Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Physician’s Tale


The Physician mentions that the source of his tale is Titus Livius. There once lived a noble Knight named Virginius who had an extremely beautiful 14 year-old daughter. The girl was Nature’s perfect creation. While her beauty was unsurpassable she was also chaste, modest, self-abnegating, patient, discreet, industrious and steadfast at heart. Her speech was marked with a characteristic simplicity. The Physician deviates from his story and addresses all governesses in charge of bringing up young girls, and tells them to set an example to their young wards by their own way of life.

Resuming his story the Physician says that one day the girl went with her mother to the town to visit the temple. It so happened that a judge named Apius saw her there and was captivated by her beauty. He resolved to have her by whatever means possible. He realized that bribery and violence wouldn’t work since the girl was rich and famous. Finally he sent for Claudius, a crafty rascal and hatched a villainous plot. Apius made Claudius swear secrecy and then presented him with rich gifts in reward.

One day later, according to the plot, when Apius was seated in the judgement hall, the lying blackguard Claudius rushed in with a petition against Virginius. He accuses him of having abducted a female slave from his house when she was very young and of keeping her as his daughter all these years. He demanded that the girl be returned to him. Before the Knight could say a single word in defense, the corrupt judge ruled that the girl be immediately placed in the Court’s custody and be eventually returned to Claudius.

Forced by the judgment to give up his dearest daughter to the judge, the Knight went home with a heavy heart. He told his daughter that she had to make a choice between death and shame at the hands of Apius. But since he could not bear shame, the Knight beheads his daughter with a sorrowful heart. He then seized her head by the hair and offered it to Apius who was still in court. In the meantime the people came to know of this treachery. They threw the judge and Apius into the prison where Apius killed himself. Cladius, who was to be hanged was sent to an exile on the knight’s request. The Physician rounds off his tale with the moral that sin always reaps its rewards.


The Physician’s Tale gives a version of the story adapted from Jean de Meun’s ‘Le Roman de la Rose’ and not from Titus Livius’ history as the Physician proclaims. However Chaucer has introduced many modifications and departures from the traditional story line. In Chaucer’s story the focus is on the innocence and purity of the girl while in Roman de la Rose the emphasis was on the corrupt judge and his miserable end. Chaucer also introduces dialogue between the father and daughter instead of third person narration.

The moral of the tale is simple enough: sinners will be ultimately punished. The Physician’s Tale is often simplistically thought of as a moral story. However the Physician praises virtue in a tale that is morally repugnant. The fact that a father protects his daughter’s virtue by beheading her is nauseating. This brutal beheading in turn ensures that the culprits also get their just desserts. The operating principle is that of a revenge tragedy.

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