, Appius who decides he must have her and forms a plan. His accomplice, a "churl" by the name of Claudius, claims in court that Virginia is his run-away slave and Appius decrees that her real father must relinquish her to the court. Virginius goes home and tells his daughter he must kill her to protect her honour. She resigns herself to her fate and swoons, and he cuts her head off. He takes her head to the court and when Appius demands his execution for murder, the populace instead rises up and deposes the corrupt official. Appius kills himself in jail, but Virginius spares Claudius' life and condemns him to exile instead.
Although difficult to date like most of Chaucer's tales, the Physician’s tale is usually regarded as an early work of Chaucer probably written before much of the rest of the Canterbury Tales was begun. The long, and rather distracting, digression on governesses possibly alludes to a historical event and may serve to date it. In 1386 Elizabeth, the daughter of John of Gaunt, eloped to France with John Hastings, 3rd Earl of Pembroke. The governess of Elizabeth was Katherine Swynford who was also Gaunt's mistress and later wife. Chaucer's very careful, mollifying words on the difficult job and the virtues of governesses seem to be a very canny political move.
The story is considered one of the moral tales, along with the Parson's tale and the Knight's tale. However, the fate of Virginius renders questionable the moral assertion at the story's end. The Host enjoys the tale and feels for the daughter but asks the Pardoner for a more merry tale. The Pardoner obliges and his tale has a similar but contrasting moral message.
Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus pays homage to this tale. After Lavinia is raped and mutilated, her father Titus kills her, arguing that she "should not survive her shame." He then compares himself to Virginius.