The Canterbury Tales

The Doctor's Tale


["YEA, let that passe," quoth our Host, "as now.

Sir Doctor of Physik, I praye you,

Tell us a tale of some honest mattere."

"It shall be done, if that ye will it hear,"

Said this Doctor; and his tale gan anon.

"Now, good men," quoth he, "hearken everyone."]

Notes to the Prologue to the Doctor's Tale

1. The authenticity of the prologue is questionable. It is found in one manuscript only; other manuscripts give other prologues, more plainly not Chaucer's than this; and some manuscripts have merely a colophon to the effect that "Here endeth the Franklin's Tale and beginneth the Physician's Tale without a prologue." The Tale itself is the well-known story of Virginia, with several departures from the text of Livy. Chaucer probably followed the "Romance of the Rose" and Gower's "Confessio Amantis," in both of which the story is found.


There was, as telleth Titus Livius, <1>

A knight, that called was Virginius,

Full filled of honour and worthiness,

And strong of friendes, and of great richess.

This knight one daughter hadde by his wife;

No children had he more in all his life.

Fair was this maid in excellent beauty

Aboven ev'ry wight that man may see:

For nature had with sov'reign diligence

Y-formed her in so great excellence,

As though she woulde say, "Lo, I, Nature,

Thus can I form and paint a creature,

When that me list; who can me counterfeit?

Pygmalion? not though he aye forge and beat,

Or grave or painte: for I dare well sayn,

Apelles, Zeuxis, shoulde work in vain,

Either to grave, or paint, or forge, or beat,

If they presumed me to counterfeit.

For he that is the former principal,

Hath made me his vicar-general

To form and painten earthly creatures

Right as me list, and all thing in my cure* is,


Under the moone, that may wane and wax.

And for my work right nothing will I ax*


My lord and I be full of one accord.

I made her to the worship* of my lord;

So do I all mine other creatures,

What colour that they have, or what figures."

Thus seemeth me that Nature woulde say.

This maiden was of age twelve year and tway,*


In which that Nature hadde such delight.

For right as she can paint a lily white,

And red a rose, right with such painture

She painted had this noble creature,

Ere she was born, upon her limbes free,

Where as by right such colours shoulde be:

And Phoebus dyed had her tresses great,

Like to the streames* of his burned heat.

*beams, rays

And if that excellent was her beauty,

A thousand-fold more virtuous was she.

In her there lacked no condition,

That is to praise, as by discretion.

As well in ghost* as body chaste was she:

*mind, spirit

For which she flower'd in virginity,

With all humility and abstinence,

With alle temperance and patience,

With measure* eke of bearing and array.


Discreet she was in answering alway,

Though she were wise as Pallas, dare I sayn;

Her faconde* eke full womanly and plain,

*speech <2>

No counterfeited termes hadde she

To seeme wise; but after her degree

She spake, and all her worde's more and less

Sounding in virtue and in gentleness.

Shamefast she was in maiden's shamefastness,

Constant in heart, and ever *in business*

*diligent, eager*

To drive her out of idle sluggardy:

Bacchus had of her mouth right no mast'ry.

For wine and slothe <3> do Venus increase,

As men in fire will casten oil and grease.

And of her owen virtue, unconstrain'd,

She had herself full often sick y-feign'd,

For that she woulde flee the company,

Where likely was to treaten of folly,

As is at feasts, at revels, and at dances,

That be occasions of dalliances.

Such thinges make children for to be

Too soone ripe and bold, as men may see,

Which is full perilous, and hath been yore;*

*of old

For all too soone may she learne lore

Of boldeness, when that she is a wife.

And ye mistresses,* in your olde life

*governesses, duennas

That lordes' daughters have in governance,

Take not of my wordes displeasance

Thinke that ye be set in governings

Of lordes' daughters only for two things;

Either for ye have kept your honesty,

Or else for ye have fallen in frailty

And knowe well enough the olde dance,

And have forsaken fully such meschance*

*wickedness <4>

For evermore; therefore, for Christe's sake,

To teach them virtue look that ye not slake.*

*be slack, fail

A thief of venison, that hath forlaft*

*forsaken, left

His lik'rousness,* and all his olde craft,


Can keep a forest best of any man;

Now keep them well, for if ye will ye can.

