The Physician's Tale

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The Legend of Virginia

The Physician's Tale is one of the Canterbury Tales written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century.

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.

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.


Virginius- the father of the fourteen-year-old Virginia and a knight, kills his only daughter rather than give her up to the corrupt judge Appius. Virginia- the daughter of Virginius; not wishing to give herself to Appius, consents to her father’s plan. Appius- a corrupt judge and the main antagonist of the tale. Lusts after Virginia and concocts a plan in order to acquire her through legal means. Claudius- A "churl" under Appius's employ; instructed to claim in court that Virginia is actually a slave that Virginius abducted. Unnamed but mentioned characters include Virginia’s mother and the citizens who rise up against Appius.


The tale is a version of a story related both by the Roman historian Livy and in the 13th-century Roman de la Rose (Merriam Webster). The story opens with a description of the noble Virginius and the beautiful, virtuous Virginia. One day, Virginia accompanies her mother to the city on an errand and is spotted by a judge, whose name is later revealed to be Appius, who decides he must have her to himself. It is then that Appius concocts a scheme to take her legally: he contacts a local peasant, named Claudius, who has a reputation for being both bold and cunning and asks for assistance in the matter. Claudius accepts and is rewarded handsomely. Some time later, Claudius appears before Appius in court to file a complaint against Virginius, saying he has witnesses of his misdeeds. Appius declares that he can not try Virginius without him being present. Virginius is called to the court and Claudius begins his accusation: Virginius stole of Claudius’ servants one night while she was young and raised her as his daughter. He then implores Appius to return his slave to him to which Appius agrees, refusing to listen Virginius’ defense. Following the sentence, Virginius returned home with a “deathlike” face and called his daughter into the hall. He then informed Virginia of the events that transpired and offered her two choices: to be shamed by Appius or to die at her father’s hand. Virginia laments her position for a moment before consenting to death by her father’s blade. Virginius then beheads Virginia and brings her head to Appius in court. Upon seeing Virginia’s severed head, Appius ordered that Virginius be hanged immediately. However, at the moment a thousand people burst into the room and defended Virginius. They had heard of Claudius’ false charges and reasoned that Appius had put him up to it based on the judge’s lecherous reputation. The crowd arrested Appius and threw him prison where he committed suicide. Claudius was set to be hanged with the others who had helped Appius in his scheme but Virginius, in a moment of clemency, asked that the peasant be exiled instead. The tale then ends with the Physician warning of sin and repercussions.


There are a few reoccurring themes in Chaucer’s “the Physician’s Tale” such as consent and sacrifice. On the subject of consent, many critics have noted that, in the original versions of the story, Virginia was not given the choice of whether she could live or not. For example, Lianna Farber in her essay “the Creation of Consent in the Physician’s Tale” the detail of Virginia’s consent to death “appears neither in Chaucer’s stated source, Livy’s history, which Chaucer may or may not have known, nor in his unstated source, Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, which Chaucer most certainly did know” (151) meaning that Chaucer added the detail to the story himself. Chaucer’s goal in giving Virginia a choice in his version of the tale is unclear. In fact, some even wonder if Virginia truly had a choice to begin with. Once again, Lianna Farber in “The Creation of Consent in the Physician’s Tale” points out a flaw in Virginius’s ultimatum of death or dishonor: “These alternatives are problematic because there would presumably be many other ways to deal with the situation: Virginia could run away; she could go into hiding; Virginius could stall for time while he called together all their friends who were pointedly mentioned when we were introduced to Virginius; and on and on” (158). Even further still, some argue that the purpose of Virginia’s death is to highlight Virginius’s ineptitude as a father. Once again, Farber states that Virginius’s ultimatum to his daughter would have been seen as bad parenting saying:“It turns out, audiences of the story other than the Host tend to agree, that this is bad governance” (159). However, Farber also argues in the other direction saying that “the responsibility does not lie entirely with Virginius: Virginia embraces her father’s logic as well as his power and, voicing both, consents to her own death” (159).

On the topic of sacrifice, the popular saying regarding Virginia’s death is “losing her head to preserve her maidenhead” or sacrificing one’s life rather than their ideals. This has led many critics and theorists to analyze the value and impact of Virginia’s sacrifice in “the Physician’s Tale.” For example,  Daniel Kline, in his essay “Jephthah's daughter and Chaucer's Virginia: the critique of sacrifice in the Physician's tale,” asserts that “The Physician's Tale should be read in light not of traditional hagiographical narrative, in which sacrificial death is socially valorized and theologically naturalized, but in view of the account of Jephthah's daughter in Judges 11, a Biblical tale in which the daughter's sacrifice is neither lauded nor condemned” (77). In short, Kline states that Virginia’s sacrifice was not something noble but rather a tragic result from a series of unfortunate events.

Titus Andronicus[edit]

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.[1]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


Lambdin, Laura Cooner. ""Physician's Tale, the."" Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature, edited by Robert T. Lambdin, and Laura C. Lambdin, Greenwood,2000.CredoReference, Accessed 23 Feb 2017.

Physician'sTale, The." Merriam Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature, Merriam-Webster, 1995.Literature Resource Center, Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.

Kline, Daniel T. "Jephthah's daughter and Chaucer's Virginia: the critique of sacrifice in the Physician's tale." The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 107, no. 1, 2008, p. 77+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Physician’s Tale. NeCastro, Gerard, ed. and trans. eChaucer:

Farber, Lianna. "The Creation of Consent in the Physician's Tale." Chaucer Review, vol. 39, no. 2, Oct. 2004, pp. 151-164. EBSCOhost,

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