Look well, that ye unto no vice assent,

Lest ye be damned for your wick'* intent,

*wicked, evil

For whoso doth, a traitor is certain;

And take keep* of that I shall you sayn;


Of alle treason, sov'reign pestilence

Is when a wight betrayeth innocence.

Ye fathers, and ye mothers eke also,

Though ye have children, be it one or mo',

Yours is the charge of all their surveyance,*


While that they be under your governance.

Beware, that by example of your living,

Or by your negligence in chastising,

That they not perish for I dare well say,

If that they do, ye shall it dear abeye.*

*pay for, suffer for

Under a shepherd soft and negligent

The wolf hath many a sheep and lamb to-rent.

Suffice this example now as here,

For I must turn again to my mattere.

This maid, of which I tell my tale express,

She kept herself, her needed no mistress;

For in her living maidens mighte read,

As in a book, ev'ry good word and deed

That longeth to a maiden virtuous;

She was so prudent and so bounteous.

For which the fame out sprang on every side

Both of her beauty and her bounte* wide:


That through the land they praised her each one

That loved virtue, save envy alone,

That sorry is of other manne's weal,

And glad is of his sorrow and unheal* --


The Doctor maketh this descriptioun. -- <5>

This maiden on a day went in the town

Toward a temple, with her mother dear,

As is of younge maidens the mannere.

Now was there then a justice in that town,

That governor was of that regioun:

And so befell, this judge his eyen cast

Upon this maid, avising* her full fast,


As she came forth by where this judge stood;

Anon his hearte changed and his mood,

So was he caught with beauty of this maid

And to himself full privily he said,

"This maiden shall be mine *for any man."*

*despite what any

Anon the fiend into his hearte ran,

man may do*

And taught him suddenly, that he by sleight

This maiden to his purpose winne might.

For certes, by no force, nor by no meed,*

*bribe, reward

Him thought he was not able for to speed;

For she was strong of friendes, and eke she

Confirmed was in such sov'reign bounte,

That well he wist he might her never win,

As for to make her with her body sin.

For which, with great deliberatioun,

He sent after a clerk <6> was in the town,

The which he knew for subtle and for bold.

This judge unto this clerk his tale told

In secret wise, and made him to assure

He shoulde tell it to no creature,

And if he did, he shoulde lose his head.

And when assented was this cursed rede,*

*counsel, plot

Glad was the judge, and made him greate cheer,

And gave him giftes precious and dear.

When shapen* was all their conspiracy


From point to point, how that his lechery

Performed shoulde be full subtilly,

As ye shall hear it after openly,

Home went this clerk, that highte Claudius.

This false judge, that highte Appius, --

(So was his name, for it is no fable,

But knowen for a storial* thing notable;

*historical, authentic

The sentence* of it sooth** is out of doubt); --

*account **true

This false judge went now fast about

To hasten his delight all that he may.

And so befell, soon after on a day,

This false judge, as telleth us the story,

As he was wont, sat in his consistory,

And gave his doomes* upon sundry case';


This false clerk came forth *a full great pace,*

*in haste

And saide; Lord, if that it be your will,

As do me right upon this piteous bill,*


In which I plain upon Virginius.

And if that he will say it is not thus,

I will it prove, and finde good witness,

That sooth is what my bille will express."

The judge answer'd, "Of this, in his absence,

I may not give definitive sentence.

Let do* him call, and I will gladly hear;


Thou shalt have alle right, and no wrong here."

Virginius came to weet* the judge's will,

*know, learn

And right anon was read this cursed bill;

The sentence of it was as ye shall hear

"To you, my lord, Sir Appius so clear,

Sheweth your poore servant Claudius,

How that a knight called Virginius,

Against the law, against all equity,

Holdeth, express against the will of me,

My servant, which that is my thrall* by right,


Which from my house was stolen on a night,

While that she was full young; I will it preve*


By witness, lord, so that it you *not grieve;*

*be not displeasing*

She is his daughter not, what so he say.

Wherefore to you, my lord the judge, I pray,

Yield me my thrall, if that it be your will."

Lo, this was all the sentence of the bill.

Virginius gan upon the clerk behold;

But hastily, ere he his tale told,

And would have proved it, as should a knight,

And eke by witnessing of many a wight,

That all was false that said his adversary,

This cursed judge would no longer tarry,

Nor hear a word more of Virginius,

But gave his judgement, and saide thus:

"I deem* anon this clerk his servant have;

*pronounce, determine

Thou shalt no longer in thy house her save.

Go, bring her forth, and put her in our ward

The clerk shall have his thrall: thus I award."

And when this worthy knight, Virginius,

Through sentence of this justice Appius,

Muste by force his deare daughter give

Unto the judge, in lechery to live,

He went him home, and sat him in his hall,

And let anon his deare daughter call;

And with a face dead as ashes cold

Upon her humble face he gan behold,

With father's pity sticking* through his heart,


All* would he from his purpose not convert.** *although **turn aside

"Daughter," quoth he, "Virginia by name,

There be two wayes, either death or shame,

That thou must suffer, -- alas that I was bore!*


For never thou deservedest wherefore

To dien with a sword or with a knife,

O deare daughter, ender of my life,

Whom I have foster'd up with such pleasance

That thou were ne'er out of my remembrance;

O daughter, which that art my laste woe,

And in this life my laste joy also,

O gem of chastity, in patience

Take thou thy death, for this is my sentence:

For love and not for hate thou must be dead;

My piteous hand must smiten off thine head.

Alas, that ever Appius thee say!*


Thus hath he falsely judged thee to-day."

And told her all the case, as ye before

Have heard; it needeth not to tell it more.

"O mercy, deare father," quoth the maid.

And with that word she both her armes laid

About his neck, as she was wont to do,

(The teares burst out of her eyen two),

And said, "O goode father, shall I die?

Is there no grace? is there no remedy?"

"No, certes, deare daughter mine," quoth he.

"Then give me leisure, father mine, quoth she,

"My death for to complain* a little space


For, pardie, Jephthah gave his daughter grace

For to complain, ere he her slew, alas! <7>

And, God it wot, nothing was her trespass,*


But for she ran her father first to see,

To welcome him with great solemnity."

And with that word she fell a-swoon anon;

And after, when her swooning was y-gone,

She rose up, and unto her father said:

"Blessed be God, that I shall die a maid.

Give me my death, ere that I have shame;

Do with your child your will, in Godde's name."

And with that word she prayed him full oft

That with his sword he woulde smite her soft;

And with that word, a-swoon again she fell.

Her father, with full sorrowful heart and fell,*

*stern, cruel

Her head off smote, and by the top it hent,*


And to the judge he went it to present,

As he sat yet in doom* in consistory.


And when the judge it saw, as saith the story,

He bade to take him, and to hang him fast.

But right anon a thousand people *in thrast*

*rushed in*

To save the knight, for ruth and for pity

For knowen was the false iniquity.

The people anon had suspect* in this thing,


By manner of the clerke's challenging,

That it was by th'assent of Appius;

They wiste well that he was lecherous.

For which unto this Appius they gon,

And cast him in a prison right anon,

Where as he slew himself: and Claudius,

That servant was unto this Appius,

Was doomed for to hang upon a tree;

But that Virginius, of his pity,

So prayed for him, that he was exil'd;

And elles certes had he been beguil'd;*

*see note <8>

The remenant were hanged, more and less,

That were consenting to this cursedness.*


Here men may see how sin hath his merite:*


Beware, for no man knows how God will smite

In no degree, nor in which manner wise

The worm of conscience may agrise*

frighten, horrify

Of wicked life, though it so privy be,

That no man knows thereof, save God and he;

For be he lewed* man or elles lear'd,**

*ignorant **learned

He knows not how soon he shall be afear'd;

Therefore I rede* you this counsel take,


Forsake sin, ere sinne you forsake.

Notes to the Doctor's Tale

1. Livy, Book iii. cap. 44, et seqq.

2. Faconde: utterance, speech; from Latin, "facundia," eloquence.

3. Slothe: other readings are "thought" and "youth."

4. Meschance: wickedness; French, "mechancete."

5. This line seems to be a kind of aside thrown in by Chaucer himself.

6. The various readings of this word are "churl," or "cherl," in the best manuscripts; "client" in the common editions, and "clerk" supported by two important manuscripts. "Client" would perhaps be the best reading, if it were not awkward for the metre; but between "churl" and ''clerk" there can be little doubt that Mr Wright chose wisely when he preferred the second.

7. Judges xi. 37, 38. "And she said unto her father, Let ... me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows. And he said, go."

8. Beguiled: "cast into gaol," according to Urry's explanation; though we should probably understand that, if Claudius had not been sent out of the country, his death would have been secretly contrived through private detestation.